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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts three and four)

Our son was still about as frightened as a kid could be during the second half of this adventure, so much so that we had to pause during part four to get him to calm down. He was distracting himself from the horror onscreen, which reached new depths when Sutekh took control of the Doctor’s mind, first by firing an imaginary gun at Sutekh with a growl, and then by, I’m sorry to say, belching. And then giggling about it. You try to be understanding. He is just six and needed a distraction from one of his heroes being used as a plaything by the most evil and powerful creature in the cosmos. But man, was it an obnoxious mood killer!

Anyway, I think there’s an unheralded moment in this story. I think this is the first time, at least the first in quite a while, that evil forces take control of the TARDIS. I remember the villains came on board, briefly, in “The Enemy of the World” and in “The Claws of Axos,” but is this the first occasion where something as awful as this happens? It really adds to the feeling of gloom.

I think it’s an absolutely terrific production. Many people call it one of their favorite Doctor Who stories from the era for good reason. There are a few brief moments of sparkling wit among the incredibly high stakes, and Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen are fantastic together, especially in part three when the Doctor shows no emotion at all when Michael Sheard’s character is found to be dead, and Sarah starts to lose her temper with his dispassionate lack of what she starts to call “humanity” before checking herself. It’s scary and exciting, and people love it to pieces for a reason.

Hopefully the next story won’t have our son too terrified, but I’m a little concerned about the one after that…!

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Doctor Who: Pyramids of Mars (parts one and two)

The third saddest child I think I’ve ever seen would be our son, tonight, right after the cliffhanger to part two of “Pyramids of Mars.” He didn’t completely break down, but his lower lip trembled more than I’ve seen it in a while. Almost frozen with fear, he huddled beneath his security blanket and said “I need a hug.” Thumbs were definitely down. “Pyramids of Mars” is the scariest thing ever.

The first and second saddest children I think I’ve ever seen would be his older brother and sister, who saw this story in late 2003 or early 2004. They did indeed completely break down. There was screaming and there were tears and then there were two kids in bed with me.

Even worse, I didn’t have this story in serial version at the time, I had a VHS copy of the compilation movie that was shown on public television. So these robot mummies that have indiscriminately killed everybody they’ve come across in the grounds of this old priory in 1911 and are completely unstoppable come charging into the lodge after – unbelievably – crushing a poacher to death between their chests, they smash the Doctor to the ground, kick the furniture over, and are about to strangle Sarah as the music swells. And, since I had no other way to do it, I just pressed stop in the middle of the mayhem. Screams.

So “Pyramids of Mars,” which was written by Robert Holmes and directed by the brilliant Paddy Russell, has a reputation for being just about the perfect example of seminal, classic, scary Doctor Who. It’s the first time that the show consciously decides to be a Hammer horror film in the classic style with a sci-fi sheen. It’s mummies coming to life in a big old house in 1911, but they’re the robotic servants of the phenomenally powerful Sutekh, an alien who has been paralyzed in an Egyptian tomb for thousands of years. The Mars bit comes because the prison has two parts: the force field that keeps Sutekh motionless is on another planet, to keep anybody on Earth from screwing with it. But his jailers didn’t shut off their prisoner’s mind, and as soon as one of those rich Englishmen showed up to rob tombs in the name of archaeology, Sutekh took control of him and set the man and his robots to work freeing him from his prison.

But the sci-fi stuff is darn near irrelevant. The whys really, really aren’t important, because this is about killer mummies in the woods and evil servants bringing Sutekh’s gift of death to all humanity:

Bringing this to life (ha!), you’ve got Bernard Archard playing the archaeologist as a walking corpse, and Michael Sheard as his unfortunate scientist brother. Peter Copley is another scientist who has a thing or two to say, sir, about all this unpleasantness before he gets killed. The sets are amazing, and the location filming is just terrific. Tom Baker is on fire in this story, as the Doctor knows that he’s up against the greatest threat that he’s ever faced, something that will change the course of history and destroy all life on Earth in 1911 unless he can find a way to stop it.

Incidentally, for those mildly curious about these things, this story is the one that emphatically – and repeatedly – finally puts a firm date on the “present day” of Doctor Who. It’s five years ahead of the broadcast date: 1980. This will later get retconned. Some of us find this terribly amusing and entertaining. About nine people lose sleep over it. They all have book deals.

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part six)

This really is a super story, and it ends brilliantly enough to please even the more frightened members of the audience. Our son watched this one with quite a lot of grumbling and nail biting, but I believe that since it ends with a big explosion, he got to grin really big and shout “The Master got his butt kicked!” So this one goes in the win column.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (parts four and five)

Not too much to say this time, except I seem to be enjoying this story much more than our son, who says this is super scary, and the bad kind of scary. Part five in particular has a great cliffhanger where Mailer, one of the convicts, has Jo hostage and takes a shot at the Doctor. It’s a very well directed and edited cliffhanger, planned and executed right, so after the gunshot, the camera lingers on his pistol for almost a full second before the credits roll. That had to cause a little alarm with our boy.

But he is paying good attention in a very cute way. The Master blackmails the Doctor into helping devise a way to stop or slow down the Mind Parasite that lives in the Keller Machine. As they were working together, our son piped up “Hey, I think they’re brothers!” He’s not the first Who viewer to make that claim. He’ll be drawing his own comics pretty soon at this rate.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part three)

I may not much like the character of the Master as much as I enjoy Roger Delgado’s portrayal of him, but there’s one cute little bit about the Doctor’s and the Master’s relationship that I really love. The Doctor is just about clueless when it comes to modern popular culture. He doesn’t know the Beatles catalog, he doesn’t know anything about Spider-Man, he thinks that Batman flies a space rocket, and when he tries to sing the Ghostbusters theme, he might as well be saying “Correctamundo!” to a classroom full of kids, he looks so stupid.

But the Master is fully versed in classic children’s television and popular music. He enjoys the Scissor Sisters and King Crimson. And yes, Crimson was a popular band, once. He’s listening to In the Wake of Poseidon in the back of his limo, and that album actually went to # 4 in the UK charts, a real-world fact that might be even harder to believe from the cold light of the 21st Century than anything in the Master’s latest scheme.

We’ll leave this story here for a couple of days to give our son a break from it. He thinks this serial is super-scary and could use some bionic down time.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part two)

I wasn’t planning on using an image of the strange Chinese dragon that appears onscreen for all of maybe eleven seconds in episodes two and three of “The Mind of Evil” – the director sensibly decided it’s an enormously disappointing costume and lingered instead on reaction shots from people – but the illusory beast just scared the pants off our son. You can never tell with kids! He was far more stoic and brave about the notoriously child-frightening “Terror of the Autons” than this infamously poor dragon.

His mom suggested that this story is doing a good job getting under his skin because we tell him that monsters and aliens aren’t real and can’t hurt him. And suddenly here’s a story about things that are not real killing people. It helps sell the fantasy when the dude who plays Senator Alcott, Tommy Duggan, does a really great job of freaking completely out when Captain Chin Lee turns off the lights and turns into a monster. The direction and Dudley Simpson’s loud-as-thunder music and the freaky noise of the Keller machine helps. Grown-ups may roll their eyes at that dragon, but it certainly was a very effective cliffhanger for our son.

Incidentally, who the blazes said “Okay, Alcott’s got a phobia of dragons, specifically Chinese dragons, so he’s probably got some subconscious issues with the People’s Republic, so he’s just the right guy to go to London and negotiate with them!”

In the cast, John Levene is back in action as Sgt. Benton in this episode, and, tying all the plot threads together, Roger Delgado is back as the Master. He’s got a limousine and a driver and a big cigar this time, he’s got Captain Chin Lee under his hypnotic control to cause havoc at the conference, he’s eavesdropping while Captain Yates discusses plans to dispose of the nuclear missile, and he’s able to transmit the Keller Machine’s power from the prison through Chin Lee to attack the delegates. He’s just being deliciously evil in this story so far.

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Doctor Who: The Mind of Evil (part one)

It’s a great pleasure to finally see “The Mind of Evil” in color. I’ve had this DVD for a while and, like “The Ambassadors of Death,” I’ve been waiting patiently to watch it with my son. All of the other lost-in-color Jon Pertwee episodes of Doctor Who had some kind of color version available in the tape trading days, usually a low-quality multiple-generation copy that came from an American broadcast of the series in the mid-seventies. Nobody is known to have recorded this story and kept it. A gentleman called Tom Lundy recorded the other four (I think he was in Buffalo NY) and kept them, but he recorded over “The Mind of Evil” with a football game. All that remained was a few minutes at the beginning of part six before he taped something else.

A few years ago, the BBC’s technicians and magicians reassembled this story as close to the way it was originally shown as can be managed, and it looks very good. Every fifth (or so) frame of part one is hand-colored, with computers estimating the rest, and parts two through six were restored through chroma-dot recovery, extracting a color signal from the data within a black-and-white copy. I think this is all so fascinating. The only critique I can make about part one is that the insides of actors’ mouths seem unnaturally black. Otherwise this looks incredibly good.

“The Mind of Evil,” written by Don Houghton, is a little bit of a throwback to the previous season of Doctor Who. It’s a harder-edged story than the increasingly fanciful and lighter eighth season, tackling prison reform and the threat of global war without an army of candy-colored monsters. The special effects are not as garish as in the previous story, or anywhere as close to how they’d be in the next one, and the Doctor is still yelling at bureaucrats who get in his way, only this time the target of the Doctor’s loud mouth snaps back, and it is pretty hilarious seeing the Doctor get a little comeuppance for his constant rudeness.

Our heroes are faced with two issues that keep them separated in part one. The Doctor and Jo are observing an experimental procedure that is said to be the work of the famous Dr. Emil Keller. It is supposed to remove the “evil” impulses from the minds of criminals. It seems to work on a cruel fellow called Barnham, played by Neil McCarthy, who was the farmhand from the first season of Catweazle a year before this was shown. Also in the cast is perennial guest-starred-in-everything actor Michael Sheard as the prison doctor.

Meanwhile, UNIT is trying to balance providing security to a World Peace Conference while simultaneously planning to dispose of a missile – you don’t think these plot threads are going to join up, do you? – and their jobs get complicated when a Chinese military captain first reports some stolen documents and then waits half an hour after finding her country’s delegate murdered body and lies about it. Joining UNIT for this story and the next is Fernanda Marlowe as Corporal Bell, whose uniform indicates that she enlisted in the RAF, not the Army, before being assigned to UNIT. Corporal Bell has very little to do in her two stories, but it’s nice that the TV people made the effort to continue giving UNIT some recurring characters before forgetting about the character!

I kind of predicted this would start out a little complicated and over the head of our favorite six year-old critic. He wasn’t really taken with it, but he did let us know that the strange Keller Machine, and the bizarre deaths that happen in the prison’s processing room, are “creepy.” Hopefully he’ll enjoy the next episodes a little more!

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