Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (parts three and four)

It’s not nice to kick a show when it’s down, but I swear the birdmen in this Doctor Who story look a whole lot like the chicken-people in that one unfortunate episode of Far Out Space Nuts that we watched a couple of years ago. You try to keep an open mind and a kind heart about these things, but there really isn’t anything good about this.

Worst of all, there’s a total disconnect between the story’s insistence to have twin boy geniuses whose mathematical equations can somehow change and alter actual space, and the story’s hear-it-to-believe-it scheme involving planets crashing into a sun, causing it to go supernova, which probably wouldn’t happen, and somehow not destroy a million eggs but send them on beeline courses – very, very, very fast – onto planets with breathable atmospheres for the slug-creatures inside to hatch and find food. No, none of that makes any sense. It’s by some measure the stupidest evil plan that any villain in Doctor Who ever came up with.

And yet, I can’t help but think that the twin kids must have been intended to have something more to do with this plot instead of being helpless kidnap victims. I just bet that somewhere along the line, in one draft or another, their mathematical super-genius was intended to plot courses for the eggs, through wormholes or black holes or something, so that the eggs would instantly land on appropriate worlds. It would still be insanely dumb, but at least one of the many flaws in Mestor’s wild scheme would have been addressed.

The kid liked it, anyway. He’s not feeling very good tonight and he went on to bed early, but he liked the Doctor being rude and loud. Colin Baker is definitely the best thing about this adventure.

Doctor Who: The Twin Dilemma (parts one and two)

One of the weirdest casting decisions in all of Doctor Who comes with the final serial in season 21. It stars Edwin Richfield, a then 63 year-old character actor with an expressive face and a fine voice, wrapped in an old thick carpet wearing a full-face mask and speaking with some of “Weird” Al Yankovic’s marbles in his mouth. Mestor is such a dopey villain, and the costume is as embarrassing as it ever gets on Who, and instead of throwing a bone of a part to some kid fresh out of drama school and hungry for work, they waste, and I mean waste, the great Edwin Richfield on it.

But the real casting news here is that Colin Baker takes over as the Sixth Doctor. A decade before, Baker had played the very memorable Paul Merroney for four series of The Brothers. This was a boardroom drama, and Merroney was apparently something like a proto-JR Ewing or Gordon Gekko, a greedy tycoon out to crush the little guys. I’ve never seen The Brothers myself; Kate O’Mara played a corporate rival for a few years on it, which makes me curious to try out the DVD sets from Simply Media one day.

So after a lot of theater work and some occasional guest appearances as villains in other programs – including a bad guy part in Who just a year and change earlier, in “Arc of Infinity” – Baker got the role of a lifetime, playing a hero at last.

We’re in the swamp of Doctor Who at this point. Baker, a heck of a great talent, and Nicola Bryant, an engaging and promising rising star, were lumbered with an aging show led by a producer who was ready to move on to pantomimes and variety shows, and a script editor who had lost interest in the lead character’s intelligence and desire to find solutions without violence. The show needed a fresh start and new blood behind the scenes very, very badly, and American fandom, in particular, has always had a mean eye toward the Colin Baker years.

And to be honest, for a long time, I didn’t like Baker’s Doctor at all. I didn’t get it. I was too teenage when he started, I thought the costume was embarrassing, and I hated the constant squabbling.

And then, around 2005, I watched this run with my older children, who were then about six and eight years old, and I got it. They loved this Doctor. They forgot about Peter Davison inside fifty minutes. They breezed right past the shocking scene where the sick and mentally addled Doctor actually attacks Peri, because everything else in this story was what they wanted to see from their Doctor. This guy is a perfect hero for children. He is bad-tempered and does not react well to anybody telling him to calm down, he is as loud as he wants to be and nobody tells him to hush. This is a Doctor who does not have to clean his room or take out the garbage. He has an acid tongue and devilish wit.

And tonight, as I predicted, our son followed in their footsteps. After the awful scene where he chokes Peri – a poor decision at the time and one that has worn very badly in thirty-five years – our kid was smiling, laughing, and melodramatically facepalming at the Doctor’s antics. “He’s so unpredictable!” he shouted.

To be clear, “The Twin Dilemma” isn’t so much a mess as it is a catastrophe. It’s a dopey story full of terrible acting performances. Everybody rolls their eyes at the two bowl-hair kids playing the twins, but Dennis Chinnery, who plays their father, is even worse. Colin Baker can’t save the disaster, but if you watch this with a kid, and see what that kid is seeing, and loving, it’s entertaining in an honest and real way.

Although, as much as I enjoyed the experience of seeing our son grin and smile, the best part of tonight’s viewing was when Marie asked how long the Doctor wears that horrible jacket and I could only say “umm.”

The Avengers 7.6 – All Done With Mirrors

“All Done With Mirrors” is one of the most celebrated stories from The Avengers‘ last run, since it’s mostly a solo outing for Linda Thorson as Tara. She’s ostensibly teamed with another ministry agent played by Dinsdale Landen, but she leaves him to waste time at a research establishment that’s got one of those regular Avengers problems of secrets leaking to “the other side” while she has the proper adventure. She has a terrific fight with an absolutely huge guy, gets thrown off a cliff, and kicks one of the villains down all 365 steps – a whole year’s worth – of a lighthouse. She allows Landen’s character to save her from one of the enemy agents, played by Edwin Richfield, which was generous of her. Otherwise, she’s got this one sewn up by herself. Other familiar faces this time: Peter Copley and Joanna Jones.

I’ve always thought this was a good, solid story with a fun and goofy Avengers twist with the pseudo-science of how the villains are stealing secrets. Looking at it now, the episode does feel like it’s done a little more “straight” than I remembered it. Other than the fantastic machine, the presentation is otherwise played like a contemporary adventure show. Our son enjoyed it even more than I did, though. He really liked the fights, and the tumble down all 365 stairs was one of the greatest things ever. Tara somehow manages to count the thumps, ending at 365, and when the thug stands up at the bottom of the stairwell and promptly collapses, she asks “Leap year?” to herself. He was still chuckling about that during the closing credits.

The Avengers 6.4 – Dead Man’s Treasure

In any fandom, there are myths and there is received wisdom, and it often turns out to be incorrect. An example that many of you might know comes from Doctor Who. The story, for years, went that the first episode of 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” was mistakenly junked by the BBC because that episode was titled just “Invasion” and was confused with the 1968 story “The Invasion.” That isn’t true at all. It’s a fan myth, but everybody heard it from somewhere or other.

The strange finger of coincidence visited this blog last month. See, there’s a similar bit of received wisdom about these eight Mrs. Peel episodes. Four of them aren’t fantasy-oriented in any way. “Dead Man’s Treasure,” like “The £50,000 Breakfast” and the next one, “You Have Just Been Murdered,” could just as easily play as an episode of an ITC action show like The Saint or The Baron. The story went that ABC (the network) in America had asked ABC (the production company) in Britain to bring things back down to Earth and make the series a little more realistic. I remember hearing this in the eighties, either from some know-it-all at a convention or in one of the zines from the era (maybe something that John Peel wrote?), but when I glanced back at the claim years later, I couldn’t find any real evidence of it. Did ABC actually ask for the show to get more realistic, or did fans just assume that they did because that’s a safe explanation for why Steed and Mrs. Peel were suddenly investigating plots that either McGill or Simon Templar could have handled?

It’s not quite definitive, but just last month, blogger Mitchell Hadley posted some evidence that somebody in America actually was complaining about how fanciful and odd The Avengers could be. TV Guide‘s influential columnist Cleveland Amory devoted a story to moaning that the color episodes were not as “genuinely engrossing” as the black and white ones. I wouldn’t connect all the dots with permanent ink yet, but there might be a through-line here: in April 1967, America’s biggest TV critic argues the show needs to be more realistic, when the show resumes production in June and July, Associated British Corporation asks Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens to tone things down, and in September, Fennell and Clemens are taken off the show and an earlier producer, John Bryce, is reinstated.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Well, it may not be Steed and Mrs. Peel’s wildest case, but Michael Winder’s “Dead Man’s Treasure” is certainly one of our son’s favorites. He absolutely loved this one, which should come as no surprise. All seven year-olds like fast-moving car racing stories, which is why Wacky Races will be popular with kids until the end of time. And this one even has a pair of cheaters a lot like Dick Dastardly. Familiar-to-us faces Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield appear as enemy agents, shown above. Arthur Lowe, Ivor Dean, and Valerie van Ost are also in this episode.

There’s not a lot of meat to this story about an auto rally with clues all around the countryside to bring the drivers to a hidden treasure. Our heroes get involved because a dying agent hid some important documents in the box before the race started. It’s just a madcap, fun, and very breezy little excuse to get some cars out on the roads around Hertfordshire and drive them past the camera really fast.

I thought it was a shame that the budget didn’t extend to a few more speaking parts so we could see more of the competitors instead of promptly paring the field down to three teams, but that’s quibbling. “Dead Man’s Treasure” is just plain fun, even if it might have been made with John Mannering and Cordelia instead of Steed and Mrs. Peel!

The Avengers 4.13 – Too Many Christmas Trees

I think we dodged a bullet with this one! We hope our son still has one and possibly two more Christmases believing in Santa Claus. So when Mrs. Peel gives a line about still believing in Father Christmas, we winced. We needn’t have. He doesn’t equate Santa and Father Christmas as the same character! (Incidentally, we decided long ago that Santa Claus brings one or two small gifts; all the rest are clearly from Mom and Dad. Hope to cushion the blow.)

Anyway, this story is about a gang of telepathic criminals waging a psychic assault on Steed during a Dickens-themed Christmas party at a big country house. Mediums, parlor tricks, ESP, hands around a table, all the old standbys. Alex Scott, who was in everything ITC did and quite a few Hammer films, is the chief villain, and Edwin Richfield, who we saw just a little over a week ago in “The Sea Devils,” is here and apparently up to no good. It’s an absolutely terrific episode, a heavy story lightened with witty banter and Mrs. Peel’s genuine concern for Steed as he seems incapacitated. It seems like one of the less expensive episodes, with just a few sets and not much location work, but they certainly got the most out of it.

Our son asked us to pause it because he was confused by a guillotine cigar cutter, which led to a discussion of what guillotines are. This led to me pausing it a few minutes later as Steed suffers another nightmare, in which he’s Sydney Carton from A Tale of Two Cities being led to his execution. We paused again to explain a room set up to resemble Miss Havisham’s ruined and web-covered dining room from Great Expectations. Who says this TV’s an idiot box? He’s getting an introduction to literature here!

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part six)

Our son impressed me by talking earlier this evening about part five of the story, and the disappointing cliffhanger to part four. He’s really thinking constructively and creatively about the show, which makes me very happy. He was much happier with this installment, except, of course, for the ending, which sees the Master getting away again. It’s difficult to say just how effective an exit that would be in the real world. Surely the British Navy wouldn’t have a great deal of trouble tracking down a stolen hovercraft?

Honestly, parts five and six could have been compacted into one installment. There’s a lot of padding, and a lot of Jo being very loudly worried about the Doctor, and a lot of repetition. The civil servant of the month is just as gluttonous and cowardly, the talk about a lasting peace between humans and Sea Devils isn’t going to go anywhere, and there’s more stomping around the echoey underwater base.

But Pertwee and Delgado continue their beautiful, twinkling chemistry (the Doctor gets to say “reverse the polarity of the neutron flow” for the first time), and there’s a lot of well-directed action and explosions. “The Sea Devils” isn’t anybody’s favorite third Doctor story, but it certainly is entertaining, and I’m glad our son enjoyed it!

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part five)

As the Pertwee years continued, they got away from one of the things that defined the series in 1970: the civil servant of the month. With the speaking part played by Clive Morton freed, one of the all-time “best” of this misbegotten bunch shows up, a Parliamentary Permanent Secretary played by Martin Boddey in one of his final roles. He’s supremely vulgar and stupid, and I love the way the director emphasizes his obsession with breakfast and coffee by lingering on his mouth.

Our son says that this story is more scary than exciting. We asked whether it wasn’t exciting when the navy launched (stock footage of) depth charges into the sea, and he said it wasn’t. “That was not exciting because they could have killed the Doctor!” He’s taking everything that Jo Grant says very, very seriously.

For me, this story’s only disappointment is the Sea Devils’ base. It’s a black “limbo” set like we saw in the third season of Batman, with lots of black tablecloths over everything to give it some kind of depth and shape. The designer came up with some interesting ideas for the props within their base, things like alarms and cages, but it’s all undermined by the lack of walls.

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part four)

Thankfully, much better copies of the second half of “The Sea Devils” were available for the wizards at the BBC to restore the visuals. Part four of this story looks great, almost as though fate wanted the monsters to shine. The Sea Devils look organic and wet. The closeups of the latex and rubber show it looking more like skin than the plastic of the monsters in the previous story.

I’ve written before about how we enjoyed the novelizations of the stories in the days before our local PBS station bought them. The book version of this serial wasn’t one of the greats, but it did have a delightful embellishment by writer Malcolm Hulke. Onscreen, we see the doomed Colonel Trenchard get off a couple of shots against the monsters before dying. But in the book, he realizes too late that he left the safety on, a fitting end for the character.

Unfortunately, while the last episode ended with a fantastic cliffhanger, this one… doesn’t. Jo looks into a diving bell. Either the Doctor is inside, dead, or he’s not inside at all. We’ll check back in a few days for the answer.

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part three)

Part three of this story ends with a delicious cliffhanger, with the Doctor and Jo trapped on a beach with a minefield on one side, four men with rifles on another, and a Sea Devil rising from the ocean. It’s a really effective scene that had our son utterly stumped how they’ll get out of this. Helicopters and International Rescue’s Mole were considered.

Speaking of effective, I love how the titular Sea Devils have completely dominated the narrative despite only appearing onscreen for maybe two minutes totally throughout the first three parts. We wondered whether our son would pick up the subtleties in how the Master has convinced Colonel Trenchard to let him take over the prison, and he didn’t. The Master has given him some song and dance about enemy agents operating in British waters, and how only he can stop them, and Trenchard will soon have the thanks of a grateful nation. I think he treated this as new, additional information, like the enemy saboteurs were real, and yet another obstacle and headache.

I think the problem with six year-old viewers is that they will take everything at face value, and not quite understand when characters are being dishonest yet. I realized this when I had to pause the first couple of Avengers episodes we watched because he didn’t really get that Steed and Mrs. Peel will lie about their undercover activities. Television that’s really designed exclusively for younger viewers will wink at the kids a little more obviously.

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part two)

There’s so much to like about “The Sea Devils.” It’s just a terrific and fun adventure story, with some monsters that look fantastic, wonderfully classy and claustrophobic direction, great set design, and a fun performance from Edwin Richfield – he had played the father in the deeply weird serial The Owl Service a few years previously – playing a military role that the Brigadier would not have been right for. The Brig had learned to trust the Doctor’s wild stories, but this is one of the few examples of the Doctor being seen by the authority figure as being utterly mad. I think Richfield had fun playing Captain Hart as an even more weary straight man than Nicholas Courtney’s Brigadier.

A slightly more controversial thing to praise in “The Sea Devils” is the music, which is a harsh and discordant wall of electronic noises played by Malcolm Clarke as though he was angry with whomever sold him his synthesizers. Three months after “The Sea Devils” aired, Roxy Music released their debut LP. Writing in The Evening Standard, Andrew Bailey dismissed the record as sounding full of “Dr Who gimmickry.” I’ve no doubt this story was what Bailey had in mind.

That may require a bit of explanation, since Roxy Music and Bryan Ferry have been defined in the public mind by that one melodic song with heartbroken lyrics and sixty-four tracks of dense, interwoven guitars and keyboards that Bry wrote in 1980 and has been rewriting ever since. I don’t mind, because while sure, Bry has evolved into a one-trick pony, it’s a more entertaining and rewarding pony than just about anybody else in music, even if all ten songs on his last LP could have just as easily been released on any of his previous ones.

But before he became the impeccably-dressed cool ruler, Bryan Ferry was downright weird. With his incredibly noisy collaborators Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, and Eddie Jobson, those first three Roxy Music LPs, beyond the crooning odes to accountants and blow-up sex dolls that namecheck Baby Jane Holzer, Lolita, and Guernica, are, musically, unlike pretty much anything in the world… except for what Malcolm Clarke did with this performance. Check ’em out if you don’t believe me. Better yet, find First Kiss, a bootleg of their BBC sessions, where Eno turns the ending of “Ladytron” into a rocket blasting off in a wash of bubbles while Manzanera batters his guitar to death, and an under-rehearsed “Virginia Plain” sounds like a Studebaker built in Frankenstein’s castle.

But if that bootleg’s not immediately available to you, just watch “The Sea Devils.” The cacaphony that goes on while that monster chases the Doctor through the fort sounds so much like the beginning of side two of that first LP that it makes me think about stars shining so bright and growing potatoes by the score.

Interestingly, the Doctor explains to Jo that the Sea Devils are probably related to the Silurians, and that story had a similarly divisive musical score. Well, I say divisive, but I don’t think anybody actually enjoys Carey Blyton’s lunatic kazoo on that story, while this music is amazing. I can’t wait to hear more of it in a couple of nights…

Doctor Who: The Sea Devils (part one)

Here’s my guess as to why “The Curse of Peladon” looked a little, shall we say, financially underwhelming. “The Sea Devils” teams up writer Malcolm Hulke, director Michael E. Briant, and guest star Roger Delgado from the previous season’s “Colony in Space” and it looks twice as expensive as any other period Doctor Who adventure, with lots of location filming, a great big cast, and a real sense of space, three important qualities that “Peladon” lacks.

The home video copy of “The Sea Devils” is an uglier than usual washed-out mess that was returned from Canada, reverse-engineered into PAL, then re-converted to NTSC, so the images I’ll use to illustrate posts about this serial will be pretty ropey, but if you haven’t seen this one, you really should. It’s a great adventure story, with Hulke turning down the politics in favor of really impressive set pieces. The Master has been sentenced to life imprisonment on an island, in nearly solitary confinement under the watchful eye of a Colonel Trenchard. But it didn’t take long for the Master to start running the place. He’s got Trenchard running errands for him, and is every bit as interested in the recent sinkings of three ships as the Doctor is when he finds out about it.

While our son was most charmed, of course, by the Master showing off his fascination with children’s television – Trenchard interrupts him when he’s trying to enjoy Clangers on his weird Venetian blind color TV – he was properly creeped out by the shadowy appearance of a strange monster on an old sea fort. “We’ll watch part two tomorrow night, and I hope those strange sea monsters won’t freak you out,” I told him. “I’m ALREADY freaked out,” he replied.