Tag Archives: donald james

The Champions 1.10 – The Ghost Plane

“The Ghost Plane” is a fun globetrotting episode written by Donald James. It starts in the south China sea and jaunts everywhere from the Alps to Cambridge to Albania, taking in the same warehouse location that they’d used in “The Invisible Man.” The main guest star this time is Andrew Keir, and I think this must have been made a few months after Keir had filmed Quatermass and the Pit.

We only see the “ghost plane” itself in the opening scene. Somebody has arranged for a defunct idea that a British engineer had suggested to NATO to make its way to China, where a prototype is built and tested against four American jets. It’s a cute mix of stock footage and new model shots of the delta-winged plane. Oddly, I was actually thinking to myself that they should have knocked on Gerry Anderson’s door and hired his team to do the sequence when our son piped up and said “Hey! That plane looks like the Angels in Captain Scarlet!” I don’t think so myself, but I’m amused that he saw a connection. In fact, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was in production at the same time as this series.

The best scene in the story by a mile was a great sequence where Sharron is locked in a deep-freeze refrigeration unit at the bad guys’ warehouse and the trio use their telepathy to rally to her rescue. I really enjoyed that. I guess that especially in the wake of seeing Captain Marvel, we’d rather have seen Sharron kick the door down herself, but while the Champions are really strong, they’re not quite that strong!

That’s all for The Champions for now, as we put this fun show back on the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh, but we’ll pick back up with episode eleven in mid-April. Stay tuned!

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The Champions 1.7 – The Survivors

Today’s story, written by Donald “wrote for everything back then” James, is the perhaps inevitable story where the heroes run up against Nazis, but it is done with a heck of a lot of flair and several really good twists. That’s Clifford Evans along with co-star Alexandra Bastedo in the picture above as a colonel from the Wehrmacht who was buried alive along with sixty men and several decades worth of supplies in a long-disused iron mine in Austria.

It’s a very good story, and we all enjoyed seeing it unfold, but I’m not sure that it’s a very good Champions story. There’s a huge disadvantage to the way that many programs were made back in the sixties, and that’s the lack of a central core of writers working in tandem to move the stories forward and maintain internal consistency. In the previous episodes, including one scripted by this same writer, we’ve seen that our heroes have several powers, but the one that they use most often is telepathy to communicate over long distances. They don’t use their telepathy even once in this episode, although there is a single “intuition” moment where Sharron “feels” an explosion near Craig and Richard. It would have changed the structure of this adventure considerably if they were less in the dark than they are throughout.

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The Champions 1.2 – The Invisible Man

It’s been cold and wet and dreary all day in southeast Tennessee, a perfect Sunday to sit around and watch movies. So our son and I watched Black Panther, went out to lunch, went to see The Lego Movie 2*, which was very tedious, and then he built a sofa fort and watched Thor: Ragnarok again. That movie’s another example of what I was talking about in the previous entry about some of these Marvel films not holding up the second time around, which is why I didn’t write a post about it.

So an episode of The Champions is naturally going to be the least of the four in the eyes of a seven year-old, but he watched it with the same quiet appreciation and consideration that he’s given other shows in this genre, which encourages me. There aren’t many big set pieces in this story other than a great fight scene about halfway through. In the convoluted way of villains in this kind of program, Peter Wyngarde plays a baddie who surgically implants a tiny device in his target’s ear to convince him that there’s an invisible man watching his every move. Writer Donald James had to bluff past a lot of coincidences in the backstory for this plot to work, but honestly the only reason the plot works at all is because Peter Wyngarde is playing the villain. The heroes seem almost superfluous.

And speaking of superfluous… William Gaunt and Alexandra Bastedo don’t have very much to do in this story. One reason these ITC agent shows had teams of three was so they could film multiple episodes almost on top of each other and keep costs down. It still seems kind of odd that they’d show one with Stuart Damon taking about 80% of the screen time as just the second episode.

*In an effort to keep things a little interesting, I did suggest that we see this movie another day and go see the one-off screening of a new animated film from Japan with the remarkable name of I Want to Eat Your Pancreas instead. Of course he picked Lego, but I tried.

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The Avengers 6.14 – Have Guns – Will Haggle

In previous entries, I’d mentioned that John Bryce had been given the reins of The Avengers, cast Linda Thorson, and worked on three episodes. The first of these was called “Invitation to a Killing,” written by Donald James and filmed in the fall of 1967. Interestingly, all the available information we have says that this was a ninety-minute episode. I’m not sure whether this means it had as much material as a two-part adventure, or if it was seventy-five minutes of story with room for ads.

The full version of “Invitation to a Killing” has never surfaced – in public, anyway – and is presumed to have been destroyed. Some of the material from the episode, most obviously the scenes featuring Tara with blonde hair and a garish pink coat, was repurposed for “Have Guns – Will Haggle,” with reshoots taking place about five months after the original story was made. It’s a little more complicated than just saying all the stuff with Tara as a blonde was shot first and all the scenes where she’s a brunette came later, but it is interesting that the only actors with speaking parts who appear with her as a brunette are Patrick Macnee and just one of the guest stars, Jonathan Burn. (We noted that some of the exteriors, where Linda Thorson is wearing that totally fab and mod plaid sixties minidress, were very clearly filmed in the winter. She must have been freezing!)

Outside of all the production curiosities, this is far from the best Avengers episode. John Bryce and Donald James seem to have been fulfilling that apparent remit to produce a more conventional action-adventure series, and this is a fairly ordinary story of stolen rifles, mercenaries, and an auction among disgraced colonels and warlords hoping to use the guns to start coups d’état in trouble spots around the globe. It’s not bad, just ordinary, and doesn’t have that odd Avengers spark. Among the guests, Nicola Pagett plays the chief villain, and Timothy Bateson, who we’ll see again in a couple of nights, is an oddball ballistics expert.

I thought that the most interesting scene, by far, was the opening, in which the stuntmen playing the mercenaries use a trampoline to go over a barbed wire fence. Our son enjoyed both the climax and the tag scene. He got very excited and worried as the lit fuse to some ready-to-blast gelignite burns down, and loved the silly comedy of Steed and Tara receiving an unexpected and very hungry gift from the grateful president of an African nation.

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Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which was made under the title Doppelganger in 1969, isn’t a great movie. In fact, it rivals Disney’s The Black Hole as one of the silliest and least scientifically plausible films ever made. But there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as a fantastic musical score by Barry Gray, terrific visual effects, and one heck of a good cast.

Included in the cast, in a tiny bit part, is Nicholas Courtney. And, for regular readers of this blog, I’m delighted to say that our son recognized him even without the Brigadier’s distinctive mustache. I punched the air.

He also figured out very, very quickly that this movie was made by Gerry Anderson’s team. It perhaps helped a little that the look, feel, and sound of Anderson was fresh in his mind; last night, he rewatched the Thunderbirds episode “The Cham-Cham.” Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was directed by Robert Parrish, but the cinematography is by Anderson regular John Read, and this looks precisely like an episode of one of the Supermarionation series, only with live actors. I think it helped our son with a feeling of comfort. Journey is fairly justifiably accused of following in the footsteps of 2001, but the working-man’s-world of the near future in that movie is its own thing. This is the world of Captain Scarlet, right down to the camera decisions to spend agonizing minutes panning across control rooms while nobody really moves, focusing at dials counting down, and getting emergency crews into position for crash landing airplanes.

Adding a little bit to the Scarlet similarity, NASA’s liaison with the EuroSEC space program is played by Ed Bishop, who was the voice of Captain Blue. Other small parts are played by Cy Grant (Lt. Green), and Jeremy Wilkin (Captain Ochre). Wilkin passed away last month; we’ll see him again in Doctor Who next weekend.

The film’s leads are played by Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Lynn Loring, and Patrick Wymark. Backing them up is an all-star cast of recognizable faces from film and TV, including George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal, Philip Madoc, sixties spy movie regular Loni von Friedl, and the great Herbert Lom, who plays a foreign agent with a camera in his artificial eye to snap secret photos of the plans for Sun Probe.

Unfortunately, two big problems are working against this awesome cast. First off, this movie is paced more like a glacier than just about anything I can think of. The rocket doesn’t launch until halfway through the film, and twice we have to mark the passage of time with slow and trippy psychedelic sequences. A big problem upfront is that Patrick Wymark’s character, the director of EuroSEC, has to find the money to fund his mission to a new planet on the far side of the sun. Agonizing minutes are spent worrying and arguing about money, instead of just having NASA immediately pay for it in exchange for sending an American astronaut on the mission.

The astronaut’s marriage is in trouble. Mercifully, Wikipedia tells me that they chopped out a massive subplot about his wife’s affair, otherwise we’d never have got into space. Either the astronaut can’t have a baby because of space radiation or because his wife is secretly taking birth control pills. Neither really matters much. But they keep introducing new elements and complications. Ian Hendry, who is awesome here, is out of shape and shouldn’t go on the mission. This is all interesting character development, but none of it ends up mattering.

It’s like the Andersons and scriptwriter Donald James were writing an interesting prime-time drama about the machinations of life among astronauts getting ready for a mission, and were told instead to do it all in forty-five minutes and then do something with the rocket and another planet. So you’ve got spies, a broken marriage, a physicist who’s not fit to fly, budget troubles, security leaks… Wymark had played the lead in The Plane Makers and The Power Game, a backstabbing boardroom drama that ran for seven seasons earlier in the sixties. I think Journey could have made a good show like that. I don’t think our son would have had all the neat rockets and crash landings to keep his attention, but I’d probably give it a spin.

Or possibly not. Bishop and Sewell were pretty boring in the TV series UFO, which the Andersons made soon after this.

The plot of the movie is about the mission and a mystery. Why did Thinnes and Hendry turn back and return to Earth halfway through their six week mission, when Thinnes insists they landed on the hidden planet on the far side of the sun? The answer won’t surprise anybody who read this chestnut of a story when they were a little kid thumbing through schlocky pulp sci-fi from the thirties, but I enjoyed the way that Read and Parrish kept finding hints for the audience in the form of mirrors. If you like watching Gerry Anderson’s work or a cast full of great actors, this isn’t a bad way to spend a hundred minutes. If you’re looking for an even remotely plausible science fiction adventure, though… you’re really, really going to have to check your disbelief at the door.

Today’s feature was a gift from Nikka Valken, and I invite you all to check out her Society 6 page and buy some of her fun artwork! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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The Secret Service 1.11 – School for Spies

“Wow, this one’s really good,” I said to myself. “I wonder whether Donald James wrote this one as well.” He did.

It’s not just me who perceives a jump in quality with James’s scripts for this show. Daniel really liked this one, which sees an opposite power to the heroes of BISHOP. It’s run by a villain called the Arch-Deacon and he has a gang of criminal mercenaries dressed as priests operating out of a seminary and blowing up shipments of explosives and bombing experimental weapons testing facilities. These are accomplished with the usual awesome visuals of Gerry Anderson’s pyrotechnics team.

I did think it was a shame that the Arch-Deacon was apprehended in the end – Anderson’s very best shows had good recurring villains, of course – but the show ended with a real question. Did the Arch-Deacon actually know about BISHOP, or was his choice of a clerical shtick a big coincidence?

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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The Secret Service 1.9 – The Deadly Whisper

This was much, much better than the previous episode. Marie was out while we watched it, and our son yelled when she returned “You missed an amazing one!”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but “The Deadly Whisper” is pretty entertaining. The story by Donald James has neat sonic weapons, top secret aircraft, nasty bad guys, and the Captain Black puppet pressed into service again. James was just a really good writer for these light espionage shows. By chance, two nights ago, we watched a Jason King that he did that guest-starred Roger Delgado.

There are also a few shots that rival the ones from a few episodes back where they filmed the Matthew puppet in somebody’s back garden. They don’t look anywhere as ridiculous as those, but they have the Matthew puppet hiding and observing the sonic weapon from the family’s doghouse, hanging out with a bulldog! To be clear, it looks as unreal as the sequence from “The Feathered Spies,” but not comical. The director, Leo Eaton, framed the shots much, much closer in than Ian Spurrier did in the previous story, and didn’t hold them anywhere as long as the ones that I’m still complaining about, so while they look bizarre, they’re only onscreen for brief moments.

I’m not quite sure that I believe the science of how the villains are defeated, but it did give me a chance to try and explain the speed of sound and what “Mach 3” means to my son. It may be a bit over his head, but he was intrigued and there were explosions, so we had a pretty good time with this “amazing” adventure.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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The Secret Service 1.2 – A Question of Miracles

Tonight’s episode is the first of two Secret Service installments written by Donald James, who wrote for quite a few ITC programs of the day, including about half of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased). He worked for Gerry Anderson for several years, contributing scripts to five of his programs along with screenplay of the film Doppelganger.

It’s also the first appearance in this series of the Captain Scarlet puppet. It’s used for another BISHOP agent named Paul Blake, who really gets the short end of the undercover assignment. The director of BISHOP gives him a crucifix on a chain and a pill to take at a set time. The pill instantly sickens him to the point that a base doctor sends for a priest, just as Father Unwin happens to be nearby to get called into the base to save the day.

Daniel has pleasantly surprised us by really enjoying this show even more than I thought he might. It will never replace Thunderbirds in his affections – he actually asked to rewatch several episodes of that over the last week – but he told us that he likes this even more than Captain Scarlet, which I wouldn’t have predicted.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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