The Ray Bradbury Theater 2.7 – Punishment Without Crime

When the USA Network ordered 12 episodes for a second season of The Ray Bradbury Theater, the producers looked for some partners in other countries to fill the order. I picked this installment because it was one of the ones made in collaboration with Granada Television and looked like it had the sort of powerhouse cast I enjoy. Unfortunately, the great Iain Cuthbertson and Peggy Mount just have very small parts. That leaves Donald Pleasance, who, in my humble opinion, gave far, far greater performances in so many other things. I started the story by telling the kid what a great actor he was, and honestly, he phoned this one in and looked bored.

I seem to enjoy creepy Bradbury more than speculative Bradbury. This time, he goes back to the well of businesses that build robots. But this one doesn’t build electric grandmothers or replacement spouses, it builds… well, it builds replacement spouses as well, I suppose, but these are meant to be short-lived replacements for angry, jilted husbands to “murder.” Sadly, the writer had to add some mighty convenient plot complications to make the jilted husband’s subsequent arrest for murdering the robot make any sense. It’s dreary and weak, although the design and execution kind of reminded me of the original Max Headroom pilot, when it wasn’t reminding me of a music video from the period, anyway. Nobody liked it, and I should have gone with my notion to replace it with “Gotcha!,” which starred Saul Rubinek, just to see whether the kid would recognize him after seeing him in Stargate the last two nights.

Fantastic Voyage (1966)

I confess that I was not at all certain how well Fantastic Voyage would go over with our son. Like the last film that we watched together, Planet of the Apes, it was a big favorite of my father. But Apes went down like a lead balloon, and the kid is hungrier for faster-paced adventures than the often slow spectacles of older science fiction.

(Dad was also a big fan of One Million Years B.C., which we’re going to watch in 2021. The presence of Raquel Welch in two of Dad’s favorite sixties films is probably not a coincidence.)

The other concern is that Fantastic Voyage is a story about shrinking people and injecting them into the bloodstream of a patient to operate on a blood clot in his brain. That was probably a remarkably outrĂ© concept for mainstream audiences in 1966, but it’s old hat now in a world where Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly star in billion dollar Marvel movies. Plus, the visual effects that a viewer in the present day can expect are a bit more sophisticated than lava lamps and bouncy-house sets.

But boy howdy, it worked. This is a fine, fine film, and our son was completely captivated and excited throughout. He enjoyed it tremendously, thank goodness. He got a little squirmy about halfway through, but that’s mainly because he was worried about the characters.

The visuals really feel only a little dated to me. As for how the rest of it has aged, there’s the expected “this is too dangerous for a woman” – slash – “what’s a nice girl like you doing on a mission like this” business you got in sixties cinema, and it does take what feels like forever to get moving. That said, I confess that a mischievous part of me wonders whether this might not have been a little bit intentional. This was 1966, after all. Drop a tab of LSD when the Coming Attraction trailers start, and, assuming you got a good dose, that stuff’d kick in right around the 39 minute mark, when it all goes psychedelic.

But I think it worked well with a kid from the modern day because even though the Quantum Realm and whatever else that Ant-Man and the Wasp do has its own specific look and feel, nothing looks like Fantastic Voyage. This is an incredibly imaginative movie full of wild designs, and just because special effects wizards do things differently these days, what 20th Century Fox did in 1966 still looks amazing. Add in some remarkable sets for the “real” world and the whole shebang just glows with all the effort put into it. The control center is a jawdropping multi-tiered set with the submarine hangar on one side, an operating theater on the other, and the room where all the generals and majors bark their orders above and between them. And I was so convinced by the crazy corridors of the headquarters that it honestly took me several minutes to realize they filmed it on location in a stadium somewhere. (It was the old Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena, the original home of the Lakers when they moved to California.)

As for the plot, it might start out slowly, but it’s an interesting bit of Cold War paranoia, with a dirty commie saboteur somewhere around, and lots of men speaking urgently to each other across black and white monitors. Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, and Donald Pleasance are among the team whose submarine “is riding through somebody’s brain,” as Dar Williams once sang. The script may have had conventional roles for all the characters, but the acting is top-notch and the visuals are terrific. It’s done with an almost real-time urgency and an escalating series of unexpected obstacles.

I am very, very glad our son enjoyed this more than he did Apes. I did as well!

What We’re Not Watching: The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes

We’re not watching the 1971-73 anthology series The Rivals of Sherlock Holmes with our son; this is among the after-he-goes-to-bed shows that we look at two or three nights a week. Five episodes in, it’s uneven but incredibly fun. It’s based on a series of short story anthologies edited by Hugh Greene. There were four of them in the 1970s; you occasionally see them in used bookshops. Actually, I see that the title has been pilfered for all sorts of collections edited by anybody and everybody. Stick with the original, I say.

Anyway, Greene brought the spotlight on some of the mostly forgotten detectives and adventurers who caught the public’s imagination in Victorian / Edwardian days, as editors and authors looked for the next big Sherlock Holmes-level hit. Some of the works are still fondly remembered. R. Austin Freeman and the Baroness Orczy wrote popular stories with imaginative characters who have lived on. But many others fell out of print and time marched on without them. There were World Wars and Interwar-era detectives and hard-boiled gumshoes in California and so on.

Thames, one of the UK’s commercial networks, made two series of 13 episodes dramatizing many of these tales. Happily, they all still exist; so much from the era was destroyed that we’re lucky to have them. There’s a who’s who of popular character actors from the period, plus faces I know from the Doctor Who and Paul Temple stories that were made around the same time – say, there’s the guy who played Sam Seeley in “Spearhead from Space”! – and while the production values are pretty low, some of these stories are terrific fun.

Roy Dotrice’s portrayal of Simon Carne, a gentleman thief who masquerades as a private detective called Klimo, had me ordering the full collection of Carne’s stories by Guy Boothby. But tonight we watched Donald Pleasance – you know, international film star Donald Pleasance, who must have really liked the script to come down on his price for Thames – as the occult detective Thomas Carnacki, created by William Hope Hodgson. That was excellent! Somebody should have backed up a truck of money to Pleasance’s door to make a full Carnacki series in 1971. What a missed opportunity!

Granted, we didn’t enjoy Peter Vaughn as a corrupt detective called Dorrington, and will skip his second appearance, but we’ve got several great actors in lead roles coming in future stories, including Douglas Wilmer (not content with playing Holmes and Nayland Smith several times, he plays Professor Van Dusen twice in series two), Charles Gray, Derek Jacobi, and John Thaw. And I saw a clip somewhere last month with Roger Delgado in some role or other. It’s a neat show, so check it out.

Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

You know who has the best rogues’ gallery in all of TV and films? I’m not talking about the fictional villains, but the actors who played them. The answer is indisputably Tony and Tia from the two Witch Mountain movies. Their opponents were played by Donald Pleasance, Bette Davis, Christopher Lee, and Ray Milland. That’s Blofeld, Baby Jane Hudson, Count Dracula, and that mean guy from Love Story. Pure 100% evil.

And on top of that, the three main adult parts in the first of the two films, Escape to Witch Mountain, are played by Pleasance, Milland, and Eddie Albert as Jason O’Day, the gruff-but-kind old traveler who helps the young castaways. All three men played villains in Columbo in the seventies. If you’re like me and enjoy just sitting back and watching great actors at work, even when the material isn’t exactly challenging, this movie is a complete pleasure.

We were having a long and very lazy Saturday afternoon, so we went ahead and watched this classic today instead of tomorrow morning, and our son just adored it. Escape to Witch Mountain is based on a 1968 novel by Alexander Key, who wrote more than a dozen of these sort of light science fiction adventures for young readers and which we used to devour as kids in the seventies. Him, John Christopher, Madeline L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis were my poison in the tail end of that decade. Yours as well, I bet.

As a screenplay, it’s note-perfect, a flawless 97 minutes without a drop of fat or padding. The director, John Hough, was new to Disney but he already had a pretty fun career, working on favorite TV shows like The Avengers, The Champions, and The Zoo Gang, and directed Hammer’s glorious guilty pleasure, Twins of Evil. Teamed with Disney’s first-rate special effects team – who let the side down a little this time – three veteran actors and two extremely good young kids, he put together a terrific movie.

Sadly, the effects are just not up to Disney’s standard this time. Most of the work before the climax is practical effects done with wires, but sadly I swear I see a new wire visible every time I have watched this movie. I’ve noted with some sadness the way that the print quality of Ray Harryhausen’s films always gives away the “surprise” of something magical about to happen, but that’s nothing compared to the composite shots of the flying Winnebago and upside down helicopter in this movies’s climax. It’s a shame for adult viewers, but kids probably won’t notice. Ours didn’t.

One reason I enjoy this film so much is that it gives kids some believable young heroes with whom they can relate. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann are extremely good in this movie, even managing to convincingly convey their returning memories as actual memories and not “brand new information” that it’s time for the script to provide. Eisenmann was still a novice at this time; Richards was an industry vet by the time she made this at age ten.

The memories slowly returning, done so well by a cute effect that sees the flashbacks becoming increasingly clearer as the film progresses, really helped keep our son’s attention. He was fascinated by the story and curious where it was going. There’s some typical Disney slapstick along the way – there’s a bear, and a truck that crashes into a lake – and it’s used as perfect punctuation at moments where the explanations are a little talky or the excitement gets a little much. It’s a really great film, and I believe it’s much better than its sequel, but we’ll watch that in a couple of months and see what he thinks.