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The Avengers 7.18 – Fog

Well, since we’ve been talking about sword sticks and people trapped in the wrong time, here’s an Avengers episode about a mysterious murderer from 1888 suddenly stalking the fog-bound streets of the East End. Our son enjoyed this one a lot, and thought that the “Black Museum” of torture devices and old weapons was incredibly creepy.

I’m always happy when he enjoys something more than I do. I think Jeremy Burnham’s “Fog” is a disaster. It’s not the worst Avengers – join us for that next week – but it’s a show that commits the cardinal sin of being boring. In its defense, it has Nigel Green in it, and he makes everything a little better. And I like the stupid, yet incredibly believable, name for a pub that Mother concocts as he and Steed extemporize the details of a previously unknown murder by the hideous Gaslight Ghoul. The pub is called “Saddle of Mutton.” Oh, and Paul Whitsun-Jones is in it, briefly, and I like him, too.

I’ve been bothered for years about why “Fog” fails so badly. A lot of it is plainly obvious: the episode begins with some comedy that bombs like a lead balloon, as a “Russian” who doesn’t speak any English – he doesn’t speak any Russian, either – blathers and bumbles for agonizingly long minutes. Never a good idea to lead with your worst material. The stars seem like they’re sleepwalking through the production, the music is a dirge, and the plot is hopelessly predictable. It’s just not fun.

But I think there’s more to it than that. “Fog” reminds me a little of one element of the Doctor Who serial “The Talons of Weng-Chiang.” It’s set in a London of old Victorian stereotypes: organ grinders, flower girls, cobblestone streets, a Jack the Ripper wannabe. It’s the London of fiction and memory, and not the real world, but it isn’t the London of The Avengers, either. There’s no sense of why they’re trying to tell a story about the murders of foreign diplomats while dressed with the trappings of some other show entirely.

It certainly doesn’t help that it’s all obviously made in the studio and so the entire environment feels fake, cheap, and phony, while the rest of the series luxuriates in being and feeling real, even at its most fanciful. It’s The Avengers doing a bad cover version of an inferior program. At least it isn’t a clip show.

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The Avengers 4.15 – Room Without a View

Tonight we returned The Avengers to our lineup with yet another episode that required a pause to explain a bit of culture lost to time: Chinese laundries. We thought we did a good job explaining what these were in general, but we skimmed over the nuts and bolts. At the end of the episode, our son was baffled why a character who was murdered was transported in a wicker box.

Roger Marshall’s “Room Without a View” features an interesting villain played by Paul Whitsun-Jones, who we saw recently in the Doctor Who adventure “The Mutants.” Happily, when I asked whether our son remembered him, he said “Oh, yeah! That’s so neat, it’s the same guy!” He’s learning!

Whitsun-Jones’s character, Max Chessman, has been building a chain of luxury hotels with secret, bonus floors that can be used for nefarious ends. Chessman has a cute affectation: he’s a gourmand who suffers from thin blood and has gained enough weight that his doctors have ordered him onto an insanely strict diet, so he takes pleasure watching other people eat in front of him. Philip Latham plays one of his henchmen, and Peter Jeffrey, in his first of four appearances as different characters in The Avengers, plays one of Steed’s ministry associates. While this character is played for laughs initially, he turns out to be a pretty resourceful agent. Usually when characters like this one show up, they end up dead before the second commercial break.

Plotwise, this isn’t one of the strongest episodes of season four, but the acting is a joy and Steed’s undercover operation at the hotel is a treat. I don’t mind “spoiling” the revelation that a bonus hotel floor with a fake room 621 is at play, because it’s incredibly obvious – for grownup viewers – that physicists are not really being spirited away to a Manchurian prison camp and somehow escaping all the way back to the UK. But for our six year-old son, this was something new and unfamiliar, and kept him guessing. I just realized that he’ll see something very similar in the eleventh season of Doctor Who, which we’ll watch later this month. I must remember to point that out if he doesn’t make the connection!

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (parts five and six)

Something was in the air in the early seventies: David Bowie’s “Oh! You Pretty Things,” The Tomorrow People, the renewed Uncanny X-Men in 1974, and this. Evolution was coming, and the next phase would include thought transference, long hair, crazy colors, and glam rock. Much of “The Mutants” could have come at any point during the original 26 year run of Doctor Who, but its climax is remarkably 1972. Gotta make way for the homo superior.

Like most six-part Who stories, it’s one part too long. Part five has some exciting action that turns out to be filler when the Doctor just gets captured anyway after four minutes of avoiding guards, and Rick James’ terrible reputation for his allegedly poor acting really only gets justified with his hear-it-to-believe-it line delivery at the end of that episode. Part six gets an eye-rolling extension because the Earth investigator is such a poor judge of the situation that he’d later get a job with the state court of California and change his name to Lance Ito. But overall, this is a very, very good adventure, far better than fandom judges it. Gives me a lot of promise for the next story, which I already claim to like more than most people.

Our son came around a little in the end. He ranks Paul Whitsun-Jones a 7 on the just-concocted Enemies List. (The Master and the Yeti are 9s, and the Daleks, of course, are the only 10.) I really don’t think he enjoyed this much, but he did like seeing the Marshal get his nifty special effects comeuppance.

One last thing to note about “The Mutants” before moving on is the cliffhanger to part four. It’s nice to finally see this as it had been originally shown. We got this in the eighties as the two-and-a-half-hour TV movie compilation, and whoever assembled it sneezed or something and totally botched the edit between episodes. It’s not the most realistic special effect in the first place, with the actors huddling from a hull breach on the outer wall of Skybase, represented by yellow chromakey screen with a brilliant golden glow. But the American movie version has a gap of at least three seconds in this very fast-paced scene, so I honestly thought for ages that the hull breach was caused by malfunctioning rockets, not a blast from a handgun. No wonder Stubbs got killed with one shot; those bad boys pack a punch!

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (part four)

An odd little acting coincidence: last night we saw Julian Glover in The Avengers, and tonight we see John Hollis in Doctor Who. Both actors had small roles in The Empire Strikes Back, which impressed our son. It impressed him more than this story, which is too confusing for him to embrace.

We had a little recap after it. The whole concept of evolution in a two thousand year cycle was over his head, but I think it’s pitched just right for slightly older kids. It’s outre enough to make the boring side of Dr. Science tut-tut, but just exciting enough to get science-minded kids thrilled. And it’s a great script, with the mystery slowly revealed. This is all much better than its reputation says.

I particularly enjoyed the weird scenes inside the gold mine, as the Doctor and John Hollis’s character fight against a storm of colors and psychedelic patterns to retrieve a crystal from the corpse of a strange figure in a radiation cave. It’s unreal and weird, but it’s not unreal and laughable like the similarly colorful interior of Axos from the writers’ previous story.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (part three)

“No, I don’t like this,” our son tells us. “They were in trouble in the first two parts, and they’re still in trouble in this part!” I was tempted to ask when is that ever not the case in Doctor Who!

The monsters of this story are revealed in this episode. They’re odd and clumsy, and didn’t frighten our son nearly as much as so many other aliens and creatures in this series. I like how neatly this story is structured, with new information and clues being given very deliberately. So far, this is a much, much better story than I remembered it, or than it’s considered by fans.

Among other treats, there’s a real sense of space here. The old mine system where the heroes have gone to hide genuinely feels like a gigantic maze of tunnels. Compare this to the cramped corridors of Peladon that felt so small and underwhelming and you’ll see what I mean. That’s not entirely fair, since a director shooting on film on location has far more options than somebody working with videotape in the studio, but fairness be darned, Solos feels like a real place.

Still, we’ll respect our son’s unhappiness and give him a couple of days’ break from this serial. Check back Thursday for more.

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Doctor Who: The Mutants (parts one and two)

“The Mutants” is a six-part Who serial from 1972. It’s the second story for the series to be written by Bob Baker and Dave Martin, and it’s directed by old hand Christopher Barry. It’s nobody’s favorite story, and it has a pretty terrible reputation in fandom as among the worst. Apart from clips, I probably haven’t seen it in about twenty-five years, and was pleased to find that the first two episodes were much, much better than I expected.

On the other hand, we had to pause this a couple of times to help explain some context to our son, and he didn’t like this one at all. Not a bit. The story is set in the 30th Century, during the dying days of the Earth Empire, and concerns a planet called Solos getting its independence. As a six year-old, he knows a little – more the mythology than the history – about the thirteen colonies declaring independence from Britain, but this was written for older kids in an age where the ranks of Britain’s civil service were swelled by former colonial administrators from countries like India or Nigeria. We met one in the previous story; Colonel Trenchard in “The Sea Devils” was a former governor of some island nation or other. So certainly the audience in 1972 understood the political implications a lot better than he can.

This story follows the previous season’s “Colony in Space” as depicting a lousy and corrupt future Earth. Because he’s naturally in tune with more a good guys vs. bad guys scenario, he wasn’t pleased to learn that the Marshal, played by guest-starred-in-everything-ITC-made Paul Whitsun-Jones, is the villain, and forces one of his soldiers to lie to the Doctor about Jo being safely in a hospital on Solos. This might have been more his speed had it been a story where the earth soldiers are trying to save the Solonians from a bizarre and frightening mutation, but the story is instead strongly hinting that the mutations are caused by the humans…

But I thought this was much more interesting than he did. I was pleased to see a couple of good actors who’d done Who before and would be back again in the future. Geoffrey Palmer is in part one, and then his character seems to gets assassinated just so the budget could extend to another guest star, George Pravda. The real surprise, though, and it’s a very pleasant one, is that Rick James, seen in the picture above as a guard named Cotton, is nowhere near as bad as his reputation holds. I’m not saying the man’s an Olivier or anything, but he used to show up on those lists that Who fans used to obsess in making when the show was off the air, about the worst performances in the show. Since there honestly weren’t very many actors of color hired for British television during the early seventies – a topic addressed in a very good feature included on this DVD – it was always unfortunate that James got singled out for brickbats when just about every guest actor in “The Claws of Axos” was a hundred times more annoying.

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