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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.5 – Allah is Not Always With You

In the previous installment, I talked about effective makeup jobs. There’s an effective one in this afternoon’s episode of Adam Adamant Lives! as well, kind of. You watch British television from the sixties, you figure you’re occasionally going to run into a few cases where they smeared some shoe polish on the white skin of the actors so they can pass as “foreign.” That’s just the unfortunate way of old television. I wish I could show you the sheikh from this episode, though. It’s that fine actor John Woodnutt, but even the man’s own mother wouldn’t have recognized him with the giant fake nose they stuck on him.

After seeing Woodnutt’s name in the credits, I zipped back for a second look. Our son described the imitation hooter as “wet plastic,” so that led into a discussion of using things like “big noses” and “squinty eyes” as racial identifiers. I feel it’s important to point these out as we go. They’re good tools for learning.

As for the rest of the episode, the only other point to cause any eye-rolling was the recurring use of the flashback to Adam getting suckered by Louise and The Face in the first installment whenever our hero gets thumped on the head. Our son is pretty sick of the flashback and got up to sit behind the sofa with an exasperated sigh when it happened again here. Otherwise, it’s an entertaining hour about criminals trying to get their hooks into the son of the ruler of NosuchArablandia. Dad’s in London for surgery and Junior’s got some gambling debts. John Hollis plays one of the criminals, and I thought that George Pastell was in it, but I was mistaken.

Speaking of recurring themes, this is the second episode in a row where Miss Jones embarrasses Adam by donning a racy costume for her undercover work and enjoys the experience of making him uncomfortable. I figure it’s a fine little comeuppance for him assuming she was a prostitute in the first episode, but the joke’s got about one more airing before it gets tired. Let’s see whether they put it to bed or run it into the ground.

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 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.)

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Doctor Who: The Keeper of Traken (parts one and two)

Earlier this month, when I wrote about “The Leisure Hive”, I talked about how in this season, there’s a greater sense of real space in the environments. Every story we’ve watched has great examples, particularly the Starliner in “Full Circle,” but the planet of Traken is the best of them all. It’s not just having more sets and extras than the obvious example, Peladon, it’s having characters with lives that seem to have existed before the plot of the month came crashing down atop them. This is what a later producer, Russell T. Davies, sensibly understood about making the world of the show feel real, and what his successor, Steven Moffat, frequently forgot.

So while I don’t love “The Keeper of Traken,” I absolutely admire it. The writer, director, designer, and composer are all working in fabulous synchronicity. It’s a good story, not a great one, but it’s a truly fine production. It’s the first Doctor Who script by Johnny Byrne, and, sadly, by some measure the best of his three. Byrne came to Who by way of All Creatures Great and Small, where he had worked with Who‘s producer John Nathan-Turner and been the script editor for that show’s first three series. Before that, he had written about a quarter of Space: 1999.

In the cast, we’ve got twenty year-old Sarah Sutton playing Nyssa, a character who, like Adric, appears meant to be a young teenager. John Woodnutt makes his final Who appearance, and Anthony Ainley, about whom, more later, makes his first. Denis Carey and Sheila Ruskin are also very memorable in their parts here.

Our son might have liked this story a little less than he claimed, because he was pretty restless and seemed frustrated by the mystery. The serial is centered around an evil being called a Melkur that, like others before it, turned to stone as soon as it landed on Traken about a decade previously. The planet has a bio-electric power source that freezes and calcifies intruders with evil intent, which is a whimsical, fairy tale-like idea given a sci-fi sheen that doesn’t quite make sense but just feels right. That’s another way that the production triumphs, by taking this odd idea and making it work, against the grumbling of anybody who wants to be critical about it. But the evil being is, of course, just biding its time and literally growing moss waiting for the incredibly powerful Keeper of this planetary system to die.

I think the director does reveal a little too much too soon, but whatever Melkur is, he’s the second villain this season, after Meglos, to know that the Doctor is a Time Lord and is prepared to deal with him. Perhaps this is an early indicator of the Doctor’s reputation preceding him, or perhaps we’re starting to get people behind the scenes who are much, much more interested in the program’s past and its continuity than ever before.

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Dramarama 2.7 – Mr. Stabs

The last little piece of Ace of Wands apocrypha is, no exaggeration, one of the strangest things I have ever watched. Dramarama was a 1980s anthology for younger viewers, full of one-off science fiction and supernatural stories, sort of the spiritual descendant of Shadows. It ran for seven years, and before I tell you about this weird thing, I’ll tell you why my heart sank a couple of weeks ago.

In 1986, a writer-director by the name of Peter Grimwade found himself no longer in the good graces of the producer of Doctor Who, where he’d been employed for about four years. He took out his frustrations with that producer in a Dramarama segment called “The Comeuppance of Captain Katt,” which is a zero-budget bore about the shenanigans surrounding a popular TV sci-fi show. I watched a bootleg of this a few weeks ago and thought it was the most tedious experience ever, and it didn’t bode well for what Dramarama could do with one last Mr. Stabs adventure, even with the character’s writer and producer, Trevor Preston and Pamela Lonsdale, back in charge.

But there’s a new actor in the role of Mr. Stabs. Instead of Russell Hunter, this surprisingly features David Jason as the villain. By 1984, Jason was starring in two mammothly successful comedies, Open All Hours and Only Fools and Horses, and was the voice of both Danger Mouse and his occasional nemesis Count Duckula. I have a notion that David Jason really enjoyed children’s television, because he’s a pretty big catch for a pretty small show. American audiences might know Jason best as the star of the ’90s detective show A Touch of Frost. Weirdly, another “prestige 1990s detective,” Patrick Malahide from The Inspector Alleyn Mysteries, which aired alongside Frost in the US on A&E, is also in this, along with Lorna Heilbron, David Rappaport, and John Woodnutt under some extremely good makeup. This is a prequel to the two Mr. Stabs adventures with Russell Hunter. It’s set in a magical world called the City of Shadows, with Mr. Stabs making his way to the land of “mere mortals.”

So what makes this so weird? Well, turn your mind back to the very early 1980s, before MTV was a concern, but when all these British bands were making cheapo music videos on tape. Not film, tape. If you don’t remember, open up YouTube in another tab and check out Duran Duran doing “Planet Earth” or Spandau Ballet doing “To Cut A Long Story Short” or Kate Bush doing anything from her first three albums, “Army Dreamers” will do. I’d recommend Ozzy Osbourne’s “Bark at the Moon,” but apparently Ozzy’s so embarrassed by that one that it’s been completely scrubbed from sight. “Bark at the Moon” isn’t actually a song I’ve thought about in more than thirty years, but I’m not kidding, this made me say “Holy crap, this is the ‘Bark at the Moon’ video, just twenty-five minutes long.”

It’s more than just the omnipresent candles, strange costumes, videotape, composite special effects, and black, black sets. This whole thing is staged like a video from that period. When Mr. Stabs and his nemesis, Lorna Heilbron’s character, enter a chamber to be judged by three men in dark red robes, I was honestly expecting them to settle their differences with a dance-off. Later, there’s a gigantic staircase behind a huge set of doors. The special effect didn’t allow for the camera to pan up it, which is just as well, because the only thing at the top would probably have been Gary Numan and a couple of synthesizers.

So no, this wasn’t particularly good, but our son did find it pretty amazingly creepy, and I think that if that was the program’s sole remit – to give seven year-olds a few mild shocks – then it probably succeeded. Would it have made a good show had it been considered as a series? I dunno. It would certainly have been an incredibly weird one. Then again, David Jason was probably far too busy in 1984-85 to have made any more of these. As a piece of apocrypha, it was an amusing half-hour… but I’d still have rather had another series of Ace of Wands!

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts three and four)

It’s funny how my son and I look at Doctor Who from totally different perspectives. For me, the show almost always starts strong and peters out as it goes, the initial mystery and atmosphere giving way to basic plotting and the world being doomed by this month’s threat. Fortunately, Who has enough charm, wit, and fun that it often doesn’t matter all that much.

But our kid keeps looking at it this way: Doctor Who is a scary, scary program where scary things keep happening and the bad guys have control of the situation for a very long time, and it scares the bejesus out of you, until finally the Doctor wraps things up and there’s usually a big explosion or two, at which point it becomes one of television’s great pleasures. Once again, he grimaced and hid through three episodes, only to rise cheering when the Zygon spaceship blows up, and when the Loch Ness Monster arrives in London for a few seconds before going home. It’s one of the all-time awful special effects. Kitten Kong was more convincing. Ah, well. It looked and sounded terrific up to then. We’ll allow director Douglas Camfield a few seconds of fumble in an otherwise glittering career.

Harry decides to stay on Earth after this adventure. We’ll see him again in a few weeks, along with John Levene’s long-serving character Benton, who had been promoted to warrant officer during the events of “Planet of the Spiders” and “Robot,” and promoted again to regimental sergeant major prior to this story. Even though the character is last seen in the series as RSM Benton, everybody always calls him Sergeant Benton.

Surprisingly, when they come back, it will be without the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney would have another acting commitment when the next, and final UNIT story of the seventies was made, and so this story becomes his swan song as a semi-regular. None of these three characters get a proper goodbye. Courtney would turn up again in three Who stories in the 1980s, and one installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2008.

Between “Zygons” and Courtney’s next appearance in Who in 1983, Courtney mainly worked in the theater. He made occasional small guest star parts on TV, but bizarrely, a starring role in a sitcom was completely shelved for eleven years. In 1982, he starred opposite Frankie Howerd in a six-part series called Then Churchill Said to Me, with wacky hijinks set in that top secret wartime command bunker that Matt Smith’s Doctor once visited. The BBC, being as overcautious and oversensitive as ever, decided that they shouldn’t broadcast a comedy making fun of the military in the middle of the Falklands Islands crisis, but once it concluded, they just left it in the cupboard. It finally aired on a cable channel in 1993, and, if you’re a fan of Howerd’s humor like I am, it’s really an amusing show. I just think it stinks that Courtney was denied a starring part at a time in his career when he really could have used one.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts one and two)

And now back to September 1975 and season thirteen of Doctor Who. The season started with a very popular and well-remembered serial written by Robert Banks Stewart, directed by Douglas Camfield, and featuring my absolute favorite incidental music in all of Who, by Geoffrey Burgon. These three would also be responsible for making the season finale look and sound so good.

Camfield and Burgon’s work here is so atmospheric and so wonderful that anybody with a heart and soul would be happy to overlook the story, which is a by-the-numbers tale of alien monsters who speak in Alien Monsterese, with phrases like “centuries by your timescale” and “one Earth mile.” The Zygons are shapeshifters without a home planet, and they only appeared this one time in the original run of the show, but they’re so well remembered, in part because, well, never mind their dialogue, just look at that wonderfully gross design and the terrific costume! Anyway, everybody remembered the Zygons and their pet Loch Ness Monster from their childhoods, so they’ve come back in a couple of stories under Steven Moffat’s time as producer and have been referenced a couple of times more.

Our son was petrified by these episodes. He was so scared! He tells us that the most frightening scene was when the Doctor extracted the cast of the monster’s gigantic tooth. He also didn’t like Harry getting shot, the Zygon grabbing Sarah from behind in the corridor, and the Zygon trapping the Doctor and Sarah in the decompression room. He especially didn’t like the Zygon that was impersonating Harry hiding in the barn and getting ready to attack Sarah. Part two ends with the giant monster chasing the Doctor across the moor, and he didn’t like that either. His latest way to fend off scary beasts is to wrap his security blanket, “Bict,” around his head, instead of wadding it up in front of his face. He’s going to be doing that a lot this season!

Oddly, though, the revelation during the cliffhanger climax that the dinosaur-creature is the Loch Ness Monster rebounded without impact. Bizarrely, he did not know what the Loch Ness Monster was. If you were six years old in 1975, you knew about Nessie. If he ever has heard a reference to it, he’s forgotten. True, this kid doesn’t have a very good memory, but clearly this monster needs a new PR firm.

One note from my own youth, and seeing the TV movie of this story in February 1984: I absolutely loved it, of course, although I was still unclear how the heroes travel around. The story opens with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah already in Scotland. I remember having a very hard time putting all this together. This was my third story. In “Genesis of the Daleks,” their transmat travel is intercepted by the Time Lords, and at the end, they use a Time Ring to go back to Nerva Beacon. They get inside a blue box at the end of “Revenge” – the same blue box that’s in the opening credits – and it vanishes. Is it a magic cabinet, or does the transmat beam send them in that protective “capsule” to their next destination? I guess when a show’s been on television for twelve years, there’s an assumption that some grownup in the audience can explain all this stuff to new viewers! Us poor kids watching the compilation movies late Saturday nights on PBS without any reference needed some help. And help was indeed on the way, as I’ll relate in a week or so.

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Children of the Stones 1.7 – Full Circle

Regular readers may recall that last spring, I raved about a terrific book called Scarred for Life, which looks at the frightening and odd pop culture of the 1970s. The book hasn’t found a permanent home on any of our shelves because I’m still dipping in and out of the wonderful thing, and reading chapters I had set aside for rainy days. Since Acorn’s DVD of Children of the Stones has been sitting here waiting for my son to get old enough to watch it since we started this blog, I skipped that essay, coming back to it tonight after episode seven blew my mind.

The funny thing about hyperbole – and I say this as somebody prone to going way overboard myself, and often – is that if you read something that gets a breathless recommendation with any kind of skepticism in your eye, you’re bound to question it. I’d have questioned the love that the writers give to Stones if I hadn’t seen it, because they really shovel on the praise. But it’s earned! This is great television. It never talks down to the audience and it never gives simple answers to this very, very complicated problem.

Also, I love how the heroes apply real-world science in a sensible way, even when confronted with a problem whose background is one of ley line mumbo-jumbo. I like to see heroes who can disassemble a situation and look for the right way out of Hendrick’s trap. Adam and Matthew have been great characters to watch and cheer for.

And I love how they can’t win. The painting gives the clue of two people escaping from the circle, but first there’s the downright horrifying fate of the villagers, also foretold in the painting. Then there’s a twist which they learn the following morning. What happens at night is jawdropping. What happens in the morning is tragic.

I enjoyed the devil out of this. I shouldn’t have waited twenty-eight years to see the blasted thing since reading about it. We’ve got another of these spooky seventies British kids’ serials on the agenda to watch late next month – not, sadly, another Third Eye presentation – and if it’s a tenth as good as Children of the Stones, I’ll be pleased.

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Children of the Stones 1.6 – Squaring the Circle

Our son says that he’s enjoying this story, and I’ve no reason to doubt him. He’s not shy about telling us when he doesn’t! During our recent three days off due to what was allegedly snow somewhere up a nearby mountain, I put on The Shape of Things to Come for a second spin, and he was pretty emphatic he never wants to see it again. Me neither, in fact.

But he is oddly incurious. During parts five and six, we finally see Iain Cuthbertson acting more like a traditional villain, some actual person that our heroes oppose instead of a chain of supernatural events. We still don’t know the specifics, but he’s the baddie, and so we can pose more direct questions: do you think Matthew and Adam will stop him? Can they rescue Sandra? He’s not all that concerned. This is a story in which to get swept up and carried away, and we’ll see how it ends next time.

One thing he did note was “Hey, I saw a funny green and black flash there.” As some of these screencaps suggest, the presentation on Acorn Media’s Region 1 DVD hasn’t really been reconstructed or restored. I’m not sure that HTV had the greatest technical facilities when this was first made in the fall of 1976. The master tapes definitely show their age. They don’t look as bad as many of the 1970s Sid and Marty Krofft videotape programs look, but it’s kind of a humbling thought just how close we’re getting to losing a lot of the television from this period entirely. Most American drama from the 1970s was made on 35mm film, and the more successful and demanded shows have been restored already. But the lousy quality of this, and the Krofft series, makes me wonder about the videotape comedy shows that didn’t succeed and were quickly canceled. Has anybody in any archive anywhere checked on The Waverly Wonders or On the Rocks or Hot l Baltimore lately to see whether the tapes even play?

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Children of the Stones 1.5 – Charmed Circle

Hey, John Woodnutt shows up in this one! He plays Iain Cuthbertson’s character’s butler.

There’s a television trope that I have always hated, where the hero goes to fetch authorities after the discovery of a body, and when they get back, the body has vanished. It aggravated me particularly this time, because Adam goes to get help… and the other characters who could have stayed behind, where Dai’s body was, went back to the museum. About which, I was incorrect last time. Dai wasn’t crushed; Adam believes that he had a heart attack.

But there’s still something going on with time. That clay amulet that Dai had been using, and which had shattered, has only three shards remaining. The other three shards were unearthed years before, along with the skeleton of the man who had been crushed and killed centuries ago.

And we finally have a better understanding of what’s turning all of the villagers into the “happy day” zombies. Everyone who dines with Hendrick, as Margaret and Sandra do this time, get to experience a white light from space coming into his house at a precise second… this is so creepy and so entertaining, and whatever Hendrick is up to, I love the way that Iain Cuthbertson plays him so formally and makes him seem so ordinary. He’s a great villain.

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