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King of the Castle 1.6 and 1.7

“Do we have to watch both parts tonight?” our son asked.

“Best to get it over with,” I replied.

Honestly, for all that’s visually interesting about King of the Castle from a technical standpoint, this really wasn’t very good. Talfryn Thomas was fun to watch, and while my heart sank as the usually reliable Fulton Mackay and Milton Johns’ characters reentered the story, at least Johns’ Frankenstein character “speaks” with a bizarre electronic howl.

But the main problem is that the hero of the story is such an unsympathetic drip. He gets pronounced “snivelling, whimpering” at one point in part seven and I said “yes.” He finally, and not at all surprisingly, exercises some self-confidence and control when he returns to the real world at the end. Then one of the ways they illustrate his newfound grownupness is by having him bin a big stack of Hotspur comics and a Howard the Duck # 5. The heathen.

Our son enjoyed parts three and four, kind of enjoyed part five, and pretty much hated the last two. Roland becomes the King of the Castle at the end of part five, spends part six demanding everybody conform to his rules and makes enemies of them all, and spends most of part seven in some oddball courtroom drama that plays like experimental theater before going home. He tried to avoid admitting that he was just plain bored by calling it “creepy,” but he really had nothing at all to say about it and is glad that it was over.

So no, that certainly wasn’t the best serial that HTV made in the seventies. I wish that The Georgian House existed in full. I bet that one was great!

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King of the Castle 1.1 and 1.2

Back now to 1977, for a seven-part serial made by HTV which our son calls “absolutely scary” and his mother calls “actively painful.” King of the Castle was written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, who had made the fantastic Sky for HTV two years previously and, like Sky, it really should have made it to Nickelodeon’s Third Eye anthology. It’s a freaky, supernatural and very weird story. I don’t agree with either my wife or my son about it so far. I think it’s very peculiar and odd, and even though it’s lining up to climax with a “gasp! it was all… a dream!” ending, I’m curious to see where it’s going before it gets there.

At least it starts out well enough. King of the Castle stars Philip Da Costa as the son of a saxophone player who’s got a scholarship to a local, exclusive school, although he’d rather read comics – the props department mocked up a Mummy’s Tomb cover and pasted it atop a seventies Marvel UK title but didn’t bother to dress the back of the magazine and its ads for other Marvel comics – and keep a low profile. His family’s moved to the top floor of a ten-story apartment building and the elevator’s out of order and a tough teen called Ripper has his gang of bullies ready to cause trouble on the staircases. Providing support are some generally very reliable character actors, including Milton Johns, Fulton Mackay, and Talfryn Thomas.

Interestingly, episode one is almost entirely filmed on location on 16mm film. It’s only right at the end when our young hero backs into the out-of-order elevator and it plummets to lower levels that the videotape starts. Up to this point, our son had watched with a mix of sympathy and frustration – our kid has always hated bullies on TV and movies – and the instant the world changed into a creepy dungeon with cobwebs, bizarre sound effects, and overlay on top of overlay on top of overlay as the guy running the video mixer loses his mind, he got incredibly scared and hid.

No pictures will convey how weird this looks. I imagine most of our readers are familiar enough with the sort of image-atop-image visuals of seventies videotape, whether you can picture the blue-screen worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft or, most precisely, the alien ship/environment in Doctor Who‘s “Claws of Axos,” which was also written by Baker and Martin. Now take that look and go nuts. In part two, Da Costa and Talfryn Thomas, now playing a different character with a similar set of keys, navigate through cramped environments with lots of curtains or obstacles to block a clear shot, like an amusement park haunted house, but then other elements are chromakeyed on top of those, and other visuals on top of those. By the time we get to the Frankenstein castle where Mackay’s otherworld character lives, they’re keying lava lamp blobs on top of erlenmeyer flasks full of green food coloring and then keying firecracker sparks on top of those.

But I’ll grant my wife one point: it’s one thing to suffer through a bad performance from an otherwise unknown actor – take Mordred in “Battlefield,” please – but seeing a really good actor like Fulton Mackay go so over the top in this wretched performance really is painful. At least he’s doing it on a downright weird set and there’s lots of other things to look at. Like Milton Johns’ Frankenstein monster in a Ronald McDonald wig. Really.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts five and six)

People have been making new suggestions for Doctor Who spinoffs since the mid-sixties, but I think that our son’s onto a unique one. He believes that there should be a show that sounds just perfect, and since he is still a few years from meeting Strax, I’m amazed by his prescience. He calls his show Stupid Sontaran and it’s about a Sontaran who acts just like all the others and is obsessed with war, but he either gives or receives really dumb orders, like “I order you to take a nap for the glorious Sontaran empire!” So, Chris Chibnall, if you like it, and I’m sure that you do, drop me a line, and we’ll get our boy some representation to make it all nice and legal.

Everyone remembers the Sontarans’ surprise appearance for this story’s last two episodes, and everybody remembers that the very noisy original K9 stays behind on Gallifrey, and so does Leela, in what might be the all-time worst companion departure in the entire series. It would have been better if she had died heroically saving the Doctor…. or if she stayed behind to join the fur-clad Gallifreyan dropouts who live outside the city… or if she stayed behind with Rodan, with whom she’s actually spent some screen time in this adventure, though that might have been pretty unlikely for the BBC in 1978. No, she has fallen in love, completely offscreen, with that Chief O’Hara dude. Both actress Louise Jameson and her character deserved a lot better than this.

Yeah, I know, these observations are all that anybody ever says about the end of this story, but that’s all I’ve got. Well, I guess that our son was impressed by just how many corridors and rooms there are inside the TARDIS, much more than he believed was in there. And he did get a kick out of the Doctor’s greenhouse having a big Sontaran-eating flytrap, but otherwise this, like several serials this season, was an adventure that limped to its finale. The next season will be better.

We’ll take a break from Doctor Who to rotate something else in, but stick around! We will begin season sixteen in about three weeks!

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Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts three and four)

So Gallifrey has been invaded by these aliens called Vardans, and the Doctor’s been playing along because they’re telepathic and can detect treachery. They spend part three and the first half of part four not fully materialized, in sort of a shimmering thought-form. This is an incredibly interesting idea that looks incredibly silly, because the BBC just couldn’t make this concept work very well. When these powerful enemies finally do show themselves, it’s just three actors in basic sci-fi military uniforms. Amazingly, the show even underlines the flat revelation by having Tom Baker and Milton Johns complain about how disappointing it is. A comedy womp-womp sound wouldn’t have done worse.

Some of the actors in this story are very good, especially Baker, Johns, and John Arnatt. Unfortunately, the Doctor spends most of part four in the company of the Chief O’Hara character that I mentioned last time, a guy called Andred who’s there for the Doctor to explain all the plot to. I’m sure the actor’s a very nice fellow, but this character is incredibly annoying, even more so because I know how this story is going to end next time, and forty years hasn’t made it any less stupid.

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Doctor Who: The Invasion of Time (parts one and two)

Regular readers might have figured out that production of Doctor Who‘s fifteenth season was troubled and erratic. It really was, and that’s before we came to the collapse of the six-part serial that was planned to end the season. It was scripted by a veteran TV writer called David Weir and it wasn’t working, so “The Invasion of Time” was an eleventh-hour replacement co-written by the show’s producer and script editor, Graham Williams and Anthony Read, and broadcast under a pseudonym.

It’s an interesting story, but it’s not a great one. We’re back on Gallifrey, where everything is starting to look like a 1970s beauty salon and where many, many details are different since we were last here fifteen months or so previously. None of the actors from “The Deadly Assassin” returned for this, just names and ranks and costumes. John Arnatt takes over the role of the Doctor’s former teacher, Borusa, in this adventure, and the wonderful Milton Johns plays Kelner, the new Castellan. He’s the police commissioner, basically, and the head of the citadel guards is a barely competent red-clad fellow who wishes he could be Chief O’Hara when he grows up.

The real fun in parts one and two is that the kids in the audience are not in on the secret of what’s going on. It’s all a big mystery, although one that won’t tax adult viewers. The Doctor has signed a contract with some alien invaders, and K9’s in favor of this plan, but Leela can’t be allowed to stay in the Time Lord city. Revisiting the plot of “The Deadly Assassin,” the Doctor has returned home to assume his role as president, so that he can access the Matrix, but Leela has to be expelled, K9 has to destroy the planet’s force field, and the Doctor needs a private room with lead-lined walls, ceilings, and floors… almost as though he needs to keep a big secret from somebody. Our son enjoyed this, especially seeing K9 cause lots of explosions in the force field generator basement, but he is completely stumped as to what our hero is planning. Good!

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts three and four)

Good grief, what a mess. The only reasons to watch the second half of this story are to see Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen rising way above the material with wit and charm and sparkles in their eyes, and to say goodbye to Ian Marter and John Levene, who make their final appearances here. It’s the last UNIT story of the seventies – and no, it’s not an “epilogue,” it’s got precisely the same number of regular UNIT characters as “The Invasion” or “The Silurians,” even if Nicholas Courtney isn’t in it – but because nobody making the program had definitively decided that, we didn’t get a proper goodbye to any of the characters. The Fourth Doctor says many times that he hates goodbyes, but audiences kind of like them. It would have been nice to let the Doctor actually tell his old friends that he isn’t going to be their scientific adviser anymore, shake hands, and wave farewell.

Subbing for Courtney in part four is Patrick Newell as Colonel Faraday. I’m predisposed to like Newell, a fine character actor best known for the recurring role of Mother in the Tara King years of The Avengers, but the script doesn’t give him anything interesting to do and the only idea anybody had for him seems to be “don’t imitate Courtney.” When some anonymous soldiers turn up at the end of the season with UNIT badges – now that really is the epilogue, not this – Colonel Faraday isn’t with them. Corporal Bell had more screen time than Faraday.

As for the rest of it, it’s all just bad guys talking tough and not staying around to see the trapped hero’s doom, unbelievably gullible patsies who believe the best, that sort of thing. Mission Control is a blue chromakey screen hung in front of a black curtain while four technicians act like they’re in a Gerry Anderson show and spend about a full minute counting things down instead of showing us anything interesting. That’s because the visual effects are either more stock footage of American rockets, or director Barry Letts returning to his weird old trick of blue-screening actors in front of a photograph. Doctor Who was a low budget program, true, but this is one of the most egregious examples in the 1970s of just plain looking cheap.

And then there’s the eyepatch. I did warn my wife that one of the all-time “oh, baloney” moments is in part four. I think that somewhere, something went awry in rehearsals and they didn’t have time to do this right. Twice, the Doctor tells Milton Johns’ character “You’ve been brainwashed,” and I am perfectly willing to accept that part of that brainwashing was making the man think he lost an eye in a rocket crash. That would have been just fine. Except what we see on screen is Johns removing his eyepatch, and, instead of forcing himself to fight the brainwashing and the illusion and realize, dramatically, that his eye really is there, he just takes off the patch and boom! There’s his eye! Styggron has been lying all this time!

And except for there was no reason whatsoever for Styggron to make him think he was missing an eye. It is utterly irrelevant to the drama except to give the character a chance to realize the Kraals are evil, and to make him look like Scott McCloud, Space Angel, when he’s in his astronaut suit and helmet.

Our son wasn’t wowed by this deeply dumb moment, but he did enjoy this story much more than he was willing to admit yesterday. This is definitely Doctor Who for six year-olds. He confessed that he really wasn’t scared by the first half (we knew) and gave this a mostly thumbs-up. He didn’t like that there was an android duplicate of the Doctor, but he loved our hero having a brawl with it.

With that in mind, as I mentioned, this is the final appearance in the show for John Levene and Ian Marter. Levene largely left the acting business after this and has lived in California since the early 1990s. I was surprised to see that he made an appearance in Beetleborgs, one of those Haim Saban programs that repurpose Japanese sci-fi teevee footage into an otherwise American show. Marter appeared frequently on television and in movies in the 1970s and early 1980s and also became a writer. He specialized in both Who books for Target and, under the pen name Ian Don, other novelizations of feature films like Splash and the dinosaur movie Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend. He passed away of a heart attack on his 42nd birthday in 1986.

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Doctor Who: The Android Invasion (parts one and two)

Do you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? Well, when I was in middle school, several of us were making our own sort-of versions of these. They were called Gamebooks, and my mate Blake, who you may recall from previous chapters about Doctor Who, developed them alongside his classmates Nathan Mize and Mark Hester. In a Gamebook, the front of a sheet of notebook paper was a densely-packed chapter of an adventure, with three options about what you would do next on the bottom of the page. You turned it over to see what would happen: usually, two options would have you dying, and only one left you able to proceed to the next chapter.

They started making these in early 1983, about a year before WGTV started showing Who, and some of the rest of us started copying them and eventually began writing our own stories. Probably close to a dozen of us kids made these over a three year period. They passed the time in class when we were bored and weren’t in the mood to draw comics. Over time, we’d change the rules and the format a little, incorporating coin tosses, die rolls, hit points, and alternating storylines, like the end of chapter one’s options might resolve to death, proceeding to chapter two, or proceeding to chapter three.

I mention all this because, inevitably, I made a sprawling Doctor Who Gamebook from my memories of the first seven stories that I saw, starting the Gamebook the morning after I first saw this in 1984. Sadly, this no longer exists – even more sadly, literally hundreds of pages of Who comics that I made between the ages of 13 and 15 do exist, and no, you can’t see them – but I mention it today because I clearly remember two key points about it.

One, I could not draw a Kraal to save my life. Granted, I was 12, and couldn’t draw much of anything to save my life, but I redid that dumb drawing of Styggron six or seven times and just could not do it.

Two, this Gamebook went on forever, with seven alternating storylines. Chapter 19 might have been a “Pyramids of Mars” chapter, with the results taking you to chapter 27 or 32, and chapter 20 might have continued the “Genesis of the Daleks” story, with results taking you to chapter 23 (where you’d reach the same grisly end that a wrong decision in chapter 15 might have sent you), 24, or 31. We didn’t write these things “by story,” we wrote them literally one chapter after the next, so there wasn’t any advance planning. And somehow or another, the Doctor Who Gamebook concluded after ninety-some or a hundred-odd chapters, and I hadn’t included a way out of the “Android Invasion” storyline. Every single option the Doctor had eventually led him to his death, because I didn’t include a chapter where he could win. It wasn’t the Daleks or Sutekh who finally killed our hero, it was the silly old Kraals!

Well, if you’ve been following along linearly instead of just reading the Doctor Who chapters, you may recall that our son needed a little light adventure after the horrors of the last couple of Who stories. “The Android Invasion” is perfectly placed for that. It sticks out like a sore thumb in season thirteen because it’s comparatively light and tame, and because the Kraals really aren’t much of a threat. The adventure was written by Terry Nation, and it was directed, for the last time, by former producer Barry Letts.

And, because our son has decided to be contrary, he’s telling us that this story is even scarier than “Pyramids.” We don’t believe him, because he isn’t reacting the same way that he does to real frights, but he’s chosen to insist that the situation is unbearably creepy and the Kraals are terrifying. The story is the sort of thing that Steed and Mrs. Peel might have investigated, before it takes an extraterrestrial turn, anyway, and he’s seen them tackle something similar twice already, so it isn’t that creepy. Deserted English village, weird clues about what’s going on, like brand new currency and telephones that only work sporadically… yes, this is very much like what Terry Nation concocted for programs like The Avengers or The Persuaders!, but bent into the Doctor Who shape.

One thing that I will give our son, though, is that he really didn’t enjoy most of the classic story from season seven, “Inferno,” because of the scenes where the Doctor confronts villainous duplicates of his friends. There’s a little echo of that here, as RSM Benton and Lt. Harry Sullivan appear to be working for the bad guys, but the Doctor figures it out at the end of part two. He and Sarah aren’t on Earth. It’s not just the white-suited “mechanics” that are robots. Everybody is, including Benton and Harry, and this village is a simulation, a testing site for the Kraals’ invasion of Earth.

It’s going to get a little bogged down and really silly in the second half, but I enjoyed these two parts quite a lot, despite some dopey plot holes. It’s a good example of the atmosphere being so entertaining that you can overlook the story’s minor deficiencies. Unless you just want to absolutely insist that you’re scared, anyway.

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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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