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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts three and four)

This season is flawed in many ways, but one that irks me is that we keep hearing about plots and subplots that are far more interesting than what we actually see. The story of some people from the Andromeda Galaxy stealing secrets from [REDACTED], the greatest information source in recorded history, and being forced into hundreds of years of cryosleep is much, much more interesting than the Doctor’s latest adventure. Though I really do love how the Doctor talks and talks and talks and completely fails to convince the robot to see his point of view, and Sabalom Glitz stumbles in, sizes up the situation, and instantly cons the robot into falling for his scheme.

Our son mainly liked the robot stuff, but he got a great laugh out of Joan Sims yelling at everybody when they can’t decide which way down a corridor to stampede. Older fans, for whom this show is very often such SRS BSNSS, have always hated a tiny bit where a supporting player gets a face full of slime like a contestant on an ’80s Nickelodeon game show. I always figured that was for the kids, but ours was completely indifferent to it.

I have a very odd little memory about “Trial” that I feel like sharing. In the summer of 1986, the letters page of Doctor Who Magazine printed several notes from readers speculating and passing along rumors of the new season. There was one which stood out, and this isn’t an exact quote as I don’t have the issue anymore, but one part of the letter went something like:

I have heard it is to be totally modernised, whatever that means. (Theme music by Frankie Goes to Hollywood?)

I’m sure the writer didn’t intend to start a rumor that Frankie Goes to Hollywood was doing the theme music to Doctor Who, but he offered that as an example of what “totally modernised” could mean.

So come August, and I was in a fan club in Atlanta called Terminus TARDIS that met at Emory University’s White Hall and showed old episodes and had a monthly newsletter. And just before the season started, whoever wrote the season 23 preview column ran that example as fact: the new theme music is by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. In actuality, it was by Dominic Glynn and I like it a lot more than the previous “starfield” music.

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Doctor Who: The Trial of a Time Lord (parts one and two)

So now we’re in September 1986. Doctor Who was unfortunately back down to 25 minute episodes, and more unfortunately still shot entirely on videotape. Fans have been Monday-morning-quarterbacking season 23 more than any other point in the program’s history and saying what they would’ve done to prove the show’s worth in the face of its postponement and newfound hostility from the higher-ups at the BBC. My simple take, assuming anything was possible: instead of 14 half-hour episodes, seven one-hour episodes, each self-contained, on film.

Certainly instead of being so foolish as to reflect in the narrative that the show was “on trial,” I’d have forged ahead confident that the battle was won and the show had survived. That’s PR 101, but the producer’s instincts were at a pretty low point in 1986, and his script editor was so dispirited that he was just months from a flounce so spectacular that he hasn’t worked in TV since. So we’ve got a script by the amazing Robert Holmes that’s full of lines like “Be silent!” and “You must think me a fool!” among many other issues.

Joining the proceedings in weeks one and two, we’ve got Michael Jayston as a rival Time Lord who’s got it in for the Doctor, along with Tom Chadbon as a guard in an underground city, and Tony Selby as a new recurring character, the “lovable rogue,” it says here, Sabalom Glitz. The most interesting casting choice is Joan Sims, best known for playing daffy old ladies in comedy films, as the leader of a tribe of peasants.

The story was witty enough for our son to enjoy it, and he liked the two big robots a lot. Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant have a much more relaxed and friendly rapport in this story than we’ve previously seen, and there’s a genuinely great scene in part one where the Doctor tries, and fails, to reassure Peri that she shouldn’t be sad to learn that Earth, two million years in the future, has been wiped out, because all planets and stars find an end eventually. I really enjoy that moment. Like a lot of Doctor Who, it starts well for me and runs out of steam pretty quickly. The problem is that unlike a lot of Doctor Who, this continues running out of steam a lot longer than it usually does.

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The Goodies 2.8 – Come Dancing

If our son was muted and polite about that Ace of Wands adventure, he was screamingly happy with another new-to-him escapade with The Goodies tonight. This time, we watched 1971’s “Come Dancing,” and he prepped for it by rewatching two of the episodes we’d watched previously this morning before I went to work.

He chuckled and giggled all the way through it, but I thought the climactic silly film bit wasn’t half as funny as the middle-of-the-show silly film bit, and that wasn’t half as funny as watching the guys step back to let June Whitfield and Joan Sims steal the whole show. They play rival gangsters stepping on each others’ dancing shoes to control the fixed ballroom dancing circuit. Whitfield spits out an amazing paragraph of gobbledygook when her subterfuge is revealed, and Sims’ character, Delia Capone, is like a villain from a John Wagner 2000 AD comedy.

Marie wondered whether this was originally made for 3D as the color is slightly off, with pink and blue bands occasionally overlapping the actors. It turns out that “Come Dancing” was one of the episodes that the BBC wiped, as they did back then. The print we have today was made from mating a decent quality black-and-white telerecording for overseas sales to a long-forgotten and beat-up color videotape that somebody at BBC Scotland had made of a 1972 repeat of this installment, discovered 26 years later. I remain amazed both at how good of a job the artists and technicians who perform these restorations do, and how frustrating it is that there’s a need for their services at all.

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What We’re Not Watching: Worzel Gummidge

We’re not watching Worzel Gummidge for our blog, and that’s a shame. Three months ago, I wrote another entry in this occasional series, about The Space Giants, a program that’s never been available in English on home video. Worzel Gummidge has been released, but the DVDs that you can track down from Amazon UK have apparently been made from very poor condition prints. Since I’ve read so many complaints about their quality, I’ve decided against making the investment, though I hope somebody will remaster and reissue the show in the next few years.

I did see about ten episodes of the series quite some time ago, back in the VHS tape trading days. I was skeptical, as perhaps you might be. It’s a children’s series starring Jon Pertwee as a scarecrow. But holy anna, it’s so much more than that. This program is absolutely intoxicating, charming, anarchic, and completely hilarious.

Worzel Gummidge is set in a world where anything that has been built to look like a human can come to life. That includes scarecrows, mannequins, fairground aunt sallies, the statue of a busty woman on the prow of a ship, you name it. Mayhem ensues. Outright lunacy.

Two kids, played by Charlotte Coleman and Jeremy Austin, get let in on the secret: there’s a strange tramp called the Crowman (Geoffrey Bayldon) who goes around building scarecrows and giving them life. The scarecrows have laws, rules, regulations, and different heads for different occasions. Worzel Gummidge, dirty and uneducated unless he’s wearing the correct head, dreams of the good life, a fine house, a cup of tea and a slice of cake, and the hand of the beautiful Aunt Sally. She is a scheming, double-crossing, jealous, manipulative masterpiece of TV villainy played by Una Stubbs, and she only has eyes for Worzel when it suits her.

As the show went on, a who’s who of British comedy made thunderously funny appearances, either as shocked upper-class toffs or other creatures with weird life that upend everything. Joan Sims shows up frequently in the first two series as Mrs. Bloomsbury-Barton, and with a name like that, you know a dirty, horrible scarecrow is going to destroy her garden fetes. Other people cruising in for craziness include Bernard Cribbins, Barbara Windsor, Bill Maynard, Connie Booth, Billy Connolly, John Le Mesurier, and Talfyrn Thomas.

One of the UK’s commercial channels, Southern TV, made 31 episodes between 1979-81. The whole show was made on 16 mm film on location in various villages in rural England, so it doesn’t have that stagey videotape feel. I think almost the entire series was directed by James Hill, who’s probably best known for directing Born Free and the 1971 Black Beauty, but also a lot of ITC dramas and some of The Avengers.

After Southern TV was closed down in a franchise change with the ITV network, the show was shelved for a while, and TVNZ then continued the program with Hill, Pertwee, and Stubbs with 22 episodes of Worzel Gummidge Down Under from 1987-89, but there was a different Crowman in New Zealand, played by Bruce Phillips. I’ve never seen any of these, but understand that they’re lacking a little of the original’s spark, possibly because they had different writers and they didn’t have the same deep bench of well-known comedy guest stars.

Anyway, my interest was reignited when I read about Stuart Manning’s The Worzel Book, published by a small specialist company in the UK called Miwk. The book had enough rave reviews for me to take the risk, and it turns out to be one of the best books about TV that I’ve ever read, dense with photographs, interviews, and background information. Click the image above to get a copy from Miwk yourself. If this book doesn’t leave you badly wanting to see this series, something may well be wrong with you.

Unfortunately, the only way to get all 53 episodes in one place is to shell out a pretty fair chunk of change (£69.95 now) for an out-of-print box set, and if my old VHS boots and the samples you can see on YouTube are any indication, the picture and sound quality is just too poor at that price, especially with cash a little tight at home right now. My fingers are crossed that somebody will remaster the program very soon, because I’d love to watch it with our son before he gets too old and jaded. Anytime between now and 2022 will do just fine. How about it, Network? Simply? Do it fer ol’ Worzel!

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One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing (1975)

We had a little trouble watching One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, a badly, badly dated 1975 Disney film. It does not seem to have ever been issued on Region 1 DVD, so I picked up a used Region 2 copy which turned out to be very badly damaged. I guess I should have checked it when it arrived a couple of months ago, huh? After a few minutes fighting with it, I rented it from Amazon and it’s not quite fair to say that all was well.

Now, if you’ve never seen this silly film, all the ingredients are there for what should have been a fun and splendid little show. Helen Hayes and Peter Ustinov headlined a remarkably impressive cast of British comedy actors, at least a dozen of whom I recognized when I read the cast list. It’s a film I’ve always been aware of because, since I was a little kid in the 1970s obsessed with dinosaurs, I even had the View-Master reels for it, even though the dinosaur in question is just a long-dead skeleton. Plus it has the iconic, very odd imagery of a dinosaur skeleton being driven through peasoup-foggy London.

So here’s how the plot goes: Derek Nimmo plays Lord Southmere, and he flees from China in the 1920s with a microfilm containing the top-secret “Lotus X.” With Chinese agents in hot pursuit as he arrives in London, he rushes into the Natural History Museum to escape, hides the film on a skeleton, and, chancing upon his old nanny, Hettie, while semi-conscious, he tells her how vital it is, before the Chinese villain, posing as a doctor, takes him away.

Hayes, Joan Sims, and Natasha Pyne play the principal nannies, and Ustinov, Clive Revill, and Bernard Bresslaw play the main Chinese characters, and so it’s gangs of nannies and Chinamen in a romp through the fog-bound streets of London, and, the following morning, into a cute little village, with a stolen dinosaur on the back of a coal-powered haulage lorry.

However, the film never gels and elements of it are quite awful. Of lesser concern: the fantastic cast is badly misused, just cameos, really. How anybody can, in all good conscience, assemble a group that includes Jon Pertwee, Roy Kinnear, Joan Hickson, Angus Lennie, Max Wall, Hugh Burden, and Joss Ackland and give none of them anything of substance to do (Pertwee would, later in life, call these sorts of glorified cameos “spit and cough parts”) is beyond me. Bresslaw, a great comic talent, is totally wasted, cast here only because the man was a giant and towered over everybody else.

But the main problem is the yellowface acting from Ustinov, Revill, and Bresslaw, and it’s a big, big problem. Even accepting that it was the seventies and quite a lot of this sort of thing happened in movies and TV then, mostly with Peter Sellers, it’s a lot easier to take this kind of material when it’s not played for laughs. Doctor Who fans have, over the last few years, been drawing a polite veil of discretion across the casting of John Bennett as a Chinese villain in the very popular 1977 serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” but I feel this is, while problematic, less of an issue when the role is played straight. It may have been insensitive to cast an actor of a different ethnicity, but it’s much more so when they’re cast to wear funny mustaches and say “Ah, so!” a lot.

The film has a few good moments, among them just about anything that Hayes and Sims do together – although they really could have looked a little harder for Sims’ stunt driver – and a lovely little scene during the climax where Ustinov and Nimmo sit and discuss Revill’s terrible first day in his new job. There are a pair of quite amusing plot twists, but the action is, overall, far too brief, leaving Daniel more thoroughly bored than by any film that we’ve ever shown him. He giggled a couple of times, but I don’t blame him for being restless. This simply isn’t a good movie, and while it probably never would have been a classic, there’s not nearly enough slapstick to engage children, and far too much of it for anybody old enough to try and follow the plot and the humor for older audiences.

Most of the cast’s best and biggest work was behind them at this point, although I suppose you might argue that Ustinov’s greatest success, as Hercule Poirot, was to come. But the biggest star-in-the-making was the dinosaur. Dumped in a prop warehouse at Pinewood Studios after this, it was retrieved by the Star Wars team and taken to Tunisia, where far, far more people saw it as a dead carcass on the planet Tattooine than ever saw it in this movie.

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