Jason King 1.2 – A Page Before Dying

Before we got started with tonight’s episode, I cued up an early episode of MacGyver that we’d watched a few years ago to give our kid a little context. They were, then, in the habit of using a heck of a lot of library footage to beef up their stories, and in “Deathlock”, they built a scene around footage culled from the film of Len Deighton’s Funeral in Berlin. This gave me the opportunity to remind our son of what we’d discussed before about spy series often dealing with people trying to get out of the Eastern sector, and also who Len Deighton was.

So this episode, written by Tony Williamson, is an absolute gem. Suddenly, to get somebody out of East Berlin, every spy in Europe wants to know exactly how Jason King did it in his novel A Page Before Dying, and whether it will work in the real world. Soon, all eyes are on him, because he gets smuggled into East Berlin against his will, and doesn’t have any choice but to work the scheme while the other side’s intelligence agents are watching him like a hawk. It’s already a hugely entertaining story with lots of wit and putdowns and surprises, and ends with a delightful twist. Our son enjoyed it a lot, I’m glad to say. It’s among the character’s very best outings.

This is the first of a few appearances by Ronald Lacey as a “Whitehall worm” called Ryland who whines and manipulates our hero, and it also features small roles for familiar faces Olaf Pooley, Michael Sheard, and Philip Madoc. Plus, it’s the first appearance of an unbelievable “action” costume for Jason that I’ll have to show you some other time: skintight motorcycle leathers and an ascot. Have to say I prefer his jackets and neckties.

MacGyver 1.1 (pilot)

In good improv, you never say “No.” You say “Yes, and.” And so, some years back, I told my wife Marie my idea about this blog. She said “Wonderful, we can show him MacGyver,” and I said “Yes, and… we’ll certainly do that.”

This is a program I know nothing positive about, beyond the admission that when she was a teenager, my wife watched it on ABC because she thought Richard Dean Anderson was dreamy. For the sake of balance, I freely admit that I remember that this was on ABC because at about the same time that my teenage wife-to-be was watching Richard Dean Anderson on Jacksonville FL’s ABC station, teenage me was in Atlanta watching Alyssa Milano on Who’s the Boss? and Khrystyne Haje on Head of the Class and frequently seeing commercials for MacGyver. And now that we’re up to speed on the objects of lust for teen viewers in the mid-eighties, let’s move on.

So MacGyver debuted in 1985. It was created by Lee David Zlotoff, who was then best known as a writer and producer on NBC’s private eye show Remington Steele, but he doesn’t seem to have worked much on it after putting it together, with Henry Winkler and John Rich apparently in charge after that. Other notable writers and producers include Stephen Kandel, who wrote for just about everything, John Sheppard, who contributed to more than sixty episodes, and, surprisingly, Terry Nation, who had semi-retired to California after contributing to practically every single British adventure series of the sixties and early seventies. Nation is only credited on three episodes, it seems, but apparently he touched on most of the first season’s scripts while working in the program’s writers room.

MacGyver got a reputation really early on for being a show where the hero rewires complex security systems with a piece of string, a coffee maker, and an aerosol spray can. Since I’ve seen exactly one episode of this show, from its second season, I’m not sure that’s entirely fair, but I admit that I am going into this a little bit skeptical. I picked a few episodes with promising guest stars – Winkler and Rich didn’t seem to hire many of my favorites – and Marie added a few more to make an even ten episodes from each of its first four seasons. MacGyver ran for seven years, but I’m not committing to that many; we’ve got a lot of programs to watch before this kid gets too old and jaded.

Well, there is one unexpected actor who shows up in the first episode. I didn’t look at the pilot’s cast list on IMDB since we were going to start with episode one, so seeing the veteran character actor Olaf Pooley was a pleasant surprise. There are a few cast shuffles after this pilot, which features Michael Lerner as Mac’s boss and Dana Elcar, who would take the boss role later, as a completely different character. MacGyver lives in the Griffith Park Observatory – seriously, it is his house – and is a mentor to a “Little Brother” named Reggie, who’s also dropped after the pilot. But some things they got right from the start: Darlanne Fluegel plays the first of a hundred guest star women who don’t follow Mac’s instructions and get into trouble.

They spent a crapload of money on this pilot. The sets – mainly an underground research base that’s been blasted by plastique charges and leaking both sulfuric acid and some kind of gas – are amazingly detailed, full of rubble and running water. There isn’t a helicopter chase as I suggested last time, but there are two different choppers. Our son, who was kind of annoyingly overcharged with energy tonight, was hopping around way too much and has picked up a tedious catchphrase: “Now that’s what I call a helicopter!” “Now that’s what I call a missile!” “Now that’s what I call a secret entrance to the elevator shaft that’s full of lasers!” and so on. We finally had to tell the kid to clam it.

He liked it more than I did, though to be fair, the only honest objection I had was to the godawful incidental music, which is to be expected, because almost everything on television in the eighties had terrible incidental music. Certainly MacGyver improvises some ridiculous get-out-of-this gadgets with binoculars, allergy capsules, and chocolate – I’m actually not kidding this time, though they are three separate gadgets – but if we can overlook the Mythbusters team’s objections, some of these gimmicks are pretty amusing. We’ll look at another in a few days.

Doctor Who: Inferno (parts six and seven)

We meant to watch part six of this serial last night, but we got home too late. So we doubled up again, and really enjoyed this story. I love how the tension in part six just keeps ramping up, even with a plot that doesn’t fill its running time, necessitating a bit where characters run back to a previous location to try one more time to restart the power. It works because the actors really convey their desperation, and Nicholas Courtney’s Brigade-Leader falling apart from the stress is a great, great moment.

After that, and the fabulous cliffhanger of the sea of lava coming to engulf the hut and kill all the parallel universe doubles, the final part can’t help but feel like an anticlimax to older viewers who are familiar with the rules of drama. But it’s paced so darn well for the younger members of the audience! There’s even a bit where the grown-ups are bound to ask whether it’s absolutely necessary for Jon Pertwee to climb up yet another bit of scaffolding in this refinery, and the children will answer that of course it is; he needs to fight another green monster up there. Our son had a ball with both parts. If he uses a make-believe “fire extinguisher” to defeat my playground alter ego of “Daddy Monster,” I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

“Inferno” would be the last Doctor Who serial directed by Douglas Camfield for five years, damnably, and also the last appearance for Caroline John and her character, Liz Shaw. Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks had concluded that the character didn’t really work (they were mistaken), but the actress had already decided to leave. In 1982, she worked with Barry Letts again in the BBC’s four-part adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. She was a regular face in guest star roles throughout the eighties, and reprised her role as Liz Shaw in the four direct-to-video P.R.O.B.E. movies from 1994-96. In a 2010 episode of The Sarah Jane Adventures, Liz is said to be working on UNIT’s Moonbase (really!), but the actress did not appear onscreen. She passed away in 2012 at the age of 71.

Doctor Who: Inferno (part five)

There’s a story that Olaf Pooley was really unhappy with the decision to turn him into a full-fanged green werewolf. I guess he’d understood that he would be turning green and going wide-eyed like the fellows in the earlier episodes, but in part five of this story, there’s a lot more goo from the earth’s core and a lot more heat, and this all combines to turn people into white-fanged slavering dog monsters with lots of hair. Our son pronounced these guys “really scary” and they sent him behind the sofa with a shriek.

There’s a really good moment early in this episode to casually remind everybody that the Doctor’s such a great hero. I love how he goes straight into the drillhead room with Derek Newark’s character, hoping desperately that there’s a way to stop the destruction. This isn’t his fight, and it isn’t his problem, and not one person on this hellworld has shown him a second’s consideration, but he’s still immediately willing to risk his life for them.

Doctor Who: Inferno (part four)

“Inferno” gained its wild reputation from its tone of accelerating doom, which starts very slowly and trickles through episodes three and four until it hits the amazing climax of this story, which is brilliantly directed and features one of Jon Pertwee’s best performances as the Doctor. But to be brutally honest, most of part four is very frustrating. Our son certainly felt it. As the Doctor tells the truth again and again and is ignored again and again, he shouted “He’s telling them the truth!” It’s a real sense of desperation, with our hero just not able to get out of this mess.

I think episodes three and four could easily have been combined into one and this would have been an even better six-parter. This one’s incredibly repetitive, and not just with the Doctor re-explaining the parallel world situation. We get more scenes of Olaf Pooley being obstinate in both universes, and more of the simmering desperation of Derek Newark trying to get Sheila Dunn to listen, all hammered home again and again, just in case anybody in the audience missed the previous part.

But that cliffhanger! Apparently Douglas Camfield wanted to use stock music and occasional special atmospheric effects rather than let any musician, even one he really trusted, interfere with his desire to make the increasing noise of the drill be the focus. It leaves the actors having to shout over it. The cliffhanger is brilliantly paced, with the Doctor begging everyone to listen while trying to avoid being captured again, and it ends with Pooley cornering him with a pistol while the countdown gets closer and closer to zero. I think that Barry Letts directed this one from Camfield’s detailed battle plan. It’s completely fantastic and left our son wide-eyed and breathless.

We’ll leave it there for a couple of days and give him time to wish we could see the next part right now, right this very minute.

Doctor Who: Inferno (parts two and three)

We’re in uncharted territory now. Doctor Who had never done a parallel universe story before, and, mercifully, it wouldn’t again until 2006. It was still new-ish enough for television in 1970, even though sci-fi writers had been tapping that well for a long, long time.

Dropping the Doctor into a universe where the good guys are all villains sounds an awful lot like the famous Star Trek episode “Mirror, Mirror” but there’s some question as to whether anybody working on Who would have had the chance to see that episode before starting work on this. It’s been suggested that Don Houghton and Terrance Dicks, as well as Trek‘s producers, were all inspired by novelists like Philip K. Dick, although I believe there were occasional episodes of The Twilight Zone that were probably the first occasions of teevee producers playing with the idea.

Since we’re all very, very familiar with the trope in the 21st Century, after a terrific chase scene, episode three of this adventure becomes almost painfully slow. It would have been incredibly important to have the Doctor talk fruitlessly about parallel universes to baddies who won’t believe him in order to get this information across to audiences in 1970. Compare that to any episode of the current Flash series. Even the first time they started screwing with alternate realities, Jesse L. Martin, playing that program’s audience identification character, understood what was going on within ten seconds and two lines of dialogue.

But then again, our six year-old is still pretty new to all this. We gave him a crash course in the concept before we watched part one – Jesse L. Martin caught on quicker – and he thought this was incredibly creepy. It’s not the green hairy men that are bothering him, it’s Nicholas Courtney, Caroline John, and John Levene being cruel and mean. He’s still not used to paying attention when the heroes aren’t onscreen, so the Pooley-Dunn-Newark-Benjamin dynamic is just random talk, but he needed all his attention to really understand what a grim situation the Doctor is in.

Incidentally, it’s often suggested that actors enjoy the opportunity that parallel universe stories present to stretch a little bit and do something different. Courtney plays a really good bureaucratic bully, and, I’m noting this here in advance for Marie to consider and watch, when he starts to crumble across the next three episodes, as all bullies do under pressure, he really shines. Doctor Who fans smile about the comfort of the eye patch and scar because it became a much-loved anecdote in interviews and convention stories, but there really is a terrific performance under that patch.

Doctor Who: Inferno (part one)

We began the final serial from Doctor Who‘s seventh season this morning. “Inferno” is a seven-part story written by Don Houghton, a newcomer to the program, and directed by the veteran Douglas Camfield. As I mentioned a few posts ago, it appears that Camfield came straight onto this production from three episodes of the first season of Paul Temple. Badly overworked, Camfield finished all the location filming and the first of three studio sessions before collapsing. Producer Barry Letts, who had been a BBC director for several years, finished up the studio work while Camfield recovered from his heart attack. Letts ensured that Camfield received full screen credit as director; he didn’t want any indication that Camfield’s heart condition would prevent him from finishing future work.

The story, which guest stars Olaf Pooley, Sheila Dunn, and Derek Newark, along with Christopher Benjamin as the Civil Servant of the Month – this one, in a nice twist, not a complete interfering twit – is set at a research project looking for a new energy source deep beneath the Earth’s crust. But the drill is bringing up what our son calls “green goo that turns people into mean, hairy monsters.”

He was a little distracted this morning, and the first episode is very, very talky. The guest characters are kind of drawn in very, very broad strokes. Pooley is the ruthless scientist who intends to ignore anybody else’s advice or interference, Benjamin is timid and overcautious, Dunn is completely dedicated to her boss and won’t hear a bad word about him, and Newark is the action man voice of experience. Some writers have drawn parallels between this story and a popular BBC drama of the time, The Troubleshooters, about boardroom intrigue and dangerous events in the oil industry. Newark’s character is apparently the sort of tough-talking guy who’s seen dozens of people killed at unsafe drilling platforms in third-world countries that Ray Barrett had played on The Troubleshooters.

Since the focus is on these four guest characters right now, with the regulars really hovering on the fringes of the story, it was difficult for our boy to really pay attention. But Jon Pertwee nevertheless lit up every scene. He’s insulting and rude to Olaf Pooley’s character, but unlike the aggressively derisive Doctor of the previous two stories, he’s insulting with a smile and a twinkle in his eyes, because this time he’s got his own agenda. He’s siphoning power from the project’s nuclear reactor for his own project, and this subplot will take over the story very soon.