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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (part three)

John Hallam shows up as one of Doctor Who‘s immortal super-being characters in this story’s final episode. I don’t know that Light is in the same league as the White and Black Guardians or the Eternals. He’s kind of stupid. Tens of thousands of years ago, he came to Earth and catalogued all life on the planet and then went to sleep. Light’s never encountered life that evolves before now, and when he wakes up in 1883, he becomes furious and the Doctor talks him into one of those “does not compute… self-destruct!” moments that we saw, with eyes rolled, on television in the sixties and seventies, or at the end of “The Daemons.”

At least Light’s goal made sense to our son. I gave him a recap over supper, and we talked about the show afterward, and he understood that Light wanted to catalog everything without it evolving. He also understood that Control, who has evolved into a female humanoid with good dress sense, wanted to be free. He didn’t understand anything else at all, which makes him a member of a very large club. Maybe after nineteen more viewings and twenty thousand online reviews and blog posts, he’ll figure it out.

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Doctor Who: Ghost Light (parts one and two)

In early 1990, I got the first seven episodes of season 26. They were maybe fourth gen. I thought “Battlefield” was pretty good. “Ghost Light” wasn’t. The tape hiss obscured most of the dialogue. I had to turn the volume way, way up and I still couldn’t make any sense of it. The only actors – and this remains true, twenty-nine years later – who seem to have ever been in a television studio before and know how to project toward the microphones are John Nettleton, who plays a deliberately annoying comedy vicar, and Frank Windsor, who plays a racist Victorian policeman. I had no clue what anybody else was saying.

About a year later, I finally watched a movie version that I’d recorded, or had somebody else record for me, off WGTV. The excuse this time was that somehow the BBC’s new stereo sound mix got messed up by Lionheart, the distributor who edited these into movie versions. Watching this was still a chore and a half, but I started to get it and enjoy it.

In December of 1993, I was in London and bought a copy of the fanzine DWB, which was celebrating Doctor Who‘s 30th anniversary with essays loving and praising each Doctor. Virgin had just published Kate Orman’s debut novel, a Seventh Doctor adventure called The Left-Handed Hummingbird, and here she was in DWB singing the praises of McCoy, and “Ghost Light” in particular. The story started making a lot more sense when explained by its champions.

And that’s what makes “Ghost Light” such a weird piece of television. It’s a story that could have worked a million times better, but fans of this one – and of “Fenric” – respond with absolutely breathtaking smugness when you mention that you had trouble understanding it. It’s not just the unbelievably bad sound mix and godawful delivery, which the later commercial releases still provide, which is why we watched the DVD with the (often comically inaccurate) subtitles tonight, it’s that the writer and script editor wanted to send the audience on a thrill ride and give them all the information they need in passing, without spoon-feeding anybody, or having the Doctor sit down with his audience identification character and explain what’s happening.

So in the late nineties I liked it – it was, once, incredibly interesting watching Orman and her husband-to-be Jon Blum and their internet pals defend the show’s last three seasons on rec.arts.drwho – but, over time, I liked it less and less. In early 2006, I watched it with my older children. They loved every minute of the Colin Baker and Sylvester McCoy years, and then we hit this and “Fenric” and they reacted like they were getting lessons in Esperanto instead of time-travel teevee.

My older son was about nine then. “This sucks,” he said, with emphasis.

I was Livejournal-friends with a McCoy-is-God fellow in Indiana then. I reported how badly they reacted to these popular stories, and how the third cliffhanger of “Fenric” – which I’d have said was the original run of Who‘s last great cliffhanger – ended with the kids asking “What? What did he say? Did he stand up? This is stupid.” The guy said that my kids were wrong.

No, I’m pretty sure that when Doctor Who‘s target audience of thrilled seven and nine year-olds stop enjoying the show and start telling you that it sucks that they may be onto something.

And tonight, subtitles on to help – not that the half-assed transcription helped a very great deal – our favorite eight year-old critic didn’t find it thrilling, either. He found it weird and hard to follow. It makes sense to me, because I’ve sat through it twenty times and can see how all the explanations are hidden here, there, and everywhere except in an A, B, C pattern, and I have read twenty thousand essays, reviews and criticisms of this weird story that celebrate its weirdness, often very smugly.

“But did you like it?” I asked our son.

“I like having my tummy rubbed,” he replied.

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Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) 1.1 – My Late Lamented Friend and Partner

Disaster struck this afternoon. I’d been looking forward to finally digging into ITC’s famous Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) for ages and ages. I sent the kid upstairs while I put the disk in to make sure nothing in the menus or anything gave away the surprise that not only is the Hopkirk of the title deceased, he’s also a ghost. That’s right, our son may well be the first viewer in TV history that didn’t know that Marty Hopkirk is a ghost.

And I gingerly popped the DVD out of its spindle and the blasted disk snapped with a crack.

So since this is a show where the setup is a big part of the fun, we watched a copy on YouTube, and then – assuming disk two doesn’t snap (and here I pause to check… whew) – we’ll skip ahead to episode five next and circle back to the others once I get a replacement set! The YouTube copy was pretty crummy – it reminded me of what I could have expected from a third or fourth gen copy had I got this in a tape trade in the early nineties – but it did the trick. I’ve been wanting to watch this forever and it was worth the wait. This was such fun!

Assuming that the second, third, and possibly fourth viewers in TV history who didn’t know about Marty Hopkirk’s afterlife are reading this blog, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) is a detective show where Jeff Randall, played by Mike Pratt, is a private eye and his partner Marty, played by Kenneth Cope, is murdered. As a ghost, Marty comes back to help his partner solve the murder and make sure that his beloved wife Jeannie, played by Annette Andre, is provided for. Marty stays out of his grave too long and gets on the receiving end of a century-long curse for ghosts who don’t follow the rules. This show was made in the spring of 1968, so Marty has another 49 years stuck here with us before he can return to the afterlife.

Speaking of the spring of 1968, Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased) was made by many of the same talents and crew who had made The Champions the previous year, and who were making Department S at the same time as this. It was created by Dennis Spooner and produced by Monty Berman, and we’ll see lots of the same writers, directors, locations, and guest actors, including Frank Windsor and Ronald Lacey in this one. The script for this first episode was by Ralph Smart.

And it’s huge fun. I really enjoyed watching this with our son. He was admittedly a little restless at first, watching what appeared to be an ordinary detective show. I confess to having fun with the program’s name. He asked a few days ago why it had this name and I reminded him of Miles Archer’s death in The Maltese Falcon, and how Sam Spade might have chosen to rename his business Space and Archer (Deceased). He didn’t make the mental leap to “ghost,” of course, but he probably grumbled inside that this was going to be another moody program for grownups who’d have to explain everything to him.

He came around in a big way once Marty started figuring out his powers, and we all got a huge laugh when Ronald Lacey’s character tries to surprise Jeff, not knowing that our hero has a pretty amazing early warning system. Our son was in such good spirits (ha!) and enjoyed it so much that he was cracking jokes over the end credits, asking why they got a guy named Innocent – Harold Innocent – to play an assassin. If the rest of the show’s just half as entertaining as the first episode, I’ll be very pleased. Does it live up to the legend? So far, absolutely!

Photo credit: Stuff Limited

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Doctor Who: The King’s Demons (parts one and two)

Fans often ask what in the sam hill producer John Nathan-Turner was thinking, deciding that Doctor Who needed a robot companion. These fans often forget that they were ever kids. When I read that Radio Times / Starlog 20th Anniversary magazine back in 1984, I was incredibly anxious to meet Kamelion, and incredibly confused that while he’s listed right there on page 20 as a companion, he isn’t mentioned in the previews for any of the forthcoming adventures.

Our son quite liked the appearance of Kamelion as well. It distracted from the Master showing up again, to his growling disapproval. Kamelion came about when its designers showed the robot to Nathan-Turner, thinking that an appearance on Doctor Who might be good for business. Nathan-Turner kind of went a little overboard with enthusiasm and made the robot a companion. Unfortunately, the robot required too much time-intensive and laborious programming to be reliable for a seat-of-your-pants TV show with frequent last-minute script changes, and then its chief programmer was killed in a tragic accident at sea. So instead of having the robot transform into a guest star of the week until they could write it out, they just didn’t mention it in any way whatsoever until they could write it out. Kamelion is completely forgotten onscreen, although fan writers and novelists have made sure that the robot had many more adventures.

Actually, you know what Kamelion reminds me of? In 1991, the designers of a much bigger robot showed it to Universal, thinking that an appearance on some new TV show might be good for business. Universal then sold NBC on a two-hour pilot called Steel Justice, in which a cop magically brings his dead son’s toy robot to life, leading to a twenty-foot tall “robosaurus” breathing fire at bad guys. The big difference is that Kamelion is probably housed in somebody’s collection, while the “robosaurus” can probably be seen at a monster truck show near you next weekend. (Nobody believes me when I tell them this, because the robot is just so stupid, but the whole angle of magically animating your dead kid’s toys made parts of that film quite eerie and odd. Nevertheless, NBC didn’t buy a series. Can’t imagine why…)

“The King’s Demons,” which was the last Who adventure written by Terence Dudley, isn’t all that exciting, but it’s a simple and short story which has lots of swordfighting and a joust, and an interesting collection of guest stars. Gerald Flood plays the imposter King John and provides the voice of Kamelion. Isla Blair and Frank Windsor play the local barons who are caught in the Master’s plot. I enjoyed how Windsor and his Softly, Softly co-star Stratford Johns both showed up in The Avengers a few weeks apart in 1968. It’s not quite the same, but Johns had been in a Who in 1982 and Windsor popped in the following year.

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The Avengers 7.4 – Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40?

The Avengers has dated less badly than many shows of its period, but the goofball depiction of a computer in such distress that it requires surgery – like “medical series” surgery, with clamps and forceps and masks – pretty much nails this down to the mercifully distant past. George / XR40 is an example of a visible trend in the late sixties making computers less threatening by making them silly.

We saw one of the stupidest examples when we watched Batman and practically every script that Charles Hoffman contributed had some dumb gag about the Batcomputer belching up spaghetti or something. This really isn’t much better. Maybe it could’ve been one throwaway gag in the closing tag scene. But Tony Williamson structures the entire episode around George’s surgery and brain transplant while our heroes take turns looking for a traitor and coming back to the operating room to ask “How is he, doctor?”

For the first time, The Avengers was ponderous. The only spark at all is Tara getting called in on her way to a fancy dress party and declining to change out of her cat costume and mask for the show’s first ten minutes.

Speaking of computers, there’s a reminder that language is always in flux at the very beginning and we see the word spelled as “computor” on a sign. That’s not a typo. Well into the 1960s, either spelling could be used, although I would say that by this time, a “computer” could also be used to refer to the human operator of a “computor” hardware. Some eggheads at Georgia Tech were still using “computor” in their dissertations as recently as 2001, although you really just can’t expect linguistic precision from a bunch of damn Yellow Jackets. (More here.)

On the human side, Frank Windsor, who was very well known at the time for his role of Detective Inspector John Watt in Z Cars and Softly Softly, is here as one of the traitors. It looks like this episode was made just a few weeks after production on Softly Softly‘s third series finished. Judy Parfitt and Arthur Cox also appear.

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