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The Avengers 7.10 – The Interrogators

I’ve always liked “The Interrogators” a lot. It’s just full of deliciously oddball gags used as punctuations for a strong and clever plot that could have been played straight in a more serious or poker-faced espionage show. The best of all of the gags comes when one of the clueless captives comes to the end of his interrogation when the colonel running the supposedly British Intelligence-approved course calls it a day and tells him that he’s passed. The dude tips his jailers. I’ve seen this many times, but I almost stopped breathing tonight.

Unfortunately, this is one of the episodes that our son didn’t enjoy much at all. Things improved toward the end, but he didn’t like how incredibly nasty and mean the villains were acting, even when they were played by familiar actors like Christopher Lee and Neil McCarthy. Glynn Edwards is also one of their gang, who are using bureaucracy, forged passes, and reams of paperwork to convince agents that they’re due for a random course in TOHE: Test of Human Endurance. This is one of those cases where the heroes are several steps behind the villains, and the combination of complexity and cruelty turned him off the adventure. Things only brightened when Steed hops into a waiting helicopter and tells the pilot “Follow that pigeon!”

Incidentally, I didn’t so much mention as strongly imply before, back when Patrick Newell’s character of Mother rejoined the show as a semi-regular character, that Steed and Tara really don’t need a boss figure except in those cases that specifically deal with their organization. This is one of the few that does. The story, by Richard Harris and Brian Clemens, wouldn’t work at all unless Tara was ordered by her superior to take this course. These are really good villains who’ve thought of everything, and fake his authorization. Mother’s base of the week is a flower-filled office accessible only by a pay phone, a little tip of the bowler to the American spy comedy Get Smart.

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (parts three and four)

I have rarely returned to rewatch “The Power of Kroll” because the script has next to none of Robert Holmes’ trademark wit and energy. It’s also got these green-skinned squid-worshipers. The other characters tell us that they are primitives and savages, but they’ve all taken courses in BBC Villain. Every other line out of John Abineri’s mouth is something awful like “Have a care, Doctor!” or my favorite, “Let not thy wrath fall upon thy true servants!”

Happily, our son was much, much more thrilled than I was. He loved the giant monster stuff so much he was yelling at the screen. At one point, the Doctor is outside on a gantry at the refinery and a tentacle appears behind his head. Our kid shouted “Look out, Doctor!” before hiding his face. He’s enjoying the Key to Time stories so much that he somehow convinced himself there are seven segments, not just six. I guess he just didn’t want the fun of chasing them down to end in a few days.

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Doctor Who: The Power of Kroll (parts one and two)

When you’re watching Doctor Who, there should ideally be more interesting things about the adventure than who was cast to appear in it. “The Power of Kroll” is a dreary, boring slog and the best thing about it is the guest actors. Above, here’s our hero along with familiar faces Neil McCarthy and Philip Madoc.

Weirdly, this would be Robert Holmes’ last story for the series for about six years. If he hadn’t come back in the mid-eighties for more, then not only would his Who career be topped and tailed by his two weakest adventures, starting with “The Krotons” in 1969, but Philip Madoc would have been in both of them.

John Abineri, a good character actor who everybody remembers fondly as General Carrington in “The Ambassadors of Death”, is also in this one, only he has the indignity of being painted green from head to toe and cast as the leader of a superstitious ooga-booga tribe of men with green dreadlocks.

Outside of these actors, the story is just boring and not at all engaging. Too much of the drama is built around people in space uniforms sitting in plastic chairs looking at computer readouts saying this just can’t be happening, and debating whether to use depth charges or poison to kill the mighty Kroll, a squid that’s about a mile across and has awakened just in time to join all the other parties as they squabble about guns, native rights, and methane. Our son says that Kroll is too big and too scary. I say that every Doctor Who producer has to learn the hard way that if you try to realize a giant monster on a BBC budget, you are more likely to fail than to thrill.

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Time Bandits (1981)

Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits was made for an insanely small budget of just $5 million for a movie that looks so much larger than that. David Rappaport plays the unelected leader of a gang of time-hopping criminals who burst through an imaginative kid’s bedroom and bring him along on their adventures, and the cast includes John Cleese, Sean Connery, and Michael Palin, who cowrote the movie with Gilliam, in memorable parts, along with a who’s who of familiar faces in very tiny parts. Blink and you’ll miss Jim Broadbent, David Daker, and Neil McCarthy, among others.

I’ve never loved any of Terry Gilliam’s “solo” films, not even Bandits, which I first saw when I was ten. I admire it and I enjoy it, but it’s so prickly that I can’t embrace it. It’s not a comforting movie. It’s a weird, wonderful, deeply unpredictable, and occasionally funny movie, but it’s certainly not comforting. I remember just about everything in this movie getting under my skin and unsettling me when I first saw it, and then wanting to see it again as soon as possible, hoping for answers. This movie just refuses to provide any.

So I saw it several more times when I was in middle school, because HBO played it regularly for a while, and maybe once when I was in high school, and I don’t think I’ve seen it since. On the other hand, my wife thinks that she may have seen this movie more times than any other film, and our son just had his mind completely blown by it, so I’m definitely in the minority around these parts.

The world that Gilliam built in Time Bandits is incredibly vivid and incredibly ugly. Absolutely everything is dirty and wet. I like how all the costumes (designed by Jim Acheson!) are incredibly complicated but somehow never quite seen very clearly. A being called Evil, played by David Warner, has these hideous hench-guard things with black cloaks and the skulls of animals, but they never stay still long enough for us to focus on what they are, and subsequently dismiss them. So I think this all adds up to an experience that can get around the back corners of your mind and stay there, unsettling you. The scene where the heroes run down an impossible corridor with the booming face of the Supreme Being haunted me, the Supreme Being’s refusal to politely explain everything to Kevin bothered me, and the sad coda back in the present day – slash – real world gave me nightmares.

But our kid just loved it all, so never mind me when I was ten. He’s made of sterner stuff. He was so fired up by the movie that we had to banish him to the floor because he couldn’t keep still on the sofa and was driving me nuts with his kicking. When we got to the climactic battle against Evil, he was on his feet and jumping up and down like he was on a pogo stick. There was a small part of me that worried that seven might have been too young for this movie, and that part was as wrong as can be.

Our boy doesn’t seem to have very many nightmares, and doesn’t have trouble falling asleep after he’s seen something frightening that we’ve watched. Time Bandits caused me troubles, but I don’t think I’ll need to come back and edit this post with an addendum that the grisly fate of Kevin’s parents came back to bother him in the middle of the night.

In case you didn’t know this, Time Bandits was one of the first movies produced by George Harrison’s company Handmade Films, and he contributed the wonderful song “Dream Away,” which plays over the end credits and which I have always enjoyed. A year later, the song was included on Harrison’s 1982 LP Gone Troppo. It’s by far the best song on the record.

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The Avengers 6.4 – Dead Man’s Treasure

In any fandom, there are myths and there is received wisdom, and it often turns out to be incorrect. An example that many of you might know comes from Doctor Who. The story, for years, went that the first episode of 1974’s “Invasion of the Dinosaurs” was mistakenly junked by the BBC because that episode was titled just “Invasion” and was confused with the 1968 story “The Invasion.” That isn’t true at all. It’s a fan myth, but everybody heard it from somewhere or other.

The strange finger of coincidence visited this blog last month. See, there’s a similar bit of received wisdom about these eight Mrs. Peel episodes. Four of them aren’t fantasy-oriented in any way. “Dead Man’s Treasure,” like “The £50,000 Breakfast” and the next one, “You Have Just Been Murdered,” could just as easily play as an episode of an ITC action show like The Saint or The Baron. The story went that ABC (the network) in America had asked ABC (the production company) in Britain to bring things back down to Earth and make the series a little more realistic. I remember hearing this in the eighties, either from some know-it-all at a convention or in one of the zines from the era (maybe something that John Peel wrote?), but when I glanced back at the claim years later, I couldn’t find any real evidence of it. Did ABC actually ask for the show to get more realistic, or did fans just assume that they did because that’s a safe explanation for why Steed and Mrs. Peel were suddenly investigating plots that either McGill or Simon Templar could have handled?

It’s not quite definitive, but just last month, blogger Mitchell Hadley posted some evidence that somebody in America actually was complaining about how fanciful and odd The Avengers could be. TV Guide‘s influential columnist Cleveland Amory devoted a story to moaning that the color episodes were not as “genuinely engrossing” as the black and white ones. I wouldn’t connect all the dots with permanent ink yet, but there might be a through-line here: in April 1967, America’s biggest TV critic argues the show needs to be more realistic, when the show resumes production in June and July, Associated British Corporation asks Albert Fennell and Brian Clemens to tone things down, and in September, Fennell and Clemens are taken off the show and an earlier producer, John Bryce, is reinstated.

But that’s getting ahead of things.

Well, it may not be Steed and Mrs. Peel’s wildest case, but Michael Winder’s “Dead Man’s Treasure” is certainly one of our son’s favorites. He absolutely loved this one, which should come as no surprise. All seven year-olds like fast-moving car racing stories, which is why Wacky Races will be popular with kids until the end of time. And this one even has a pair of cheaters a lot like Dick Dastardly. Familiar-to-us faces Neil McCarthy and Edwin Richfield appear as enemy agents, shown above. Arthur Lowe, Ivor Dean, and Valerie van Ost are also in this episode.

There’s not a lot of meat to this story about an auto rally with clues all around the countryside to bring the drivers to a hidden treasure. Our heroes get involved because a dying agent hid some important documents in the box before the race started. It’s just a madcap, fun, and very breezy little excuse to get some cars out on the roads around Hertfordshire and drive them past the camera really fast.

I thought it was a shame that the budget didn’t extend to a few more speaking parts so we could see more of the competitors instead of promptly paring the field down to three teams, but that’s quibbling. “Dead Man’s Treasure” is just plain fun, even if it might have been made with John Mannering and Cordelia instead of Steed and Mrs. Peel!

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Clash of the Titans (1981)

I remember the summer of 1981 pretty well. That was when I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend without a grownup. That was quite a summer for films. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Clash of the Titans several times. Five bucks would get me a matinee, popcorn, Coke, and a complaint from my mother that movies used to cost a dime.

Grown-up movie critics thought that Clash of the Titans was old hat, but not to this ten year-old. You may recall that Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made. Objectively, Clash isn’t as good, but it had absolutely everything that ten year-old me could ask for. There are monsters, blood, angry Greek gods, a skeletal ferryman, and seven or eight seconds of nudity. This was the best use of five dollars anybody had ever come up with.

Honestly, this really is a little old hat, and perhaps not Ray Harryhausen’s finest film, but it’s still entertaining, and since he was planning to retire after it, it’s a high point, just not his highest. It’s another of his classic quest stories, this time drawn from the myths and legends of ancient Greece, and the visual effects are as good as ever. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress scheme and backstab on Mount Olympus, and on Earth, Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Siân Phillips, Judy Bowker, and Tim Piggot-Smith get caught up in their machinations.

None of them get caught as badly as Neil McCarthy, whom our son remembers fondly as Sam from the first series of Catweazle. For the crime of slaughtering Zeus’s winged horses, Calibos is turned into a deformed, demonic creature, portrayed by McCarthy in the closeups and by stop-motion animation in longer shots. During their first fight, Perseus slices off one of Calibos’s hands. The villain replaces his lost hand with a small trident, and, proving that he wasn’t paying the strictest attention in the world, when we see Calibos later, our son asked “Why does he have a fork?”!

It did, mercifully, register that Burgess Meredith was playing the role of Perseus’s friend, the poet and playwright Ammon. That might be because I pointed out his name in the credits. “You know who that is, right? He’s been in three Twilight Zones and he was the Penguin in Batman, okay?” I’ll get this kid recognizing character actors, by Zeus.

But overall, he was not quite as wild about this as I was as a kid. Marie suggested that I was a couple of years older during my weeks of seeing this again and again, and it’s probably also true that the ferryman Charon blew my mind because, in 1981, I was a bigger fan of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider than any other boy in America. I just liked skeletons a whole lot then. Our son even protested that the Kraken’s four arms were excessive.

But another reason this wasn’t a mammoth success is that this is one of those rare films that actually opens with the scene that he loved the most. The Kraken’s destruction of the city of Argos was the high point, and the rest of the movie, even the amazing battle against Medusa, didn’t compare. He did, however, get all hunched up and worried during that fight. Then he complained afterward that Medusa didn’t use “her eye weapon” as much in the fight as he wanted.

In fairness, though, he has already seen Jason of the Argonauts.

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Catweazle 1.13 – The Trickery Lantern

If the last episode of Catweazle‘s first series had been made today, it might have had a slightly different vibe. This time, Carrot’s aunt is visiting, and she’s convinced that the farm has been haunted for many years. She saw a ghost there four decades before, and this ghost, amazingly, seems to have looked and sounded like Catweazle. When she meets him in Carrot’s room, she describes their earlier encounter, and he doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

It might have been a bit above the heads of the kid audience in 1970 to have Catweazle briefly materialize in 1930 on his way back to his time, just long enough to provide Carrot’s aunt with the memory of seeing him. That’s the problem with looking back at older television: we’re slightly spoiled by all the fun time travel stuff that came later on in media – the Back to the Future movies, the “Future Echoes” episode of Red Dwarf, all of Steven Moffat’s silliness on Doctor Who – that it’s a little unfair to expect a much more straightforward kids’ show in 1970 to go that same route.

Anyway, there really weren’t very many laughs in this last half hour, although Catweazle’s departure scene is actually quite beautifully shot. Our son said that he didn’t really like this episode all that much, but he loves the show overall, and had a good time watching it.

We’ll have a look at the second series of Catweazle in a couple of months, so stay tuned for that!

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Catweazle 1.12 – The Wisdom of Solomon

Here’s another odd little coincidence in our old TV-watchin’. Last night, after our son went to bed, us alleged grown-ups watched a 1964 episode of The Saint. Because I recognize so many actors from the period from their appearances in Doctor Who, I recognized Philip Latham (Borusa in “The Five Doctors”) and Ronald Leigh-Hunt (Radnor in “The Seeds of Death”), but I missed Geoffrey Bayldon completely. He plays the villain and I guess I’m so used to him in that wig and whiskers going “tch-tch-tch-tch!” that he was unrecognizable to me as a normal human!

This morning, my son and I watched the twelfth episode of Catweazle, in which one of his magic potions works incredibly well. Carrot has started school and his father has taken on a housekeeper and her monstrously unpleasant son, who are constantly belittling the Bennets behind their back. Catweazle devises a potion that forces them to speak “from their black hearts,” with massively satisfactory consequences. Would that every politician and lawmaker be forced to drink from the same well!

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