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The Champions 1.5 – Happening

Our son has the flu. He wasn’t feeling well last night, and then his fever started. He stayed home with Mommy and slept most of the day. I’ll be with him for the next two days and working at least one night, throwing our schedule off. So I shuffled this episode of The Champions, an incredibly fun one written by Brian Clemens, ahead, and I’m glad I did. “I LOVED this episode,” our son shouted. Good. Poor sick kid deserves a good television treat or two.

In “Happening,” Richard tries to get the drop on two enemy agents who have sabotaged a bomb test in the Australian outback. One of the bad guys is killed, but Richard is injured and the remaining criminal, played by Michael Gough, is perfectly willing to die in the service of his country to keep Richard from undoing their work. It builds to an amazingly long and really tense sequence where the villain, hiding behind an old billboard and armed with a rifle, has Richard pinned down. Our kid just about exploded. The scene is really well done.

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Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (parts three and four)

By far the most interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity” is that all the location filming was done in Amsterdam in the summer of 1982. Unfortunately, the story feels like it tries its best to have as little to do with Holland as possible in favor of deeply boring political intrigue on the Doctor’s home planet. Most of this serial’s faults could have been overcome by setting the whole story on Earth. They could have, for instance, had Michael Gough’s gone-bad Time Lord working in league with some human criminal who lived in Amsterdam to bring Omega back.

Oh yes, Omega, by far the least interesting thing about “Arc of Infinity,” or at least the way it’s presented. Not content with recasting all the characters who were seen the last time we were on Gallifrey four years before, they also recast the villain, and gave him a costume which wasn’t a patch on the iconic original that we saw in “The Three Doctors” a decade previously. I don’t think Omega’s even been mentioned in the program since 1973, but the show is working under the assumption that everybody watching the program knows exactly who he is.

In fairness, “The Three Doctors” had been repeated by the BBC a little over a year earlier, but this is part of that sense of complacency I mentioned earlier today. A little over a year is a lifetime in little kid terms; we watched that story thirteen months ago and it took a good bit of poking for our seven year-old to recall that the second Doctor teamed up with the third in the first place, let alone who the villain was. It’s here that we really start getting evidence that the people making the program are doing so for an audience that’s already completely committed, buys all the books, reads all the magazines, and can tell you who all the recurring villains and characters are when they turn up.

Mind you, I’m not opposed at all to villains and characters making return visits. Now I do think there needs to be a “ground zero” every few years, like we’re experiencing with Jodie Whittaker’s run right now, which doesn’t relive past glories for several weeks and lets a new audience in. But I like old faces and foes. However, these either need to be done as subtle winks and Easter eggs, or they need to be done properly, with an honest attempt at reintroduction. I mean, at no point in this story’s narrative do they even explain who Omega is; they just figured that all seven million who watched this on its original broadcast knew already. This will get worse before it gets better.

For what it’s worth, while our son was confused by the villain, he really did enjoy the story, and thought it was very exciting and creepy. He took the revelation of the baddie with a shrug; what really confused him was a street scene where the regenerated Omega joins a small crowd around a draaiorgel barrel organ. He’d never seen anything like that and needed to be reminded that once upon a time, we didn’t have the option of listening to music on our phones!

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Doctor Who: Arc of Infinity (parts one and two)

For Thanksgiving, we’re watching this turkey! Gobble, gobble!

Season twenty’s where it all falls apart for me. There are still some terrific stories ahead in the next four seasons – they average about one classic a year – and some great moments here and there, but overall there’s a sense of… I guess complacency. There’s an overriding sense of “that’s good enough” in the scripting and the design and the direction.

That said, Johnny Byrne’s “Arc of Infinity” does have one nice moment in its first two parts (and I admit I cheated; the image above is from part three). There are two plots running parallel at first: a pair of young hitchhikers sleeping in an old crypt in Amsterdam, and the Doctor and Nyssa having a contest of technobabble and continuity in space. It looks like our heroes will be materializing in the Netherlands, and we hear the TARDIS sound effect… but it’s somebody else’s ship, apparently piloted by the weird turkey monster on the left in the picture above. I like the misdirection.

The turkey monster is called an Ergon, and at no point in this story does it ever move convincingly enough to fool anybody into thinking that it’s an alien monster that grew up knowing how to move its own muscles. It moves like an underpaid actor wearing fifty pounds of latex, flippers, and a tall floppy hat.

At least there’s Amsterdam, and some other notable actors, all probably also underpaid. Janet Fielding is back as Tegan, conveniently reentering the Netherlands part of the plot while the Doctor and Nyssa get to do breathtakingly boring outer space stuff on Gallifrey. Last time we were stuck here, in “The Invasion of Time”, we had a completely different set of actors as Borusa, the High Council, the Castellan (Commissioner Gordon), and the commander (Chief O’Hara). This time, a future star of the show, Colin Baker, is playing Chief O’Hara, and Paul Jerricho, who will be back in a few stories to deliver one of the all-time great bad Doctor Who line readings, is Gordon. On the High Council, there’s Elspet Gray, who was the clueless mom in the second series of Catweazle, and starred-in-everything cult TV legend Michael Gough as an old friend we’ve never heard of before.

There are five suspects in the mystery of who on Gallifrey has betrayed the Doctor. Four of them either don’t like the Doctor very much or are generally indifferent to him. One is played by an internationally recognizable actor who greets our hero with smiles and phrases like “My dear Doctor!” and is trying ever so hard to keep our hero from being executed. I wonder who the traitor could possibly be.

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The Avengers 6.1 – Return of the Cybernauts

A quickish word before beginning: the DVDs, along with the books written about The Avengers in the 1980s, and the websites of today, all call the color Diana Rigg stories “season five” and the Linda Thorson stories “season six.” For a while in the 1990s, the pendulum of accurate research pointed the right way: the 24 Rigg stories were produced and transmitted in two separate batches, thus making seven seasons. The Thorson stories were produced in two separate batches and transmitted that way in the US, but shown as one long season in the UK.

Season five is the batch of 16 color episodes that we’ve already seen. These were made between September 1966 and April 1967, and shown between January and May 1967 in both the UK and the US.

Season six is made of the final eight Rigg episodes and the first seven Thorson episodes. These were made between June 1967 and March 1968, with a considerable… let’s call it a hiccup in production during about the last seven weeks of ’67, which we’ll discuss later. In the UK, the first eight of these were shown as the sixth season, from September to November 1967. All fifteen went out as one season in America from January to May 1968. I number them using their first broadcast date, whether in the US or the UK.

Season seven is made of the other 26 Thorson adventures. These were made over the course of a year, from the spring of 1968 to March 1969. The US and UK broadcasts of these both went from September 1968 to May 1969, with the US finishing first and the UK broadcasts including the seven previous Thorson stories dropped in at what seems like random intervals.

Yes, I know you don’t agree, so you don’t have to waste time trying to tell me.

Anyway, so September 1967 came around and The Avengers were back on British television with a big season premiere guest starring Peter Cushing and featuring, like the title says, the return of the Cybernauts, one of the very, very few antagonists to come back for a second engagement in this show. Really, it’s just them, Ambassador Brodny, and a group called Intercrime that nobody remembers.

Cushing plays Paul Beresford, the brother of Michael Gough’s Professor Armstrong from the first Cybernaut story, and he is just brilliant, smooth and debonair in every scene. Watch how Macnee and Rigg afford him the space to be the star villain. They share several scenes together because their characters don’t initially know he’s one of their diabolical masterminds, and they play off him. They’re the guests on The Paul Beresford Show. It’s amazingly good and generous acting to let Cushing lead his scenes.

The story, written by Philip Levene, is huge fun. It’s got lots of great location filming, and the Cybernaut – it’s just the one this time – gets to rampage through several scenes and break lots of people’s necks. Everybody gets great dialogue, and the villain’s deeply sadistic plan had our son extraordinarily worried for Mrs. Peel. He denied it, of course, but he hid his face and curled up in his mom’s lap when things look bleak and Peter Cushing is being incredibly evil at the end. But as much as he enjoyed the Cybernaut’s killer karate chops and the big climactic fight, his absolute favorite moment came in the tag scene, when Steed wires a toaster the wrong way and blasts two slices through Mrs. Peel’s ceiling. Kid laughed like a hyena.

Some other very good actors are in this story as well. Above, that’s the great Fulton Mackay along with Charles Tingwell, who we remember from the first series of Catweazle, as kidnapped scientists. Noel Coleman and Aimi MacDonald also have small roles. In yet another weird blog acting coincidence, we saw Michael Gough just last night in Young Indiana Jones, and he’s briefly in this story as well with some archive footage as Dr. Armstrong. That villain’s henchman, Benson, returned in this episode. He’s played by Frederick Jaeger, and we’ll see him tomorrow night in Doctor Who.

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Young Indiana Jones 1.7 – Russia, 1909

After ABC canceled The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, another network came in to save the day. The Family Channel (later ABC Family and, today, Freeform) ordered four TV movies, three with Sean Patrick Flanery and one with Corey Carrier. The two-and-a-bit stories that made up the Carrier film, Travels With Father, were filmed in 1994 and shown in 1996.

The original movie, its script credited to Frank Darabont, Matthew Jacobs, and Jonathan Hales, had lengthy bookends with Flanery returning home in 1919 after the four years of globetrotting that we’ll see later, and trying to mend fences with his father. Those have been excised from the final DVD version of this series and used to form a separate story on its own. Nothing annoys like George Lucas and his constant tampering.

Our son enjoyed this episode more than the last pair we saw, and it gave us a fun moment of perspective to discuss. Indy has been misbehaving and, accident prone, has caused one spectacle after another, culminating in dropping a chandelier on a wedding cake. Afraid of his punishment, he runs away and meets up with another apparent tramp making his way through the Russian countryside: Leo Tolstoy, who’s trying to get away from his annoying family. They have a remarkable meet-cute – Indy shoots him in the rear with a slingshot while aiming for a weasel, much to our son’s delight – but they bond and decide to work together to get to Russia’s eastern shore and make their way to New Jersey. Michael Gough is terrific as Tolstoy, and I thought this was one of the more entertaining segments as well.

We were amused to learn that our son thought that Indy was perfectly justified in running away and worrying his parents to death, because his father was mean. We protested that Indy’s father didn’t actually do anything other than tell him to stand in one place out of the way – which he promptly ignored – and send him to bed. Yes, he told us, but it was his father’s tone of voice that was the problem. “He sounded mean!” We had to suggest that maybe the destruction of so much of their host’s property, and embarrassment at a wedding might spark a mean tone. Grudgingly, he had to agree a little with us there.

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The Avengers 5.9 – The Correct Way to Kill

In the early days of color TV, producers would often remake black and white episodes. It showed a little bit of foresight – in time, many channels would stop running black and white TV – but it sometimes felt like a cheat. I think that Bewitched and Gunsmoke may hold the booby prize for most color remakes. With The Avengers, it made a little sense. The three videotaped seasons were not shown in America for many years, so the audience never had the chance to see “The Charmers,” which had used a largely similar script as this a few years before.

“The Charmers” is witty, but “The Correct Way to Kill,” Brian Clemens’ rewrite, is completely hilarious. It’s one of my all-time favorites, just full of sight gags and double entendres. Steed’s partner for much of the episode is Comrade Olga Volowski, played by Anna Quayle, while Mrs. Peel is briefly teamed with another agent from “the other side” played by Philip Madoc.

The plot is hilariously, or perhaps uncomfortably, topical. Some third party, their agents dressed as London “city gents,” is murdering foreign agents on British soil. Steed is outraged, in his unflappable way. Surely “the other side” would have the decency to recall their agents and kill them at home instead of doing it in Britain! Maybe in the sixties, Comrade Steed. These days, agents from “the other side” drop dead in London every month or so.

Anyway, Clemens just has a hoot with Olga’s dialogue as she tries to understand Steed’s decadent, subtle ways, while Mrs. Peel learns the hard way that a little cheating in espionage, even when there’s meant to be a truce, is to be expected. The episode’s full of great familiar faces like Terence Alexander, Peter Barkworth, Michael Gough, and Joanna Jones, and it climaxes with a downright amazing swordfight. It’s a great, great episode, and if you’ve never seen it, you should check it out.

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What We’re Not Watching: Moonbase 3

We’re not watching Moonbase 3 for the blog, because it is a boring, boring program. Even I couldn’t sit through it without finding something else to do, so a six year-old certainly couldn’t be expected to tackle it. But because it’s an interesting footnote in this period of Doctor Who, and because we’ll be taking a short blog break while we have family in town, I thought I’d write a small post about it.

After four years on Doctor Who, producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks were keen to continue working together but knew that they needed to find some new projects. Working a little fiscal magic, they were able to get the first story of Who‘s next season into production at the tail end of the 1973 block. Moonbase 3 was commissioned for a six-part introductory series and was taping almost at the same time as that story. Managing a massive, resource-demanding program like Who alone was a huge undertaking; I can’t imagine doing two series at once. Unfortunately for Letts and Dicks, this series was a ratings flop. They taped it in the summer of 1973, and it was shown in September and October to general disinterest, and the BBC didn’t ask for anymore.

As an ongoing series, Moonbase 3 is full of problems, but the casting is the major one. The leads, left to right in the photo above, are played by Ralph Bates, Fiona Gaunt, Donald Houston and Barry Lowe, and Bates, whom genre fans may recall as the lead in some Hammer horror films from the early seventies, is the only one with any real charisma. They’re outshined in every episode by the guest stars. If you enjoy BBC or ITC dramas from the early seventies, you’ll see all kinds of familiar faces in Moonbase 3, including Anthony Chinn, Michael Gough, Peter Miles, and Michael Wisher. And you’ll wonder why the guest stars aren’t the leads. It’s that lopsided.

But I’m a huge fan of Peter Miles and not even he could save this program by leading it. This is a show about budgets and breakdowns. In going for realism, Letts and Dicks encouraged a format where imagination was sacrificed for the banal. There’s neither any worry nor any curiosity about the future, it’s just a bland place with bland people having arguments about money and weather satellites. Twice, science experiments are conducted by jealous physicists. At no point are any of the five moonbases threatened by Cybermen, or staffed by Gabrielle Drake in a purple wig, or invaded by the Bringers of Wonder, but the one we’re watching is going to have its budget cut in the next fiscal year to put more Eurodollars into a Venus probe. Staffing cuts! Now that’s what I want from science fiction!

So anyway, the show was a flop, losing two-thirds of its audience in a month, and then, in that 1970s BBC way, it didn’t exist anymore. As the corporation so often did, they wiped the tapes and forgot about it. The episodes were lost forever… except for a weird quirk of fate. The BBC got some co-production money from 20th Century Fox, who suggested that they might be able to sell it in America. I’ve read that they were hoping to get it on ABC, but it’s also possible that Fox was looking at PBS stations or even the same first-run syndication market where Fox was selling the Canadian videotape sci-fi show The Starlost that same September. Whatever, there’s been no indication that any station in North America purchased Moonbase 3 in the 1970s, and so it was completely forgotten.

Fast forward to 1993 and something very weird happened. When the Sci-Fi Channel launched, their most interesting program was an anthology called Sci-Fi Series Collection, which ran all sorts of quickly-cancelled flops without enough episodes for a proper Monday through Friday airing, things like Gemini Man, Otherworld, or Planet of the Apes. In many cases, they couldn’t even get all the episodes: four of the 20 installments of Kolchak: The Night Stalker weren’t available to Sci-Fi because Universal offered those as a pair of sausage-link TV movies instead. And the episodes were all edited by a couple of minutes to accommodate segments of interviews with these shows’ creators or stars.

A few months into the run, Moonbase 3 joined the rotation, and it was kind of funny to see how they had the background animation for the interview segments but no actual interviews. Bates and Houston had already passed away by the time this aired, and I suppose the channel didn’t have the budget to go to the UK to interview Gaunt or Lowe… or Letts or Dicks. At the time, some people in British sci-fi teevee fandom were very interested in the Sci-Fi Channel – there were frenzied updates each month in the fanzine DWB about what it was showing – and people in the UK were incredibly surprised to see that the channel had “found” this lost show. Fox had simply never wiped its tapes. It remained available for any station to buy for twenty years – much like those unidentified thirteen episodes of Ace of Wands from DL Taffner – and the show just sat on a shelf in some vault for two decades waiting for a buyer.

Happily, new copies made their way to the BBC promptly, and the show was released on VHS in 1994, and on DVD some years later. It’s a program for completists only, but I am glad that it survives, because everything should!

Photo credit: Archive TV Musings

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The Avengers 4.3 – The Cybernauts

Fifty-two years later, the talk of transistors in “The Cybernauts” is incredibly dated. And the slow, slow revelation that the silent, powerful assassin is a karate-chopping robot, well, that’s the sort of thing contemporary TV establishes before the opening credits without blinking. You have to make allowances for older television; for many viewers then, this was an extraordinarily strange concept.

But if you can put your mind back to 1965, “The Cybernauts” is downright amazing. There’s a reason why ABC chose this episode to launch the program’s run in America. The story by Philip Levene is stylish and witty and has an incredibly palpable sense of danger and suspense. The investigation is straightforward and the characters are believably in the dark. This is a complicated and outre plan for 1965, and Steed and Mrs. Peel are written in a way that television protagonists typically aren’t anymore. They don’t have access to any additional information; they have to dig it all up, with the audience coming along for the ride. And sure, modern audiences will figure out that it’s a robot earlier than our heroes. I don’t think that most people in 1965-66 would.

Macnee and Rigg are helped this week by one of the most amazing guest casts of any British program of the period. Check out the names: Michael Gough and Frederick Jaeger as the villains, John Hollis as a karate dojo, and Bernard Horsfall, Ronald Leigh-Hunt, and Bert Kwouk as industrialists involved with the evil plot. Gough’s Dr. Armstrong is one of the all-time great Avengers villains, and that’s with a lot of competition to come.

Our son, meanwhile, claims that he hated it. He absolutely insists that he hated it. It was far too scary, he complains, and he never wants to see it again.

Then he went upstairs and started karate-chopping his pillow with big sound effects.

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