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The Barbary Coast (1975)

I kind of enjoy taking a gamble on programs that I don’t really know for this blog. Barbary Coast had been one of those in-one-eye-and-out-the-other shows for many years. I’d seen it listed here and there over time, but when I found it listed cheap, I figured there were only 13 episodes, so it wouldn’t be the big time commitment that its forebear, The Wild Wild West, would be for the blog. (I also don’t really enjoy The Wild Wild West for some reason, despite it being a show that sounds like it was made specifically to appeal to me…)

We’ll start the series proper next month, and just like ABC originally did in 1975, precede it with a look at the pilot movie. The show, created by Douglas Heyes, is a lighthearted secret agent adventure set in the very, very muddy streets of San Francisco in the late 19th Century. It stars William Shatner as a master of disguise named Jeff Cable, and while his whiskers and wigs may not fool any grown-ups watching, our seven year-old son was completely thrown by him several times.

Agent Cable finds a base of operations in a casino run by Cash Conover. Two years before, Cash had killed the son of Louisiana’s governor in a duel and had fled, later winning the casino and becoming a destination on the lawless Barbary Coast. Cable knows Conover’s secret and press-gangs him into working with him to ferret out crime and corruption. In the pilot film, Cash is played by Dennis Cole. He’d be recast when the series started production.

Joining them in this initial outing are a pile of recognizable faces from seventies TV, including Richard Kiel as the casino’s bouncer, and Leo Gordon as the bent chief of police. Lynda Day George is here to cause trouble, as women do, along with Michael Ansara, John Vernon, and, a year before he took the role of Jonah in Ark II, Terry Lester.

Bizarrely, we watched this movie the same week that some bigoted old newspaper editor in Alabama called for the return of the Klan to do something about all these Demmycrats making his life miserable. In the film, Vernon’s character, using the pretty suspect name of “Robin Templar,” has resurrected the eyeholes-in-pillowcase brigade under the name of “the Crusaders” to execute criminals that the law won’t touch. It’s all a scam, of course, because Templar and his closest associates are really scheming to just lynch a couple of people to get the point across, and then extort protection money from all the other targets on their published Death List.

I think our son enjoyed parts of it more than others, and he was a little confused by the opening twenty minutes. They introduce a lot of characters before the plot becomes apparent, and we don’t meet Agent Cable under his real identity for a surprisingly long time. I think they missed a terrific complication: Lynda Day George’s character stumbles on Cash’s secret and sends word to Louisiana in order to collect the reward. There’s a point in the narrative where the agent from Louisiana really should have arrived and thrown the heroes’ plan to destroy the Crusaders into disarray, but the subplot is forgotten about until the very end. The film doesn’t present much of a challenge for Cable and Conover, really. Hopefully the series will give them meatier stories than this.

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The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978)

I’m a nostalgic and forgiving kind of guy, and so I’m pretty certain that every single thing from my childhood that I loved as a child is something I can look at from the dull light of middle age and see what appealed to me when I was small. Then there’s The Return of Captain Nemo, which ran for three episodes on CBS in 1978. I saw the first two installments and loved that show like you wouldn’t believe.

This morning, we watched The Amazing Captain Nemo, a compilation movie made from the three TV episodes, whittled down from about 150 to 105 minutes. If I didn’t have my six year-old son hopping with excitement from the laser gun fights, underwater action, and explosions, I would have wandered away from this turkey to go play mublety-peg or something. I’d say that it’s the stupidest thing we’ve watched for this blog, were it not for the unfortunate reality that I know what we’re watching next week.

The Return of Captain Nemo seems to have come about because CBS was very much aware of bandwagons, but they were too timid to actually jump on any of them. In the spring of 1977, NBC showed a series of TV movies called Man From Atlantis. They starred Patrick Duffy as a comic book-type hero, with a former Batvillain, Victor Buono, as a recurring enemy. These were so successful that NBC ordered a weekly series, and CBS and Warner Brothers followed suit with an idea for a clone, even casting another former Batvillain, Burgess Meredith, as their show’s baddie. Captain Nemo was in the public domain, and while Irwin Allen had left weekly TV production behind for big-budget disaster movies like The Towering Inferno, he knew how to make bottom-of-the-sea television without a lot of money, so they asked him to produce it.

Then Star Wars happened. Suddenly Burgess Meredith got an alien robot henchman and a lot of golden androids. The important rooms of his submarine, the Raven, got turned into black-curtained “limbo” sets like everywhere in the third season of Batman so the set designer could spend money making all the corridors into Death Star hallways to stage laser gun shootouts.

Then Man From Atlantis died as a weekly series. CBS decided that they maybe only wanted three episodes, and called it a pilot mini-series. The mini-series flopped, and Irwin Allen and Warner Brothers got to make a little money back by turning the three hours into a film version, cropping the 4:3 picture into widescreen. The three-part version has apparently never been screened anywhere since an April 1981 broadcast in the UK; the film is the only way to see it. Only Irwin Allen completists need bother.

I’m assuming some of the intricacies must have been lost in the editing, because the speed with which the kind and patient Nemo works out a deal with naval intelligence to be their go-to man to battle the evil Professor Cunningham is really the most amazing thing about this movie. We never learn anything about Cunningham’s alien buddies or weird technology, Lynda Day George is present only because if she wasn’t, there would not be a single female character in this movie at all, and Atlantis itself is treated as a mild curiosity and depicted with a no-budget-at-all white set with two Greek columns. All of the dialogue is hilariously macho – “I’m going alone,” “no time for explanations,” etc. – and the two action man leads, played by Tom Hallick and Burr DeBenning, look like they were cast because there weren’t any cop shows that needed them that month.

But holy anna, our six year-old loved it. He was hopping up and down and shouted “This is AMAZING!” at one point. He liked the underwater gunfights so much that he’ll probably pass out when he sees Thunderball one of these days. He did creep behind the sofa at one point when Captain Nemo was captured and Cunningham uses one of those mind probes you see in sci-fi shows to get the equations and blueprints for the Nautilus and its laser(!) from his brain. We’ve seen Captain Nemo in four films now, and this is the most ridiculous thing to happen to him in any of them.

And it was always thus. In the seventies, my parents were good friends with a fellow named J.D. Faulkner, who always confused me by being unmarried. My folks knew nine thousand people and I swear J.D. was the only bachelor among them. He always arrived unannounced, and one terrible Wednesday – March 22, 1978 – he showed up raving about this restaurant in Marietta, insisting that Mom and Dad drop plans and join him there. It is perhaps amazing that I grew up loving food and restaurants as I do after what happened next. This insidious trip to whatever that restaurant was – my parents never admitted its name under interrogation – cost me the third episode of the show, but I guarantee I ruined their meal by whining about it. I started crying because the second part had a cliffhanger ending. I mean, it said on the screen “TO BE CONTINUED,” so that meant my parents were obliged to let me see what happened next.

Somehow, in that strange logic of six year-olds, I concluded that the cost for missing part three of The Return of Captain Nemo was twenty-four dollars. My father agreed to pay it to shut me up, and I ate my spaghetti in silence. It wasn’t even good spaghetti. Mom made better spaghetti than this. Mom made, and continues to make, better spaghetti than anybody else on the planet. I don’t know why I ordered it.

Then my dad refused to pay the twenty-four dollars. Then there wasn’t an episode four of The Return of Captain Nemo. Somehow I didn’t become a serial killer.

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Wonder Woman 1.2 – Fausta, the Nazi Wonder Woman

Here’s a bit of television that I can imagine anybody my age remembering vividly. When people like me say that the wartime season of Wonder Woman was its best, we’re remembering pretty much the events of this episode, with small variations, every week. It’s Nazi spies, secret bases, double agents, Steve Trevor needing to be rescued at least twice, trap doors – also twice – and one of those rooms where the walls move in to crush you like that trash compactor in Star Wars.

This one guest stars the married actors Lynda Day George and her husband Christopher as Nazi agents. She’s Fausta Grables, a former Olympian, and he’s a Gestapo agent called Rojack. Fausta spends the episode being essentially the only resourceful and efficient agent in all of Germany, and she would have won the day had her superiors not been a bunch of stupid clods telling her to be quiet and let the menfolk do their work. It’s kind of easy for a superhero like Wonder Woman to sow the seeds of doubt when the Nazis are making her question her loyalties in every scene.

Nevertheless, Fausta’s inevitable turning went over very well with our son. “I liked it most when the woman trying to capture Wonder Woman turned good and won’t try to capture her anymore.” He also reported being very pleased with the fights and the escapes from various traps.

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