Mostly, Into the Labyrinth charms our son a whole lot more than it does me, but “Shadrach” is completely wonderful. Robert Holmes wrote it – that’s right, so sit up straight – and it introduces Belor’s best idea yet. She magically alters the features of the first fellow she comes across so he will look like Rothgo and the kids, once they turn up, will waste valuable time trying to convince a complete stranger that he’s an immortal time-jumping wizard.
Then she plans to drug the unfortunate bystander so they’ll waste even more time waking him up. The bystander in question is a detective called T.J. Shadrach, and he’s been hot on the trail of two villains from India who have plans to steal the Koh-i-Noor Diamond from the Tower of London. So Ron Moody and Pamela Salem get to have a pair of hilarious exchanges while she dons a pair of disguises herself to get him to drink her knockout micky.
Shadrach used to be a miner, and his lack of formal education causes him to make a few slips of grammar and word choice, plus, like Parker in Thunderbirds, he alternately adds and drops haitches. Once he’s finally roused, the kids comment on how he dresses like Sherlock Holmes and poor Shadrach becomes infuriated because that blasted Holmes stole his dress sense and style and, in the end, all his thunder and glory. Even when he does get to meet Her Majesty after wrapping up the case, it’s not really her, it’s Belor again. Poor guy. He never gets to learn what actually happened. I’m not sure what the third series of this show will be like, but I bet it won’t be a tenth as entertaining as a seven-part T.J. Shadrach series would have been.
Episode six is more of the same. This one’s a Crusades story written by John Lucarotti and featuring Ewen Solon, back again in a new guest star part. I don’t know much about the Crusades myself, but I could give my son a really brief explanation of what was going on with all these French knights in Malta holding out against the massive forces outside their fort’s walls. Episode five won our son’s affections with a played-for-laughs fight scene, while episode six has a… erm… not so great swordfight. Pamela Salem’s male stunt double showed his face to the camera two or three times more than he should have. The kid didn’t notice, but I had a chuckle or two.
Well, that was utterly bugnuts. And here I was all set to grumble about them casting very British character actors like Cyril Shaps to play Indian mystics, but then Ron Moody gets to battle various demons and magical beasts that jump out of paintings. It is one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in a while. The episode ends with a brief, climactic struggle over a pit engulfing sulfuric smoke. I think everybody inhaled too much of it this week, because “Cave of Diamonds” is just crazy. The kid had a blast with it, even applauding some of the heroes’ wins. And he really liked Rothgo turning his enemies into statues of monkeys and pigs.
Episode three wasn’t quite as successful for him, and it was awfully painful for the grownups. It’s not just that “Alamo,” written by John Lucarotti, finds a place for every possible word of teevee cowboy slang – vittles, chow, yonder – in some of the most tortuous dialogue ever written, but Ron Moody gets to play a “Red Indian” in redface and we get all the hows and heap bigs and the like that I seem to remember dying out in our own entertainment by 1981. Jack Watson’s in this one as Davy Crockett, and he’s not bad. There’s even an actual scorpion and a couple of real snakes in these two episodes, instead of putting a rubber party favor on the screen like they did with that bat last time.
I’ve met a good few Doctor Who fans over the years whose favorite era starts with this story. It’s the sixteen stories, over three seasons, produced by Philip Hinchcliffe and script edited by Robert Holmes. These first four all have their earliest germination in the previous team’s days, but it’s still a pretty compelling argument. Even the weakest Hinchcliffe-Holmes story is more entertaining than many, many others.
“The Ark in Space” starts off magnificently. It’s a slow exploration of an unknown environment, with no guest actors. They’re all still in suspended animation. This is set thousands of years in the future, after some disaster has befallen the planet Earth. Our son was intrigued if not thrilled, and that’s fine. This isn’t meant to be a thriller yet. It’s a detective story at this point.
The story was originally commissioned from a veteran TV writer, John Lucarotti, who had written three serials for William Hartnell’s Doctor, as well as six episodes of The Avengers: five from the videotape era and one, “Castle De’ath,” for the Mrs. Peel years. Lucarotti got back in contact with the Doctor Who team when Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks hired him to write two of the six episodes of their ill-fated series Moonbase 3. Unfortunately, Robert Holmes was not satisfied with the way this story was going, so he stepped in and rewrote the adventure from the ground up. This features the fabulous scene where the Doctor, alien but admiring, steps away from the ears of his companions and enjoys a nice monologue praising the human race.
I think that one theme that we’ll come back to in watching The Avengers is one I’ll go into in more detail later on, that the fantasy of the series isn’t merely the fantasy that comes from telling stories with robots and invisible men and a couple of monsters, it’s the fantasy of its setting. The Avengers is deliberately set in what Brian Clemens called a fantasyland, a tourist Britain that’s utterly removed from the real thing. So here we are in Scotland, ye ken, where we have bagpipes and phantoms and lairds and tartans and Robbie Burns and Bonnie Prince Charlie and castles and moats and villainous ancestors called “Black” and fishing in the loch. And popular Scottish actors like Gordon Jackson and Robert Urquhart as the feuding cousins of the De’ath clan.
And we don’t have anything in Scotland other than these things.
In fact, of the two things my son enjoyed most about this story, one was the knee-high argyle socks that the men wear with their traditional formal Highland garb. “Those are some big socks!” he exclaimed. The other, happily, was the rather magnificent sword fight that Patrick Macnee and Urquhart have on the big table in the dining hall, so he’s not just watching old TV to chuckle at the silly clothes people used to wear, like a “comedian” on one of those awful Things Sure Were Different Back Then! nostalgia programs.
I don’t think it’s right to completely dismiss dramatic choices like this as merely lazy cultural stereotyping. It isn’t lazy; it’s carefully crafted in the same way that the director, James Hill, opened the story with a series of long, hand-held tracking shots through the elaborate castle set. The Avengers slowly reveals its unreality as the show progresses through the sixties, which is sometimes jarring because television viewers tend to watch every program as though it is set in “our world,” and The Avengers quite firmly isn’t. That’s not to say that it’s always a good or an admirable choice – some elements of this fantasyland Britain are crafted with the walls of exclusion – but the use of stereotype here isn’t halfhearted. In Avengerland, England can have some variety of people, places, and things, but all of Scotland is exactly like this.