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.)

The Secret Service 1.8 – Errand of Mercy

And so, very early in the show’s run, we get the obligatory “it was all a dream” episode. Tony Barwick wrote an awful lot of these for Gerry Anderson. This one started out quite whimsical, with Father Unwin’s car, Gabriel, flying to Africa to deliver medical supplies, but then they land in darkest Africa and everything goes to pieces. Yes, the natives are restless, they wear colorful masks and they have shields and spears.

It’s not just the unhappy and unfortunate old stereotype of the tribe that’s awful. When you’re watching something from this era, you grudgingly have to bite your lip because it’s old and insensitive. But this actually compounds it: Unwin’s able to communicate with the tribesmen by way of his Unwinese gobbledygook language.

The story goes that one of the reasons Lew Grade canceled the production of The Secret Service is that the potential American audience wouldn’t understand Unwinese. The counter-argument is that nobody’s supposed to understand his fast-talking palare; that’s the point. But the real problem with the way that Unwinese is presented in the show is this: it takes half the scene to realize he’s talking his gafflebam. It just sounds like mumbling, which is amplified by the other character saying “I’m sorry? I don’t understand…” If it was a little more clear, then everybody watching wouldn’t just be in on the joke, they’d realize that a joke was being told.

But having the ooga-booga natives being so primitive that the only English that they can understand is that fractured balderdash… that’s pretty offensive. I’m certainly going to have a talk with Daniel about these outdated depictions.

(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 1.7 – Recall to Service

“This one was totally awesome,” Daniel told me. It’s much more five year-old-friendly than any of the previous episodes, and is full of tanks and explosions. It’s very reminiscent of the Captain Scarlet episode “Point 783,” and I said that even before one of the Spectrum Angel jets appears in the sky to try and blast the runaway “Aquatank.”

But it’s much more friendly to grownups as well; nothing in this episode is as painfully obvious as is often the case in these installments. I enjoyed seeing Father Unwin in uniform, and I liked the way all the base personnel are suspicious about what the “padre” is up to. There’s a really great bit where he has to drive Gabriel across the minefields and race the tank to its new target, explosions all around it. This is easily the best of the first seven episodes so far.

(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 1.6 – Hole in One

Two episodes ago, the problem was that only a small child couldn’t figure out how secrets were being leaked to the enemy. Evidently, that was still too tricky, and so in this episode, they show us in the pre-credits scene that golf balls have tiny tape recorders inside them, and “the opposition” have rented a house near the 15th hole of a private course, and rigged up a series of chutes to collect the balls so that they can collect information that a general discusses on the course.

The story’s by Anderson veteran Shane Rimmer, and it’s a cute idea, but once you give that sort of thing away in the first minute and leave another twenty-three for the puppets to figure it out, you’re leaving a lot of room for five year-olds who don’t understand golf plenty of opportunities to ask what in the world is happening and “was that a hole in one?” There were, at least, a couple of explosions to keep him interested.

(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 1.5 – Last Train to Bufflers Halt

How interesting! This is the only episode of The Secret Service that I had seen prior to obtaining this set, and I completely misremembered the character of the old man who maintains the closed railway station. I recalled him as being a wildly caricatured comedy yokel like Jeremiah from the Thunderbirds episode “The Imposters,” but he’s much more down to earth than that. He has a very broad “old rural man” voice (“Mummerset,” possibly?), and somehow knows how to start and accelerate a train but not how to slow it down, but he’s not ridiculous.

The story by Tony Barwick is so light that it borders on inconsequential. There’s no sense of urgency in the attempted hijacking of a million pounds. The criminals don’t even call for their getaway truck until after they’ve successfully diverted the stolen train to the disused platform. Daniel really enjoyed it, but this is a pretty slight 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.)