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The Avengers 7.14 – Wish You Were Here

We resumed The Avengers tonight with a look at its celebrated pastiche of the ITC series The Prisoner. The notion of the earlier show so overpowered the actuality of the latter that our son immediately wanted to know more. The plot of tonight’s episode, “Wish You Were Here” by Tony Williamson, is that diabolical masterminds are running a hotel so remarkably charming that nobody can quite believe that it’s actually a prison for some of its guests, and they can’t leave without some accident waylaying them and returning them to the hotel in a stretcher. Really the only disappointment in the hour is the incredibly obvious and inevitable betrayal by a character that Tara shouldn’t have trusted, but Tara is capable enough to right things very quickly.

So I explained what The Prisoner was about, and how it had a guard balloon that the beach ball shown in the photo above was meant to evoke, and our son wanted to know more and more right now. I don’t actually enjoy The Prisoner all that much – that surprises a lot of people, I’ve found – but I do love the feem toon, so I showed our kid that much on YouTube. If he wants to see more, that show isn’t going anywhere.

The familiar faces this time out include a whole gang of actors who’d appeared in earlier episodes of the show. Dudley Foster is awesome as the impeccably mannered hotel desk clerk who sadly keeps delivering unfortunate news to his guests, and Derek Newark is his main muscle. Robert Urquhart is a fellow prisoner, and Louise Pajo’s a bit wasted in too small a role. I’d have liked this more, and it might have been a hair less obvious, if Pajo and Urquhart had switched characters.

A note on numbering: People don’t so much argue about how many seasons of The Avengers there are as choose a position and wish to be left alone. Earlier today on Twitter, Graeme Wood ( @woodg31 ) showed off an illustration that I enjoy, a TV listing from September 1967 that promoted “Return of the Cybernauts” as the first of a “new series.” That is, it’s the first episode of the new series six, and not the seventeenth episode of series five.

With that in mind, the format at this blog is that the first sixteen color episodes, with Diana Rigg, are the fifth series, the next fifteen episodes, first with Rigg and then with Linda Thorson, are the sixth, and the final 26 episodes are the seventh. This matches the American broadcast grouping, if not strictly the actual order of installments within them, because I contradict myself and contain multitudes.

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The Avengers 5.1 – From Venus With Love

To recap: there are two ABCs at play in the story of The Avengers: the Associated British Corporation, which made the program, and the American Broadcasting Company, the US television network which had purchased the fourth season of the series. They did this as an inexpensive way to get some new midseason programming, and found themselves with an unexpected success. It wasn’t that The Avengers had turned into some Nielsen-topping juggernaut, but it more than met the network’s modest expectations and there was a definite buzz about the program.

So before The Avengers finished its 21 episode run, ABC had asked for another batch of episodes to stand as a midseason replacement in the 1966-67 calendar. The network asked for 16 episodes; the production company intended to make a further ten beyond those. Just in case 16 turned out to be all that America wanted, they still needed a package of 26 to sell to other countries. This sounds like a curious and nitpicky point, but readers who don’t know the show and who stick around will see that it will become important later on.

Even though the color Avengers was made for the American market – this season of episodes aired Friday nights at 10, coming to bat for the cancelled Quinn Martin war drama Twelve O’Clock High – we’re going to watch them in the transmission order from the UK. I’ve been so used to that sequence that I remain petulant about the StudioCanal DVDs using the much more sensible production order. So, while the DVDs lead with episode two, which was made in September 1966, we’re starting with the traditional first color episode of the show, “From Venus With Love,” written by Philip Levene and first shown in the US and the UK in January 1967.

A common complaint about this batch of episodes is that they have a certain sameness to them. There’s a bit of formula, in part because they didn’t have very much time to actually make them, and in part because ABC’s Batman had been that Nielsen-topping juggernaut mentioned above, and it immediately spread its influence all over television, including television made in other countries. So the eccentricities of the diabolical masterminds are ramped up to the point that they’re almost all comic book villains, there are celebrity cameos in most of the stories, and they’ve even added a cute “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed” bit at the beginning of each story so that each one starts with the same oddball beat. They’re stylish, witty, and wonderful, but the production break after 16 episodes was perfectly timed. Any more than this would have started to get dull.

“From Venus With Love” teases the possibility of a space invasion. It’s certainly funny – hysterically so, when Mrs. Peel meets an outrageously posh chimney sweep – and I like how there are two solid suspects to the strange deaths. It could be Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark, who run the British Venusian Society, or it could be Philip Locke, who thinks they’re dabbling with forces beyond their control. Along the way, the casualties mount, with Jeremy Lloyd and Jon Pertwee – the only Doctor Who lead to ever appear in The Avengers, unless you count Joanna Lumley and Peter Cushing, I guess – blasted by a heat ray from space. Or from the front of a sports car, anyway.

And no, our son didn’t recognize Pertwee. Darn kid. He’s had a wild day with lots of walking and two sodas and didn’t really want to pay attention to tonight’s episode. Plus we’re watching another Star Wars movie in the morning, and knowing that just killed his ability to concentrate completely. It’s almost a shame that the Star Wars movie in question will not be worth it…

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City Under the Sea (1965)

During his amazing career, Vincent Price probably made nine or ten pictures where he was by some measure the best thing about the whole production. One example: 1965’s City Under the Sea, which was released in America with the confusing title War-Gods of the Deep. This led to a silly moment early on, when a bargain basement Gill Man is chased away from a remote house on a cliffside and our son said “I think that must be a War-God!”

Like nine or ten other pictures in Price’s catalog, this one takes a little inspiration from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Our heroes, played by Tab Hunter and the redoubtable David Tomlinson, who is accompanied by a chicken in a picnic basket for comic relief, stumble across a first edition collection of Poe in the strange underwater city, so that Price can recite a passage from the poem over footage of the miniature of the city, next to a volcano as the pressure inevitably builds.

The movie has small parts for familiar faces like Derek Newark, John Le Mesurier, and Tony Selby, who isn’t credited, and the only female character is played by Susan Hart. It has some impressive sets, an underwater chase/fight that goes on forever and features old-fashioned diving suits so angular and clunky that they reminded our son of Minecraft, and, of course, a great big volcanic eruption. I thought the movie was the most boring thing we’ve watched in ages, and the villain’s henchmen were just about the most pathetic and sorry bunch of dopey bad guys in any universe, but it’s worth watching if you’re six, or if you want to marvel at Price’s ability to rise over everything, or if the movie comes on a double-feature DVD with something else and so you have a copy anyway.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (parts six and seven)

We meant to watch part six of this serial last night, but we got home too late. So we doubled up again, and really enjoyed this story. I love how the tension in part six just keeps ramping up, even with a plot that doesn’t fill its running time, necessitating a bit where characters run back to a previous location to try one more time to restart the power. It works because the actors really convey their desperation, and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigade-Leader falling apart from the stress is a great, great moment.

After that, and the fabulous cliffhanger of the sea of lava coming to engulf the hut and kill all the parallel universe doubles, the final part can’t help but feel like an anticlimax to older viewers who are familiar with the rules of drama. But it’s paced so darn well for the younger members of the audience! There’s even a bit where the grown-ups are bound to ask whether it’s absolutely necessary for Jon Pertwee to climb up yet another bit of scaffolding in this refinery, and the children will answer that of course it is; he needs to fight another green monster up there. Our son had a ball with both parts. If he uses a make-believe “fire extinguisher” to defeat my playground alter ego of “Daddy Monster,” I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

“Inferno” would be the last Doctor Who serial directed by Douglas Camfield for five years, damnably, and also the last appearance for Caroline John and her character, Liz Shaw. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had concluded that the character didn’t really work (they were mistaken), but the actress had already decided to leave. In 1982, she worked with Barry Letts again in the BBC’s four-part adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. She was a regular face in guest star roles throughout the eighties, and reprised her role as Liz Shaw in the four direct-to-video P.R.O.B.E. movies from 1994-96. In a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Liz is said to be working on UNIT’s Moonbase (really!), but the actress did not appear onscreen. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 71.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (part five)

There’s a story that Olaf Pooley was really unhappy with the decision to turn him into a full-fanged green werewolf. I guess he’d understood that he would be turning green and going wide-eyed like the fellows in the earlier episodes, but in part five of this story, there’s a lot more goo from the earth’s core and a lot more heat, and this all combines to turn people into white-fanged slavering dog monsters with lots of hair. Our son pronounced these guys “really scary” and they sent him behind the sofa with a shriek.

There’s a really good moment early in this episode to casually remind everybody that the Doctor’s such a great hero. I love how he goes straight into the drillhead room with Derek Newark’s character, hoping desperately that there’s a way to stop the destruction. This isn’t his fight, and it isn’t his problem, and not one person on this hellworld has shown him a second’s consideration, but he’s still immediately willing to risk his life for them.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (part four)

“Inferno” gained its wild reputation from its tone of accelerating doom, which starts very slowly and trickles through episodes three and four until it hits the amazing climax of this story, which is brilliantly directed and features one of Jon Pertwee’s best performances as the Doctor. But to be brutally honest, most of part four is very frustrating. Our son certainly felt it. As the Doctor tells the truth again and again and is ignored again and again, he shouted “He’s telling them the truth!” It’s a real sense of desperation, with our hero just not able to get out of this mess.

I think episodes three and four could easily have been combined into one and this would have been an even better six-parter. This one’s incredibly repetitive, and not just with the Doctor re-explaining the parallel world situation. We get more scenes of Olaf Pooley being obstinate in both universes, and more of the simmering desperation of Derek Newark trying to get Sheila Dunn to listen, all hammered home again and again, just in case anybody in the audience missed the previous part.

But that cliffhanger! Apparently Douglas Camfield wanted to use stock music and occasional special atmospheric effects rather than let any musician, even one he really trusted, interfere with his desire to make the increasing noise of the drill be the focus. It leaves the actors having to shout over it. The cliffhanger is brilliantly paced, with the Doctor begging everyone to listen while trying to avoid being captured again, and it ends with Pooley cornering him with a pistol while the countdown gets closer and closer to zero. I think that Barry Letts directed this one from Camfield’s detailed battle plan. It’s completely fantastic and left our son wide-eyed and breathless.

We’ll leave it there for a couple of days and give him time to wish we could see the next part right now, right this very minute.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (parts two and three)

We’re in uncharted territory now. Doctor Who had never done a parallel universe story before, and, mercifully, it wouldn’t again until 2006. It was still new-ish enough for television in 1970, even though sci-fi writers had been tapping that well for a long, long time.

Dropping the Doctor into a universe where the good guys are all villains sounds an awful lot like the famous Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” but there’s some question as to whether anybody working on Who would have had the chance to see that episode before starting work on this. It’s been suggested that Don Houghton and Terrance Dicks, as well as Trek‘s producers, were all inspired by novelists like Philip K. Dick, although I believe there were occasional episodes of The Twilight Zone that were probably the first occasions of teevee producers playing with the idea.

Since we’re all very, very familiar with the trope in the 21st Century, after a terrific chase scene, episode three of this adventure becomes almost painfully slow. It would have been incredibly important to have the Doctor talk fruitlessly about parallel universes to baddies who won’t believe him in order to get this information across to audiences in 1970. Compare that to any episode of the current Flash series. Even the first time they started screwing with alternate realities, Jesse L. Martin, playing that program’s audience identification character, understood what was going on within ten seconds and two lines of dialogue.

But then again, our six year-old is still pretty new to all this. We gave him a crash course in the concept before we watched part one – Jesse L. Martin caught on quicker – and he thought this was incredibly creepy. It’s not the green hairy men that are bothering him, it’s Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, and John Levene being cruel and mean. He’s still not used to paying attention when the heroes aren’t onscreen, so the Pooley-Dunn-Newark-Benjamin dynamic is just random talk, but he needed all his attention to really understand what a grim situation the Doctor is in.

Incidentally, it’s often suggested that actors enjoy the opportunity that parallel universe stories present to stretch a little bit and do something different. Courtney plays a really good bureaucratic bully, and, I’m noting this here in advance for Marie to consider and watch, when he starts to crumble across the next three episodes, as all bullies do under pressure, he really shines. Doctor Who fans smile about the comfort of the eye patch and scar because it became a much-loved anecdote in interviews and convention stories, but there really is a terrific performance under that patch.

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Doctor Who: Inferno (part one)

We began the final serial from Doctor Who‘s seventh season this morning. “Inferno” is a seven-part story written by Don Houghton, a newcomer to the program, and directed by the veteran Douglas Camfield. As I mentioned a few posts ago, it appears that Camfield came straight onto this production from three episodes of the first season of Paul Temple. Badly overworked, Camfield finished all the location filming and the first of three studio sessions before collapsing. Producer Barry Letts, who had been a BBC director for several years, finished up the studio work while Camfield recovered from his heart attack. Letts ensured that Camfield received full screen credit as director; he didn’t want any indication that Camfield’s heart condition would prevent him from finishing future work.

The story, which guest stars Olaf Pooley, Sheila Dunn, and Derek Newark, along with Christopher Benjamin as the Civil Servant of the Month – this one, in a nice twist, not a complete interfering twit – is set at a research project looking for a new energy source deep beneath the Earth’s crust. But the drill is bringing up what our son calls “green goo that turns people into mean, hairy monsters.”

He was a little distracted this morning, and the first episode is very, very talky. The guest characters are kind of drawn in very, very broad strokes. Pooley is the ruthless scientist who intends to ignore anybody else’s advice or interference, Benjamin is timid and overcautious, Dunn is completely dedicated to her boss and won’t hear a bad word about him, and Newark is the action man voice of experience. Some writers have drawn parallels between this story and a popular BBC drama of the time, The Troubleshooters, about boardroom intrigue and dangerous events in the oil industry. Newark’s character is apparently the sort of tough-talking guy who’s seen dozens of people killed at unsafe drilling platforms in third-world countries that Ray Barrett had played on The Troubleshooters.

Since the focus is on these four guest characters right now, with the regulars really hovering on the fringes of the story, it was difficult for our boy to really pay attention. But Jon Pertwee nevertheless lit up every scene. He’s insulting and rude to Olaf Pooley’s character, but unlike the aggressively derisive Doctor of the previous two stories, he’s insulting with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, because this time he’s got his own agenda. He’s siphoning power from the project’s nuclear reactor for his own project, and this subplot will take over the story very soon.

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