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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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Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969)

Let’s get one thing clear from the start: Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, which was made under the title Doppelganger in 1969, isn’t a great movie. In fact, it rivals Disney’s The Black Hole as one of the silliest and least scientifically plausible films ever made. But there’s still a lot to recommend it, such as a fantastic musical score by Barry Gray, terrific visual effects, and one heck of a good cast.

Included in the cast, in a tiny bit part, is Nicholas Courtney. And, for regular readers of this blog, I’m delighted to say that our son recognized him even without the Brigadier’s distinctive mustache. I punched the air.

He also figured out very, very quickly that this movie was made by Gerry Anderson’s team. It perhaps helped a little that the look, feel, and sound of Anderson was fresh in his mind; last night, he rewatched the Thunderbirds episode “The Cham-Cham.” Journey to the Far Side of the Sun was directed by Robert Parrish, but the cinematography is by Anderson regular John Read, and this looks precisely like an episode of one of the Supermarionation series, only with live actors. I think it helped our son with a feeling of comfort. Journey is fairly justifiably accused of following in the footsteps of 2001, but the working-man’s-world of the near future in that movie is its own thing. This is the world of Captain Scarlet, right down to the camera decisions to spend agonizing minutes panning across control rooms while nobody really moves, focusing at dials counting down, and getting emergency crews into position for crash landing airplanes.

Adding a little bit to the Scarlet similarity, NASA’s liaison with the EuroSEC space program is played by Ed Bishop, who was the voice of Captain Blue. Other small parts are played by Cy Grant (Lt. Green), and Jeremy Wilkin (Captain Ochre). Wilkin passed away last month; we’ll see him again in Doctor Who next weekend.

The film’s leads are played by Roy Thinnes, Ian Hendry, Lynn Loring, and Patrick Wymark. Backing them up is an all-star cast of recognizable faces from film and TV, including George Sewell, Vladek Sheybal, Philip Madoc, sixties spy movie regular Loni von Friedl, and the great Herbert Lom, who plays a foreign agent with a camera in his artificial eye to snap secret photos of the plans for Sun Probe.

Unfortunately, two big problems are working against this awesome cast. First off, this movie is paced more like a glacier than just about anything I can think of. The rocket doesn’t launch until halfway through the film, and twice we have to mark the passage of time with slow and trippy psychedelic sequences. A big problem upfront is that Patrick Wymark’s character, the director of EuroSEC, has to find the money to fund his mission to a new planet on the far side of the sun. Agonizing minutes are spent worrying and arguing about money, instead of just having NASA immediately pay for it in exchange for sending an American astronaut on the mission.

The astronaut’s marriage is in trouble. Mercifully, Wikipedia tells me that they chopped out a massive subplot about his wife’s affair, otherwise we’d never have got into space. Either the astronaut can’t have a baby because of space radiation or because his wife is secretly taking birth control pills. Neither really matters much. But they keep introducing new elements and complications. Ian Hendry, who is awesome here, is out of shape and shouldn’t go on the mission. This is all interesting character development, but none of it ends up mattering.

It’s like the Andersons and scriptwriter Donald James were writing an interesting prime-time drama about the machinations of life among astronauts getting ready for a mission, and were told instead to do it all in forty-five minutes and then do something with the rocket and another planet. So you’ve got spies, a broken marriage, a physicist who’s not fit to fly, budget troubles, security leaks… Wymark had played the lead in The Plane Makers and The Power Game, a backstabbing boardroom drama that ran for seven seasons earlier in the sixties. I think Journey could have made a good show like that. I don’t think our son would have had all the neat rockets and crash landings to keep his attention, but I’d probably give it a spin.

Or possibly not. Bishop and Sewell were pretty boring in the TV series UFO, which the Andersons made soon after this.

The plot of the movie is about the mission and a mystery. Why did Thinnes and Hendry turn back and return to Earth halfway through their six week mission, when Thinnes insists they landed on the hidden planet on the far side of the sun? The answer won’t surprise anybody who read this chestnut of a story when they were a little kid thumbing through schlocky pulp sci-fi from the thirties, but I enjoyed the way that Read and Parrish kept finding hints for the audience in the form of mirrors. If you like watching Gerry Anderson’s work or a cast full of great actors, this isn’t a bad way to spend a hundred minutes. If you’re looking for an even remotely plausible science fiction adventure, though… you’re really, really going to have to check your disbelief at the door.

Today’s feature was a gift from Nikka Valken, and I invite you all to check out her Society 6 page and buy some of her fun artwork! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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Doctor Who: Robot (part four)

If you were to ask me, the boring old Mr. Grouchy Adult that I am, I’d say that “Robot” could have been safely wrapped up in three episodes. But that would rob our son of his favorite part of the serial. The Brigadier blasts the robot with the disintegrator gun, and, thanks to a little technobabble magic, the robot grows to giant size.

From the boring light of adulthood, this doesn’t look particularly convincing, and while director Christopher Barry does as good a job as can be expected, something shows up in shot after shot that destroys a grown-up’s suspension of disbelief. At the very least, it genuinely does look better than those dinosaurs from a few stories ago.

But our kid adored it. He shouted “Whoops!” when the robot started growing and it was all as convincing to him as Hollywood’s latest bit of CGI mayhem. After that mid-serial lull, he completely loved this story, and he believed in it, because he’s six and hasn’t become jaded by special effects. The new Doctor’s off to a fine start for him, and, with Lt. Harry Sullivan joining the Doctor and Sarah in the TARDIS, it’s time for Barry Letts to leave the role of producer to the new man in charge, Philip Hinchcliffe. And we’ll see what his take on the series will be this weekend.

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