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The Champions 1.4 – The Experiment

Tony Williamson’s “The Experiment” is one of the few episodes of The Champions to pit our three heroes against worthy adversaries. This was kind of the way of things in the sixties and seventies. Regular readers will recall that I would occasionally bemoan how most episodes of, say, The Six Million Dollar Man and the like would concern themselves more with counterfeiters in turtlenecks instead of having proper robot enemies and Bigfoot more often. So it is with The Champions, typically. These are good and entertaining spy stories, but the characters’ superhuman abilities just give them an occasional edge, and some very satisfying stunts, rather than a focus for the plot.

But in “The Experiment,” they run up against a quartet of characters whose reaction speed and fighting techniques have been artificially augmented. Remarkably, the villains in charge of the operation have been reading between the lines of the various secret agency secret reports and have figured out that Richard, Craig, and Sharron have superhuman skills and lure Sharron into their scheme under the guise of an experiment so they can study her speed and reaction first-hand. Their own boss never figures that out. So it builds to an exciting climax and a very good final fight scene that had our son hopping. It’s a really entertaining episode, probably my favorite of the fourteen that I originally had back in the tape trading days. More on that in a later post.

I’ve always thought that a great guest cast can elevate a good story, and this one’s just full of familiar faces. One of ITC’s regular Americans-at-Elstree, David Bauer, is the main villain, and he also has Robert James and Allan Cuthbertson in his employ. Jonathan Burn and none-more-posh Caroline Blakiston are two of the rival superhumans, and Nicholas Courtney has a small role as a doctor. There’s also a very familiar setting. Marie often says that she doesn’t recognize actors the way that I do, but she has an eye for places, and when Richard and Craig drive through the small village of Aldbury, she immediately spotted it as the location of a pair of Avengers episodes. Aldbury, Schmaldbury, everybody knows that town is Little Storping In-The-Swuff!

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Doctor Who: The Five Doctors

When I was a kid and comics cost 35 or 40 cents, Superman’s father Jor-El was so recognizable that he was regularly merchandised. There were dolls and action figures of the guy. DC’s writers and editors were almost pathologically obsessed with telling stories of Superman’s home planet. There was a World of Krypton miniseries, and even the Legion of Super-Heroes time-traveled back to meet him. It was all very, very boring and unnecessary to me.

With that in mind, in Terrance Dicks’ anniversary adventure “The Five Doctors,” we finally say goodbye to the Doctor’s home planet for a good while. It is the most boring and unnecessary place for our hero to ever visit, and this stale feeling is driven home by the actors who play Time Lords. This is the fourth story in seven years set on Gallifrey and exactly one actor – Paul Jerricho, as Commissioner “Castellan” Gordon – appears in two of them. Even the most important supporting character, President Borusa, is played by four different actors. How are we supposed to feel any connection to any of these people?

Fans just love kvetching and kibitzing about “The Five Doctors” and all its missed opportunities, but I think the biggest one comes in not addressing these unfamiliar faces. When the Master is shown into the president’s office, he addresses the three people inside. He says “President Borusa, Lord Castellan,” and then Anthony Ainley should have looked at the woman and said “I have no idea who you are.”

But everyone loves “The Five Doctors” anyway, because it’s a lighthearted anniversary celebration and it’s fun to watch Pertwee, Troughton, and Courtney squabbling again. Yes, Peter Moffatt’s direction is incredibly pedestrian and slapdash (count how many times actors don’t respond to objects that are clearly in their sight line), yes, they could have at least given us one clear and well-lit shot of the Yeti, and yes, surely while stuck in the TARDIS, the strange alien teenager and the Doctor’s granddaughter could have found something more interesting to talk about than “what do you think the Cybermen are doing.”

Yes, the Doctor’s granddaughter is in this, but Carole Ann Ford is only allowed to play Random First Doctor Companion. She calls her Doctor “Grandfather” twice and that’s it. This is apparently because the producer at the time insisted on presenting the Doctor as an asexual figure to avoid British tabloid journalists making rude headlines about Peter Davison and his attractive female co-stars in short skirts. That’s another huge missed opportunity and a scene we should have had: the fifth Doctor introducing his granddaughter to Tegan and Turlough.

Our son mostly loved it, as you’d expect. He did that standard grumble about the Master and the Cybermen and a Dalek showing up, but then he went eyes-wide and jumped with a huge smile when he saw the Yeti. He loved the famous “Cyber-massacre” scene, where about nine of them get impaled and decapitated before firing a single shot, but his favorite part of the whole story was when the third Doctor and Sarah “zip-line” down to the top of the tower.

I really enjoyed teasing our son with the strange possible-continuity-error brainteaser about Jamie and Zoe. Frazer Hines and Wendy Padbury show up for a cameo as “phantoms” warning the second Doctor from going any deeper into the tower. The Doctor realizes that they’re fake when he remembers that Jamie and Zoe’s minds were erased of the period they spent with him. (The real error is that Troughton asks “So how do you know who we are.” They should both remember the Doctor, but Jamie shouldn’t know Zoe. Glossing over that, the important part is that neither should know the Brigadier. The line should have been Troughton pointing at Courtney while saying “So how do you know who he is.”)

It took our son a minute to wrap his brain around the problem. Where in his lifetime does the second Doctor come from if he knows about Jamie and Zoe’s memory wipe, when (we’ve been led to believe) that the very next thing that happened after the mind wipe was the Doctor regenerated and was shipped to Earth? I told him that we’d get a little more information about that in a couple of months, and that we’d see Patrick Troughton again in a different role in just a few days…

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part four)

The dude on the right is Mawdryn, played by David Collings, a character actor that everybody loves and who we saw a few months ago in “The Robots of Death”. He and his seven fellow mutants are not wearing the most fashionable in outer space wear. Marie called their clothes “terrible bridesmaid dresses.” Even when you’re missing a chunk of your scalp, it’s hard to look menacing dressed like that.

But Mawdryn isn’t a traditional villain. He and his gang stole some Time Lord tech several centuries ago and have been trapped in perpetual, mutating rejuvenation ever since. All they want now is to die, and by chance, the Doctor has shown up. Apparently he can exchange the potential energy from each of his remaining eight regenerations to kill all eight of the gang, but he’ll never be able to regenerate again himself. As motivations go, I think that’s incredibly original. It’s also a little convenient, what with the numbers working together like they do, but that’s fiction for you.

I’m glad to say our son came around in the end. As I remembered, there’s a good bit of padding in part four, reminding everybody of the plot, emphasizing all the relevant points again and again, but there are enough moral dilemmas and runarounds to keep things moving, and our son was very happy with the adventure. It even ends with an explosion! It may not be a great story, but it made a splendid recovery from that lousy opening installment.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (parts two and three)

Our son is putting on his usual airs of the story being “too creepy,” but he’s really synced in with the adventure. There’s a bit in part three where Tegan, keeping watch in the corridor, spots the seven mutants gliding her way and she jumps back to warn everyone. Our kid jumped right in time with her, leaving his shoes behind.

The problem with “Mawdryn Undead” is that it could have been the best two-part story the show ever made in its original run, and the best by a mile. It might have made an excellent three-parter. Unfortunately, it’s lumbered with that godawful opener, and I’m afraid part four will kind of run in place a bit to fill its running time. But these middle episodes are just cracking with imagination and originality. Once the story finally decides to place the Brigadier in the center of things – two Brigadiers, in 1977 and in 1983! – Nicholas Courtney gets to really shine. And who can’t sympathize with our old friend when he grumbles about “yomping up that wretched hill” three times in one afternoon?

I really think that all of Steven Moffat’s “timey-wimey” stories from his run have their genesis here. When Moffat was a fanboy, he wore out his off-air videotape of this adventure from rewatching it over and over.

Of course, another thing our son’s pretending to be aggravated with is the return of Valentine Dyall as the Black Guardian, after his brief but memorable appearance in part six of “The Armageddon Factor” a little over three years previously. About the only thing I don’t like about these episodes is the casual way the Doctor has decided to just take Turlough’s knowledge of alien science at face value without challenging him on it. Clearly he knows something is up with this kid – and since, despite casting an obvious twentysomething in the role, Turlough can’t be much older than seventeen to still be at this posh private school – even though he doesn’t know that the Black Guardian is the one manipulating him.

Dyall is amazing, a real force of nature. After he gets done yelling at Turlough in the school clinic, I want to go give the poor fellow a hug and order him some milk and cookies to calm his nerves. And I don’t even like Turlough.

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Doctor Who: Mawdryn Undead (part one)

“Mawdryn Undead” is a four-part serial written with passion and enthusiasm by Peter Grimwade, directed with either disinterest or contempt for the material by Peter Moffatt, and featuring music by Paddy Kingsland that sounds like a joke B-side from one of Erasure’s earliest singles.

As I’ve mentioned before, many Doctor Who adventures from the serial days will start strong before petering out. “Mawdryn Undead” is possibly unique in that it becomes a good, interesting story with a great idea at its core, but it begins with what is very nearly the worst first episode in the whole of the program. The first episode of “The Twin Dilemma” is even worse, but that serial never gets any better as it goes along, so the mind-crushing awfulness of the first part of “Mawdryn” is an amazing standout.

And, in fairness, I should concede that Kingsland’s music also gets a little better as the story continues, but the dumb, jaunty “joyride” music that accompanies the young men pretending to be teenagers in their straw boater hats as they steal the car will be stuck in my head on my dying day. I’ll talk more about Turlough, one of the biggest missed opportunities in the whole series, another time. Suffice it to say for now that in 1982-83, Doctor Who was in such a dumb headspace that they honestly thought that making the school bully into a companion was a good idea.

Even the effects defy suspending disbelief. Most of the time, when Doctor Who gives us a show-stopping terrible special effect, it has the decency to wait until the end of the serial, and it almost always looks like the work of very talented people who did their very best with the time and money available and just couldn’t quite bring it off. Four minutes into “Mawdryn” and Turlough is supposed to be having an out-of-body experience on the astral plane, and all that the visual effects team bothered to do was switch on the background animation from a game show hosted by Wink Martindale.

But here’s what really gets my goat. Here’s your big guest star this week: some guy.

Come off it. There’s never been a worse directorial decision than Peter Moffatt’s stultifying choice in reintroducing Nicholas Courtney as Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart*. Turlough and “Hippo” do not name the owner of the car they steal. There could have been a line like “This is that retired brigadier’s car,” for starters. No, an actor with his back to the camera says “How are things on your end, Brigadier?” and we’re supposed to recognize the man who responds to that line as the same man who we know by his military uniform and mustache, and who had not appeared in the program in eight years.

This is the lazy work of a show that is not trying. Everybody involved has figured they can pull it off because they wager that the only people watching will have read about it in magazines and newspapers ahead of time. They’re letting the PR department announce the character so they don’t have to bother. I made a different bet: that Marie and our son wouldn’t have a clue who this guy was, and I was right. Marie noted that he was called “brigadier,” but didn’t realize it was Lethbridge-Stewart, because after twenty-five minutes, the script still hasn’t identified him as anybody we’ve ever met before.

At least it gets better. The next episode is almost terrific.

*Although another candidate for this honor would be Peter Moffatt again, two years after this story, reintroducing the Sontarans by way of an establishing shot from about a hundred yards away.

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The Avengers 6.8 – Mission… Highly Improbable

Who can resist a shrink ray episode, particularly one with a guest cast as wonderful as this one? Philip Levene’s “Mission… Highly Improbable” is a fun little break from the Avengers norm, because the villain is pretty far from a diabolical mastermind. He’s a scientist who’s improvising the whole time. Since the old fellow in charge of his department has developed a shrink ray, using government money that he shouldn’t have, the baddie is looking to sell it, and since he’s just as corrupt as an intelligence officer from “the other side,” they seem to have some big plans to discuss.

You know, I just realized this episode might have been even more fun if they had brought back Warren Mitchell’s character of Ambassador Brodny instead of this fellow. Never mind, it’s delightful all the same. Our son had an early case of squirminess, but he settled down very quickly once he realized what was happening in this story and really enjoyed the terrific sets, the wonderful reaction shots from actors spotting the shrunken characters, the fights, and the great little comeuppance for the scheming villains.

Making this an even more entertaining episode than the usual high standard for this series, darn near every one of the players is a very recognizable face from the period. Anybody who enjoys British television from the sixties and seventies will enjoy seeing Nicholas Courtney, Richard Leech, Francis Matthews, Jane Merrow, Ronald Radd, and Kevin Stoney, among others, in this one. Courtney gets one of the most delightfully gruesome deaths of anybody in The Avengers, which is saying something.

Jane Merrow, curiously enough, would apparently be back at the Associated British Corporation’s offices very soon after this was filmed to audition for the role of Mrs. Peel’s replacement. Nailing down precise dates has always been a little more difficult for The Avengers than the meticulously-documented Doctor Who, but it appears that “Mission… Highly Improbable” was completed in September 1967, and Linda Thorson’s first episode as Tara King was completed two months later, and I’m not sure how many actresses that John Bryce screen tested and auditioned before choosing Thorson, but time wasn’t on his side. More on that next time.

“Mission… Highly Improbable” was the last of eight episodes screened as The Avengers’ sixth season in Britain, but it was the first one to air in the batch of fifteen that ABC started showing in January 1968. Next time out, as we’ll see in a couple of days, everything would change.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts three and four)

It’s funny how my son and I look at Doctor Who from totally different perspectives. For me, the show almost always starts strong and peters out as it goes, the initial mystery and atmosphere giving way to basic plotting and the world being doomed by this month’s threat. Fortunately, Who has enough charm, wit, and fun that it often doesn’t matter all that much.

But our kid keeps looking at it this way: Doctor Who is a scary, scary program where scary things keep happening and the bad guys have control of the situation for a very long time, and it scares the bejesus out of you, until finally the Doctor wraps things up and there’s usually a big explosion or two, at which point it becomes one of television’s great pleasures. Once again, he grimaced and hid through three episodes, only to rise cheering when the Zygon spaceship blows up, and when the Loch Ness Monster arrives in London for a few seconds before going home. It’s one of the all-time awful special effects. Kitten Kong was more convincing. Ah, well. It looked and sounded terrific up to then. We’ll allow director Douglas Camfield a few seconds of fumble in an otherwise glittering career.

Harry decides to stay on Earth after this adventure. We’ll see him again in a few weeks, along with John Levene’s long-serving character Benton, who had been promoted to warrant officer during the events of “Planet of the Spiders” and “Robot,” and promoted again to regimental sergeant major prior to this story. Even though the character is last seen in the series as RSM Benton, everybody always calls him Sergeant Benton.

Surprisingly, when they come back, it will be without the Brigadier. Nicholas Courtney would have another acting commitment when the next, and final UNIT story of the seventies was made, and so this story becomes his swan song as a semi-regular. None of these three characters get a proper goodbye. Courtney would turn up again in three Who stories in the 1980s, and one installment of The Sarah Jane Adventures in 2008.

Between “Zygons” and Courtney’s next appearance in Who in 1983, Courtney mainly worked in the theater. He made occasional small guest star parts on TV, but bizarrely, a starring role in a sitcom was completely shelved for eleven years. In 1982, he starred opposite Frankie Howerd in a six-part series called Then Churchill Said to Me, with wacky hijinks set in that top secret wartime command bunker that Matt Smith’s Doctor once visited. The BBC, being as overcautious and oversensitive as ever, decided that they shouldn’t broadcast a comedy making fun of the military in the middle of the Falklands Islands crisis, but once it concluded, they just left it in the cupboard. It finally aired on a cable channel in 1993, and, if you’re a fan of Howerd’s humor like I am, it’s really an amusing show. I just think it stinks that Courtney was denied a starring part at a time in his career when he really could have used one.

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Doctor Who: Terror of the Zygons (parts one and two)

And now back to September 1975 and season thirteen of Doctor Who. The season started with a very popular and well-remembered serial written by Robert Banks Stewart, directed by Douglas Camfield, and featuring my absolute favorite incidental music in all of Who, by Geoffrey Burgon. These three would also be responsible for making the season finale look and sound so good.

Camfield and Burgon’s work here is so atmospheric and so wonderful that anybody with a heart and soul would be happy to overlook the story, which is a by-the-numbers tale of alien monsters who speak in Alien Monsterese, with phrases like “centuries by your timescale” and “one Earth mile.” The Zygons are shapeshifters without a home planet, and they only appeared this one time in the original run of the show, but they’re so well remembered, in part because, well, never mind their dialogue, just look at that wonderfully gross design and the terrific costume! Anyway, everybody remembered the Zygons and their pet Loch Ness Monster from their childhoods, so they’ve come back in a couple of stories under Steven Moffat’s time as producer and have been referenced a couple of times more.

Our son was petrified by these episodes. He was so scared! He tells us that the most frightening scene was when the Doctor extracted the cast of the monster’s gigantic tooth. He also didn’t like Harry getting shot, the Zygon grabbing Sarah from behind in the corridor, and the Zygon trapping the Doctor and Sarah in the decompression room. He especially didn’t like the Zygon that was impersonating Harry hiding in the barn and getting ready to attack Sarah. Part two ends with the giant monster chasing the Doctor across the moor, and he didn’t like that either. His latest way to fend off scary beasts is to wrap his security blanket, “Bict,” around his head, instead of wadding it up in front of his face. He’s going to be doing that a lot this season!

Oddly, though, the revelation during the cliffhanger climax that the dinosaur-creature is the Loch Ness Monster rebounded without impact. Bizarrely, he did not know what the Loch Ness Monster was. If you were six years old in 1975, you knew about Nessie. If he ever has heard a reference to it, he’s forgotten. True, this kid doesn’t have a very good memory, but clearly this monster needs a new PR firm.

One note from my own youth, and seeing the TV movie of this story in February 1984: I absolutely loved it, of course, although I was still unclear how the heroes travel around. The story opens with the Doctor, Harry, and Sarah already in Scotland. I remember having a very hard time putting all this together. This was my third story. In “Genesis of the Daleks,” their transmat travel is intercepted by the Time Lords, and at the end, they use a Time Ring to go back to Nerva Beacon. They get inside a blue box at the end of “Revenge” – the same blue box that’s in the opening credits – and it vanishes. Is it a magic cabinet, or does the transmat beam send them in that protective “capsule” to their next destination? I guess when a show’s been on television for twelve years, there’s an assumption that some grownup in the audience can explain all this stuff to new viewers! Us poor kids watching the compilation movies late Saturday nights on PBS without any reference needed some help. And help was indeed on the way, as I’ll relate in a week or so.

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