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Shadows 1.6 – Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes

Before we take a summer vacation here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, an odd curiosity. Three years after Ace of Wands was unceremoniously cancelled by Thames, the show’s creator Trevor Preston brought back one of the villains for a one-off case. Russell Hunter had starred as the evil magician Mr. Stabs in a 1971 storyline, and he reprised his role in this oddball little adventure called “Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes.” (Say it aloud. It’s as ridiculous as those albums by the 6ths, Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles.)

Shadows was a low-budget anthology of supernatural-themed stories for younger viewers. The first series, made in 1975, was produced by Pamela Lonsdale, who had worked on Ace of Wands and a few other programs for families, like the 1967 Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the long-running Rainbow. I’m not surprised that she’d have phoned Trevor Preston looking for a contribution, since they’d worked together at least twice before.

I was surprised, however, that this was a lot more humorous than I was expecting. There’s more slapstick and oddball plot twists than Ace of Wands displayed in the stories we could see. Mr. Stabs and his servant have fallen on hard times and his magical hand is losing its power. He can get a recharge from a magical glove in an old country house museum, but he gets greedy and also pilfers the shoes that belonged to a mobster from the 1920s. Except the mobster isn’t as dead and buried as everybody thinks he is…

You have to grade on a curve, because this wasn’t intended for overly critical grownups. The story’s honestly not bad, but the no-budget production really was a distraction for me. There isn’t any incidental music in it, and when actors are going for physical humor, there needs to be some kind of ooomph. Imagine an episode of another 1975 videotape series, The Ghost Busters, without either music or a laugh track. That’s precisely what this feels like. John Abineri shows up as a police inspector who can’t get his witnesses to agree whether the villain they’re looking for is called Stabs or Schlitz. You can feel the actors going for gags, although not particularly good ones, and the soundtrack just doesn’t punctuate what they’re trying to do.

In short, it was very nice to finally meet this lost TV villain, and of course it’s always nice to see Russell Hunter in anything, but I wondered whether I might be tempted to order some more episodes of Shadows to sample. Not on the strength of this, I’m afraid! But we’ll see Mr. Stabs one more time, a few weeks down the road…

Stay tuned, friends and fans! We’ll be back next Monday!

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (parts three and four)

I have rarely returned to rewatch “The Power of Kroll” because the script has next to none of Robert Holmes’ trademark wit and energy. It’s also got these green-skinned squid-worshipers. The other characters tell us that they are primitives and savages, but they’ve all taken courses in BBC Villain. Every other line out of John Abineri’s mouth is something awful like “Have a care, Doctor!” or my favorite, “Let not thy wrath fall upon thy true servants!”

Happily, our son was much, much more thrilled than I was. He loved the giant monster stuff so much he was yelling at the screen. At one point, the Doctor is outside on a gantry at the refinery and a tentacle appears behind his head. Our kid shouted “Look out, Doctor!” before hiding his face. He’s enjoying the Key to Time stories so much that he somehow convinced himself there are seven segments, not just six. I guess he just didn’t want the fun of chasing them down to end in a few days.

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (parts one and two)

When you’re watching Doctor Who, there should ideally be more interesting things about the adventure than who was cast to appear in it. “The Power of Kroll” is a dreary, boring slog and the best thing about it is the guest actors. Above, here’s our hero along with familiar faces Neil McCarthy and Philip Madoc.

Weirdly, this would be Robert Holmes’ last story for the series for about six years. If he hadn’t come back in the mid-eighties for more, then not only would his Who career be topped and tailed by his two weakest adventures, starting with “The Krotons” in 1969, but Philip Madoc would have been in both of them.

John Abineri, a good character actor who everybody remembers fondly as General Carrington in “The Ambassadors of Death”, is also in this one, only he has the indignity of being painted green from head to toe and cast as the leader of a superstitious ooga-booga tribe of men with green dreadlocks.

Outside of these actors, the story is just boring and not at all engaging. Too much of the drama is built around people in space uniforms sitting in plastic chairs looking at computer readouts saying this just can’t be happening, and debating whether to use depth charges or poison to kill the mighty Kroll, a squid that’s about a mile across and has awakened just in time to join all the other parties as they squabble about guns, native rights, and methane. Our son says that Kroll is too big and too scary. I say that every Doctor Who producer has to learn the hard way that if you try to realize a giant monster on a BBC budget, you are more likely to fail than to thrill.

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Doctor Who: Death to the Daleks (parts one and two)

I’ve always been one of those insufferable list-makers. Five favorite Miles Davis records, all the Bond films best to worst, make one last Beatles LP with tracks from their first couple of solo albums, and, inevitably, the five worst Doctor Who stories. Since the show came back in 2005, three of the five previous residents on that list have been replaced by new turkeys. Two of ’em even dislodged “The Twin Dilemma” as the all-time stinker. If you had told twenty year-old me after they cancelled the show “Don’t worry, it will be back one day and you’ll love it and it’ll become so popular that it will air in the US the same day it’s shown in Britain,” I wouldn’t have believed you. If you had added “And there will be two stories even worse than ‘The Twin Dilemma’,” then I’d have known for sure you were lying.

But two episodes into this rewatch, “Death to the Daleks” remains on the list. It’s dire. It was written by Terry Nation on autopilot, directed without any flair or care at all by Michael E. Briant, and the only interesting acting performance is by John Abineri, who gets killed early in part two. Duncan Lamont, who had a small but memorable role in the film version of Quatermass and the Pit, is the lead guest star, and he looks like he has better things he could be doing.

At least it starts okay. Before the sun comes up on the quarry planet of Exxilon, it’s lit well and looks creepy. But then the sun rises and we meet the boring humans and then the Daleks show up and it gets downright dull, which is Doctor Who‘s worst sin. And it sounds like the end of the world. The music is by Carey Blyton, the same oddball who ruined Doctor Who and the Silurians in 1970 with his kazoos. This time, he’s got the London Saxophone Quartet in tow, and their apparent goal was to deliberately undermine the drama in every single scene with inappropriately whimsical tunes. What could have been a crash-bang wallop cliffhanger to part one is accompanied by something about as threatening as “Pop Goes the Weasel.”

The only interesting thing that happens is the Daleks’ ray guns stop working and so they install some machine guns instead. That’s not the interesting part. What’s cute is that they practice their projectile weapon on a teeny model TARDIS. Why do they have that? Do they load a crate of toy police boxes on every Dalek ship for them to use as stress squeezies? Do the Daleks collect Doctor Who action figures, the same way humans collect trading cards of serial killers and famous criminals? Nothing happens in these two episodes as remotely interesting as wondering why they have that toy!

Our son enjoyed it, happily, with the caveat that the primitive, cave-dwelling Exxilons are much, much creepier than he’d prefer. They are really kind of frightening to him. The Daleks are as exciting as ever, and he’s surprisingly glad that they’ve had to unplug their death rays for machine guns, because the bullets are less scary!

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part seven)

Many Doctor Who episodes suffer from being a little padded, but the conclusion of this story is one of the worst examples of a serial running out of plot and running in place. It certainly isn’t rushed; with maybe ten minutes of story left – ten good minutes, mostly – we have to suffer through about three instances of people, including Michael Wisher, returning after a few weeks away as the TV journalist John Wakefield, asking the insane General Carrington whether he’s absolutely sure he wants to make a live TV broadcast unmasking an alien and showing the world what’s out there, risking worldwide panic.

Now one problem here is that sometime midway through episode six, John Abineri stopped playing Carrington as a controlled and subtle villain and made him unhinged, and the script repeatedly gives him a stupid catchphrase. “It’s my moral duty” might have been chilling if used once, and repeated when he has lost, but it makes the character look foolish when he can’t say anything else. Frankly, his hired goon, Reegan, is far more competent and threatening than Carrington, and all he wants to do with the aliens is have them rob banks.

Another problem is with this worldwide live telecast. There’s one school of thought that somebody must have yanked a plug and nobody at Space Centre knew the feed was cut, otherwise there could have been a mass panic; in any event, the audience in the Who universe saw at least the beginning of some program about an English general claiming the existence of aliens. Another theory, put forward by Tat Wood in a volume of the entertaining About Time criticism, is that anybody who did watch this quickly dismissed it and forgot about it like people in our world did when they saw Alternative 3 or an alien autopsy movie in the 90s, or Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County.

I honestly think it’s more likely that the network was just humoring Carrington and never broadcast anything. How in the world did this guy convince anybody at any television channel in any country to stop what they’re doing and let him have control of their airwaves for a live feed? I think the BBC sent Wakefield since he was familiar with Space Centre, and Wakefield had a quiet word with his boss, and they recorded all of this just in case there was something to it. But come on, nobody at the American networks, let alone any relay station in Jos, cut away from anything to hear somebody claim to be ready to unmask a space alien. My suspension of disbelief stopped right about there.

Well, nitpicking at length is the way of Doctor Who fans. I really think this story’s finale was a disappointment overall, but when it was good, it was really good. There’s a terrific bit, pictured above, when the Doctor shouts “What kept you?” at the Brigadier, because he wanted to be rescued earlier. Some of the stunt work is especially amazing, including one fellow who goes down a flight of stairs backward, and the direction of the on-location scenes is very good throughout the show and there are some really good moments in the last episode. I think the conclusion is disagreeably stagy, but that Space Centre control room set is an awfully theatrical set in the first place; it was probably unavoidable.

Our son, meanwhile, loved the story more and more with each installment. He was super-excited this evening, and responded to every new plot complication with “This is gonna be so cool!” When the Doctor and the UNIT gang bring the ambassadors to the Space Centre, he was just about ready to pop. While it was good, this was not one of my favorite adventures, but I think it’s definitely one of his.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part six)

Pictured above, Jon Pertwee steps out into an alien environment created by blue screen / chromakey. This won’t be the last time. The BBC called this blue screen tech – the antecedent of modern green screen – “Color Separation Overlay.” It was used for the first time in the previous serial and there will be quite a lot of CSO in Doctor Who‘s seventies.

It turns out that the aliens are not empty suits as our son predicted, but hideous blue-and-black creatures that we only glimpse very briefly. And it also turns out that General Carrington is behind all the villany. Our son claims that he’s known that the whole time, but I’m not certain I believe that claim.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part five)

Throughout this serial, we’ve seen a large, full-scale space capsule for the actors to climb in. I was interested to learn that this prop was built in a shared-cost budget with another BBC drama, Doomwatch. This allegedly “sci-fact” show about civil servants saving the world from dangerous new technologies and ecological disasters was created by a pair of former Doctor Who‘s regular writers, Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis. It debuted the week after “Doctor Who and the Silurians” began, and the capsule was used in episode six, “Re-Entry Forbidden,” which was shown five days before the first episode of this serial. I wonder whether anybody watched both shows in March 1970 and noticed.

After watching part four, I showed our son a picture of John Levene’s character of Corporal Benton from “The Invasion” to refresh his memory, because Benton, now a sergeant, resurfaces in this episode. There’s a neat story about how this character got promoted to semi-regular. He was one of many good guy military characters in “The Invasion,” which Douglas Camfield had directed. Camfield was in line to direct the next serial, “Inferno,” and since there was room in the script for a Sergeant Anybody character, he asked whether they could rehire John Levene, as he enjoyed working with the actor. The production team reasoned that there was also a Sergeant Anybody in this story, and so it might make a little sense to start using some familiar faces in UNIT rather than a revolving bunch of guys in beige uniforms. That worked out quite nicely. Everybody likes Sergeant Benton.

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Doctor Who: The Ambassadors of Death (part four)

This is the second story in a row where the director found a chance to shoot the alien menace of the month in front of the sun, resulting in big lens flares. Timothy Combe, last time, and Michael Ferguson, director of this story, really have enjoyed the BBC’s move to color. But you’ll forgive me not illustrating it; the chroma-dot recovery that restored the color to most of this serial (episodes 2-4 and 6-7) is wonderful but imperfect. The screen grabs from the video interiors, while still flawed, look much better than the orange-and-purple smeared 16mm exteriors.

Ferguson is a great director whether on location or in the studio. I love the way he composed this shot at the cliffhanger. The Doctor has found the body of the Civil Servant of the Month, killed by one of the aliens wearing the astronaut suits, and, as he’s trying to see whether Sir James has been injured or killed, the alien, with its touch of death, comes up behind the Doctor.

Our son thinks that the Doctor will be okay, suspecting that the Doctor’s people have a much higher resistance to radiation. He also still thinks that the aliens are just animating the suits. Perhaps they’re disembodied and they need radio impulses to understand commands because they don’t have ears?

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