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Doctor Who: Dimensions in Time

For Doctor Who‘s 30th anniversary, the five surviving Doctors, along with a gaggle of companions, a bunch of fans in monster costumes, and several actors taking a breather from EastEnders' busy production schedule spent twelve minutes walking and talking around the EastEnders “Albert Square” backlot with lots of objects in the foreground. This was shown as two very short 3-D episodes to raise money for a charity called Children in Need. It was made so people in the audience, like our son, could go “A Cyberman! Fifi! K9!” and send some money. (I made a donation via a British fan in 1994, so I figure I’m good for having a VHS bootleg back then and showing it to our son on YouTube this morning.) Although honestly, I thought, then as now, that the real entertainment was having Jon Pertwee show up on the set of the variety show Noel’s House Party to introduce episode one.

Everybody who appeared in or worked on “Dimensions in Time” did so without compensation, donating their time for charity, with the contractual understanding that the show would never be repeated or commercially exploited. It is a shame that this can therefore never be added as a bonus feature to any future DVD or Blu-ray release. Fortunately, every subsequent time that Doctor Who materialized for Children in Need or Comic Relief, they had home video in mind when the contracts were signed!

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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

When I was a kid and comics cost 35 or 40 cents, Superman’s father Jor-El was so recognizable that he was regularly merchandised. There were dolls and action figures of the guy. DC’s writers and editors were almost pathologically obsessed with telling stories of Superman’s home planet. There was a World of Krypton miniseries, and even the Legion of Super-Heroes time-traveled back to meet him. It was all very, very boring and unnecessary to me.

With that in mind, in Terrance Dicks’ anniversary adventure “The Five Doctors,” we finally say goodbye to the Doctor’s home planet for a good while. It is the most boring and unnecessary place for our hero to ever visit, and this stale feeling is driven home by the actors who play Time Lords. This is the fourth story in seven years set on Gallifrey and exactly one actor – Paul Jerricho, as Commissioner “Castellan” Gordon – appears in two of them. Even the most important supporting character, President Borusa, is played by four different actors. How are we supposed to feel any connection to any of these people?

Fans just love kvetching and kibitzing about “The Five Doctors” and all its missed opportunities, but I think the biggest one comes in not addressing these unfamiliar faces. When the Master is shown into the president’s office, he addresses the three people inside. He says “President Borusa, Lord Castellan,” and then Anthony Ainley should have looked at the woman and said “I have no idea who you are.”

But everyone loves “The Five Doctors” anyway, because it’s a lighthearted anniversary celebration and it’s fun to watch Pertwee, Troughton, and Courtney squabbling again. Yes, Peter Moffatt’s direction is incredibly pedestrian and slapdash (count how many times actors don’t respond to objects that are clearly in their sight line), yes, they could have at least given us one clear and well-lit shot of the Yeti, and yes, surely while stuck in the TARDIS, the strange alien teenager and the Doctor’s granddaughter could have found something more interesting to talk about than “what do you think the Cybermen are doing.”

Yes, the Doctor’s granddaughter is in this, but Carole Ann Ford is only allowed to play Random First Doctor Companion. She calls her Doctor “Grandfather” twice and that’s it. This is apparently because the producer at the time insisted on presenting the Doctor as an asexual figure to avoid British tabloid journalists making rude headlines about Peter Davison and his attractive female co-stars in short skirts. That’s another huge missed opportunity and a scene we should have had: the fifth Doctor introducing his granddaughter to Tegan and Turlough.

Our son mostly loved it, as you’d expect. He did that standard grumble about the Master and the Cybermen and a Dalek showing up, but then he went eyes-wide and jumped with a huge smile when he saw the Yeti. He loved the famous “Cyber-massacre” scene, where about nine of them get impaled and decapitated before firing a single shot, but his favorite part of the whole story was when the third Doctor and Sarah “zip-line” down to the top of the tower.

I really enjoyed teasing our son with the strange possible-continuity-error brainteaser about Jamie and Zoe. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury show up for a cameo as “phantoms” warning the second Doctor from going any deeper into the tower. The Doctor realizes that they’re fake when he remembers that Jamie and Zoe’s minds were erased of the period they spent with him. (The real error is that Troughton asks “So how do you know who we are.” They should both remember the Doctor, but Jamie shouldn’t know Zoe. Glossing over that, the important part is that neither should know the Brigadier. The line should have been Troughton pointing at Courtney while saying “So how do you know who he is.”)

It took our son a minute to wrap his brain around the problem. Where in his lifetime does the second Doctor come from if he knows about Jamie and Zoe’s memory wipe, when (we’ve been led to believe) that the very next thing that happened after the mind wipe was the Doctor regenerated and was shipped to Earth? I told him that we’d get a little more information about that in a couple of months, and that we’d see Patrick Troughton again in a different role in just a few days…

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Young Indiana Jones 2.10 – France and Germany, 1917

The first half of the Attack of the Hawkmen story was pretty entertaining, but the second half is great fun! It starts a little slow, and I was a little worried about our son’s attention span, but he was extremely pleased.

Indy’s second mission as “Captain Defense” for French intelligence is to get an offer in the hands of the Dutch aircraft designer Anthony Fokker, who is working for the Germans, and await a reply. But he misses Fokker in Hanover and must follow him to an aircraft manufacturing plant outside Ahlhorn. Fokker is accompanied by General Von Kramer – Jon Pertwee! – and so Indy has to sneak around and pose as Fokker’s valet to get the letter to him. But Indy can’t leave just yet. The Swiss designer Villehad Forssman is also at Ahlhorn with his prototype of a gigantic airplane, which Indy feels he needs to photograph. Then a familiar face turns up, somebody who could recognize him: Manfred von Richtofen!

How could you not love this? It’s terrific fun, watching Indy think on his feet, improvise, and take on new identities. He’s forthright and bumbling at the same time, and as events spiral out of control – you don’t introduce a huge room where hydrogen is being extracted from water and where cigars are banned without planning to blow it up real good – our son was in heaven. This ends with a terrific fight, lots of fire, and, of course, some wonderful explosions. Fortunately, when Indy secreted away his means of escape, we saw him check to make sure he picked one with a full tank of gas.

This was Jon Pertwee’s last television performance, incidentally. I think it was made in the summer of 1995, and first shown on American TV in October. He passed away in May of 1996. Pertwee was actually the second Doctor to appear in Young Indy. Colin Baker appears in one of the earlier-produced episodes (1992-93, I think) that was never shown in the US. It’s set seven months after the events of this hour, and we’ll get to it in about three weeks.

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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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