Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts five and six)

It’s kind of the nature of action-adventure television that the hero needs to have a really good challenge in each story, against villains as resourceful as the protagonist. So in a weird way, it’s kind of refreshing to see the Doctor pitted against some adversaries who are way, way out of their league. The Chameleons did not think this thing through. The Doctor’s able to exploit a massive, massive flaw in their science and technology, and hold all but two of them hostage because these bad guys’ tech is flatly not up to the challenge of interstellar invasion. A more polished script would show these villains as desperate and pitiful rather than malevolent. It’s a missed opportunity, but I did enjoy the tables turning in parts five and six.

In fact, “The Faceless Ones” belongs to a very rare group of original Who stories – “Mawdryn Undead” and “Time and the Rani” are others – that end much more satisfactorily than they began. It’s still very unhurried, but the end of this adventure sees all the humans acting decisively and intelligently, and I like the way the Chameleons know when the jig is up. The fellow that they capture spills the beans on the operation with very little pressure, and Donald Pickering’s character, who’s been playing his main villain part as a posh airline pilot calmly ordering his subordinates around, is intelligent enough to see this is not going to end well for him, and immediately begins negotiating. It’s a shame part six is missing; Pickering and Patrick Troughton have a very interesting face-off toward the end. The animation’s as good as we can hope for, but I’d love to see those actors playing that scene.

Incidentally, while I wish that I could be only positive about the animation, I do think they missed a huge opportunity. When all two dozen of the humans who are connected to their duplicates are located, I’d love to have seen an overhead shot, from an angle much higher than the original director could actually have managed, of all twenty-five bodies laid out in the parking lot. I wish the camera moved around more in general. Why limit themselves to just what the BBC could have done in 1967?

“The Faceless Ones” is a little infamous because of the poor way that they wrote out the Doctor’s companions Ben and Polly. The producer at the time didn’t want to continue with the actors Michael Craze and Anneke Wills, so they only appear in parts one, two, and six, and only on location in the last episode, so the BBC could dispense with them as quickly as possible. The story is set literally the day after the previous season’s “The War Machines,” which means that Ben and Polly could pick back up with their old lives as though they’d never been away. It also means that WOTAN, the Chameleons, and the Daleks in the next story were all operating in London in the third week of July, 1966. The World Cup was happening in London at the same time, and Gemini X returned to Earth. Wish I could read a Who-universe newspaper from that week. The Swinging Sixties, man.

We’ll return to the David Tennant days of Doctor Who in May. Stay tuned!

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts three and four)

Some of the animation in this reconstruction is really quite nice. The team does a really terrific job with airplanes, and so while I’m not completely sold on the movement of figures, I could watch what they do with jets for forty-five minutes without complaint. I do think the production as a whole is limited by the glacial pacing of the original story, and not helped by the lack of music. Black-and-white Doctor Who was occasionally like that; when they overspent in one area, like a day or two on location at Gatwick Airport, they had to cut back in another.

Our son’s enjoying it more than I am, honestly, but that’s by no means a fault with the current presentation, which is definitely a case of the best they can do with what they had to work with. I enjoyed seeing a little modern day Easter egg thrown in: the newspapers have headline stories that a menace that the first Doctor had battled the year before, the War Machines, had been defeated. That’s actually going to be an important plot point in part six. Heck, the original production crew should have dropped those newspapers in when they made this in 1967. That’d be some great foreshadowing! Otherwise, the mandate to be as accurate a presentation of the original production kind of keeps them hamstrung. There’s a bit where the RAF sends a fighter to follow the Chameleon Tours’ jet. As I say, it looks great, but if we suddenly had some Thunderbirds music as the fighter spirals out of control, it’d be even better.

Doctor Who: The Faceless Ones (parts one and two)

The latest animated reconstruction of a lost Doctor Who story is 1967’s “The Faceless Ones,” although in this case the original production wasn’t completely destroyed. Episodes one and three of the serial, written by Malcolm Hulke and David Ellis, were mostly recovered – part three is missing several dozen frames toward the end – and now with animation, we can enjoy the whole thing in this very comprehensive set. It contains the original episodes, telesnap reconstructions of the four missing parts, and both black and white and color animations of all six. It was released in the UK last month; a region one edition is available for pre-order but it has not been scheduled.

“The Faceless Ones” feels kind of long at six parts. It would probably feel long at four. It’s one of those stories where the Doctor and his companions, Jamie, Ben and Polly, make a dumb decision to hide and scatter in a secure area, find something unpleasant, and have to spend an eternity getting people to listen and believe them. It’s Gatwick Airport, 1966, and Polly sees a man murdered by an alien weapon. Meanwhile, the police are becoming suspicious about reports of young people going missing on budget tours to Europe operated by a strange company called Chameleon Tours.

There’s a fine guest cast in the adventure, at least. There’s Bernard Kay as a detective, and Pauline Collins as a furious girl from Liverpool who’s looking for her missing brother. Donald Pickering and Wanda Ventham, who, in a really weird coincidence, both appeared again in a Who serial twenty years later, also have key parts. But the story feels long and is driven by foolish choices, and suffers from that tedious trope where our heroes go find somebody in authority to report a dead body, only to have the body not be there when they return. We’ve all seen that one too many times.

The kid wasn’t especially taken with it either. We watched the original part one and the black and white animation for part two, and his favorite moment was the creepy reveal of a hideous alien. They totally blew part one’s cliffhanger, by the way. The big reveal is the back of the alien’s head. I don’t know what they were thinking; the creature definitely should have turned to look at the camera and given the audience a big shock moment. But that’s this serial all over. It’s very pedestrian and slow, even by the standards of Who at the time. The kid asked to switch to the second DVD and watch the remainder of the story in color, which we’ll do tomorrow night. Hopefully it picks up!

Night Gallery 1.2 – Room With a View / The Little Black Bag / The Nature of the Enemy

From 1965-1971, the BBC produced an anthology program called Out of the Unknown. Strangely, like Rod Serling’s Zone and Gallery, the series followed a similar path from traditional SF into supernatural horror as it moved from black and white to color. Some writers contend it was at its best in the black and white years. If nothing else, Doctor Who fans can enjoy listening to many of the same sound effects and library music that the William Hartnell serials employed.

Like many British TV productions of its era, much of Unknown was destroyed, but a few years ago, the BFI put out a splendid DVD collection of all the existing episodes, including fragments, clips, and audio recordings of others. In 2018, Marie and I watched them. It’s a pretty uneven show. Most of the episodes were at least interesting. Some were terrible, and at least one, Frederik Pohl’s “Tunnel Under the World,” was amazing.

The most curious one for me was an adaptation of C.M. Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag.” Only about two-thirds of this 1969 production, starring Emrys Jones and Geraldine Moffat, survive. (for more details, see here.) I thought it was incredibly interesting, went online to read more about it, and saw that Night Gallery made their own adaptation the following year. I figured I could wait and see how Serling and team did it.

The Night Gallery adaptation is radically different. In Unknown, the disgraced doctor gets as far as reopening a small clinic. The Doctor Fall of this story, played by Burgess Meredith, only has the chance to use the bag a few times in one day before he is murdered by his associate to profit from it. Meredith is superhumanly good in the part, but his associate, played by Chill Willis, just aggravated me. Serling didn’t give the character a point of view other than “argue against all plans of protagonist” and I didn’t like Willis’s tone of voice, his mannerisms, anything.

Surrounding “Bag,” there are two short stories with quick payoffs: a mean-spirited black comedy of jealousy featuring Joseph Wiseman and Diane Keaton, and a more straightforward adventure tale with a very dopey twist ending starring Joseph Campanella. This one is so goofy that it must have been made for any kids who ran across the episode, because the revelation was the first Gallery moment that our kid found remotely entertaining.

And no, the kid did not recognize Burgess Meredith. Confounded child!

Doctor Who: Mission to the Unknown

Among Doctor Who‘s many missing episodes, there is a one-off oddity made and shown 54 years ago this week, in 1965. Who was then made as a series of serials, and they were planning a mammoth twelve-episode storyline featuring the Daleks. The producers decided to take advantage of some budget and calendar hiccups and made a one-off adventure as a prologue to the Dalek epic. It didn’t feature the Doctor or his companions. It starred Edward de Souza as an outer space spy – it was 1965 after all – on a desperate mission to let the galaxy know that, after hundreds of years on the frontiers of space, the Daleks had formed an alliance with six strange alien races and were preparing an invasion of our solar system.

Edward de Souza is still with us, and a few months ago, he and Peter Purves, who had played one of the Doctor’s companions at the time, were invited to the University of Central Lancashire to see what the Culture and Creative Industries school has been doing. Each year, the staff and students collaborate on an incredibly intensive project, and this year, they recreated “Mission to the Unknown.”

Earlier today – well, yesterday, if, like this blog’s calendar, you’re in Europe – the recreation of “Mission to the Unknown” premiered on the Doctor Who YouTube channel. Click the image above and check it out! I won’t swear that it completely met our son’s expectations. We watched the trailer a few days ago and he was bellowing how badly he wanted to see that. Unfortunately, “Mission” is, like a lot of Who from its day, very slow and imaginative. It isn’t action-packed; the original production seems to have been cramped even by the low-budget standards of the William Hartnell years. It’s practically silent for long stretches, with only a few library music cues and actors projecting fear and intensity. More creepy than thrilling, the design may be dated in the way a lot of sixties sci-fi is – our hero’s tape recorder is about the size of a VHS double-pack – but you can see what kids in 1965 were wowed by.

I think the UCLAN team did a terrific job. It’s both a labor of love and, hopefully, valuable work experience for people looking to work in the film and television industry. I’m glad that the BBC and the Terry Nation Estate allowed them the privilege to recreate this.

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (parts three and four)

As I mentioned last time, I’ve kept “The Macra Terror” on the shelf for decades, never reading the novelisation or watching a telesnap reconstruction or listening to the BBC’s cassette release. I have, of course, wondered how in the world the production team could have managed a story about giant crabs with the meager resources afforded to them, and when the “Lost in Time” collection of orphaned episodes and clips was released fifteen-odd years ago, the clips suggested “not all that believably.”

In point of fact, for the eight year-old in this audience, “The Macra Terror” moved from being a behind-the-sofa nightmare of a cartoon into a laughing stock when we switched over to disk two to see the surviving footage. There are a few seconds of fragments from a home camera recording of some random moments along with some screams and shocks that the censors in Australia deemed too horrifying for audiences. The cartoon Macra is a swiftly-moving horror, but the real thing was a mostly stationary prop, kept to the shadows with arms and claws waving at the actors. While we would all prefer to have the original, at least the animation doesn’t result in the kids at home guffawing over the production.

In other words, dear Australia: thank you for censoring the story and keeping what you cut in an archive, but I promise, it really, really wasn’t necessary.

Anyway, I’m very glad this story was animated. The DVD package – and there’s an even more packed Blu-ray – contains the story in both black and white and color, along with commentary featuring the serial’s original director, actor Frazer Hines, and three of the guest cast. It’s got telesnap reconstructions of the episodes, the audiotape version that was released in 1992, and the fragments of original footage along with lots of other bonus material. I thought the story was kind of slow and lacked urgency, but the animation was fine and I’m very impressed with the presentation. I hope they have a new cartoon reconstruction in the works for 2020.

Doctor Who: The Macra Terror (parts one and two)

“So what’s scarier,” Marie asked our son, “the monsters, or the colony telling everyone that there are no monsters?”

“BOTH,” he shouted.

“The Macra Terror” was a four-part Doctor Who adventure that the BBC showed once, in 1967, sold to a few other countries, and then destroyed. All that’s left is the soundtrack, some photographs, and a few fragments that the Australian Broadcasting Company censored from their copy and left in an archive to be discovered decades later. From that, they’ve built a new animated presentation. It’s not coming out in North America until October for some stupid reason. Why anyone should have to wait in this day and age, I’ve no idea. I’ve had my Region 2 DVD on the shelf for a couple of weeks now.

This has been one of the Who adventures that I’ve deliberately never learned anything about, saving it for tonight’s rainy day. It was originally shown in season four, as Patrick Troughton’s fifth story as the Doctor, with Peter Jeffrey as the “pilot” of a mining colony several centuries in the future. Everybody in the colony works hard and sings happy songs during their down time, because they’re all being subliminally programmed while they sleep to obey orders, don’t question anything, and certainly don’t say anything about gigantic crab monsters that creep around the colony at night. Ben, one of the Doctor’s companions, gets taken in by the overnight hypnosis and soon he’s parroting the official position that “there are no such thing as Macra!”

It may be a new cartoon from a 52 year-old show, but it’s still got the power to thrill and get under audience’s skin. Doctor Who hasn’t frightened our son this much in several months. This was a behind the sofa with the security blanket experience, that left him wide-eyed and very worried for Polly. “This was SUPER SCARY,” he protested.

RIP Trevor Preston, 1938-2018

It was announced today that writer Trevor Preston passed away last month. He’s best known for his work on crime series, both ongoing programs like the seminal The Sweeney as well as one-off films, television plays, and serials like 1978’s Out. Most of Preston’s work was outside the scope of this blog, but he did have one fantastic credit to his name. He created Ace of Wands, which we really enjoyed watching last year.

Sadly, none of the Ace of Wands episodes that Preston himself wrote still exist. He also wrote a 1967 adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe that is mostly missing, as well as a Freewheelers four-parter for Southern in 1968 which has never been released on home video. So there’s a lot that we’d like to watch together, but can’t!

I’ve been saving two of his other works for a rainy day, though. One of the missing Ace of Wands stories featured a villain called Mr. Stabs. Preston really enjoyed the character and brought him back as the protagonist in two TV plays in 1975 and 1984. They’re included as bonus features on Network’s Wands DVD set. We’ll have to check those out sometime. And as always, our condolences to Preston’s family and friends.

Photo credit: The Guardian.

The Avengers 1.20 – Tunnel of Fear

I’m going to say something a little heretical. I’m honestly not a big fan of the videotaped Avengers. There are moments of greatness across those three years. “The Wringer” is incredible. “Brief For Murder” might be the very best episode of the show. Good scripts, good characters, fabulous actors, but I won’t linger on why I don’t love it like I do the filmed years. It’s best to just appreciate where it gets it all very right. “Tunnel of Fear,” which was recovered from a private collector in late 2016, is mostly very right.

It’s the 20th episode of the first series, and one of only three stories to survive in full from that year. The Avengers was designed and developed as a vehicle for Ian Hendry, who stars as Dr. David Keel, a man who we have retrofitted into being the first “talented amateur” that John Steed conscripts for his investigation into crime. All of the other episodes, sadly, were junked and are believed lost for good.

In the first series, the world of weird crime hadn’t yet developed, and Brian Clemens hadn’t arrived with his rules about the fantasy of the series. Keel and Steed were “two against the underworld,” and theirs was the London that anybody could visit, a London – or a Southend – populated by uniformed policemen and escaped convicts. John Kruse’s script for this story is remarkably ordinary and down-to-earth. The emotional core of the story – imagine an Avengers with an emotional core at all – is the convict on the lam desperate to clear his name learning that his girlfriend had a baby with another fellow while he was away. The convict is played by familiar face Anthony Bate, who guest starred in everything in the sixties.

Our son was remarkably attentive given the primitive and stagy world of the videotaped days of the show. He honestly didn’t enjoy it very much, and I didn’t expect him to, which is why I decided against watching series two and three with him. I appreciate his patience. This isn’t the Avengers we’ve watched; it’s two incarnations removed from what he knows. For an archaeological look back at classic TV, it was a good one-off for him.

For me, it was better than that. It does have the teeth-grinding limitations of black-and-white videotape, where the actors and the microphones are rarely in the same place twice and the pre-filmed 16mm material was done without a microphone at all, just Johnny Dankworth’s deeply dull lounge jazz, but this a pretty good story with some good actors, and it shows that Steed had that twinkle in his eye from the beginning. Ian Hendry is very entertaining in the role of a crimefighter who deeply cares about people and is willing to get in way over his head to help this guy. He just radiates charisma and a real passion for Dr. Keel’s work beneath his cool exterior. Hendry was a great actor. You can see why the show was built for him, even if they let Patrick Macnee come in and steal the program out from under him.

Studiocanal released “Tunnel of Fear” by itself on a Region 2 DVD last month along with a few bonus features and a fabulously thick booklet full of photographs and even a reprint of a comic strip from the 1962 TV Crimebusters Annual. Unfortunately, Studiocanal being Studiocanal, they managed to not include the advertised PDFs of the surviving season one scripts, but apparently they’ll email them to you if you buy the DVD. I’m glad I purchased this!

We’re going to take a short break from The Avengers now, but stick around! Steed and Mrs. Peel will return in a few weeks!

Catweazle 2.9 – The Ghost Hunters

Our son absolutely loved this episode. I thought it was pretty funny, but it never quite rises to a great bit early on. Lady Collingford has decided that their house, which has 184 rooms, is haunted, in part because she keeps hearing this peculiar sound. Elspet Gray then gives this hilarious impersonation of Geoffrey Bayldon’s “tch-tch-tch!” noise and I hooted.

This rapidly descends into the sort of “he went thataway” farce perfected on American Saturday morning shows. Lady Collingford hires famous ghost hunters, played by Dudley Foster and David Cook. They’re a couple of scam artists who have wired the house with speakers, and Cedric has decided to try and spook them with a bedsheet, and Catweazle has decided that tonight, of all nights, is the right night to ask the house’s spirits to help him find the hidden gold in the house. Our son was howling with laughter; this was clearly one of his all-time favorites. Moray Watson is playing an upper-class twit in this series, but he defines the term “long suffering” tonight.

Dudley Foster died in early 1973, only 48 years old, but he appeared in just about everything a fellow could possibly do in British film and TV before then. Foster was cast as the villain Caven in a 1969 Doctor Who serial, “The Space Pirates,” which is the last incomplete story of that program’s run. Bizarrely, Foster appears in the five episodes of that serial that are missing, and not in part two, the only episode that survives. That strikes me as a little karmically unfair.