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The Avengers 7.5 – False Witness

I enjoyed Jeremy Burnham’s “False Witness” much, much more tonight than I had previously. This might be because it was fun watching our son figure out that there was something in the milk. I’ve always thought it had a few good points in its favor, including some gorgeous location filming, a fun appearance by John Bennett as one of the villains, one of Mother’s most amusing traveling offices – a double-decker bus with an ad for “Mother’s Day” on the side” – and a delicious scene where Steed drives a suspected traitor out into some forest, orders him to get out and follow him, and then turns and gives the fellow one of the most beautiful punches ever thrown on TV. Still, it somehow never became a favorite.

Our son, however, had a ball. This story is perfect for seven year-olds. He was racing to figure out the clues the show presented, which certainly wouldn’t trouble any grown-ups watching. He knew that something was going on with the milk delivered by Dreemykreem Dairies, but couldn’t decide whether the milk was conventional poison or if it was going to explode. Finally he realized “It makes you lie!” and that was the most fun thing ever. Maybe that’s the “problem” with the episode. We’re all too old to enjoy what a delightful idea that is.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts five and six)

As if there weren’t enough reasons to love this story, in part five, the two halves of the investigation collide, and Christopher Benjamin’s motormouthed theater owner Henry Gordon Jago calls on Trevor Baxter’s very reserved and correct medical gentleman Professor George Litefoot, and the two do their utmost to steal the show right out from under the star. They are incredibly watchable together, like capturing lightning in a bottle.

There was, briefly, a proposal for the BBC to give Jago and Litefoot their own show, but it came to nothing. It finally fell to the people at Big Finish to give them a long series of audio plays that began in 2010 and only ended last year after the sad death of Trevor Baxter. There are more than fifty hour-long episodes of Jago & Litefoot available on CD and download. In a better world, we’d have had that many TV episodes in the seventies, so damn and blast those stupid people at the BBC for not making them.

I mean honestly, David Maloney went from this story into pre-production of Blake’s 7. That show’s okay, but I would gladly, gladly swap all 52 of those with the parallel universe where Jago & Litefoot was made instead.

Anyway, part five ends with a cliffhanger that had our son leaping out of his skin. Leela pulls the mask of the villain, a war criminal from three thousand years in Earth’s future called Magnus Greel, and reveals a melting, blobby mess, the result of the energy from these failed experiments in time travel causing his cells to break down. He went behind the sofa and waited right there until the recap was over. Overall, the more-complex-than-usual story and shelves full of literary allusions all conspired to make this not one of his favorite stories, but he absolutely loved the climax, and was completely delighted with the Doctor hearing the bells of a street vendor and treating all his friends to some muffins.

And with this, we come to the end of an era. With Philip Hinchcliffe moved off the show, the new producer would be Graham Williams, who will not get to enjoy the stability and continuity of a production team or actors that his predecessor had, and would be putting out fires and managing some pretty cruel budgetary restrictions before his era will come to an ignominious end with a story being canceled midstream. There are still some great stories to come, but there are also going to be far more turkeys than we’ve seen in the previous three seasons. That said, there are three or four stories coming up that I haven’t seen in many years and have mostly forgotten. I enjoyed “The Mutants” and “The Time Monster” far more than conventional wisdom suggests, so we might have some fun to come…

That’s all from Doctor Who for now, but we’ll start watching season fifteen in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts three and four)

This is so good. There’s an amazing moment in part four where the Doctor attends what turns out to be Li H’sen Chang’s final stage performance. We know that Chang intends to kill the Doctor, and the Doctor’s also got a pretty shrewd idea that’s what he’s planning. Chang brandishes a pistol as part of his stage act. Earlier, we saw him load it. Is he planning to kill the Doctor in an “accident?” Just to press home the point, without blinking, the Doctor moves the target closer to his own face. You can hear a pin drop.

The whole story is just terrific. The direction, the design, and all of the performances are as good as you could get in 1977. It’s even better than I remembered it.

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Doctor Who: The Talons of Weng-Chiang (parts one and two)

We’ve come to the completely amazing “Talons of Weng-Chiang,” and it’s not going to be one of our son’s favorite Who stories. We took a short break between episodes to explain the cultural background to the adventure and noticed he was really, really tired. He spent the night with a buddy last night and got maybe six hours of sleep and played hard most of the day. He and I may have to watch these two parts again tomorrow afternoon, and I wouldn’t object if we do.

“Talons” is the farewell outing for director David Maloney, who had helmed many adventures in the seventies and was moving on to other jobs, and for producer Philip Hinchcliffe, who was being moved to other jobs. A teevee watchdog group had been giving the BBC headaches about the violence of the last season or two, hitting new heights of grievance this year, so Hinchcliffe was told that he’d be producing a new cop show called Target after this story, while the fellow who devised and developed Target, Graham Williams, would get Hinchcliffe’s job.

And so they go out with a bang, overspending massively and visibly on one of Robert Holmes’ very best scripts. “Talons” is a love letter to Victorian fiction and lore. As we explained to our son, this is not quite the real world, it’s the world of Sax Rohmer novels and Arthur Conan Doyle stories, where Jack the Ripper is on everyone’s mind, and that Giant Rat of Sumatra that Dr. Watson never could bring himself to write about is crawling around the London sewers. The Doctor dresses as Holmes and Leela is playing Eliza Doolittle.

We also explained the elephant in the room that troubles everybody who writes about “Talons” in this time: in 1977, there were enough people at the BBC to decide it would be okay for a white actor to get his eyes pulled back and made up to play Li H’Sen Chang. I don’t object to the depiction of all the Chinese characters as just part of a criminal gang; this is a story about archetypes from the idealized world of tawdry literature. Many people may love Doyle, Collins, Reginald Barrett, and all those Rivals that Hugh Greene anthologized, and many others may venerate them, but it’s tawdry literature all the same, and not the real world.

I wish that they had not cast John Bennett as Chang, just as I wish they had not cast Christopher Lee as Fu Manchu in those movies he made. But they did, and the world at the time found it acceptable, and I’m not going to condemn them for it from a position of We Know Better These Days. We told our son that We Do, in fact, Know Better These Days, as we often do, and he gets that this is old TV and that a program made today would find a Chinese actor for a role like this.

Other than this disagreeable casting, the production is excellent. Leela has a lot to do and she’s incredibly amusing dropped into polite Victorian society. Christopher Benjamin is all kinds of fun as the theater owner, Henry Gordon Jago, and there’s a living ventriloquist doll who stalks around the foggy streets of London with a knife. There’s just so much to love in this story.

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The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

I read about this film and decided that I’d give it a spin by myself before showing the last segment to our son. I understood that the movie, written by Robert Bloch, was comprised of four segments: three traditional horror episodes before ending with one a little more lighthearted. This is true, and I enjoyed the heck out of it, but those first three are way too frightening for our gentle son. The last one, though, was just right.

The sadly defunct Amicus studio was Hammer’s biggest rival in making horror films between 1965 and 1974. Amicus’s big specialty was the “portmanteau,” an anthology film with four segments and a framing story. In The House That Dripped Blood, a police inspector from Scotland Yard comes to investigate the disappearance of a movie star. A local sergeant and the home’s estate agent tell him three terrifying tales that took place in the same house, setting up stories that star Denholm Elliot and Joanna Dunham, Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland, and Christopher Lee and Nyree Dawn Porter. Amicus could get these big name actors in because each segment took maybe a week or ten days to film. And they’re hugely entertaining, although far too frightening for our kid at this age!

The fourth story is just right, and it has a completely terrific cast full of faces he’s seen recently. The movie star is Jon Pertwee and he buys his cursed cloak from Geoffrey Bayldon! Plus, there’s Ingrid Pitt, who he’s seen in “The Time Monster,” and Roy Evans, from “The Green Death” and “The Monster of Peladon.” The police inspector is John Bennett, from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” This segment was made in between Pertwee and Bayldon’s first seasons of Doctor Who and Catweazle, and of course the actors would be reunited about eight years later in Worzel Gummidge, playing the scarecrow and his creator.

…not, of course, that our kid actually recognized anybody other than Pertwee, even with a heads-up at dinner about who to look out for!

The whole movie is really entertaining, and it builds really well, with each episode more fun than the previous one. Pertwee is having a hoot as a temperamental, egotistical movie star who has nothing kind to say about the low-budget movie that’s hired him, with a former – gasp – television director in charge. The sets are too flimsy, the costumes are too new, and horror films are no good anymore anyway. This “new fellow” they’ve got playing Dracula these days isn’t a patch on Bela Lugosi.

The movie star buys his own cloak for thirteen shillings from a strange costumier to bring a little authenticity to this silly movie – it’s called Curse of the Bloodsuckers – and then things start getting a little weird. The story builds to an amusing twist, and the police inspector goes to this blasted cottage to see what he can find there.

That’s where I left it. I did want our son to get a good night’s sleep! But should you, dear reader, investigate this house for yourself, do continue on and see what comes next. Pleasant dreams!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (parts four and five)

Could we just take a moment to enjoy the Doctor’s wonderful new car? It was made for Jon Pertwee by a famous car designer, Pete Farries, in 1973, and was called “the Alien.” In-continuity, fans refer to it as the Whomobile, though the producer sensibly never allowed that name to be spoken onscreen. Pertwee owned the car for about a decade and occasionally made personal appearances in it. One of the car’s subsequent owners lent it back so it could appear in the 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS.

Conventional wisdom has it that parts four and five are very, very slow and full of padding. I think I have to agree with this, especially with all of part four’s slow and quiet creeping about hidden bases, but I was impressed with the on-location chase material in episode five. With the caveat that it’s all that mostly unnecessary running around that mid-serial Doctor Who always seems to give us, it’s shot incredibly well. This isn’t the workmanlike direction of a Paul Bernard or a Michael E. Briant; Paddy Russell is excellent. Her work in the studio is really good, too, but the location stuff is easily on the same level as the (rightly) celebrated Douglas Camfield.

Our son’s really enjoying this one, despite very limited dinosaur business in these two parts. He got a real kick out of the jeep chase in part five. My favorite part is when Sergeant Benton instantly and sadly accepts the Doctor’s claim that Captain Yates has betrayed them, and says that the Doctor had better get on with overpowering him so that he can escape. I love how Benton completely and absolutely trusts the Doctor. Our hero may think of the Brigadier as one of his best friends, but the loyal sergeant never needs any evidence to know that the Doctor is always right.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part three)

I’m sure that you good readers are over the age of six, and consequently unable to see the beast in the photo above as anything other than a deeply unconvincing puppet. But if you’re six, the scene where the Tyrannosaur wakes up and smashes its way out of the hangar is really amazingly convincing. Our kid was back behind the sofa for the first time in a while, holding my hand and worried out of his mind for Sarah, who was locked inside with it. This provided all the “rampage” that our son required last night, although it was a bit more frightening than he was expecting!

Apart from one bizarrely dunderheaded move – shooting flash photos of the dinosaur in a darkened hangar through a pane of glass isn’t going to result in very good photos, Journalist Girl – isn’t Sarah just awesome in this? She’s not just coming up with alternate theories, she’s checking with scientists at Oxford and the editor of Nature to give them weight. And with one man representing the British government, he’s the man to tackle when she has another theory about where whomever is behind this is getting their energy.

The minister turns out to be Traitor # 2 – it isn’t a surprise at all – but the cliffhanger is one of my all-time favorites. The minister and the two scientists lock Sarah in a room where she’s hypnotized. She wakes up with a nice denim-clad hippie welcoming her to consciousness. She’s been dressed in denim as well, and he reminds her that they’re on a spaceship on the way to their new home. They left Earth three months ago! Plot twists don’t get better. Imagine having to wonder for a week what would happen next.

At this point, we’re 25 minutes away from a memorable conclusion, because this would have made such a good four-parter. Unfortunately, we’ve still got 75 minutes to go. Maybe a fast new car will speed things up? We’ll find out after a short break!

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