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The Avengers 5.1 – From Venus With Love

To recap: there are two ABCs at play in the story of The Avengers: the Associated British Corporation, which made the program, and the American Broadcasting Company, the US television network which had purchased the fourth season of the series. They did this as an inexpensive way to get some new midseason programming, and found themselves with an unexpected success. It wasn’t that The Avengers had turned into some Nielsen-topping juggernaut, but it more than met the network’s modest expectations and there was a definite buzz about the program.

So before The Avengers finished its 21 episode run, ABC had asked for another batch of episodes to stand as a midseason replacement in the 1966-67 calendar. The network asked for 16 episodes; the production company intended to make a further ten beyond those. Just in case 16 turned out to be all that America wanted, they still needed a package of 26 to sell to other countries. This sounds like a curious and nitpicky point, but readers who don’t know the show and who stick around will see that it will become important later on.

Even though the color Avengers was made for the American market – this season of episodes aired Friday nights at 10, coming to bat for the cancelled Quinn Martin war drama Twelve O’Clock High – we’re going to watch them in the transmission order from the UK. I’ve been so used to that sequence that I remain petulant about the StudioCanal DVDs using the much more sensible production order. So, while the DVDs lead with episode two, which was made in September 1966, we’re starting with the traditional first color episode of the show, “From Venus With Love,” written by Philip Levene and first shown in the US and the UK in January 1967.

A common complaint about this batch of episodes is that they have a certain sameness to them. There’s a bit of formula, in part because they didn’t have very much time to actually make them, and in part because ABC’s Batman had been that Nielsen-topping juggernaut mentioned above, and it immediately spread its influence all over television, including television made in other countries. So the eccentricities of the diabolical masterminds are ramped up to the point that they’re almost all comic book villains, there are celebrity cameos in most of the stories, and they’ve even added a cute “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed” bit at the beginning of each story so that each one starts with the same oddball beat. They’re stylish, witty, and wonderful, but the production break after 16 episodes was perfectly timed. Any more than this would have started to get dull.

“From Venus With Love” teases the possibility of a space invasion. It’s certainly funny – hysterically so, when Mrs. Peel meets an outrageously posh chimney sweep – and I like how there are two solid suspects to the strange deaths. It could be Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark, who run the British Venusian Society, or it could be Philip Locke, who thinks they’re dabbling with forces beyond their control. Along the way, the casualties mount, with Jeremy Lloyd and Jon Pertwee – the only Doctor Who lead to ever appear in The Avengers, unless you count Joanna Lumley and Peter Cushing, I guess – blasted by a heat ray from space. Or from the front of a sports car, anyway.

And no, our son didn’t recognize Pertwee. Darn kid. He’s had a wild day with lots of walking and two sodas and didn’t really want to pay attention to tonight’s episode. Plus we’re watching another Star Wars movie in the morning, and knowing that just killed his ability to concentrate completely. It’s almost a shame that the Star Wars movie in question will not be worth it…

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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: Planet of the Spiders (part six)

Let’s get the unfortunate facet of this story out of the way: I’ve never been able to suspend disbelief in The Great One. The super-giant spider remarkably looks even more fake than the regular-giant ones. They’re fine when they don’t move; in fact, when they’re perched on people’s backs, they’re a little creepy. But The Great One badly, badly needed to be filmed rather than videotaped. That would have improved this critically important visual so much.

So no, I’m not going to pretend “Planet of the Spiders” is an unappreciated classic, certainly not with all the woeful acting and design on the alien planet, but it’s a lot better than I credited it. We enjoyed the heck out of this story. There’s a real sense of urgency and desperation that is almost entirely lacking in Pertwee’s final season. It’s a fabulously entertaining set of episodes, and all the actors who aren’t playing alien villagers are just great. I really liked John Dearth just completely losing his composure and yelling at the spiders.

This serial notably marks the first time that the program actually refers to that bit of casting change where a different actor plays the Doctor as “regeneration.” Interestingly, the changeover from Hartnell to Troughton was first explained as a rejuvenation that the TARDIS managed, and the next one, when Troughton became Pertwee, was something that the Time Lords did to him when they exiled him to Earth. Part six of this story is the first time that it’s stated that regeneration is what happens when a Time Lord’s body gets too old or damaged to continue living, making regeneration itself an interesting retcon. There are some more rules, and a very fascinating retcon that didn’t take, to come as the show goes on.

We learn a little about regeneration through the explanation of the Abbot K’anpo Rimpoche, another Time Lord who lives on Earth, and who is assisted by a projection of his next incarnation, a man who goes by the name Cho-Je. K’anpo/Cho-Je are never seen in the series again, which is kind of strange when you consider the Doctor’s great fondness for him; K’anpo is the old hermit who lived on the mountain that the Doctor visited when he was a child. The next Doctor is far too unsentimental to renew contact, but you’ve got to figure some of the later versions would have stopped by that meditation center for tea whenever they were on Earth.

Actually, what if during the sixties, when the twelfth was lecturing at that college in Bristol and Professor Chronotis was at St. Cedd’s in Cambridge… nah. There’s probably fanfic, though.

Anyway, some big goodbyes to note with this story. This is script editor Terrance Dicks’ last serial on the production team, though his work with Doctor Who as a freelancer would carry on for many years. It’s also the last appearance for Richard Franklin as Mike Yates, who sadly doesn’t get anything of a farewell scene after four years as a co-star. Franklin has mainly worked as a stage actor after Who, but he has occasionally turned up in small parts here and there, notably in an episode of Blake’s 7 and as an Imperial engineer in Rogue One.

And of course it’s goodbye to Jon Pertwee. He lost a lot of enthusiasm when Roger Delgado died and Katy Manning moved on; the pending departures of Franklin, Dicks, and, after the next story, producer Barry Letts left him very sad and he decided that only a very large pay increase would keep him around. He told the anecdote about the BBC Head of Drama Shaun Sutton turning down his demand about a million times, only for Letts to repeatedly come behind him with a harrumph to clarify that actors simply didn’t approach the Head of Drama that way.

Pertwee was often very open about his dissatisfaction in not landing leading roles for the rest of his career. He’d spent many years as a popular comedian on radio and in films before starring in Who for half a decade, and in the rest of the seventies he was often seen hosting the Thames game show Whodunnit before taking on the role of Worzel Gummidge in the children’s TV classic. However, casting directors seemed to see him in that “jack of all trades” school and he never got many of the meaty guest star parts where really good character actors excel. He also did lots of voice acting and was one of two Doctors to appear as guest stars in Young Indiana Jones. He returned to the part in 1983’s “The Five Doctors” and, a decade later, in a pair of radio plays written by Barry Letts. He was seen as the show’s elder statesman for all the 30th anniversary celebrations, which saw “Planet of the Daleks” repeated on BBC1.

Jon Pertwee passed away in May of 1996, but we’ve got a couple of his earlier performances coming up on the blog very soon. And while we’re taking a short break from Doctor Who for now, we will resume with Tom Baker’s first season in just a few weeks, so stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part five)

This is another story that’s turning out to be much better than its reputation, and much better than I remembered it, which is nice. Yes, all the two-legs on Metebelis Three are beyond awful, but everything else is very exciting and really well directed.

It’s also sinking in just how much of this story happens in its last episode. The next twenty-five minutes are going to be packed.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part four)

Our pal Matt dropped me a line last week to ask whether our son has arachnophobia. “Not yet!” I replied. As long as they aren’t in his bedroom, he likes creepy-crawlies just fine, so I figured this one wouldn’t bother him too much. There’s an urban legend that some British group that’s incredibly concerned about the rights of television viewers to switch on their sets without having any giant talking telepathic spiders on it got incredibly upset with the BBC about this story, but come off it. The giant maggots from that coal mine in Wales in “The Green Death” looked more like real maggots than these look like real spiders.

If they are in his bedroom, all bets are off. We had ladybugs coming in his room in November and you’d have thought they were Welsh giant maggots.

As with part three, the Earth stuff is fun and charming. There’s this one guy at the meditation center who is one of the most 1974 people you’ve ever seen, second only to Patty Hearst’s then-fiancĂ© Stephen Weed. The way he walks with his shoulders hunched is the funniest thing in the world.

The rest of Lupton’s circle of spider-summoning Buddhists are arguing about what to do in the wake of Lupton’s disappearance. One makes the reasonable suggestion that there’s no reason to think the police would have any interest in this, and so they are in no danger. Then 1974-Dude clubs Mike Yates in the back of the head. “Well, it’s a police matter now,” someone notes.

This is all much more entertaining than watching Gareth Hunt and the guy playing his brother emote at each other in BBC Alien: “Do you think me a coward?” “You speak of treason!” “We must attack now!” etc. There must be some course where BBC writers went to make all the downtrodden masses on planets ruled by despotic thingumajigs sound the same.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (parts two and three)

Conventional wisdom has it that part two of “Planet of the Spiders” is self-indulgent padding, a long chase scene across land, air, and sea that’s just there to give Jon Pertwee a bunch of contraptions to ride in, including his custom car, a “Little Nellie” helicopter, and a one-man hovercraft.

Conventional wisdom has clearly never watched part two of “Planet of the Spiders” with a six year-old. Throw in a comedy policeman who can’t believe everybody speeding past him, a comedy tramp sleeping on a hill, and let Terry Walsh get dunked in the river and you’re in six year-old’s heaven. Then part three ends with Pertwee – and Walsh again, doubling in a couple of shots – going all Venusian karate on a bunch of guards on the planet Metebelis Three. He absolutely loved these episodes. This story is going down in the books as one of his favorites so far.

In fact, he’s so enthralled with the story that he’s wondering what happened to Metebelis One and Metebelis Two. I told him they may be closer to that system’s sun and might not have atmospheres. There’s probably some fanfic, I suppose.

As the action moves into outer space, we picked up a bunch of new characters that nobody likes. The downtrodden population of the planet are played as stereotyped backwoods hillbillies in silly clothes, right down to the violent one and his more sensible brother. The sensible one, at least, is played by Gareth Hunt, who had some great roles in his future. Their mother is played by an actress named Jenny Laird who gives one of the all-time awful Doctor Who performances. (“I shan’t, I shan’t…”) It’s really a shame that the story goes into space, because everything on Earth has been tremendously fun.

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Doctor Who: Planet of the Spiders (part one)

There’s talk that we’re about to finally get season sets of Doctor Who. People have spotted pre-order placeholders for a Blu-ray of season twelve – Tom Baker’s first season – at Best Buy and at Barnes & Noble, only to have the listing scrubbed as “no longer available” right away. That will be so nice. Having an individual release for every single one of 150+ stories has always been a space-filling, expensive pain in the rear.

After a bunch of Region 1 releases went out of print, I bought a DVD player which could be easily hacked to play anything. Unfortunately, it’s already starting to show signs of future failure, but it more than paid for itself by allowing me to buy all these wonderful in-print Region 2 releases from Amazon UK or other sellers, including the great company Network itself during one of its occasional sales. “Planet of the Spiders” is one of the stories I got a Region 2 disk for, since the Region 1 disks were being offered at more than $100. As of today, there are three Region 1 disks available at Amazon, priced at $279, $586.35, and $703.99.

Of course, something is only ever worth what somebody else is willing to pay, and not what some Crazy Grandma Price Guide demands that something is worth. You would have to find a very, very foolish person to spend $703.99 for “Planet of the Spiders.”

As we’ve looked at some other seventies sci-fi shows like Ark II and Space Academy, we’ve noticed where even programs that had nothing necessarily to do with psychic powers and ESP inevitably went all Tomorrow People from time to time. “Planet of the Spiders” is Doctor Who‘s turn.

Things start with Cyril Shaps playing a stage magician who has, to his own horror, slowly been developing psychokinetic powers. Meanwhile, Mike Yates, formerly UNIT’s captain, has joined a monastery – slash – meditation center in the countryside, where some of the other people looking for a quieter, more spiritual life are having group meetings in the cellar around a prayer rug that glows with a blue light as they focus their energy. John Dearth, who had given the seventies supercomputer BOSS its voice in the previous season, plays the leader of this group, who materialize a huge spider between them at the memorable cliffhanger ending.

As is often the case, this starts very well and will start to run out of steam. It’s a very good first episode… just not $703.99 good!

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Doctor Who: The Monster of Peladon (part six)

Well, that was certainly flawed, but that’s a much better story than its poor reputation suggests. Anybody who thinks it’s actually worse than “Death to the Daleks” is as wrong as it’s possible to be. Our son was laughing and cheering all throughout this episode as the Ice Warriors are routed. He really enjoyed this one, and says that after being a little confused in the middle of the story, he loved the ending. Like “Dinosaurs,” it certainly should have been a four-parter. I’m predisposed to enjoy anything with Ice Warriors, and from a structural standpoint, the story’s biggest problem is treading water until they show up. It does begin and end well.

Another problem is a cosmetic one. Marie mentioned how she was constantly distracted by the weird paint job on Commander Azaxyr’s helmet, and she’s right. It’s meant to suggest the mottled skin of his jaw, but she’s right: it looks like they had a light green plastic helmet and not enough dark green paint to give it a solid coat. Disbelief is never suspended long enough to stop thinking that.

And Peladon itself remains one of the least convincing alien environments in the history of the series. After ten episodes, we never saw any of the court officials that are mentioned, never visited a banquet hall, receiving room, private royal chambers, museums, public hall of worship, or saw any historical artifacts or paintings on the walls, or anything that says “this belongs to the planet” other than the small throne room, a private shrine, and a corridor or two. Most bafflingly, we never see an actual entrance to the citadel that the people of Peladon would actually use under regular conditions. The only way anybody moves from one environment – the castle – to the second one – the tunnels and mines – is through a secret entrance which, in the first story, the king didn’t believe existed.

Bizarrely, the king didn’t know anything about the tunnels, but in this one, we learn there’s a whacking huge hole in the back of the throne room that connects with them! King Peladon never noticed a draft?

Somehow, though, Peladon caught fans’ imagination in a crazy way. I swear, once upon a time, there must have been more fanfic set on Peladon than any other planet in the show. I should know; I wrote one of them myself. I was fourteen or fifteen, it was called “The Attack on Peladon,” and it had the fourth Doctor and Leela in it. I struggled to have the Doctor explain his different face to Alpha Centauri, as did writer Gary Russell, whose professionally-published novel Legacy for Virgin Books’ New Adventures line covered the same Aggedor-Centauri-Ice Warriors footsteps as a hundred amateur stories.

Peladon was the last contribution to the series for writer Brian Hayles, who moved on to other screenwriting jobs after this adventure. One of his best known films is Warlords of Atlantis, which we plan to watch in 2018. And it’s also, strangely, the final appearance of the Ice Warriors for an extremely long time. They won’t trouble the next seven Doctors! They appeared in four serials over seven seasons. That’s tied with the Daleks for second place behind the Master. That’s partially the list-making kid in me coming out, but I mention it to illustrate how odd it was that they vanished from the show, even understanding that the program’s next two producers would turn out to be far less interested in revisiting old enemies than other people in that job. They went from reliably showing up every couple of years to almost totally forgotten.

We were spared a return visit in 1986. “The Trial of a Time Lord” replaced six stories that were in various stages of pre-production. One of these was a misbegotten mess called “Mission to Magnus,” and the Ice Warriors were one of at least three villains in it. The writer novelized his script for Target Books’ The Missing Episodes line in 1990. I only read it once, but wanted to throw it across the room. Another return visit, “Thin Ice,” was in the planning stages when Doctor Who was cancelled in 1989. The Warriors finally returned in 2013’s “Cold War,” and I enjoyed the heck out of that one. They deserved better than a thirty-nine year wait. We had comics and novels to tide us over, and Big Finish have made radio plays of those two cancelled stories along with a half-dozen or more other Ice Warrior adventures, but these guys should have been on TV.

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