Department S 1.28 – The Soup of the Day

Given the nature of television production at the time, I don’t know that Department S “bowed out” so much as it just wrapped. They had their 28 installments, and now it was up to Lew Grade and the sales team to try and land it on an American network. The last episode they filmed concerns a deeply bizarre theft. Somebody went to all the trouble of sending four well-dressed young dandies – among them Ronald Lacey and Patrick Mower – to break in to a Liverpool customs warehouse through the back wall to steal 144 cans of fish soup from a company in Lisbon, and then dump it all in the back of the parking lot.

Other than the remarkably trendy fashions on display by these criminals and a pair of girlfriends – there’s even a Peter Max-ish print of Paul McCartney on the wall of a boutique – this one didn’t thrill any of us. David Healy shows up as the ostensibly Portuguese owner of the soup company and Pamela Ann Davy has a small part as Melissa, who is Jason King’s European publisher and needs him to get back to work on his latest book. Davy was perhaps unavailable when King got his own series a couple of years later, but the producers liked the idea of having a woman around to tell him how important his next book was and how he needs to be working on that instead of solving weird crimes, getting into fights, and romancing pretty girls. Anne Sharp has a recurring role in Jason King as Nicola Harvester, who serves that function.

And proving that there’s no corner that ITC wouldn’t cut, that interesting location sequence from “A Cellar Full of Silence” of Joel Fabiani getting out of a taxi on Portobello Road is reused in full in this episode, only this time Stewart’s hunting for soup thieves and not going to beat up Paul Whitsun-Jones.

Grade failed to sell Department S to an American network, though it did appear in a few markets, syndicated to individual stations here and there. Incredibly, it was sold as both the standard package of 28 hours as well as a package of 28 half-hours. I don’t mean fourteen of the stories cut into two-parters; I mean they just pruned half of each adventure out and trimmed the title sequence down. There’s an example on Network’s DVD set, the half-hour version of “The Mysterious Man in the Flying Machine”, and it’s practically incoherent.

I think Department S was made a little too late to sell to America. By September 1969, the American networks had already cancelled I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and The Avengers, so there was definitely a feeling this sort of program had run its course. It sold well enough in other countries, but Lew Grade decided that when it came time to write the budget for Jason King, there was no way in the world America would buy it and so they would make it on 16mm instead of 35mm and save a little money that way. So it seems pretty bizarre to me that Jason King was released here on Region 1 DVD when I don’t think the series was ever sold here, but you need a multi-region player to order Department S, which was.

A couple of years before we started this blog, and before we bought a multi-region player, Marie and I watched the Region 1 King and I enjoyed the heck out of it. The standard line is that Department S is said to be the superior show, and that Wyngarde works best as part of a team, and now that I’ve seen them both, I don’t agree at all. I would not say that Department S is bad, although there were five or six underwhelming installments, and there were certainly ten or eleven that I really enjoyed a lot.

A big part of the problem is that I never got a handle on who Stewart and Annabelle were. With Jason, it doesn’t matter because he’s meant to be larger than life and ridiculous, but the other two are ciphers, barely even caricatures, although the actors who played them were certainly likable. The show never told us who Stewart Sullivan was, or how he became such a super-cop that Interpol wanted him to head Department S. He’s just “the action man” and Annabelle is just “the computer operator.” I wish they’d have spent more time with their characters and let them tell us about their pasts and who they are, off-duty. But Jason got all the character development time, and there wasn’t enough left for them. We’ll watch Jason King for the blog in 2021; Stewart and Annabelle won’t be missed.

The Avengers 5.7 – The Living Dead

It’s not much of a downside, I’ll grant you, but one downside to planning ahead a couple of weeks for this blog is that I start overthinking about certain episodes, or I get the title stuck in my head, which will often get a song with the same name stuck in my head. So I’ve had Suede’s “The Living Dead” playing in my brain for weeks. There are worse fates, I guess. Still, I’ll be glad now that we’ve moved on, and hopefully the song’s been exorcised.

Well, our son really enjoyed this one. “The Living Dead” is a Brian Clemens script from a story by Anthony Marriott. This is the second time this season that somebody who’d worked with Gerry Anderson’s team got an idea going and Clemens finished it. Marriott was at the time working on the hugely successful detective series Public Eye for the Associated British Corporation. It does have a very off-kilter climax, though. He loved the tension as Steed stoically faces a firing squad while Mrs. Peel is beating the daylights out of three different people and rushing to the rescue. Then she mows nine people down with a machine gun! You certainly didn’t see very many women on TV in the sixties doing that!

“The Living Dead” is a good story, but not one of my favorites. There’s not quite enough wit and fun in it for my liking, but the only real flaw in the production is the same one that stood out in “The Hour That Never Was”. We’re shown a photo of a man who’s been dead for five years, and it’s a photo of actor Edward Underdown. If you guess that the character isn’t actually dead, you’re right! Other famous faces in the story include Pamela Ann Davy, Julian Glover, and Howard Marion-Crawford.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part six)

I’m really, really glad I never watched the telesnaps or read the novelization of this story so that I could come to it fresh. It climaxes in a fantastic and grim final episode that sees the Daleks gunning down lots and lots of humans, their usefulness at an end. Janley and Lesterson are among the casualties, and Lesterson, by now totally insane, gets a triumphant last line before he gets gunned down.

This was our son’s first exposure to something so violent, and he was wide-eyed, absolutely stunned, when we could see his eyes anyway. He was curled in a ball on Mommy’s lap, ducking under his blanket. He completely loved it and so did I. This serial completely lived up to the hype. There are a few bits from the original production that you can believe would have been improved with a greater budget – like so many Doctor Who stories, we’re asked to believe in a very large colony despite the appearance of just a few sets and a handful of actors – but David Whitaker’s script was razor-sharp, and it was just a joy watching the malevolent, scheming Daleks consolidate their power.

We will be skipping the next two DVDs that are available, “The Underwater Menace” and “The Moonbase,” in order to start in on the next serial that exists in its entirety, and will begin that soon. That means that these cartoons will be the last we’ll see of the characters Ben and Polly, who are among my favorite of all the Doctor Who companions. Sadly, Michael Craze died at the stupidly young age of 56. He didn’t have very many acting jobs following this, and largely left the business in the eighties and ran a pub. Craze had a bad heart, and died the day after seriously injuring himself falling down some stairs. Anneke Wills, an icon of Mod London, later co-starred with Anthony Quayle and Kaz Garas in a really good ITC adventure series, Strange Report, although her role was, in my book, nowhere as large as it should have been. Wills left the business in the seventies and moved to a monastery in Asia for something like a decade. Since returning to the UK, she’s appeared at lots of conventions and does occasional fan-instigated projects and documentaries about Who, and is still breathtaking at age 75.

“The Power of the Daleks” is available on Region 2 DVD. It’ll be out in Region 1 in 2017, with a Blu-Ray to follow. It’s definitely worth buying!

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part five)

Part four was written to give Anneke Wills a week off, and Michael Craze takes a holiday in this episode, while his character is still in the hands of the rebels. It’s really neat how seamlessly they were able to do that.

Two things of note this time. First, another reason it’s a huge shame this serial is missing is that we’re not able to see actor Robert James completely flip out when Lesterson finally snaps, realizing that the Daleks are seriously up to no good. I respect and appreciate all the hard work the animators did, and graciously thank BBC Worldwide and BBC America for commissioning this, but we are badly deprived of seeing that actor go into total bug-eyed freakout mode. That must have been something.

Also, up to now, our son’s only seen two almost incidental deaths of very minor characters. In this episode, the colony’s governor, whom he knows as one of the good guys, gets exterminated. Wow, was his head ever buried under a blanket during this scene. This serial has very minimal incidental music – it’s actually music that Tristram Cary had performed three years previously for the original Dalek serial – and it’s used to amazing effect here, when Bernard Archard’s traitorous character slowly crosses over to the Dalek with its gun in his hands. It’s a really great and incredibly tense scene, and really had my son frightened, as of course it should.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part four)

How interesting. Last episode, I didn’t quite catch that Janley and Bragen’s subplot scheme is that these two are the leaders of the rebel movement. This time out, they’re pretty close to taking over the colony. The Doctor, Ben, and Polly are all apprehended – actually, Polly is absent from this episode entirely to give actress Anneke Wills a week off, something that happened in Doctor Who frequently in the black and white era, when it was on the air about 46 weeks a year – and Lesterson has been having second thoughts about trusting the Daleks. He is slowly, but surely, completely cracking. And Janley is a hugely effective villain; it’s a shame that she has been overlooked in the canon of great bad guys.

Lesterson’s realization that the Daleks can’t be trusted leads up to one of the show’s most famous cliffhangers. It’s a long sequence where we see that inside the Daleks’ bigger-on-the-inside capsule, there’s a factory where the Daleks are making more of their kind. It’s fantastic, really creepy and effective. On the one hand, I like the way the animation team preserved the sometimes hurried nature of the production, even having an off-center label on a bank of dials underneath “voltage” and “watts,” but I really like the way they’ve made a big room full of these CGI-animated Daleks, without a photographic blowup among them to beef up their ranks.

Doctor Who: The Power of the Daleks (part three)

I absolutely prefer the Daleks of the sixties to any of their later incarnations. They’re nowhere close to being as powerful as they’d be depicted later, and so they rely on cunning, treachery, and manipulation to get the job done. They prey on the scientist Lesterson’s greed and lust. The colony’s governor can only see as far as the short-term gains of a better production run in the local mines.

There’s a fun subplot involving Lesterson’s assistant and the new deputy governor (played by Bernard Archard, who’d later impress in “Pyramids of Mars”). It turns out that the assistant, Janley (played by an Australian actress, Pamela Ann Davy), isn’t just around to pass Lesterson his test tubes and tell him how brilliant she is. She’s dumped another assistant’s dead body into a mercury swamp and told her boss that the fellow is ill! We can guess that their evil scheme is only going to go so far before the Daleks’ plans will crush it, but I like it when the Doctor has more than one mess to handle.

This episode doesn’t have the brilliant cliffhanger that the previous one did to end on a big high note, but our son was attentive and interested all the way through. It’s really well paced; every time the middle-aged men in pajamas threaten to get too dull and grownup, the story brings the pretending-to-be-subservient Dalek back into the action to keep kids focused. This is good stuff.