Thunderbirds 2.2 – Path of Destruction (take seven hundred)

I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post tonight. I wasn’t even planning on leaving Atlanta at all until about right now. I took our son for a long, long delayed trip today, but he had a terrible time and so we left about seven hours early. How bad was it? He needed some comfort TV. The hour that provides him the most security and comfort, in all of television, is, bizarrely, this utterly, utterly ridiculous hour of Thunderbirds. We first watched it together more than five years ago, in this blog’s earliest days. He has watched it seven hundred times since.

I may exaggerate, but I’m pretty sure I’ve seen this episode, in whole or in part, more times than I have watched anything else that Gerry Anderson ever produced, combined. There have been days where he has watched it “again and again” like a toddler transfixed by Teletubbies. Now sure, it truly has been a while. Most recently, his poison is Star Wars: The Clone Wars. He got stuck into that for three and a half hours yesterday. Tonight we suggested that he pick whatever he wanted for family TV time, and we’d have sat through a couple more Clone Wars, but he immediately said “the Crablogger episode…?” Or any other episode of Thunderbirds or Thunderbirds are Go or Captain Scarlet…? “Nah, I just want to watch ‘Path of Destruction’ again.”

I love the fact that our son has his go-tos among all his desires to sample things that he doesn’t remember well. Another one is the MacGyver installment “Three For the Road”. Whenever he’s bored or indecisive and we make suggestions about something he might want to revisit, I might glance at the shelf and say “Well, we’ve got Kolchak, Land of the Lost, Logan’s Run, MacGyver…” and he’ll reply “Oooh, yeah! ‘Three For the Road’!” I might then reply “You know, there are about eighty episodes of MacGyver that we didn’t watch, you wanna try…” Nope. Never.

Like tonight. “Say, we haven’t seen ‘Attack of the Alligators’ in a while…” Nope. The kid needs his comfort TV.

Thunderbirds always got a lot of mileage from the breathtaking, unnecessary complexity of everything. This time, the crew of a runaway super-machine have been given the worst case of food poisoning on the planet by Sancho and his “wery special” concoctions from his rat-filled kitchen, and the runaway super-machine doesn’t have doors or an off switch. They’re sealed in, unconscious, while Lady Penelope and Parker get the shutdown code for the runaway super-machine’s reactor from a sleeping man while convincing him that he’s dreaming. Everything is desperately urgent but done as slowly as possible. They don’t even get the guy to give his explanation to Virgil and Brains live; they record him, go outside, and then play the tape.

Seven hundred times I have watched this tomfoolery, brilliantly made tomfoolery though it may be, and it never occurred to me before tonight that somehow it’s the middle of the night in Britain and noon in South America.

Space: 1999 1.8 – Dragon’s Domain

Well, here’s a surprise. I figured since the kid insisted we watch Space: 1999 from time to time, I’d do up its most infamous child-scaring episode right, and we watched it together late at night with all the lights out. “Dragon’s Domain” is the one with the great screaming tentacled monster with the headlamp eye that skeletonizes its victims. But our boy is a much older boy than the boy who was once so very bothered by many of the monsters we’ve seen together. He was flatly and firmly unimpressed. So nine’s too old. You got kids of your own? Throw this at ’em earlier.

The kid said that he liked precisely two things about it. Recovering from getting clobbered the second time by the “Saint George” character who insists on fighting his dragon, Alan asks “What’s that guy got against me?” And among the models in the spaceship graveyard, our son spotted the same ship used by Julian Glover’s people in the previous episode, “Alpha Child.” That’s it.

But I thought this was the best of the first eight by a mile. I really like its scope. Much of it is a flashback to an incident in 1996-97 where “Saint George” takes off on a 14-month flight to visit a new planet in the solar system, along with Michael Sheard and two women. They find a graveyard of other spacecraft, but “Saint George” can’t get out of the cockpit while Sheard and the ladies are horrifically killed by the monster. The dude escapes, jettisoning the bulk of his ship, makes it home, and nobody believes him. 800 days into Moonbase Alpha’s journey, in between galaxies and nowhere near anything, “Saint George” has a nightmare of the monster again, because the big dude got hungry and parked his spiderweb of spaceships in the moon’s path. Seems a bit unlikely that a big dude powerful enough to do that could get whipped by an axe to the headlamp, but there you go.

Here’s the other thing I really liked, and it’s the show that Gerry Anderson and Lew Grade should have given us instead of this silly series. Douglas Wilmer plays the commissioner of Earth’s unified space program, and there’s a hell of a show here about putting together the funds to explore our own solar system, and finding seven or eight derelict alien spaceships on the other side of Pluto, with or without a big space monster. It’s somewhere that Anderson kind of looked at five years previously in his strange feature film Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, but abandoned in favor of weird post-Kubrick metaphysics and philosophy about the strangeness of space. There’s even a little cameo by Bob Sherman, who’d later play the CIA guy in The Sandbaggers, as a newsreader for a show about the space program. I just think it’s a huge missed opportunity, because honestly, the nuts and bolts of how Moonbase Alpha got started is far, far more interesting to me than black suns and space rocks and rules of Luton.

But maybe I wouldn’t be focused on that had the big monster scared the pants off our son like it was meant to.

Space: 1999 1.5 – Death’s Other Dominion

So Space: 1999 has joined our son’s other little rotation of shows that we occasionally watch together in the afternoons, which reminds me of just how incredibly spoiled for choice the kids of today are. Remember all those afternoons in the late seventies when you felt like putting down the toys and books or coming in from outside playing for some TV time, and you just had to cross your fingers there was something better than F Troop on? Children today will never know our ennui.

Anyway, I decided against writing about the other shows we occasionally look at together, in part because who needs the extra work, and in part because Space: 1999 is usually so uninspiringly stupid. Not even a groovy guest star might have tempted me. He and I could watch BRIAN BLESSED in anything and I don’t have to write about it. I could even pass on the opportunity to make a joke about the possibility of spending eight hundred-plus years in the company of Valerie Leon, eternally thirty years young. Or a joke about one actor’s obvious hairpiece, or another about carved from ice on a distant planet or not, these dudes have the most 1970s pad I’ve ever seen.

No, I mention “Death’s Other Dominion” today for another reason. In this story, the Alphans deal with a time warp or something not really explained and meet the members of a lost expedition from Earth. From the Alphans perspective, all contact was lost just fifteen years previously, but for the people of Ultima Thule, it’s been about 880 years and they have not aged a day. Experiments to understand their immortality have left some of their number slowly vegetating in a distant cave as “the revered ones,” their minds completely gone as they twitch silently or rock side to side. And this really got under the kid’s skin in an unexpected and devilish way. Just before Tubi took an ad break, our son got up and went to the other sofa, eyes wide, as he said “This has really, really creeped me out.”

He was still so bothered by the implications and the visuals that when the episode comes to its thunderously memorable and incredibly grisly climax, he was less bothered by that freaky moment than the shuffling, mindless men and women walking back and forth in an ice cave, forever. I remembered the ending from when I first saw this one as a teenager – it foreshadows the finale of Raiders of the Lost Ark in a chilling way – but had completely forgotten the cave of the revered ones. Funny what sticks with you. This might stick with him for quite some time.

Space: 1999 1.1 – Breakaway

Two nights ago, the episode of Xena that we watched had a really cheesy and corny ending with our heroines talking about how they’re lost without each other. The kid gagged, and, in that kid way, refused to stop talking about how corny it was. He asked Marie and me whether we’d ever seen an ending as corny as that. That’s not the sort of list either of us make, so we couldn’t answer.

But then I remembered. Ah yes, “The Rules of Luton” on Space: 1999. It ends, as much TV in the seventies did, with people smiling and cracking a joke, this one coming at the end of fifty minutes of our heroes being on the receiving end of three pissed off telepathic trees and forced to reenact the plot of the Star Trek episode “Arena.” Space: 1999 was always stupid, but the second season, when they tried to be as much like Trek as the law would allow as they boldly went where no moon had gone before, was really, really stupid. And then that episode ended with Martin Landau yukking about picking flowers.

(To drive home the point, when I say telepathic trees, I’m not kidding. This wasn’t stuffing Stanley Adams into a carrot costume, this was a photo of three trees with a actor’s voiceover.)

My story told, I thought that would be the end of Space: 1999 around these parts, but yesterday, something wild happened. The “how does this thing make any money” streaming channel Tubi TV announced it had acquired Dr. Slump. We live in an age of wonders. I opened up Tubi, saw that Arale-chan ain’t there yet, but lo and behold, there is 1999. So I called down the kid to show him the trees and the ending, which was stupid, but less corny and less freeze-frame-smiling than I remembered it, and the kid had two things to say. He wanted a toy of the Eagle transporter, and the title sequence was awesome. Correct, in fairness, on both counts.

But then I said “That title sequence is good, but the first season title sequence is iconic. Check this out.” And his brain exploded. He demanded that we watch the first episode.

I tried to say “Son, I’m telling you, this show is really stupid,” and what he said was conveyed quite silently and I heard it very loudly. What he said was “Old man, stop it. I just saw explosions and cool spaceships and rocking guitar and fast editing and people screaming and the moon being BLOWN OUT OF EARTH’S ORBIT and you are to STOP AT ONCE showing me girls with swords in New Zealand and GIVE ME EXPLODING MOON SPACESHIP ACTION IMMEDIATELY.”

So I said we’d have time Thursday afternoon. And here we are.

He really liked it and wants to see more. Which is reasonable; I enjoyed this from time to time when I was a kid, too. But the first episode is very slow, even by 1999 standards. It’s a long, long investigation into the strange deaths of several astronauts, and none of it is too scientifically ridiculous for a while. The cast is kind of solid: season one features Martin Landau, Barbara Bain, and Barry Morse as the three leads. Morse is as awesome as he always was, just a terrific, watchable actor in anything. Prentis Hancock, Zienia Merton, and Nick Tate are the first season’s B-team. Guest stars this time include Roy Dotrice, Philip Madoc (for a single scene), and Shane Rimmer. I was saying just last month how Rimmer could usually be heard, uncredited, in shows from the period, and here he is without a credit today.

The explosions are well up to the impossibly high standards of Gerry Anderson’s visual effects wizards, the design is very good, and it’s all just so slow and lifeless and, most of all, dumb. But the space disaster business genuinely pleased the kid and he wants to see more. He might really, really start liking it when weirdo aliens show up. I’ll make sure all the lights are out when we get to the big tentacled thing that everybody remembers in “Dragon’s Domain.”

Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which was made under the title Doppelganger in 1969, isn’t a great movie. In fact, it rivals Disney’s The Black Hole as one of the silliest and least scientifically plausible films ever made. But there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as a fantastic musical score by Barry Gray, terrific visual effects, and one heck of a good cast.

Included in the cast, in a tiny bit part, is Nicholas Courtney. And, for regular readers of this blog, I’m delighted to say that our son recognized him even without the Brigadier’s distinctive mustache. I punched the air.

He also figured out very, very quickly that this movie was made by Gerry Anderson’s team. It perhaps helped a little that the look, feel, and sound of Anderson was fresh in his mind; last night, he rewatched the Thunderbirds episode “The Cham-Cham.” Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was directed by Robert Parrish, but the cinematography is by Anderson regular John Read, and this looks precisely like an episode of one of the Supermarionation series, only with live actors. I think it helped our son with a feeling of comfort. Journey is fairly justifiably accused of following in the footsteps of 2001, but the working-man’s-world of the near future in that movie is its own thing. This is the world of Captain Scarlet, right down to the camera decisions to spend agonizing minutes panning across control rooms while nobody really moves, focusing at dials counting down, and getting emergency crews into position for crash landing airplanes.

Adding a little bit to the Scarlet similarity, NASA’s liaison with the EuroSEC space program is played by Ed Bishop, who was the voice of Captain Blue. Other small parts are played by Cy Grant (Lt. Green), and Jeremy Wilkin (Captain Ochre). Wilkin passed away last month; we’ll see him again in Doctor Who next weekend.

The film’s leads are played by Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Lynn Loring, and Patrick Wymark. Backing them up is an all-star cast of recognizable faces from film and TV, including George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal, Philip Madoc, sixties spy movie regular Loni von Friedl, and the great Herbert Lom, who plays a foreign agent with a camera in his artificial eye to snap secret photos of the plans for Sun Probe.

Unfortunately, two big problems are working against this awesome cast. First off, this movie is paced more like a glacier than just about anything I can think of. The rocket doesn’t launch until halfway through the film, and twice we have to mark the passage of time with slow and trippy psychedelic sequences. A big problem upfront is that Patrick Wymark’s character, the director of EuroSEC, has to find the money to fund his mission to a new planet on the far side of the sun. Agonizing minutes are spent worrying and arguing about money, instead of just having NASA immediately pay for it in exchange for sending an American astronaut on the mission.

The astronaut’s marriage is in trouble. Mercifully, Wikipedia tells me that they chopped out a massive subplot about his wife’s affair, otherwise we’d never have got into space. Either the astronaut can’t have a baby because of space radiation or because his wife is secretly taking birth control pills. Neither really matters much. But they keep introducing new elements and complications. Ian Hendry, who is awesome here, is out of shape and shouldn’t go on the mission. This is all interesting character development, but none of it ends up mattering.

It’s like the Andersons and scriptwriter Donald James were writing an interesting prime-time drama about the machinations of life among astronauts getting ready for a mission, and were told instead to do it all in forty-five minutes and then do something with the rocket and another planet. So you’ve got spies, a broken marriage, a physicist who’s not fit to fly, budget troubles, security leaks… Wymark had played the lead in The Plane Makers and The Power Game, a backstabbing boardroom drama that ran for seven seasons earlier in the sixties. I think Journey could have made a good show like that. I don’t think our son would have had all the neat rockets and crash landings to keep his attention, but I’d probably give it a spin.

Or possibly not. Bishop and Sewell were pretty boring in the TV series UFO, which the Andersons made soon after this.

The plot of the movie is about the mission and a mystery. Why did Thinnes and Hendry turn back and return to Earth halfway through their six week mission, when Thinnes insists they landed on the hidden planet on the far side of the sun? The answer won’t surprise anybody who read this chestnut of a story when they were a little kid thumbing through schlocky pulp sci-fi from the thirties, but I enjoyed the way that Read and Parrish kept finding hints for the audience in the form of mirrors. If you like watching Gerry Anderson’s work or a cast full of great actors, this isn’t a bad way to spend a hundred minutes. If you’re looking for an even remotely plausible science fiction adventure, though… you’re really, really going to have to check your disbelief at the door.

Today’s feature was a gift from Nikka Valken, and I invite you all to check out her Society 6 page and buy some of her fun artwork! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

Updates on Thunderbirds, Old and New

Since this blog mostly has both eyes in television’s past, here’s an update we might have missed. The new series of Thunderbirds are Go will begin broadcasting in the UK this weekend, starting Saturday the 22nd with two episodes, and continuing through the end of the year. In the US, these thirteen half-hours will be available for streaming to Amazon Prime members starting on November 4. We’ll be a bit behind the curve with these, as I am old-fashioned and like shiny plastic disks, but look forward to seeing them in 2017.

Speaking of Thunderbirds, I wanted to draw your attention to one of the sites on the little linkroll to the left. Security Hazard is the unofficial Gerry Anderson blog, and one of its weekly features is an astonishingly detailed and image-packed series of episode studies for the original 32 Thunderbirds episodes, spotting reused props and puppets, material shot at different times, and analyzing what footage might have been in the original half-hour versions of the episodes before they were expanded to a full hour. It’s done with lots of love and humor but must be an absolute bear to produce, so do check out this great work and give the writer a thumbs-up so he’ll keep going; this is the sort of incredibly intensive writing that would almost guarantee burnout if I was the fellow trying to do it.

In other quickie updates about material that’s been mentioned in these pages…

* I did buy the Electra Woman & Dyna Girl movie. It’s not suitable for little kids, so we won’t be looking at it together for this blog. It’s not awful, but it’s not making anybody’s top twenty list.

* If Amazon has made any kind of announcement about picking up that Sigmund and the Sea Monsters pilot, I haven’t seen it.

* It looks like Chattanooga is not actually getting the Fathom release of “The Power of the Daleks,” so we’ll probably just start watching that on BBC America on November 19 until the Region 2 DVD gets here.

That’s all for now. More to come tomorrow, and, as four kids in Tranquility Forest used to say, “Don’t forget… to write. We love to hear… from you!”

The Secret Service 1.13 – More Haste Less Speed

The Secret Service may have been uneven, but it ended on a high note with this fun romp written by Tony Barwick. In it, Father Unwin and Matthew match wits with four scheming, barely competent, double-crossing criminals who are trying to get hold of a pair of counterfeiting plates. The shrunken, quarter-sized Model T ends up in a race against a motorcycle, an ambulance, and a beat-up old biplane that the pilot can’t actually fly, and our son absolutely adored it. He laughed all through the story.

So why’d it end so soon? All of the ITC series of the 1960s and 1970s, including Anderson’s puppet adventures, were bankrolled by Sir Lew Grade, and his battle plan was always to produce large batches of episodes, more than the six or thirteen a season that was typical for British television, to sell to as many territories as possible. Even if a US network didn’t bite – and they often didn’t – he could try to sell the program to the many independent stations across the country, along with the networks of many other nations.

Preproduction of The Secret Service began in the spring of 1968, and filming started in August of that year. Grade saw a test screening of episode one in December and pulled the plug, believing that the spy fad had passed and American audiences would not understand Stanley Unwin’s gobbledygook. That nobody understood his gobbledygook, that’s the whole point, seems to have missed him. So production ended in January 1969 with the conclusion of this episode. They really went to town on the location work for this one, going out on a high note, and then the shows just sat in the vault until September.

The Secret Service was finally broadcast nine months after they finished production, in only three of the (then) thirteen commercial television regions of the UK. It was only rarely repeated, very little merchandise was released, and it wasn’t shown in many other countries. More than a year after the last episode aired, the comic Countdown carried a short-lived Secret Service strip, which probably confused a whole lot of kids who thought this might be a forthcoming program instead of one that had been axed before they knew it was around.

It was the final puppet series for Anderson for many years, and, at this point, the last of his programs we plan to watch at this blog. I wouldn’t say no to a gift of Stingray or the movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, but Daniel’s far too young for UFO or The Protectors, and I’ve got no interest in any of the other shows. But Anderson’s influence extends far beyond the shows that he personally worked on…

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.12 – May-Day, May-Day!

It breaks my heart, this show is so uneven. This episode is dull, dull, dull. Almost the whole thing is Father Unwin landing a plane. Even Daniel said “I can’t wait until this is over.”

One of the live-action shots promised better. There’s a neat cut from a puppet at the front door of a model police station turning when he hears a car coming, and then we see a car barreling down the road with an assassin hanging out the window firing at him. It looked awesome. Daniel is, of course, a little too young for Gerry Anderson’s later series The Protectors, which began a couple of years after this, but I hope to watch it soon and see some fun seat-of-yer-pants excitement like that.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.11 – School for Spies

“Wow, this one’s really good,” I said to myself. “I wonder whether Donald James wrote this one as well.” He did.

It’s not just me who perceives a jump in quality with James’s scripts for this show. Daniel really liked this one, which sees an opposite power to the heroes of BISHOP. It’s run by a villain called the Arch-Deacon and he has a gang of criminal mercenaries dressed as priests operating out of a seminary and blowing up shipments of explosives and bombing experimental weapons testing facilities. These are accomplished with the usual awesome visuals of Gerry Anderson’s pyrotechnics team.

I did think it was a shame that the Arch-Deacon was apprehended in the end – Anderson’s very best shows had good recurring villains, of course – but the show ended with a real question. Did the Arch-Deacon actually know about BISHOP, or was his choice of a clerical shtick a big coincidence?

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.10 – The Cure

Two things to note about this one: most interestingly from a story standpoint, this is the first occasion in which Father Unwin actually has a proper confrontation with an enemy agent. This fellow, a foreign agent called Sakov, is a proper, formidable enemy, who deduces that Unwin is part of some British intelligence service, and not a doddering old priest. Had the show continued, I could imagine this character returning for another case or two. I bet that the large Anderson fan community has come up with a fic or two about that.

The other thing is a very funny little sight gag. Father Unwin miniaturises himself and his car, Gabriel, because a garage door is locked and the only way out is through a regular door. The Century 21 team built a quarter-size Model T and drove it along some country lanes for a couple of minutes, leading to the inevitable guy on a bicycle riding into a hedge. That was, of course, Daniel’s favorite moment of the story.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

The Secret Service 1.9 – The Deadly Whisper

This was much, much better than the previous episode. Marie was out while we watched it, and our son yelled when she returned “You missed an amazing one!”

I wouldn’t go quite that far, but “The Deadly Whisper” is pretty entertaining. The story by Donald James has neat sonic weapons, top secret aircraft, nasty bad guys, and the Captain Black puppet pressed into service again. James was just a really good writer for these light espionage shows. By chance, two nights ago, we watched a Jason King that he did that guest-starred Roger Delgado.

There are also a few shots that rival the ones from a few episodes back where they filmed the Matthew puppet in somebody’s back garden. They don’t look anywhere as ridiculous as those, but they have the Matthew puppet hiding and observing the sonic weapon from the family’s doghouse, hanging out with a bulldog! To be clear, it looks as unreal as the sequence from “The Feathered Spies,” but not comical. The director, Leo Eaton, framed the shots much, much closer in than Ian Spurrier did in the previous story, and didn’t hold them anywhere as long as the ones that I’m still complaining about, so while they look bizarre, they’re only onscreen for brief moments.

I’m not quite sure that I believe the science of how the villains are defeated, but it did give me a chance to try and explain the speed of sound and what “Mach 3” means to my son. It may be a bit over his head, but he was intrigued and there were explosions, so we had a pretty good time with this “amazing” adventure.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 2 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)