Our son liked the story’s final line – Frederick Jaeger hoping that K9 is “TARDIS trained” – so much that it overshadowed the big explosion. For me, Jaeger and K9 and Louise Jameson are pretty much the only things about this one worth watching. It’s worse than I remembered it, ponderous and boring, with some of the most poorly staged gunfights in the whole series. The next one’s better.
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When I first watched Doctor Who in 1984, I missed several of the stories in season fifteen because of family travel or whatever. I missed the first three stories – “Fang Rock,” this one, and “Image of the Fendahl” – and the last one of the season. So K9 was a big surprise to me, and because when you’re a twelve year-old boy, the desire not to have other people mock your childish interests is like a survival code, it wasn’t a nice one. I couldn’t believe this show suddenly had a cute robot. He predates R2-D2, incidentally. This story was taped a month before the American premiere of Star Wars.
Seven is so much nicer an age than twelve. Our son was instantly charmed by K9. He got up and walked to the television, wide-eyed, and pointed at K9 just in case we missed it. “Look! It’s a robot dog!” He’s going to be so happy when K9 comes along at the end of this story.
I asked whether K9 is the best thing about this serial and Marie instantly interrupted “Yes!” I did warn her that this story is what happens when Dr. Science is not paying any attention at all to the script. I’ve never really cared for it either, but I’d forgotten just how good part one is. There’s a real sense of menace and mystery about the strange space infection, and I really like the design of the Titan base. The visual effects range from passable to regrettable as always, but all the other elements of this adventure – K9, the clones, the shrinking, the journey into the Doctor’s brain, that shrimp costume – are so much more memorable, mostly for all the wrong reasons, than the fabulous first episode. The dropoff is unbelievably steep.
Anyway, so this story was written by veterans Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and the memorable guest stars include Frederick Jaeger, as K9’s master Professor Marius, and Michael Sheard, as one of the infected bunch from the Titan base. This was a very rushed production and it badly, badly needed another draft of the script, preferably one where the clones wear basic orange jumpsuits and maybe some scuba gear! Episode one was far better than I remembered it, and episode two was about as lousy. But our son thought episode one was creepy and scary, and episode two has K9 in it, and would not agree.
A quickish word before beginning: the DVDs, along with the books written about The Avengers in the 1980s, and the websites of today, all call the color Diana Rigg stories “season five” and the Linda Thorson stories “season six.” For a while in the 1990s, the pendulum of accurate research pointed the right way: the 24 Rigg stories were produced and transmitted in two separate batches, thus making seven seasons. The Thorson stories were produced in two separate batches and transmitted that way in the US, but shown as one long season in the UK.
Season five is the batch of 16 color episodes that we’ve already seen. These were made between September 1966 and April 1967, and shown between January and May 1967 in both the UK and the US.
Season six is made of the final eight Rigg episodes and the first seven Thorson episodes. These were made between June 1967 and March 1968, with a considerable… let’s call it a hiccup in production during about the last seven weeks of ’67, which we’ll discuss later. In the UK, the first eight of these were shown as the sixth season, from September to November 1967. All fifteen went out as one season in America from January to May 1968. I number them using their first broadcast date, whether in the US or the UK.
Season seven is made of the other 26 Thorson adventures. These were made over the course of a year, from the spring of 1968 to March 1969. The US and UK broadcasts of these both went from September 1968 to May 1969, with the US finishing first and the UK broadcasts including the seven previous Thorson stories dropped in at what seems like random intervals.
Yes, I know you don’t agree, so you don’t have to waste time trying to tell me.
Anyway, so September 1967 came around and The Avengers were back on British television with a big season premiere guest starring Peter Cushing and featuring, like the title says, the return of the Cybernauts, one of the very, very few antagonists to come back for a second engagement in this show. Really, it’s just them, Ambassador Brodny, and a group called Intercrime that nobody remembers.
Cushing plays Paul Beresford, the brother of Michael Gough’s Professor Armstrong from the first Cybernaut story, and he is just brilliant, smooth and debonair in every scene. Watch how Macnee and Rigg afford him the space to be the star villain. They share several scenes together because their characters don’t initially know he’s one of their diabolical masterminds, and they play off him. They’re the guests on The Paul Beresford Show. It’s amazingly good and generous acting to let Cushing lead his scenes.
The story, written by Philip Levene, is huge fun. It’s got lots of great location filming, and the Cybernaut – it’s just the one this time – gets to rampage through several scenes and break lots of people’s necks. Everybody gets great dialogue, and the villain’s deeply sadistic plan had our son extraordinarily worried for Mrs. Peel. He denied it, of course, but he hid his face and curled up in his mom’s lap when things look bleak and Peter Cushing is being incredibly evil at the end. But as much as he enjoyed the Cybernaut’s killer karate chops and the big climactic fight, his absolute favorite moment came in the tag scene, when Steed wires a toaster the wrong way and blasts two slices through Mrs. Peel’s ceiling. Kid laughed like a hyena.
Some other very good actors are in this story as well. Above, that’s the great Fulton Mackay along with Charles Tingwell, who we remember from the first series of Catweazle, as kidnapped scientists. Noel Coleman and Aimi MacDonald also have small roles. In yet another weird blog acting coincidence, we saw Michael Gough just last night in Young Indiana Jones, and he’s briefly in this story as well with some archive footage as Dr. Armstrong. That villain’s henchman, Benson, returned in this episode. He’s played by Frederick Jaeger, and we’ll see him tomorrow night in Doctor Who.
“Planet of Evil” is definitely in that large segment of Doctor Who that starts strong and peters out. One problem is that the serial’s star is the jungle planet, and it’s largely absent from the second half, with the action set on a very boring and beige spaceship. The other problem, and I do hate picking on an actor, is the character that the unfortunate Prentis Hancock is forced to play. There are military idiots, and then there’s Commander Salamar, who doesn’t even have the decency to be written as losing his grip or even remotely sympathetic. If we felt sorry for a man in over his head, that would be one thing, but Salamar is just an incompetent jerk. Nobody could play the part well. Hancock didn’t have a prayer of making this character work.
Worse, a huge hunk of Salamar’s boneheaded military tough guy act is just there to get himself killed and pad episode four out, because this story just plain runs out of plot. Interestingly, we asked our son in between episodes what he thought, and he actually saw where this was going. There are two anti-matter beings, the big weird one on the jungle planet, and the werewolf creature that Frederick Jaeger’s character is becoming. Our son believed that Jaeger was the more frightening threat, because he was going to turn into a weird video-effects beast: “He’s going to change and be like that creature on the planet!” Thanks to Commander Salamar’s stupidity, he does, giving the story about fourteen more minutes of action.
Our son definitely had fun being frightened by this one. He told us that it was really, really, really scary. “Three scarys?” asked his mother. “No, four,” he replied. “Three isn’t enough!”
As we’ve watched the last three stories, I’ve been writing about my own discovery of Doctor Who in 1984, and figuring this thing out without any help. No books, no Wikipedia, no internet, nobody else who knew what it was. “Planet of Evil” featured one of the most amazing-looking monsters that my twelve year-old eyes had ever seen. Months later, the beast broke my heart.
I mentioned that my pal Blake had been stymied from watching Doctor Who by his mother, because it was on too late on Saturday night and they went to church Sunday morning. When she did allow him to watch one, in late April 1984, she immediately changed her mind and sent him to bed when the title of the story came onscreen: “The Robots of Death.” Discouraged, Blake kept living vicariously through me and all of my reports, until he finally found a magazine all about the show.
The previous November, Britain’s Radio Times magazine had published a 20th anniversary special issue. Starlog, a then-popular magazine about sci-fi movies and media, had picked up the special for American distribution, and Blake found a copy in a convenience store that summer. Happily for him, he could show the magazine to his mother, who was persuaded by the photos of odd and/or ridiculous aliens and bug-eyed monsters that this program wasn’t some late-night introduction to Satanism, and allowed him to finally start watching the show.
But on the other hand, it allowed Blake to completely disarm two claims that I made about the show. I’ll come back to the second one when we get about halfway through season fourteen. The first one, though, was my insistence that the anti-matter monster in “Planet of Evil” was the coolest thing anybody had ever seen. The magazine printed a production photo of the creature, for some insane reason, before it got its video treatment:
Blake was perfectly happy to believe me that all of these monsters and beasts and baddies were really cool, especially the Axons and the Cybermen, but he teased me about that bedsheet monster forever. It was a long summer.
(Perhaps worse, he got the magazine a few days before WGTV showed “The Androids of Tara,” which features a very brief appearance by one of the all-time stupid Who monsters, the Taran Wood Beast. He really enjoyed the “episode” [WGTV showed the series as compilation movies], but he kept ragging me about the Wood Beast for weeks as though it was my fault it looked so fake.)
But the other thing that I’m reminded of when watching this story is that it’s the first one that I had seen in the eighties to show the interior of the TARDIS, and reveal that the blue box is bigger on the inside. I honestly don’t recall being surprised by this, oddly.
Anyway, our son spent most of the last hour with his head buried. “Planet of Evil” has a reputation as one of the all-time great scary Who stories. It’s written by Louis Marks and directed by David Maloney. The guest stars include Prentis Hancock and Frederick Jaeger, and Michael Wisher is back again in a small role. The real star, of course, is the jungle planet of Zeta Minor, one of the most successful alien planets ever created in a studio for the BBC. I like this story, but I’ve never loved it. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, I just don’t enjoy watching Prentis Hancock at the best of times, and this script has him in the unbelievably thankless role of a military idiot.
We’ll see what he thinks of the ending of this story in a couple of days. Unfortunately, there’s a lot more military idiocy to come, and a lot less weird alien jungles.
Fifty-two years later, the talk of transistors in “The Cybernauts” is incredibly dated. And the slow, slow revelation that the silent, powerful assassin is a karate-chopping robot, well, that’s the sort of thing contemporary TV establishes before the opening credits without blinking. You have to make allowances for older television; for many viewers then, this was an extraordinarily strange concept.
But if you can put your mind back to 1965, “The Cybernauts” is downright amazing. There’s a reason why ABC chose this episode to launch the program’s run in America. The story by Philip Levene is stylish and witty and has an incredibly palpable sense of danger and suspense. The investigation is straightforward and the characters are believably in the dark. This is a complicated and outre plan for 1965, and Steed and Mrs. Peel are written in a way that television protagonists typically aren’t anymore. They don’t have access to any additional information; they have to dig it all up, with the audience coming along for the ride. And sure, modern audiences will figure out that it’s a robot earlier than our heroes. I don’t think that most people in 1965-66 would.
Macnee and Rigg are helped this week by one of the most amazing guest casts of any British program of the period. Check out the names: Michael Gough and Frederick Jaeger as the villains, John Hollis as a karate dojo, and Bernard Horsfall, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and Bert Kwouk as industrialists involved with the evil plot. Gough’s Dr. Armstrong is one of the all-time great Avengers villains, and that’s with a lot of competition to come.
Our son, meanwhile, claims that he hated it. He absolutely insists that he hated it. It was far too scary, he complains, and he never wants to see it again.
Then he went upstairs and started karate-chopping his pillow with big sound effects.