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The Avengers 7.20 – Homicide and Old Lace

A couple of oddball coincidences tonight: that’s the star of Adam Adamant Lives!, Gerald Harper, in color tonight as one of the guest stars in tonight’s episode of The Avengers. It also features the late Edward Brayshaw as one of the villains, and today (October 18) would have been his 85th birthday. Both of these fine actors, not to mention Donald Pickering, another notable name, had the misfortune of appearing in what’s by miles the worst episode of this show.

To recap, toward the end of 1967, John Bryce had been assigned to produce The Avengers, and under his watch, three episodes were at least started: “Invasion of the Earthmen”, “Invitation to a Killing,” which became “Have Guns – Will Haggle”, and a story written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks. It was called “The Great Great Britain Crime” and featured the return of an organization previously seen in season two’s “Intercrime.”

“The Great Great Britain Crime” was judged to be too far gone, too much of a lost cause, to save even with reshoots. But with deadlines looming, poor decisions were made, and, more than a year later, a good chunk of the episode was repurposed. “Homicide and Old Lace” is that most unfortunate beast: a clip show. There are fights and shootouts from five or six other color Avengers episodes, and the story is given an intrusive and very, very annoying framing sequence. Mother is recounting the adventure to two elderly aunts, who constantly interrupt and interject and ask questions and recap everything we’ve seen before.

It’s painful to watch. Even with only about twenty-five or so minutes of visuals from “Crime” to play with, the producers undermined even those by having Mother narrate over some the footage, obscuring the original dialogue. There’s inappropriate “Perils of Pauline” music, and even at least one comedy sound effect. At places, this doesn’t seem desperate so much as vindictive, like Brian Clemens decided to stick the knife in for Bryce daring to work on his show.

There’s a pace and look and, in particular, a color scheme that’s unique to what we can see of “The Great Great Britain Crime” and “Invitation to a Killing.” I’m fascinated by the road that the Associated British Corporation didn’t take. I wish these two episodes existed in full so we could compare them to the transmitted versions. I’m certain that “The Great Great Britain Crime” was lousy; nothing that was used here convinces me otherwise, but at the same time, I’m equally certain that there’s no way in the universe that the original production was anywhere as tedious and aggravating as “Homicide and Old Lace.” Sadly, the originals are believed to have been destroyed all those years ago.

And we’ll end on that sour note for now, and put The Avengers back on the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh. We’ll return to this series in November for the final six episodes of its original run, but stay tuned! There’s lots more to watch and talk about!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part six)

I realize that in a serial packed with downright poor special effects, this is like Woody Allen pointing out the lighting choices in porn, but that Triceratops is too big.

Anyway, our son really enjoyed this story, while still wishing that there was some more dinosaur action than what we got. It’s the sort of story you either have to watch when you’re very small and can’t really tell a poor effect from a good one, or old enough to look past them as best you can and appreciate the location work and the acting. Storywise, the Pertwee era formula of five serials a season – two in four parts and three in six – once again got in the way. Cut two episodes from this, and one each from the other two six-parters, and they’d all improve and they could have spent four episodes on a sixth serial. But we have what we have, and this is in the end a very charming adventure with some really good moments despite its many problems.

This seems to write out Richard Franklin’s character of Captain Yates, who, the Brigadier tells us, will be sent on extended sick leave before getting the chance to quietly resign, but he’ll actually be back in a different capacity before long. The guest stars that I most enjoyed – John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles – will also return in memorable parts in the future, and director Paddy Russell will also be back for two very good stories with Tom Baker.

Strangely, the farewell with this serial is to writer Malcolm Hulke, who had contributed so many good adventures but apparently was tired of working in television and used an argument with the producers to explain his exit. Part one of this story had a slightly modified title: just “Invasion” part one, not “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” Hulke, who passed away three years later, was said to have been outraged by this, though what Barry Letts apparently intended was to keep the appearance of the dinosaurs a surprise.

That said, there’s an annoying claim in places like Tat Wood and Lawrence Miles’ About Time series that Letts was being foolish to try and keep the appearance of the dinosaurs at the cliffhanger of part one a surprise, when a pterodactyl and a Tyrannosaurus both show up earlier in part one. They missed the point: when you don’t know what has invaded, as indeed our son didn’t, then the revelation of these monsters at key points in part one is thrilling! It gives huge surprises to the young audience again and again, not only at the cliffhanger.

Some writers who look back at Who from the comfort of middle-aged cynicism sometimes forget that not everybody who absorbs the series does so with the crutches of the Radio Times or blogs or Wikipedia or forums or academic essays. They should watch more of it with a kid. It’s even more fun this way. You can even (mostly) overlook the special effects catastrophes.

Let’s see if my words come back to haunt me when we start the next adventure, because I don’t believe any amount of goodwill from a kid can salvage it.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (parts four and five)

Could we just take a moment to enjoy the Doctor’s wonderful new car? It was made for Jon Pertwee by a famous car designer, Pete Farries, in 1973, and was called “the Alien.” In-continuity, fans refer to it as the Whomobile, though the producer sensibly never allowed that name to be spoken onscreen. Pertwee owned the car for about a decade and occasionally made personal appearances in it. One of the car’s subsequent owners lent it back so it could appear in the 1993 documentary Thirty Years in the TARDIS.

Conventional wisdom has it that parts four and five are very, very slow and full of padding. I think I have to agree with this, especially with all of part four’s slow and quiet creeping about hidden bases, but I was impressed with the on-location chase material in episode five. With the caveat that it’s all that mostly unnecessary running around that mid-serial Doctor Who always seems to give us, it’s shot incredibly well. This isn’t the workmanlike direction of a Paul Bernard or a Michael E. Briant; Paddy Russell is excellent. Her work in the studio is really good, too, but the location stuff is easily on the same level as the (rightly) celebrated Douglas Camfield.

Our son’s really enjoying this one, despite very limited dinosaur business in these two parts. He got a real kick out of the jeep chase in part five. My favorite part is when Sergeant Benton instantly and sadly accepts the Doctor’s claim that Captain Yates has betrayed them, and says that the Doctor had better get on with overpowering him so that he can escape. I love how Benton completely and absolutely trusts the Doctor. Our hero may think of the Brigadier as one of his best friends, but the loyal sergeant never needs any evidence to know that the Doctor is always right.

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part three)

I’m sure that you good readers are over the age of six, and consequently unable to see the beast in the photo above as anything other than a deeply unconvincing puppet. But if you’re six, the scene where the Tyrannosaur wakes up and smashes its way out of the hangar is really amazingly convincing. Our kid was back behind the sofa for the first time in a while, holding my hand and worried out of his mind for Sarah, who was locked inside with it. This provided all the “rampage” that our son required last night, although it was a bit more frightening than he was expecting!

Apart from one bizarrely dunderheaded move – shooting flash photos of the dinosaur in a darkened hangar through a pane of glass isn’t going to result in very good photos, Journalist Girl – isn’t Sarah just awesome in this? She’s not just coming up with alternate theories, she’s checking with scientists at Oxford and the editor of Nature to give them weight. And with one man representing the British government, he’s the man to tackle when she has another theory about where whomever is behind this is getting their energy.

The minister turns out to be Traitor # 2 – it isn’t a surprise at all – but the cliffhanger is one of my all-time favorites. The minister and the two scientists lock Sarah in a room where she’s hypnotized. She wakes up with a nice denim-clad hippie welcoming her to consciousness. She’s been dressed in denim as well, and he reminds her that they’re on a spaceship on the way to their new home. They left Earth three months ago! Plot twists don’t get better. Imagine having to wonder for a week what would happen next.

At this point, we’re 25 minutes away from a memorable conclusion, because this would have made such a good four-parter. Unfortunately, we’ve still got 75 minutes to go. Maybe a fast new car will speed things up? We’ll find out after a short break!

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Doctor Who: Invasion of the Dinosaurs (part two)

After the production team finished work on Moonbase 3, they reconvened for a run of five Doctor Who stories that is nobody’s favorite run. It’s probably the weakest run until the mid-eighties, and “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” is, barely, my favorite of the five. In its defense, the location work is nice, and director Paddy Russell put together some really good footage of the abandoned London. There are two absolutely terrific plot twists, and three really great guest actors: John Bennett, Martin Jarvis, and Peter Miles. Really great guest stars are going to be kind of thin on the ground after this for a while. Until Peter Miles shows up again next season, actually.

But of course, it’s not all going to be as good as it could be. This is barely a four-part adventure dragged out to six, for starters. Since it could just as well have started at the beginning of part two as part one, that’s an issue. The first of the absolutely terrific plot twists that I mentioned happens in this episode. It’s revealed that Captain Yates is, for some reason, working for the two scientists – Miles and Jarvis – who are fiddling with time and dropping dinosaurs in central London for several minutes at a stretch. Without spoiling things for my wife, who will read this before seeing what’s to come, there are actually four big plot twists in this story. Two are real stunners and two… well, they’re not stunning at all. In short, this is a story that starts very well and inexorably runs out of steam.

And then there are the visual effects, which are probably as bad as Doctor Who would ever get. I’m sympathetic and understanding, and I get it: the puppeteers simply did not have anything like enough time to do this right. The puppets barely twitch and the yellow-screen chromakey is never aligned right, so the actors just have to guess and hope for the best. It’s all very distracting and looks awful if you’re older than, say, our son.

Our kid is just the right age for this. Any older and he might just join us moaners in complaining. As it is, his only objection so far is that the Tyrannosaurus has really huge nostrils, which is a fair point. He is really happy with the dinosaur action, but he has a stipulation about it. He wishes there was more “rampaging,” as do we all, but I reminded him that all the rampaging dinosaurs in Land of the Lost had him constantly hiding in terror. So he qualified his answer to explain that he’d like to see more rampaging where just buildings get knocked down, but nobody gets scared. Sounds like he’s describing that old video game that they’re adapting to make an “Everything Explodes Again” movie that stars Dwayne Johnson and/or Vin Diesel next year.

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Doctor Who: Invasion (part one)

Regular readers might recall that last month, I explained how Lionheart, the company that syndicated Doctor Who in America, made the call to edit two of the 24 TV movies instead of releasing complete black and white films. “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” – part one is, weirdly and with some controversy, just called “Invasion” – was actually wiped by the BBC just seven months after it was shown, as though they wanted to spare themselves further embarrassment over how dopey it looks. Color prints of parts two through six were recovered a few years later, but only a black and white print of part one could be found.

And yet… there were video traders in the eighties who swore blind that a low-quality color copy of part one was making the rounds. Going to get a little technical here, so bear with me.

Since UK television was on the superior 625-line PAL standard, and North America on the 525-line NTSC, you couldn’t just hook two VCRs together to get a copy of a British tape. Ideally, somebody would take the PAL tape to a video production company and pay $40 or $50 for an NTSC copy of it. Some of us called this a “digital copy,” wrongly. The other way was by pointing a NTSC camcorder on a tripod to a screen where the PAL copy was playing. This was called a “camera copy” and it was always substandard, marred by flickering, faded color, and many other visual defects. In 1987, a guy I knew flew to London with a camcorder, got a hotel room with a TV, taped Sylvester McCoy’s first episode on the camcorder and flew back to Atlanta the next day. That’s dedication!

So there were two copies of “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” part one floating around, and bear in mind that the best one I could get hold of was probably fifth generation. There was the black and white “digital copy” and then an eighth or ninth generation “camera copy” that was allegedly in color. The story went that it was shown in color at a convention in Canada or Koozebaine or someplace and somebody videotaped it. Nine generations later, my copy was mainly various shades of blue, as happened with camera copies, and it suffered from tape hiss and audio that had been recorded via condenser mic from the convention video room’s crappy speakers. I used to say that the copy was so bad that the Tyrannosaurus Rex looked good.

There was, to be clear, no way to confirm anybody’s claim that this was a color print. Had any color been present in this recording, it had been lost after eight or nine generations of copying. But a weird little quirk gave us hope. If you traded tapes in those days, you remember how the picture of down-the-line copies would occasionally warp and you’d get interference lines. There were points in this crappy copy where the interference would wash up little smears of color information. Jon Pertwee was standing in front of a brick wall and that little smear of color that belched up was red like the wall should be.

Yes, we know now that it’s because this was a color camcorder trying to record in color, and therefore a color tape even though the subject in the picture was black and white. When the tape would, every few minutes, go ZZZZzzWWWaaarrp and the visuals loop around with a line, that was “color banding,” information from the recording distorted, not color information from the projected print. Any similarity to the actual color of the brick walls was a coincidence.

Some of the Pertwee serials had their color restored by a process called chroma-dot recovery. On the black-and-white 16mm film recording, there are all these tiny, tiny patterns of dots that contain the original color information. It’s absolutely fascinating, and you should read more about it here. Unfortunately, the black-and-white print of “Invasion” part one was too poor, and too damaged, to extract the color at the best quality resolution. The DVD includes the color version as a bonus feature for those who’d like to try it.

Isn’t it neat, though, that a color videotape of a black and white film gave us false hope, while a black and white film of a color videotape gave the technicians the information they needed to restore it?

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part six)

The last part of “Frontier in Space” is one of the very few occasions in Doctor Who where major villains team up. The Master and the Daleks only get a few minutes together, and the neatness is overshadowed by knowing this was Roger Delgado’s final appearance in the series.

Delgado had told Who‘s producer that he was ready to move on. He and his agent had heard that the reason he wasn’t getting as many offers in 1971-72 as he might was that all the casting people assumed that he was a regular in Doctor Who and wouldn’t be available. So Barry Letts was beginning to put together ideas for a big finale for the character, which is why he doesn’t get anything like a sendoff this time. He just vanishes in the confusion of the Ogrons running around.

“Frontier” was made in September of 1972. Not too long after, Delgado flew to the south of France to shoot an episode of ITC’s fun little Mission: Impossible clone, The Zoo Gang, which would be shown in 1974. It would be his last English language performance. In June 1973, he flew to Turkey to appear in a small part in a French TV miniseries, La Cloche Tibetaine. On the 18th, while being driven to a location shoot, he was killed in a car crash along with two other men.

Our favorite six year-old critic hadn’t been enjoying this serial very much, but he perked up so much when the Daleks arrived that I genuinely felt bad telling him why this was Delgado’s final appearance as the Master. He listened to my story, a little glum, before saying “He was a great actor, because he played real bad at making the Master SO BAD!” That’s possibly not the most eloquent way to put it, but I agree with the sentiment. He certainly was a terrific, wonderful actor. It’s always a pleasure to watch an adventure show or ITC series from the late sixties or early seventies and find him in the cast. He never had all the major roles that he deserved, but every one of his appearances is worth tracking down.

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Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (parts four and five)

Resuming this serial with a double-bill tonight, our son still says that he isn’t enjoying it, but he does at least enjoy the gunfights. That is, I think he likes the idea of the shootouts, because what happens on screen is not all that thrilling. Honestly, I’m not taken with Paul Bernard’s prowess as a director of action sequences. This isn’t the only time in Doctor Who that the design of a set got in the way of a director who needs to stage a shootout – “The Claws of Axos” comes to mind – but it’s every bit as frustrating to watch. The scene where the Ogrons capture Jo is so sloppy. It doesn’t look like Bernard gave any thought at all to where his cameras should be.

For many reasons, I’m not as familiar with this story as I am most of the Pertwee years. Around 2002, when I was watching the series with my older son, circumstances forced me out of the room to deal with unpleasantness for the first five episodes, five nights straight of real life awfulness, and that hangs over this story for me. So it’s locked in my memory as going from prison cell to prison cell and me unable to enjoy even that. I had forgotten many of the details of my original copy, which I taped off air in the eighties and watched several times afterward.

WGTV had shown this during a pledge drive and interrupted the compilation movie at the approximate points of the original cliffhangers. This led to an interesting surprise tonight. At the end of part five, the Master turns on his fear box and the very last shot is Jo looking in horror at something that we can’t see yet. The next part will open by showing her a few of the most recent monsters in the show: a Drashig, a Mutant “mutt,” and a Sea Devil, and that’s the point where WGTV had faded to black, so I thought we’d be seeing them tonight.

Since I’m not as familiar with this as I could be, I had forgotten just how darn good Katy Manning is, especially in this climax. She and Pertwee and Roger Delgado carry almost all of part four with limited interruption from other characters, which is incredibly entertaining, and they dominate the critical scene in the throne room of the Draconian Emperor, played by John Woodnutt.

But at the end, the Master tries to hypnotize Jo again, and she is not having any of that. She is amazing! Delgado goes right into his party trick of “You. Will. Obey. Me!” and Manning stares him down with cold fury, reciting nursery rhymes in his face. He hypnotized her with ease on their first meeting, on her very first UNIT assignment, but she is not the same scatterbrained kid from “Terror of the Autons.” That’s a fantastic scene.

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