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The Feathered Serpent – 1.3 and 1.4

I’m really enjoying this. It’s moving incredibly quickly. Part three of The Feathered Serpent begins with the assassination of the emperor. His body isn’t discovered until the end of the episode, leaving Princess Chimalma the new empress, but Nasca’s not going to let her reign be a very long one.

Nasca’s a fascinating villain because his motives are so clear and so horrifying. He’s afraid of the people abandoning his religion for something that should have been old and forgotten, and so, with the righteous fury of a religious maniac, he declares doubt in his god to be the greatest sin of all and won’t let anything get in his way of murdering the nonbelievers and stopping the union of the tribes.

Meanwhile, there’s torture, secret potions, hidden passages, and a fascinating and very theatrical sword fight in part three. It’s just a shade over our son’s head, to be honest, and he’s not entirely sure what’s so funny when we chuckle at Nasca’s evil and his manipulations, but I’m having an absolute ball with this.

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The Feathered Serpent – 1.1 and 1.2

I don’t know that I’d ever heard of The Feathered Serpent before last year. I mean, I must have, but it didn’t sink in. But last year, as I was absorbing the completely wonderful first volume of Scarred For Life, which focuses on the 1970s, I hit the small chapter about this program, read a little bit of the rave review, and figured we needed to watch it. I figured correctly.

The Feathered Serpent is a pair of six-part serials written by John Kane and made by Thames Television. It was shown on Monday afternoons in London, and was aimed at older kids, though there’s a lot here for all ages. The first serial aired in the summer of 1976 and it introduced us to one of Patrick Troughton’s most deliciously fun characters: a manipulative, scheming, and deeply evil priest called Nasca. The story is set in Mexico, long before any Spanish warships showed up on the horizon, and pits the bloodthirsty Nasca against the powerful Emperor Kukulkhan, played by Tony Steedman.

The people of this great city love Kukulkhan, and seem to be willing to abandon Nasca’s blood-demanding god Teschcata in favor of an older, kinder god, the feathered serpent Quala. To this end, Kukulkhan plans for his daughter, played by Diane Keen, to marry a Toltec prince, in part because the Toltecs all worship the peaceful feathered serpent. Nasca’s not having any of that. He’s been planning for months as our story opens, and has ensured that the builder of the new palace has honeycombed it with secret passages so that he can spy on his enemies. Now all he needs to do is turn the emperor’s trusted general against the boss. Meanwhile, a Toltec messenger boy meets an old, blind, disgraced priest played by George Cormack. This priest has been having some freaky dreams of prophecy and doom, and hopes that the young messenger can save his prince from Nasca.

Well, I thought this was just grand fun. There are bits where the dialogue gets a little too formal-slash-Shakespearean for me to believe in it completely, but this is just a great scenario for some good character actors to really sink their teeth into. It’s palace intrigue with bare feet and huge headdresses, with some fabulous sets which sparked our son’s principal question: how do the secret passages in this palace work when this all takes place so long ago? We enjoyed pointing out that just because it’s set seven hundred or so years ago, that doesn’t mean that the Toltecs or the Aztecs were technologically inept. We’ve learned a lot about the pyramids and tombs and neat architectural tricks from many old civilizations around the world.

(I’ve just reminded myself that I obviously need to remind him of the tomb at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Sure, that place may be ridiculous, but he didn’t stop to ask how anybody built it!)

We also talked about how Nasca is able to manipulate people by identifying their weaknesses. We’ve been discussing how people who get angry very easily can be talked into doing the wrong thing, and here comes Mahoutec, the emperor’s general, who is hot-tempered and easily offended and a total sucker for Nasca’s scheming, to prove our point. We’ll see what happens next in a couple of nights.

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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: The Three Doctors (part four)

Our son clarified that while he was no longer excited about this story after the betrayal of the bad fight with the ugly pig-faced man, he is “attached” to Doctor Who and wants to see what will happen next. Fortunately, the mad Omega banishes the pig-faced man almost instantly as this episode opens, and he enjoyed this part much, much more.

Honestly, we all grade “The Three Doctors” on a curve because we love the idea of multi-Doctor adventures and we love Patrick Troughton. This isn’t as good as it could be. My biggest aggravation is actor Stephen Thorne’s one-note bellowing, but in his defense, he lets out a seriously painful and agonized howl when he realizes that his body has been completely disintegrated, and that’s my second biggest aggravation: it’s the emotional climax of the story and it takes place six minutes into part four.

The director seems to think the climax is all the guest stars walking up a fairground haunted house’s staircase into a column of smoke one at an endless and tedious time and saying their goodbyes to the Doctors, and it assuredly isn’t. This story badly needed to have one more draft: have the Doctors realize what is wrong without telling Omega, escape for a bit, get everybody home through the smoke column, and then explain to Omega that his body has been destroyed, let the villain give out that wretched and painful howl, and then annihilate the anti-matter universe. I try not to Monday-morning-quarterback old TV too much, but I insist that would have worked better.

So it’s entertaining if not necessarily all that good, and I enjoyed letting our son know that Doctors will occasionally meet each other in the future, and never really get along with each other. It’ll be a couple of years before he sees his next teamup, though!

We’ll be taking a short break from Doctor Who, but we’ll resume our look at the tenth season in early November. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part three)

Our son turned on this story in a big, bad way! Episode three ends with the third Doctor battling a weird, pig-faced man in a black void, the representation of the dark side of their enemy’s will. It doesn’t look like he’s winning this fight; in fact, Jon Pertwee and his stunt double are getting slammed all over the room.

And our son took this as a very, very grim turn of events. He loved the comedy stylings of the Brigadier earlier, bellowing at the Doctor for transporting UNIT headquarters to some “deserted beach,” and sat riveted to the story, but the Doctor losing this fight wasn’t fun. Hopefully he’ll make it out of this mess for the final episode!

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part two)

There are people who really, really don’t like what they see as the deterioration of the Brigadier’s character into a disbelieving comedy stooge, and for them, the middle episodes of this story are the nadir. They’ve got a point – the guy in this story is a pompous military idiot, and the Brig in “Spearhead from Space” isn’t – but most people don’t complain too loudly because Nicholas Courtney is so darn fun in the face of escalating chaos, and because it’s nice to see him teamed up with Patrick Troughton again.

Our son is really enjoying this one, which is nice because the last two were pretty far from his favorites. He says that it’s weird, but weird in a really good way. The cliffhanger sees UNIT’s headquarters zapped away from Earth and into a black hole, which he loved. This will lead to the Brigadier’s line about Cromer next time, which I think is completely hilarious.

Meanwhile, Marie is getting accustomed to classic Who‘s tropes and cliches. The third Doctor and Jo wake up in the strange universe of anti-matter, which is “so strange.” “It’s another quarry,” she grumbled. Yeah, a few more of those are yet to come.

Incidentally, the notion that Time Lords can have different bodies is still not actually written into the text even at this stage. There is nothing onscreen yet to indicate that changing appearance is something that anybody other than the Doctor can do. This also emphatically states that William Hartnell’s character is the “earliest” of the Doctors. Three years later, a different production team will attempt to retcon this and show us eight Doctors prior to Hartnell’s character. It won’t take, but I do love the moxie.

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Doctor Who: The Three Doctors (part one)

“I like the other Doctor, the one we haven’t seen in a while! The one with the dark hair!” Well, our son’s in luck, because this is the tenth anniversary adventure, and the first time that Doctor Who had brought back a previous incarnation, or two, of the hero. I enjoyed myself by not telling him the title, starting the episode midway through the credits, and letting him enjoy the surprise. Since this is one of the most celebrated stories of the series, I wonder whether many people have had the opportunity to see it without knowing that Patrick Troughton and William Hartnell were back in it.

Well, mostly. Conventional wisdom holds that the massive fun of Pertwee and Troughton squabbling patches over several pedestrian moments in a silly story, but the biggest shame is that Hartnell was just far too ill to participate much. He’s limited to some pre-filmed segments at Ealing Studios and played back in the studio, which remains a huge shame.

Anyway, the story is by Bob Baker and Dave Martin and it’s directed by Lennie Mayne, who brings in actor Rex Robinson for a supporting role for the first time. Mayne directed four Who serials and cast Robinson in three of them. He also used Robinson in an episode of The Onedin Line and a couple of installments of Warship. I love seeing how BBC directors in the seventies went back to trusted names.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.

Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.

Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.

Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.

But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.

Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.

Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?

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