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Doctor Who: Time and the Rani (parts three and four)

Doctor Who tends to start out pretty strong and peter out as it goes, and boy, is the next adventure going to be proof of that. But “Time and the Rani” is one of the very small number of Who serials that leads with its weakest installment and gets progressively better. My favorite example of this is “Mawdryn Undead,” which opens with twenty-five of the stupidest minutes in the program’s history before turning into something incredibly imaginative and entertaining. “Time and the Rani” doesn’t manage that level of turnaround, but it definitely finishes stronger than it starts, with the broad slapstick replaced by a nearly convincing race against time, thanks largely to a new-to-the-series director, Andrew Morgan, who gives all this silliness an honest sense of urgency. It still suffers from too much Doctor Who dialogue – “don’t play the innocent,” “have a care” and so on – and Bonnie Langford screams way, way too much, but it’s a better story than its reputation suggests.

And, as usual, our son came around in the end. His initial fear of the Rani’s monsters gave way to fascination – “they have an eye on each side of their head!” – and he agreed with me that one of the Doctor’s tricks, tripping a circuit with a length of wire, was worthy of MacGyver. This Doctor even carries a Swiss army knife like MacGyver does! Unfortunately, I don’t believe we ever see the knife again. Like the Doctor’s mangled quotations and aphorisms (“Time and tide melt the snowman”), which were quickly phased out, I think the knife was dropped after this appearance, which is a shame. I like Swiss army knives much more than sonic screwdrivers.

A couple of notable memories about this story: I knew a guy in Atlanta who flew to London, got himself a hotel room on September 7, 1987, set up a VHS camcorder on a tripod, and flew home the next day with a camera copy of episode one of this story. I think everybody pretended to like it more than they really did.

But before that, either the last week of February or the first week of March, 1987, I taped something that I thought would be really memorable and would make the rounds of a million tape traders: Sylvester McCoy’s debut appearance after being cast in the role, on WXIA’s Noonday show. I want to say it was a Friday, and a school holiday, and I was home in time to catch it.

This happened because at the time, BBC Enterprises had a big trailer touring the United States, showing off costumes and props and promoting the program in whatever market had a PBS station showing Who. McCoy got the part and flew to Atlanta with the producer, John Nathan-Turner, with a little Sylvester & Tweety lunchbox in tow, because the trailer was in Atlanta that week, on the grounds of Mercer University’s Doraville campus. Jon Pertwee was touring with the trailer at the time, which is probably why WXIA, which is Atlanta’s NBC affiliate, was sent a clip from Pertwee’s story “Colony in Space” to accompany the interview, but Pertwee got bumped for the new guy at the last minute.

I remember that the presenter was completely unfamiliar with Who, but she didn’t seem dismissive or condescending at all, but really interested. McCoy was charming and funny and Nathan-Turner was engaging and professional and cool, explaining their odd twenty-four year-old show to Noonday‘s audience. McCoy didn’t have very many anecdotes to share, because this was a seat of his pants thing if ever there was one. He was cast, flown to Atlanta, and then learning lines and getting a costume fitted. They were in a quarry pretending to be an alien planet the first week of April.

As I’ve mentioned in this blog before, I used to trade VHS tapes. I made many dozens of swaps with people all over the US and a couple in the UK. I kept up a trade list with microscopic print that got to be about twenty pages, two columns, front and back, and about a thousand tapes over the decade-plus I swapped. That appearance by McCoy and JN-T was probably on the very first version of that list, hammered out on my folks’ typewriter, because it was on tape # 15 – the things you remember! – and every subsequent update.

I never copied it for anybody in a trade. Not once. Nobody asked for it. And eventually, of course, I threw out almost all of my VHS tapes, so it’s long gone. I wish I’d kept it. It would have made a fine bonus feature on the DVD, but even if the BBC couldn’t arrange clearance with WXIA to use it, it should be on YouTube and it doesn’t appear that it’s ever been uploaded there. So, sorry, world. If they do put out season 24 on Blu-ray and there’s a hole in the special features where that interview should be, shake your fist at me… and all those other traders in Who ephemera who shoulda asked me for a copy!

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Doctor Who: Time and the Rani (parts one and two)

It occurred to me this morning that in better circumstances, the Doctor and Mel and their two guest star friends could have captured the Rani as she returned to her lab at the end of part two, said their goodbyes, and got on with another story entirely. Everybody would have agreed that it was a remarkably lousy forty-five minutes of Doctor Who, but at least it would have only been forty-five minutes and not ninety.

“Time and the Rani” hasn’t lost any of its power to bewilder and amaze audiences who just can’t believe this mess ever got made, but it did at least have the excuse of being born under very weird circumstances. The producer had resigned and was metaphorically cleaning out his desk waiting for his next assignment somewhere else at the BBC when the higher-ups told him no, to go make fourteen more episodes of Doctor Who instead, with no staff, no scripts, and no lead actor. So he quickly asked the writing duo of Pip and Jane Baker, who could be relied upon when deadlines loomed to turn in something, no matter how unlistenable, to give him four episodes while he cast the new Doctor and then got a new script editor. His name is Andrew Cartmel, and I’ll come back to him in a few days.

Earlier, in Los Angeles, Kate O’Mara’s year as a regular on Dynasty was coming to its conclusion, and the actress sensibly sent postcards to contacts with whom she’d worked recently to let them know she’d be back home and available soon. So Pip and Jane Baker got to write for their villainous character the Rani again, and continue to have everybody onscreen tell the audience how amazing she is. The script had to go through several drafts; the higher-ups reluctantly agreed to give Colin Baker one last story. He declined the offer, probably a lot more professionally than I would have done, meaning the story had to be rebuilt around a new Doctor’s debut, with all the attendant post-regeneration goofiness.

And as a debut, it’s not promising. Sylvester McCoy was then best known for some very weird fringe theater and some outrageous physical comedy on a children’s variety show called Tiswas. (Okay, “variety show” isn’t strictly accurate, but darned if I know what else to call it.) To my mind, he remains the most unlikely candidate to ever play the Doctor, but he’s always been among my favorites. McCoy does “quiet” brilliantly, and he does “funny” very, very well, but unfortunately most of what he does in “Time and the Rani” is vomit out the writers’ paragraphs of adjectives and synonyms. I think you can make a case that even by the end of the show’s run, the actor was still having trouble expressing real anger and fury, which contributes to his really unusual and off-kilter feel. The overall effect will become, if you’re willing to tilt your head a little, one of the most decidedly and successfully alien Doctors in the series, a character unsure of what emotions actually are, and how to express himself.

But that’s getting ahead of myself. At the start of things, “Time and the Rani” goes for wacky comedy for some dumb reason, which didn’t even resonate with our son. He liked this somewhat, but he wasn’t thrilled. He didn’t like the Rani at all, and when a big chunk of this story is built around Kate O’Mara dressed as Bonnie Langford, which doesn’t work for grownups and doesn’t entertain the seven year-old in the audience, something’s not clicking. He thought the Rani’s new monsters were “too scary,” but he did enjoy the bit where the Doctor picks out some new clothes – “He wore that already!” – and the physical comedy where the Doctor and Mel don’t know who each other are.

If our son did recognize Donald Pickering after seeing him a week ago, he didn’t let on. He also didn’t recognize Wanda Ventham, either, of course. He last saw her in Doctor Who almost a year ago, but her skin was golden in that story and yellow in this one. I wonder whether actors and agents have conversations that sound like “Doctor Who again? Will I be green this time?”

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The Champions 1.12 – The Fanatics

You know, we’ve talked about Terry Nation and the very dated, sexist aspects of his scripts once or twice before, but this one still irked me a bit. This time, Terry doesn’t have an opportunity to be condescending to any of the women in his cast, because he simply doesn’t include any.

Other than Sharron, there’s not a woman onscreen at all except for a couple of extras right at the very end. The story’s about a gang carrying out high-profile assassinations, and it’s all men killing other men. This is perhaps a little unfair of me to single out Terry Nation – there weren’t any other women in the previous episode of The Champions that we watched, either – but when you spot a trope, you just keep seeing it.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this one because it was full of exciting scenes and two great fights. Not content with beating the daylights out of two villains in the drawing room, a little later on, Richard kayos three more in the radio room. He liked the second fight better because more bad guys got clobbered.

One of the fellows on the receiving end of Richard’s fists is Gerald Harper, shown above, and Donald Pickering has a small role as well. I am not certain about the actual filming dates for The Champions, but I think that this was probably made in the spring of 1967 (the trees suggest March or April), meaning this would have been shot a few months before the abandoned Avengers episode “The Great Great Britain Crime,” which also featured both Harper and Pickering. The awesome Julian Glover’s here as well, and Richard gets to knock him senseless in both of the fights.

I gave our son a heads-up that he’ll see Donald Pickering again in one week, in the next Doctor Who story that we’ll watch. Pickering will be twenty years older, and yellow, so I’m not betting on him recognizing the guy.

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The Avengers 7.20 – Homicide and Old Lace

A couple of oddball coincidences tonight: that’s the star of Adam Adamant Lives!, Gerald Harper, in color tonight as one of the guest stars in tonight’s episode of The Avengers. It also features the late Edward Brayshaw as one of the villains, and today (October 18) would have been his 85th birthday. Both of these fine actors, not to mention Donald Pickering, another notable name, had the misfortune of appearing in what’s by miles the worst episode of this show.

To recap, toward the end of 1967, John Bryce had been assigned to produce The Avengers, and under his watch, three episodes were at least started: “Invasion of the Earthmen”, “Invitation to a Killing,” which became “Have Guns – Will Haggle”, and a story written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. It was called “The Great Great Britain Crime” and featured the return of an organization previously seen in season two’s “Intercrime.”

“The Great Great Britain Crime” was judged to be too far gone, too much of a lost cause, to save even with reshoots. But with deadlines looming, poor decisions were made, and, more than a year later, a good chunk of the episode was repurposed. “Homicide and Old Lace” is that most unfortunate beast: a clip show. There are fights and shootouts from five or six other color Avengers episodes, and the story is given an intrusive and very, very annoying framing sequence. Mother is recounting the adventure to two elderly aunts, who constantly interrupt and interject and ask questions and recap everything we’ve seen before.

It’s painful to watch. Even with only about twenty-five or so minutes of visuals from “Crime” to play with, the producers undermined even those by having Mother narrate over some the footage, obscuring the original dialogue. There’s inappropriate “Perils of Pauline” music, and even at least one comedy sound effect. At places, this doesn’t seem desperate so much as vindictive, like Brian Clemens decided to stick the knife in for Bryce daring to work on his show.

There’s a pace and look and, in particular, a color scheme that’s unique to what we can see of “The Great Great Britain Crime” and “Invitation to a Killing.” I’m fascinated by the road that the Associated British Corporation didn’t take. I wish these two episodes existed in full so we could compare them to the transmitted versions. I’m certain that “The Great Great Britain Crime” was lousy; nothing that was used here convinces me otherwise, but at the same time, I’m equally certain that there’s no way in the universe that the original production was anywhere as tedious and aggravating as “Homicide and Old Lace.” Sadly, the originals are believed to have been destroyed all those years ago.

And we’ll end on that sour note for now, and put The Avengers back on the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh. We’ll return to this series in November for the final six episodes of its original run, but stay tuned! There’s lots more to watch and talk about!

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The Avengers 5.6 – The Winged Avenger

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that the Batman show had a huge impact on popular media. It wasn’t just the rush of television series about superheroes, most of which were doomed to fail pretty quickly as the craze faded, but the influence of a bigger-than-life and often deliberate, camp, approach to action and adventure. American shows like Lost in Space, The Man From UNCLE, and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea made the move from black and white to color pretty smoothly, but within a year, they were all getting really ridiculous, with unbelievable villains, deathtraps, monsters, and outrageous acting.

The Avengers navigated the bombastic change with a lot more grace than the show’s American counterparts, but they still took the time during this larger-than-life period to parody Batman with this very silly and very fun story by writer Richard Harris about a comic book character – “superhero” doesn’t seem quite right – who has come to life. The Winged Avenger looks like Hawkman wearing a Captain Harlock costume and, while his creators squabble over whether it’s the writer or the artist who is the real genius, their creation stalks the night murdering ruthless businessmen.

“Comic books” like we know them in America didn’t really exist in the UK at the time. Frank Bellamy, who provided the Winged Avenger illustrations, was at the time best known for painting the Thunderbirds strip in TV Century 21, but he’d worked on other large-format anthology “papers” like the Eagle and Look and Learn for more than a decade. There’s a clue in how the script refers to the character as the star of a “picture strip,” which was the typical term in the UK at the time, but the prop comics shown in the episode are American-style, with the Winged Avenger the star of his own 32-page book instead of appearing weekly as a two-page story. Also, the studio setup, with the creators hiring costumed models to pose for the art, is a lot more like what Frank Hampson pioneered for Dan Dare in the Eagle than any shoestring-budget American funnybook company in the sixties.

(For what it’s worth, at this time the actual Batman comic was most commonly seen in the UK by way of hardback annuals that reprinted American issues, while the popular 1960s daily newspaper strip was reformatted and appeared weekly on two pages of Smash! throughout 1967-68.)

And all this silliness ends with a very fun pop art climax that sees Steed walloping the Winged Avenger with great big panel boards that read POW! SPLAT! and BAM! Our son enjoyed this episode, and was repeating the costumed menace’s trademark line “Eee-URP!” whenever possible, but in the same way he somehow didn’t connect Wallace and Gromit’s launch sequence as a parody of Thunderbirds, he took this at face value and didn’t see it as a wink at Batman at all, just a great fight scene on its own accord. It’s so fascinating how he processes these things.

Anyway, here’s Nigel Green with a falcon and a gun. It turns out to not be really relevant to the story, but he looks fantastic with them, doesn’t he? Other familiar faces in the episode include Neil Hallett, Colin Jeavons, and Donald Pickering. Part of the episode was filmed at the absolutely beautiful Stanmore Hall near Birmingham. Some exteriors for “From Venus With Love” were shot here as well. It’s a mammoth, majestic building with incredible stone work, and then the studio interiors are so flimsy that the fake staircase that the actors climb wobbles like it’s made of cardboard!

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