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The Champions 1.6 – Operation Deep-Freeze

Alexandra Bastedo is barely in this episode of The Champions, but a pile of recognizable character actors from the period are. Robert Urquhart is one of the good guys, and Patrick Wymark, Walter Gotell, and George Pastell all represent an enemy nation that’s testing small-yield atomic weapons in Antarctica. There’s also an amazing amount of stock footage. At one point, Gotell and his criminal associate have to shoot four men who are pursuing them, because that’s how many men are in the library footage.

“Operation Deep-Freeze” was one of fourteen episodes of The Champions that I taped off-air way back in 1987 from an Atlanta UHF station, channel 69. Launched as WVEU, and known today as Atlanta’s CW affiliate station WUPA, it began broadcasting in 1982 playing nothing but music videos. This was an odd little programming strategy that several metro areas saw at the time. In those days, a city would have a dozen or two dozen different cable companies, and many of them were really slow to pick up MTV, hence that station’s iconic “I Want My MTV” ad campaign. So investors would set up shop on a UHF channel and play all these wacky videos that Kids These Days wanted to watch.

By late 1985, however, just about everybody in America could see MTV, and these UHF channels were what you’d call surplus to requirements. WVEU scrambled for new, cheap, programming, and, in addition to the pollution-obsessed Japanese superhero show Spectreman, they started running several ITC programs from the late sixties and early seventies, including The Persuaders!, UFO, and, at 6 am Monday through Friday for at least a year, The Champions.

I remember that it was 6, because whatever it was that came next would start at 7 am on the dot. And you’re not going to believe this next part. WVEU didn’t employ the brightest bulbs in the television broadcasting universe. The Champions began their programming day, and I think Mr. Cletus Coaxial didn’t make it in to the station on time about six times a month. The Champions would sometimes start at 6:02 or 6:04, and if it was still running at 7:00, the broadcast would just end in the middle of a scene and at the 7:00 program would begin on time.

I was taping the show on any morning that I could shower and dress and make it into the den at six. I was sixteen years old and recording on SLP speed, using a block of super-fancy high-end Sony VHS tapes that my uncle had gifted me and which probably cost $10 apiece when I was usually buying blank JVCs for $5 each. Pausing to live-edit out the commercials, you could fit seven episodes on each tape. But because Mr. Cletus Coaxial would sometimes start the show late, I’d occasionally end up dragging myself out of bed, rush like mad to get ready for school, get the tape cued up, and have to abandon the recording because 6:03 would roll around and The Champions hadn’t started, and I knew WVEU would end the broadcast and start their 7 am show on time.

Eventually, I had fourteen episodes on two tapes, and over the course of the next five years, I think I copied two of those episodes in one swap. But videotape trading was a fun little hobby and sometimes you just needed to sit on things for a while. Over time, my trade list made its way to many other traders. And what I didn’t know was that The Champions was extraordinarily rare among many of the good traders. I also didn’t know that one of its three lead actors, Stuart Damon, had a large fan base in this country. In the late seventies, Damon found work in the UK drying up and he went back to California and landed the role of Dr. Allan Quartermaine on the daily soap opera General Hospital. He played Quartermaine for almost thirty years and when my trade list ended up in the hands of a VHS trader who collected Stuart Damon’s old shows, my old Sonys started getting quite a workout.

I was very clear to anybody who asked that the quality of the film prints that WVEU had used was pretty poor. These were beat-up, washed-out, color-faded 16mm prints. Worse, I’d recorded them on the dreaded SLP/EP speed because I was a dumb teen, but because I’d used those great high-end blanks my uncle Ronnie had gifted me, the copies were actually far better than they had any right to be. And I copied the hell out of them. I got trade lists in at least once a month inquiring about The Champions. Often, I couldn’t find anything on their lists I wanted, so I’d do a blanks-and-postage swap for TDK E-HGs, which was latterly my VHS tape of choice. I eventually added a limit to those, because one day I got a box on the doorstep with fourteen TDK E-HGs. To be honest, in the 1993-94 TV season, I was taping four shows off-air, so I needed the blanks, but doing seven tapes in a week was a real headache!

I didn’t keep track, but by the time I called it quits on tape trading in the late nineties, I bet I’d copied some of my Champions in at least thirty trades. They netted me all kinds of great treasures, everything from Frankie Howerd comedies to episodes of The New Avengers that didn’t come from The CBS Late Movie and have five minutes hacked out of each hour. I remember, with no great fondness, some of the pests that you’d run into on the VHS tape trading circuit, the bad traders, the snobs, the ones with the crazy rules, the people who didn’t know what they were doing and would send you garbage you didn’t want on BASF T-160s on the wrong speed. None of those memories are attached to anybody I traded The Champions with, because Stuart Damon’s fans are all better than that.

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What We’re Not Watching: The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh

We’re not watching Disney’s 1964 mini-series The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh for our blog, because both the original television version and the feature film, called Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow, are out of print. It seems to be one of the most curious omissions from Disney’s extensive library of old live-action material, a project that has only been released in limited editions and returned to the “Disney Vault” to collect dust while bootleggers profit.

Doctor Syn was the hero of a series of juvenile adventure novels written by Russell Thorndyke. Most of the books appeared in the 1930s and were still pretty popular with kids into the seventies. I remember seeing copies in the library with the same sort of design, and appeal, as Jack London’s books, or those lurid 1960s hardbacks-for-kids editions of Kidnapped and Treasure Island. The stories are set in the 1770s, where the Reverend Doctor Christopher Syn appears to be a respectable English vicar in a remote coastal village, but by night, he dresses in a horrifying Scarecrow costume with a glow-in-the-dark mask and leads a band of smugglers, getting in needed material from France to avoid the crippling taxes levied by the king. With the military bent on destroying the ring, and constantly capturing one low-level smuggler or another, it’s full of daring escapes, cunning plans, last-minute rescues, that sort of thing.

There was a feature film at the height of the books’ popularity in the thirties, and then Hammer and Disney went at the source material in the early sixties. Hammer might fairly be accused of hearing a big idea coming down the pipe and rushing something into production. That version stars Peter Cushing as the renamed “Captain Clegg.” Disney’s has Patrick McGoohan as Syn, with George Cole as his ally Mipps. The three-part adaptation was shown on the ABC anthology series Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color in 1964. It also features some familiar faces from 1960s British film and television like Jill Curzon, Geoffrey Keen, and Patrick Wymark.

Like some other Disney material that we’ve seen, Scarecrow was released in a variety of formats and lengths. The 150-minute TV version was edited down to a 100-minute feature film which was shown in several countries. In the 1980s, the series started to get a small, strange, underground buzz as something worth looking out for. You’d see it mentioned here and there as a lost classic worth seeing. The delightful guidebook Harry and Wally’s Favorite TV Shows, essential in its day, singled out McGoohan’s wild and manic performance as the Scarecrow and made it sound like something I needed to see.

It was out on VHS for a while. There was a limited release of an edit of the movie (possibly a little different from the first movie release), but in that old Disney way, it became impossible to find. A limited edition DVD came out in late 2008. You can buy a copy for a few hundred dollars on eBay. You can also get a pirated copy from any number of sellers right this minute for a whole lot less, but we don’t do that at our blog.

The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh has remained in the “Disney Vault” for almost a decade. There are higher profile projects for the Mouse to worry about these days, and smuggling on the Cornish coast hasn’t captured the imagination of any kids in a long time. Still, it’s been about ten years, which is, they say, the average time that the locked-away releases remain in the Vault. Maybe we might see Doctor Syn dust off his mask and scream that terrifying laugh of his again one day soon?

Photo credit: Disney Wiki, which points out that in one of Disney’s recent comic books, the Scarecrow returned to team up with Captain Jack Sparrow, which is probably a far more interesting event than anything that happened in the third, fourth, or fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

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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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