I am sorry to read that Geoffrey Palmer has passed away. I first noticed him in the sitcom Butterflies, which Atlanta’s PBS station showed in constant rotation in the late eighties, and soon enough noticed him in just about everything else. Equally comfortable as a guest star in dramas like Doctor Who or Doomwatch as taking a starring role in comedies like Reginald Perrin and As Time Goes By, he was simply one of those familiar faces that made me smile whenever he appeared on screen. Our condolences to his family and friends.
Right at the end, “Voyage of the Damned” gets a whole lot more mawkish and sentimental than I like. It’s a fine disaster movie for a good while there, with a few top-flight names in small parts like Geoffrey Palmer and Bernard Cribbins. Clive Swift’s here for the duration. He effortlessly stole every scene he was in some 22 years previously, in “Revelation of the Daleks”, and he honestly does it here as well. Unfortunately, one day on the set, Swift managed to make Who fandom infamy by granting an interview to Doctor Who Magazine and, in the worst mood of any entertainer this side of Lou Reed, tolerated the experience with a mix of boredom and condescension. It’s probably around online somewhere; you should look it up to see what happens when actors wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
I think it’s interesting that this story shows the Doctor just flat out losing a lot more than he’s used to. He promises six survivors that he’ll get them out of this mess and loses four of them. And one is really surprising from a narrative perspective, although not a production one. Pop star Kylie Minogue is here as a waitress from the planet Sto called Astrid Peth. I like Kylie. I’m not a huge fan, but I like some of her stuff. I completely adore “On a Night Like This,” which is also a whole lot more mawkish and sentimental than I (usually) like, but I occasionally make allowances for silly love songs. So while it’s a sure bet that Astrid is a one-off guest star rather than a continuing companion, because Kylie has a big career and couldn’t have afforded nine months to make thirteen episodes in 2007-08, it really wasn’t until everybody started dying that I wondered whether she’d be killed as well.
I think the real surprise is that the Doctor asks her to come with him, and she accepts, and then she chooses to end her life by killing the villain and saving the day. That doesn’t happen often, although the Doctor did agree that Lynda-With-a-Y could come with him in “The Parting of the Ways” and she didn’t make it out alive either. The atoms-turning-to-starlight bit is sad, but the falling into the engines bit and the angry hero staring remorselessly while things explode silently behind him bit looks like a very, very bad Hollywood action film. Fortunately, just two minutes later, the Queen gets evacuated from Buckingham Palace in her robe while an assistant carries one of her little dogs in his arms. That’s better.
We’ll start series four of Doctor Who later this month. Stay tuned!
“The Mutants” is a six-part Who serial from 1972. It’s the second story for the series to be written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and it’s directed by old hand Christopher Barry. It’s nobody’s favorite story, and it has a pretty terrible reputation in fandom as among the worst. Apart from clips, I probably haven’t seen it in about twenty-five years, and was pleased to find that the first two episodes were much, much better than I expected.
On the other hand, we had to pause this a couple of times to help explain some context to our son, and he didn’t like this one at all. Not a bit. The story is set in the 30th Century, during the dying days of the Earth Empire, and concerns a planet called Solos getting its independence. As a six year-old, he knows a little – more the mythology than the history – about the thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain, but this was written for older kids in an age where the ranks of Britain’s civil service were swelled by former colonial administrators from countries like India or Nigeria. We met one in the previous story; Colonel Trenchard in “The Sea Devils” was a former governor of some island nation or other. So certainly the audience in 1972 understood the political implications a lot better than he can.
This story follows the previous season’s “Colony in Space” as depicting a lousy and corrupt future Earth. Because he’s naturally in tune with more a good guys vs. bad guys scenario, he wasn’t pleased to learn that the Marshal, played by guest-starred-in-everything-ITC-made Paul Whitsun-Jones, is the villain, and forces one of his soldiers to lie to the Doctor about Jo being safely in a hospital on Solos. This might have been more his speed had it been a story where the earth soldiers are trying to save the Solonians from a bizarre and frightening mutation, but the story is instead strongly hinting that the mutations are caused by the humans…
But I thought this was much more interesting than he did. I was pleased to see a couple of good actors who’d done Who before and would be back again in the future. Geoffrey Palmer is in part one, and then his character seems to gets assassinated just so the budget could extend to another guest star, George Pravda. The real surprise, though, and it’s a very pleasant one, is that Rick James, seen in the picture above as a guard named Cotton, is nowhere near as bad as his reputation holds. I’m not saying the man’s an Olivier or anything, but he used to show up on those lists that Who fans used to obsess in making when the show was off the air, about the worst performances in the show. Since there honestly weren’t very many actors of color hired for British television during the early seventies – a topic addressed in a very good feature included on this DVD – it was always unfortunate that James got singled out for brickbats when just about every guest actor in “The Claws of Axos” was a hundred times more annoying.
“A Surfeit of H2O” isn’t just writer Colin Finbow’s only Avengers credit; it’s his only credit, period, for any ongoing TV series, according to IMDB. He’d previously written an ITV play of the week, and would later write and direct some other obscure films, including the all-but-forgotten British adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1972.
To prep our son for this episode, I first let him know what surfeit means, and then what H2O is. Starting from scratch this time. I also reminded him that The Avengers is full of eccentrics. Noel Purcell plays one this time out who’s getting ready for the next Great Flood, building an ark, shouting “Hallelujah” in every scene, and writing letters to the Times. We also get another great only-in-Avengerland business, a winery called Grannie Gregson’s Glorious Grogs, which is a front for villainy.
Unfortunately, all the prep in the world didn’t keep him from getting downright angry with this story. The villain, blessed with the comic book name of Dr. Sturm, has built a weather machine and can create torrential rains over a desired location instantly. We don’t learn this plan until nearly the end, when he’s got Mrs. Peel captive in a massive hydraulic vegetable press, which was too cruel a trap for his liking. He never did learn to love the over-the-top cliffhanger traps of Batman, you may recall. The climactic fight scene, in the rain-lashed courtyard, went some way toward saving a little bit of happiness, but honestly, the fight’s a little spoiled by Purcell bellowing “Hallelujah!” every three seconds.
Apart from Purcell, there are a few notable guest stars in this one, including Talfryn Thomas and Geoffrey Palmer, each of whom we’ve seen briefly in small roles in season seven of Doctor Who. We’ll see them both again in Who before the end of the year. Sue Lloyd, who seems to have made it into most of ITC’s action-adventure shows of the day (and was a regular in one, The Baron), plays the villains’ receptionist. Even diabolical masterminds like Dr. Sturm must maintain the illusion of being a respectable businessman.
Incidentally, this was one of five episodes that were not shown on ABC in the original US purchase of the series. I think that only 21 were shown because ABC dropped all their black and white programming at the end of August 1966, but I wonder who made the decision which five wouldn’t make the cut. “A Touch of Brimstone,” famously, never aired on the network for content reasons, but somebody must have made similar decisions about the other four. For whatever reason, this story apparently wasn’t shown in America until it was offered in a package for syndication in the seventies.
The guest cast starts getting whittled down pretty massively by this point. The Silurians’ plague claimed Major Baker in the previous episode. This time, both Geoffrey Palmer’s and Peter Miles’ characters die from it. I enjoyed the location filming, which was done in late 1969 around Marylebone train station in London, and sees lots of commuters succumbing to the virus after Palmer’s character senselessly takes a train back to his ministry office despite what he’d learned in the previous episode.
Our son was very attentive this morning, and that’s a little surprising considering how very measured and slow this episode is. The scenes of the Doctor and Liz working in the lab are quite long; you can’t imagine modern television spending so much time on quiet scenes of characters mixing drugs and testing them on blood samples under a microscope. They really work; Jon Pertwee and Caroline John really sold just how heavy and critical their work is.
Still, a little levity was needed after such a dark half-hour. Having received a fright when the Silurians attack the Doctor to stop the spread of the cure he’s found, he’s kicking back in front of the TV with something much lighter now: Disney’s cartoon Robin Hood.
Another reason I think that Carey Blyton’s music for this story is the second worst in all of Doctor Who – his score for “Death to the Daleks” is even lousier – is that it completely and totally undermines the drama in a critical scene.
Here’s the situation: some of the regulars get to be bored in the conference room waiting for news from the caves, while the Brigadier, Captain Hawkins, and some men wait in a trap, and the Doctor negotiates for peace with the Silurians’ old leader. Meanwhile, a young and hotheaded Silurian decides to just infect Major Baker with a virulent plague that the Silurians used, hundreds of millions of years ago, to wipe out apes, and let him go.
The scenes of Norman Jones being cornered by the shadowy, clawed reptile-people are incredibly well-shot, especially for Doctor Who, where the unflattering and harsh studio lighting and unforgiving videotape often show off all the cracks and flaws. This should have been a scene that, like the occasional attacks in caves from Sleestak in Land of the Lost, would have had our son hiding behind the sofa.
But it isn’t, because the music in the scene tells the audience “this is a comedy.” Timothy Combe has the actors standing in menacing shadow preparing to give children nightmares, and the music is some clown with an oboe playing Yakety Sax. Our son laughed and laughed. We talked afterward about what was happening, in case the threat of the plague went over his head – it kind of did – but it was that stupid music. Nothing’s a threat with music like that.
Our son has grasped the main conflict in this problem very well. He even used an appropriate word: extinct. He says that the humans and the Silurians want to make each other extinct before the other wins. He sees that the Doctor is trying to make peace between the two sides, but he also has the mind of a six year-old who’s seen every other alien life form in this show trying to blow humanity up, and so he’s rooting for the Brigadier to get down there and blow up the Silurians first. But this episode ends with the Doctor thrown into a cage by the Silurians and one of them using its strange third eye to give our hero a psychic attack.
You may have noticed that my screencaps from this story show off some very woeful color. As was standard in the seventies, the BBC routinely wiped their color videotapes of stories, and this is one that was never returned in the old 625-line PAL format in color. The BBC retained 16mm black-and-white films for export, and an inferior 525-line NTSC color copy was returned in the eighties. In 1993, they mated the two, putting the color signal from the poorer copy into the better-resolution black-and-white print.
Fifteen years later, they improved on it somewhat, but it’s still notably below the quality of most of the other Pertwee serials. I believe that episode four is the poorest of the seven. There are lines of yellow across the red walls of the conference room throughout, and there’s a scene in the cyclotron room where Peter Miles is yelling at a technician, and the poor guy is under siege by a blue band of color on the wall behind him that is attacking his hair.
Episode four is also notable for introducing Geoffrey Palmer to the story. Like Fulton Mackay in the preceding episodes, Palmer was a very recognizable face to TV audiences in 1970, but his biggest roles were ahead of him. As Mackay became a big star with the sitcom Porridge later in the decade, so did Palmer, with the sitcoms The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Butterflies. Palmer plays the first of several civil servants and government types whom the Doctor, over the course of the next five seasons, gets to chew up and spit out.
We’ll take a quick break from this story and resume it over the weekend. Tomorrow night, more mean cave monsters.