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The Champions 1.21 – The Body Snatchers

This afternoon, it occurred to me that Terry Nation was apparently writing episodes of The Champions about a year before he took the job of story editing for the Tara King days of The Avengers. Anyway, this is a story that deals with one of the regular obsessions of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, cryogenics. It’s such a regular obsession that we’ll be seeing it again very, very soon, aggravatingly enough. Nation’s first Avengers script, as a freelancer before he joined the production team, was “Invasion of the Earthmen.” I’ve described that story before as a mishmash of all of Nation’s tropes and traits, and darned if it wasn’t the second script he wrote in 1967 around cryogenics.

Our son protested that the title, “The Body Snatchers,” wasn’t a very appropriate one, and he’s right. Only one body gets snatched. The villain, played by Bernard Lee, has stolen the body of a recently deceased American general who knows where all the missiles are and taken the corpse to a research establishment in northern Wales. In that fanciful way of teevee that glosses over how any of this could medically work, he plans to store the corpse on ice and to sell it to the highest bidder. But if you ignore Dr. Science’s objections, this is a fine action hour with great brawls and stunts, and Bernard Lee is a terrific, bloodthirsty villain. That’s Philip Locke in the photo above as one of the scientists pressganged into helping Lee and his thugs.

Talking of adventure TV from the sixties and seventies, it was the law that anything set in Wales during those decades, even if it was filmed in Elstree, needed to find a part for Talfryn Thomas, no matter how small, and here he is, in just about the smallest part in the thing. As soon as somebody on TV mentions a place like Porthgerwyn or Llanfairfach, you just wait for him to show up.

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Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (parts three and four)

I’m pleased to report that our son really, really liked this adventure. In fact, he was so thrilled that when the Doctor uses his cricket ball to give himself the momentum to drift backward through the vacuum of space to the TARDIS, he actually applauded. So we felt a little bad bursting the bubble and telling him just how utterly ridiculous the science in that scene was, but if we’re going to point out when television gets it wrong when it comes to social issues, we need to be consistent across the board and talk about bad science as well.

Speaking of social issues, there’s a remarkable part of this story where Adric swallows the villain’s rhetoric completely and thinks Monarch makes some very valuable points, pretty much like any other fourteen year-old idiot who starts hearing some claptrap on YouTube about how taxes are bad and falls down a hole. It’s certainly annoying, and it helped make everybody hate Adric when we were younger, but now I’m finding it’s really a fresh take on things to have a character too naive to know better. Incidentally, this story does support both Adric and Nyssa being young teenagers; they’re repeatedly called “children” throughout it.

But our son’s favorite part was the chaos that ensued when all the robots who represent different cultures on Earth being reprogrammed to have their recreational dances at the same time. He also loved Monarch getting smacked by his germs, remembering that Philip Locke’s character specified that even a small amount could reduce organic matter to the size of a grain of salt.

I’m glad he enjoyed the heck out of this story. I’ve never disliked it, but I’ve probably never enjoyed it as much as I did this time around. I think the creepy menace that comes out in the third episode is really well-timed and very effective, and I like the extra characterization paid to Tegan and Adric. Nyssa gets a few good moments, too, proving that for a fourteen or fifteen year-old, she’s incredibly well schooled in science and in philosophy. Yes, that was very entertaining. And the next one has always been among my favorites. I hope it holds up!

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Doctor Who: Four To Doomsday (parts one and two)

My abiding memory of Terence Dudley’s “Four to Doomsday” is that it’s incredibly slow. This time around, though, that’s revealed to be a good thing. There’s not an immediate threat or menace in this exploration of a giant spaceship four days from Earth, at least in the first half, anyway. It plays out in almost real time, as the Doctor and his companions explore the ship, which is controlled by Monarch of the planet Urbanka. Two other of his kind are on board, along with several representatives of ancient Earth cultures, and everybody’s lips are sealed about the past or the immediate future.

So it’s great television for a seven year-old who wants to chew on this for a bit. He says that he really likes this one, although the revelation that the friendly fellow from ancient Athens is a robot was a big surprise to him. I like how it plays out in a really enormous and believable space. The spaceship looks and feels completely gigantic, with lots of corridors and chambers.

Joining the regulars this time, there’s Philip Locke and Burt Kwouk as two of the old Earth refugees, but the guest cast is led by – of all people – Stratford Johns as Monarch, resplendent in his green, mottled skin. I reminded our son before we started that Johns had appeared in the great Avengers episode “Legacy of Death” doing a Sidney Greenstreet impression, and that our son certainly wouldn’t recognize him unless I pointed him out. Johns had played DI, and later Superintendent Charles Barlow in more than 200 episodes of four or five different, related series, for more than a decade, and even though he’d stayed real busy since the last of those shows ended and was always in demand, he still strikes me as unlikely for the role of a bipedal frog with a God complex. I mean, Johns is great, but imagine Karl Malden as Monarch. Like that.

Meanwhile, because this was actually the first story in production for season nineteen, everybody remembered that Tegan did not sign on to be a companion and wants to get to Heathrow Airport so she won’t lose her job on her first day. I really like the characterization. She doesn’t want to be here, she is terrified of getting fired. That’s how it should be. Except… while it’s been a few days for her, in Earth time, her aunt was just murdered a couple of hours ago. She even mentions this, but she’s only thinking about her job. Who’s she working with, Qantas? I don’t think that they’ve got the worst HR department on the planet. They will understand that the new girl’s aunt was murdered on the way to Heathrow. They’ll hold the job.

They maybe won’t quite understand that she was murdered by a space alien with a shrink ray, of course…

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The Avengers 5.1 – From Venus With Love

To recap: there are two ABCs at play in the story of The Avengers: the Associated British Corporation, which made the program, and the American Broadcasting Company, the US television network which had purchased the fourth season of the series. They did this as an inexpensive way to get some new midseason programming, and found themselves with an unexpected success. It wasn’t that The Avengers had turned into some Nielsen-topping juggernaut, but it more than met the network’s modest expectations and there was a definite buzz about the program.

So before The Avengers finished its 21 episode run, ABC had asked for another batch of episodes to stand as a midseason replacement in the 1966-67 calendar. The network asked for 16 episodes; the production company intended to make a further ten beyond those. Just in case 16 turned out to be all that America wanted, they still needed a package of 26 to sell to other countries. This sounds like a curious and nitpicky point, but readers who don’t know the show and who stick around will see that it will become important later on.

Even though the color Avengers was made for the American market – this season of episodes aired Friday nights at 10, coming to bat for the cancelled Quinn Martin war drama Twelve O’Clock High – we’re going to watch them in the transmission order from the UK. I’ve been so used to that sequence that I remain petulant about the StudioCanal DVDs using the much more sensible production order. So, while the DVDs lead with episode two, which was made in September 1966, we’re starting with the traditional first color episode of the show, “From Venus With Love,” written by Philip Levene and first shown in the US and the UK in January 1967.

A common complaint about this batch of episodes is that they have a certain sameness to them. There’s a bit of formula, in part because they didn’t have very much time to actually make them, and in part because ABC’s Batman had been that Nielsen-topping juggernaut mentioned above, and it immediately spread its influence all over television, including television made in other countries. So the eccentricities of the diabolical masterminds are ramped up to the point that they’re almost all comic book villains, there are celebrity cameos in most of the stories, and they’ve even added a cute “Mrs. Peel, we’re needed” bit at the beginning of each story so that each one starts with the same oddball beat. They’re stylish, witty, and wonderful, but the production break after 16 episodes was perfectly timed. Any more than this would have started to get dull.

“From Venus With Love” teases the possibility of a space invasion. It’s certainly funny – hysterically so, when Mrs. Peel meets an outrageously posh chimney sweep – and I like how there are two solid suspects to the strange deaths. It could be Barbara Shelley and Derek Newark, who run the British Venusian Society, or it could be Philip Locke, who thinks they’re dabbling with forces beyond their control. Along the way, the casualties mount, with Jeremy Lloyd and Jon Pertwee – the only Doctor Who lead to ever appear in The Avengers, unless you count Joanna Lumley and Peter Cushing, I guess – blasted by a heat ray from space. Or from the front of a sports car, anyway.

And no, our son didn’t recognize Pertwee. Darn kid. He’s had a wild day with lots of walking and two sodas and didn’t really want to pay attention to tonight’s episode. Plus we’re watching another Star Wars movie in the morning, and knowing that just killed his ability to concentrate completely. It’s almost a shame that the Star Wars movie in question will not be worth it…

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