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The New Avengers 1.1 – The Eagle’s Nest

These days, when they make a new season of Will & Grace or Murphy Brown, they don’t need to stick “The New” in front of it. But in the 1970s, there was this expectation that TV viewers were stupid and didn’t know a repeat from an original program, so you had Return of the Saint or Halloween with the New Addams Family or, instead of just another series of The Avengers after a seven year break, it needed to be called “The New.”

It’s 1976, and joining Patrick Macnee for two more seasons of diabolical masterminds and bizarre science, it’s Gareth Hunt as Mike Gambit and Joanna Lumley as the deliciously weird Purdey. She takes that TV standard of women doing the action stuff in inappropriate heels and clothes and ramps it up to eleven. She goes out to a remote island in a wetsuit, and underneath, well, there are no words to explain what she’s wearing:

Gambit’s a more traditional meat-n-potatoes action hero, sort of the superspy version of Willie Caine in The Sandbaggers. He mentions in Brian Clemens’ opening installment of this series that he had taken three bullets getting over the Berlin Wall the previous year, which isn’t the sort of thing you could imagine happening in the Avengers of the sixties. The shift in the world around the Avengers is what’s caused this show to always have a detractor or two. The original Avengers was set in a fantasy neverland that looked like England in the sixties. The New Avengers is set in 1976. The plots are as outrageous as ever (Remember how I mentioned cryogenics the other night? Well, the frozen corpse in this one is Adolf Hitler.) but this looks, feels, and practically smells like the year it was made.

And for a long, stupid time, I held that against The New Avengers. When I was a teen, I thought that the sixties were some idealized dream time (I read Rolling Stone magazine then, and it certainly didn’t dissuade me), but the mid-seventies were just the rotten days of grime and gas shortages and inflation and ugly cars. Weirdly, all sorts of fans and critics have echoed that nebulous feeling, that this show has too much of an anchor in a real world that they’d rather not remember. For a long time, I was missing out. I only had three (edited) episodes of the show on VHS for a very long time, and they were not at all the best three episodes, but as I picked up more installments into the mid-nineties, this show’s considerable charms became more and more apparent.

There’s lots and lots more to say about the series’ background, and the underwhelming copies released in North America by A&E from which these underwhelming screencaps come, in later installments, but before this runs too long, I’ll just say that this episode was written by Brian Clemens, features guest stars Peter Cushing – not playing a villain! – and Frank Gatliff, and entertained the almighty heck out of our son. He loved the fights and the surprises and the mystery, and was very pleased to see that Steed now carries a two-way radio in his bowler hat. And see, that’s the sort of dopey Roger Moore Bond gadget that I’d have once found cringeworthy, but I just checked, and our son absolutely wants a hat with a radio in it now.

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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Even before Rogue One reached its amazing final half-hour, it had become my favorite film in this series. The sense of dirt and desperation and real, terrible danger is just so engrossing that I was as captivated as could be. I started worrying, pretty early on, that nobody was getting out of this one alive. When Forest Whitaker’s character becomes collateral damage to the Death Star’s first test, I was riveted in a way that Star Wars movies, no matter how entertaining they’ve often been, rarely demand of their audience.

A second pass revealed one or two dents in this movie’s armor. I didn’t like the “no, I have to stay in this exploding base cradling dead Mads Mikkelsen while someone shouts ‘we have to leave him!’ at me” scene. They could have cut five minutes, easy, if they’d just had the Rebel Alliance agree to attack the planet Scarif, which they ended up doing anyway. But these are minor, and the film remains amazing.

I asked our son “So what’s the best Star Wars movie?” and he said “This one.” He’s right.

One of the most remarkable moments came when Donnie Yen’s character, a blind monk called Chirrut Îmwe, finally meets his end. Our son got upset with the death of a heroic character, for probably the first time since he saw the death of Jaime Sommers more than a year ago. He wasn’t bothered by the deaths of Han Solo or the Fourth Doctor, but when Chirrut dies, he was trembling and clutching his security blanket.

There’s so much to like in this movie already. I liked seeing Richard Franklin for about two seconds, and I thought the CGI Peter Cushing used to bring Governor/Grand Moff Tarkin was impressive and wonderful. Forest Whitaker’s character, an extremist so ruthless that he frightens the rest of the rebels, deserves a movie or two of his own, and there’s a droid called K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who I like almost as much as I like R2-D2. Almost.

Then we get to the finale and when K-2 goes down and then Chirrut goes down… the lump in my throat got really big. The outer space stuff remains as exciting and wild as ever, and there’s a brief respite when one of the alien admirals (Raddus, possibly) orders a “hammerhead” ship to ram a Star Destroyer that’s lost power and plow it into another, which might just be the most wonderful and air-punching special effects moment in any of these movies.

But the cost of those plans… there’s a line in the first movie about how a lot of lives were lost getting those plans. Seeing it happen was beautifully heartbreaking. I loved Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. I don’t need a pile of cartoon TV series or novels to expand her story. These two hours were all I needed. Erso is a very good character in a fantastic story. And the best stories have endings.

Speaking of which… as if this film wasn’t already my favorite, director Gareth Edwards waits until the last three damn minutes to calmly play his masterstroke. In the first three movies, Darth Vader was more evil and menacing by reputation than by action, unless you were a back-talking Imperial officer. Unless you’ve been reading the many comic books that have been published, you never got to see the character engage in the kind of brutal butchery he doles out at the very end of this movie. It’s remarkable.

Rogue One is a great film, and my favorite of the ten by some measure. I’m glad my kid agrees.

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The Avengers 6.1 – Return of the Cybernauts

A quickish word before beginning: the DVDs, along with the books written about The Avengers in the 1980s, and the websites of today, all call the color Diana Rigg stories “season five” and the Linda Thorson stories “season six.” For a while in the 1990s, the pendulum of accurate research pointed the right way: the 24 Rigg stories were produced and transmitted in two separate batches, thus making seven seasons. The Thorson stories were produced in two separate batches and transmitted that way in the US, but shown as one long season in the UK.

Season five is the batch of 16 color episodes that we’ve already seen. These were made between September 1966 and April 1967, and shown between January and May 1967 in both the UK and the US.

Season six is made of the final eight Rigg episodes and the first seven Thorson episodes. These were made between June 1967 and March 1968, with a considerable… let’s call it a hiccup in production during about the last seven weeks of ’67, which we’ll discuss later. In the UK, the first eight of these were shown as the sixth season, from September to November 1967. All fifteen went out as one season in America from January to May 1968. I number them using their first broadcast date, whether in the US or the UK.

Season seven is made of the other 26 Thorson adventures. These were made over the course of a year, from the spring of 1968 to March 1969. The US and UK broadcasts of these both went from September 1968 to May 1969, with the US finishing first and the UK broadcasts including the seven previous Thorson stories dropped in at what seems like random intervals.

Yes, I know you don’t agree, so you don’t have to waste time trying to tell me.

Anyway, so September 1967 came around and The Avengers were back on British television with a big season premiere guest starring Peter Cushing and featuring, like the title says, the return of the Cybernauts, one of the very, very few antagonists to come back for a second engagement in this show. Really, it’s just them, Ambassador Brodny, and a group called Intercrime that nobody remembers.

Cushing plays Paul Beresford, the brother of Michael Gough’s Professor Armstrong from the first Cybernaut story, and he is just brilliant, smooth and debonair in every scene. Watch how Macnee and Rigg afford him the space to be the star villain. They share several scenes together because their characters don’t initially know he’s one of their diabolical masterminds, and they play off him. They’re the guests on The Paul Beresford Show. It’s amazingly good and generous acting to let Cushing lead his scenes.

The story, written by Philip Levene, is huge fun. It’s got lots of great location filming, and the Cybernaut – it’s just the one this time – gets to rampage through several scenes and break lots of people’s necks. Everybody gets great dialogue, and the villain’s deeply sadistic plan had our son extraordinarily worried for Mrs. Peel. He denied it, of course, but he hid his face and curled up in his mom’s lap when things look bleak and Peter Cushing is being incredibly evil at the end. But as much as he enjoyed the Cybernaut’s killer karate chops and the big climactic fight, his absolute favorite moment came in the tag scene, when Steed wires a toaster the wrong way and blasts two slices through Mrs. Peel’s ceiling. Kid laughed like a hyena.

Some other very good actors are in this story as well. Above, that’s the great Fulton Mackay along with Charles Tingwell, who we remember from the first series of Catweazle, as kidnapped scientists. Noel Coleman and Aimi MacDonald also have small roles. In yet another weird blog acting coincidence, we saw Michael Gough just last night in Young Indiana Jones, and he’s briefly in this story as well with some archive footage as Dr. Armstrong. That villain’s henchman, Benson, returned in this episode. He’s played by Frederick Jaeger, and we’ll see him tomorrow night in Doctor Who.

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The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

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At the Earth’s Core (1976)

Well, if we’re miles beneath the surface fighting ten-foot tall telepathic pterodactyls, we must be in an Edgar Rice Burroughs story. After the big success of The Land That Time Forgot, Amicus hired actor Doug McClure to come back to London to make another Burroughs adaptation. At the Earth’s Core was first published in 1914 and was the first in a series of seven novels about Pellucidar, a gigantic land inside the hollow earth. These were hugely influential in their day, and in a very early example of crossovers in fiction, Burroughs’ most famous character, Tarzan, had an adventure in Pellucidar.

Amicus lacked the resources to make a lavish and wild adaptation of the novel, only a cramped and low-budget experience in what’s plainly a stage at Pinewood Studios. But for the kids in the audience, this is equally horrifying and thrilling. In an odd coincidence, our son was asking me about Godzilla earlier this week, and I told him that I didn’t think he’s quite ready for that kind of monster movie yet. He assured me I was wrong and that he was brave enough for Godzilla, and then the prehistoric monsters in this thing had him wide-eyed, hiding, and ready to give up.

It is kind of a shame that the villainous Mahars are such B-movie simpletons, with basic motivations and tame nastiness. The film is kind of hampered by the problem of not having any villains who speak English, but the Mahars don’t do anything that any other baddie in any other movie ever does. At one point, Doug McClure’s local tribal buddy is tied to a rock and he’s given a spear to defend his pal from a monster for the pleasure and amusement of his captors like a fight before the emperor in a coliseum. I kept waiting for the white Mahar to give a thumbs down.

I tease, but this is really an entertaining monster movie. Doug McClure is superhumanly macho, Caroline Munro is gorgeous, and Peter Cushing is amusingly absent-minded and daffy, and the monsters are all ridiculous and rubbery, but just realistic enough to shock and amaze elementary school kids. There are desperate fights, a fire-breathing dragon, twisty mountain labyrinths, quicksand, and hot lava. Amicus wanted to make a movie for boys under the age of ten, and I can’t think of a thing they skipped. They even kept the smoochy stuff to a minimum.

I don’t have much to add to that. It’s true that nothing here really stands out as worth watching for grownups in the way that you could watch The Black Hole just for the set design and music, but this isn’t a movie for grownups. It’s a movie for kids in that great time before they start scoffing at fake blood and firework explosions. If you’ve got a kid that age in your home, you really need to watch this ridiculous, lovely movie with them.

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Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, so we sat down to watch it this afternoon. Our son just hopped and squeaked with excitement. “My first Star Wars movie!!!” he yelled. We told him at the playground that we’d decided to watch the movie this afternoon instead of Sunday morning. He and some seven year-old immediately started swordfighting with imaginary light sabers.

It’s fascinating to watch this through the eyes of a kid and see what they know already, since its impact on culture has been so great that elements of it are simply as ubiquitous as football and pop music. My opinion on marketing might not be worth a whole lot, but I’ll say on my death bed that the absolute stupidest thing that Lucas or Disney or whoever did to this property was make Darth Vader not scary anymore. How is anybody meant to be frightened of Darth Vader when they turned him into a Mr. Potato Head? Boy, that wasn’t the case when we were kids.

But if you remember – and we’ll come back to this next week – none of us really went into Star Wars blind. The movie was released, they say, on May 25 1977, but I certainly didn’t see it until January or February the following year, and I think that’s the case for many people my age. But we had trading cards and toys. I’ve kept few of my treasures from childhood, but I’ve still got a mostly complete set of Topps cards – missing one green border and six yellows – and my classmates, friends, and I breathlessly assembled our knowledge from little pieces of ancillary information. Heaven knows the movie itself keeps its secrets. You wouldn’t know from watching these 120 minutes that Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles have lives outside the cockpits of their X-Wings.

My wife and I learned today that this continues. After R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawas, he’s carried off to a vehicle that our son recognized. “A Sandcrawler!” he shouted. He knew exactly what that was. He watches videos on YouTube that teenage Lego fans make about their constructions and Sandcrawlers, of all things, are remarkably popular.

Of course, some of it he didn’t actually understand. In some places that might be because Baby Harrison Ford and Baby Mark Hamill had not quite learned how to act yet, and their line delivery is occasionally kind of rushed and unclear. Thanks to them, our son thought that the “Jumbo Lightspeed” was a remarkably cool special effect. But my favorite of his announcements came when the flight squadrons started getting together on Yavin’s moon and he recognized an X-Wing but didn’t know what it was called. “Hey! A Star Wars ship!”

Indeed, he loved this movie to pieces. He was jumping and cheering during the final battle and would have been riveted for another hour, easy. Me, I thought it was a little odd and, especially in light of the later films and their casts of billions and hundreds of planets, small. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in such an incredibly long time that I’d forgotten just how much stuff happens on Tattooine before they get to Mos Eisley. It’s a wonderfully busy film, and I think that in lesser circumstances, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing would have easily dominated everybody and everything.

Imagine this movie made just five or six years before, without the set design and creatures and visual effects that keep your attention so focused on the solid reality of this incredibly unreal place. Think about how strange those mile-deep maintenance shafts are, and how for some insane reason the architects decided to stick the tractor beam controls right in the middle of a fall-to-your-death chasm. Guinness and Cushing would have stolen the movie outright if this had been a 1972 Hammer/Seven Arts film, in much the same way Cushing had walked away with At the Earth’s Core the year before. (We’ll get to that movie in a few months!) But Star Wars so masterfully presents its place that even the isolated case of overacting – really only that “ultimate power in the universe” guy that Vader Force-chokes – doesn’t take audiences out of the picture very much.

I really don’t have anything more to say than that. Star Wars, like The Wizard of Oz which we watched recently, has been written about so much already that the other things I did feel like mentioning have been done to death. Chewbacca didn’t get a medal, you know. Yeah, they’ve addressed that in at least two comic books!

So anyway, happy birthday, Star Wars. Thanks for all the memories, and we won’t make your newest fan wait three years to see what happens next.

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