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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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Doctor Who: The War Games (part ten)

At last this story ends, with a strange and sad coda that serves as the epilogue to the first six seasons of this series. This was the end of the black and white era of Doctor Who, with the Doctor finally explaining who he is and why he left his home. Because he was bored, really. All three of its stars were leaving, and the modified format, with the Doctor exiled to Earth in the present(ish) day, would see Peter Bryant and Derrick Sherwin’s ideas about a secondary supporting cast become the new norm, as the Doctor would defend our planet from extraterrestrial threats. The new lead actor would be Jon Pertwee, and he was announced to the press the week this episode was first shown in June 1969.

Our son was absolutely riveted by the Doctor’s sad farewells to Jamie and Zoe, returned to their own places with most of their memories cruelly wiped. But their fates aren’t as bleak as the War Lord. After giving Philip Madoc the chance for a downright frightening and bloodcurdling scream, the Time Lords wall off the Aliens’ homeworld with a time barrier, and then “dematerialize” him from time completely, as though he never existed. This depiction of the Time Lords as omniscient and all-powerful would be undone a little with pretty much every successive appearance, which is kind of why some of us think the series has used the Time Lords way, way too often.

Among the Time Lords – we only see three, plus a couple of technicians – are Bernard Horsfall, whom David Maloney had cast as Gulliver earlier in the season, and Clyde Pollitt. Both actors would later return to the show as Time Lords, Pollitt as the Chancellor in 1973’s “The Three Doctors” and Horsfall as Goth in 1976’s “Deadly Assassin.” I figure they’re the same characters in each story, myself. The other Time Lord here is played by Trevor Martin, who would later actually play the Doctor himself in a stage play that was mounted in London for four weeks in 1974.

Our boy piped up quite loudly when the War Lord was revealed, thinking we’d seen the last of him in the previous part, and gave a pleased laugh when he is removed from reality. He also clutched onto Mommy very tightly and was really sad to see Jamie and Zoe leave. Frazer Hines went on to join the initial cast of Emmerdale Farm, a soap drama produced by Yorkshire TV that kept him very busy for the next two decades. We’ll be seeing Wendy Padbury again in one of her next projects next month.

And as for the Doctor, Patrick Troughton remained one of the UK’s most beloved and respected character actors for the next eighteen years, with dozens of great appearances in film and TV, everything from heroes to second bananas to villains to creepy old guys. He died in March 1987 at a con in Columbus GA.


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Doctor Who: The War Games (part nine)

Back in the dawn of time, before the word “binge” was used to describe watching TV, “The War Games” was what we binged. Taking a break from the show after part eight just wasn’t done, never mind part nine, which is a terrific climax and huge fun, but also full of “what comes next” foreboding. I know quite well what comes next, but I’m going to be pacing the floor all day waiting to see it again.

The cliffhanger was a punch in the gut for our son, who thought the story was over – the story of the War Games is, at least – but there’s still more to come. He loved the fighting, and he certainly loved seeing the Security Chief and the War Chief each being shot down. Before he goes, incidentally, the Security Chief gets one of the all time great quotable Doctor Who lines, all together now, “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!”

The War Chief, you’ll note, does not regenerate. That’s because the concept of regeneration wouldn’t be introduced to the series for another five years, but that hasn’t stopped fanfic writers and novelists – including, to be fair, this episode’s co-writer Terrance Dicks – from giving the character another life or two, usually twisting logic to turn him into a previous incarnation of the Master. I love how writers always call him the War Chief as though that was his name before he left the Time Lords, and not a title given him by his Alien employers. Or maybe that was his name, and it was the best job interview ever.

The last of these baddies to go is the War Lord, who is last seen propping up a desk with his body posture suggesting that the arrival of the Time Lords is like the arrival of his luggage. Anybody who isn’t a fan of Philip Madoc’s acting isn’t a fan of acting, period. I’m going to give “The Brain of Morbius” another spin next week because I like him so much.


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Doctor Who: The War Games (part eight)

“Time Lords?!” our son exclaimed. I was very glad that he caught it. It’s in part eight of this story that it’s explicitly stated that the Doctor is a Time Lord. Then the Doctor and the War Chief get a private conversation and it’s spine-tingling. I love how the Doctor’s first words to his opponent are “I have nothing to say to you,” which is not even remotely our hero’s standard operating practice. He is really, really upset about meeting another of his kind.

Also amazing: the War Chief tells the audience for the first time that the Doctor stole his TARDIS, and he makes what may be the first reference to the look of the original Doctor in more than two years. The War Chief says “You’ve changed your appearance, but I know who you are.” It’s kind of become media lore that Sydney Newman and Innes Lloyd “saved” the show in 1966 by inventing the concept of regeneration, but that’s not true at all. As we’ll see over the next two episodes, that “cheating death” idea is still years away.

Anyway, their conversation just has me absolutely riveted because it’s so well done. Neither calls the other by name, and neither makes concessions to the audience by over-explaining. It’s incredibly well-written material. Edward Brayshaw is entertaining, but Patrick Troughton is doing something very new. The Doctor’s not acting with what we can see in hindsight is a mask for the benefit of his companions, his human adversaries, or his alien enemies. The Doctor we know and love is a little artificial. It’s fascinating to reconsider this episode in light of the conversation between Missy and Clara in the 2015 episode “The Magician’s Apprentice.”

This builds to a cliffhanger where it appears the Doctor has betrayed his friends and the trapped human soldiers by joining the Aliens. Sure, we grownups know better, but this concerned me as I wrote yesterday evening’s post. Last night, I reminded my son of the Batman episode “Not Yet He Ain’t,” which absolutely horrified him when he saw it, despite a pause to explain it and reassurances that Batman and the police were pretending that the heroes had gone bad and had to be shot dead. Adults might forget that this sense of betrayal can rock a young viewer. I didn’t want him to be so shocked by a cunning plan and a heroic double-cross that it upset him too greatly. I’m glad I took the time; he’s wondering what the Doctor has up his sleeve instead of worrying.


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Doctor Who: The War Games (parts six and seven)

Resuming this epic Doctor Who adventure with its next two episodes, we saw our son dive behind the sofa twice tonight, with each cliffhanger. Part six ends with the Aliens’ space-time capsule being fiddled with to have its internal dimensions shrink. No longer bigger on the inside, it threatens to crush our heroes. This very nearly brought our son to tears, and he stomped away and threw his beloved security blanket “Bict” at the sofa. Part seven ends with the Doctor abducted by the villains, and he didn’t see that at all, hidden as he was. He bolted as soon as he heard the sound of the SIDRAT’s engines. Man, part eight’s cliffhanger is going to have him livid.

Now there’s a word. I love how these villains are written to use words that they’d know and the audience wouldn’t and the script doesn’t stop to explain things because there aren’t any heroes present to ask what they’re talking about. That will come later. So they call their capsules SIDRATs, which is, of course, TARDIS spelled backward. A decade later, this story’s co-writer Malcolm Hulke novelized the adventure for Target Books, and explained that SIDRAT is an anagram for Space and Inter-time Dimensional Robot All-purpose Transporter.

Another thing that they say, just as casual as anything, is “Time Lord.” Right there at the beginning of part six, the Security Chief tells his scientist buddy that the War Chief is a Time Lord, a phrase that this series has never uttered before. That’s not followed up in these two episodes.

So on the villain front, the Aliens’ battlefield generals Von Weich and Smythe are both killed in these episodes, but Philip Madoc, who last appeared in this series as a character in “The Krotons” just four months previously, arrives as the Aliens’ leader the War Lord. He’s so beatnik that you expect him to tell his squabbling Security Chief and War Chief “Cool it, Daddio.” I love how these villains are constantly at each other’s throats.

One important acting note tonight: making what I believe was his TV speaking debut in the small role of Private Moore in part six was the star’s son, David Troughton. He’s had a fun and busy career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and more than a hundred television roles over nearly fifty years, and would later appear in this show opposite both Jon Pertwee and David Tennant, thirty-six years apart.


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Doctor Who: The Krotons (part four)

I was reading around and see that there’s some conflicting information about this show’s origins. I had read somewhere that Robert Holmes first wrote this on spec as a six-part serial, and that’s what Wikipedia says without citation. I’ve also read, though, that this was submitted in ’65 as a one-hour episode of Out of the Unknown. Wherever it came from, even if I didn’t care for it much, I’m glad it got Holmes involved with Doctor Who.

Our son really liked the monsters more than the story itself, which is kind of what you expect from a five year-old. He was really shocked when the Gonds’ leader was killed – “dispersed” – by the Krotons. He even says that he likes the Krotons “a little bit more” than the Yeti! I dunno, maybe if you’re able to forget about their silly rubber skirts, they’re not that bad for Doctor Who monsters. At least their upper torsos and heads don’t look bad, and I liked the deep, booming voices that Roy Skelton and Patrick Tull gave them. Our son does clarify, however, that he does not like the Krotons as much as he likes the Daleks and the Ice Warriors.


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Doctor Who: The Krotons (part three)

We’re back in middle-episodes-of-“The Dominators” territory this time. It’s mainly men in pajamas saying “We must attack now” and “No, we must wait.” At its best, Doctor Who has interesting planets-of-the-month, with fun cultures and engaging guest stars. But this is a story where the native population has had its ability to learn restricted by the Krotons. They’re all very boring people, and the talented Philip Madoc* can’t save the story.

It’s an inauspicious start for Robert Holmes. Impressed by his talent and speed, the production team asked him to tackle another serial in this frantic season, as two that they had been working on were not coming together. This would be “The Space Pirates,” and it’s almost entirely missing, unfortunately. In time, Holmes would become one of the very best writers to work on Who, with an absolutely effortless ability – matched only by Douglas Adams – to conjure up entire civilizations with a single line of dialogue. That is not in evidence here. We learn a lot about the Krotons’ tech and physiology, but it’s only by Jamie asking a lot of questions and forcing out the answers. I have not listened to the “Space Pirates” audio, but I understand that’s much more like the talented Holmes that we all know and admire, full of interesting and eccentric characters.

By far the most interesting scenes involve the Doctor and Zoe talking about minerals and chemicals, tellurium and sulfur, looking for weaknesses in the Krotons’ crystalline makeup. Patrick Troughton could make any discussion, whether about physical science or anything, absolutely sparkle, so he’s a joy to watch, and having Wendy Padbury around to be intelligent and practical while also getting into trouble is just wonderful. She is such a great character.

So what did our son think? He was a lot less restless than I would have expected, considering the guest stars talking around and around in circles, and was shocked when it appears that a Kroton may have destroyed the TARDIS. He dropped to the floor in surprise when it looks like the Doctor is crushed by falling rubble at the cliffhanger, too. For a story with such a poor reputation, it’s going over very well with him.

*Weird coincidence: Last night, Marie and I saw Philip Madoc, along with Peter Cushing and Jacqueline Pearce, in the fourth episode of the hugely fun The Zoo Gang. Told you Madoc was in everything.


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Doctor Who: The Krotons (part one)

Our son was so adorably outraged at the cliffhanger ending to this episode. We’re on an alien planet just as some students have become sick and tired of their benefactors, the Krotons, taking two of their number every generation to serve as “companions” and never be seen again. The party starts smashing the Krotons’ “teaching machines” and the Doctor and his friends arrive to stop the vandalism. Inside the strange spaceship, the aliens’ computers show the Doctor’s face, and then our hero is targeted by a weird, long, snake-like probe. Our son didn’t quite understand that the unseen Krotons are intrigued by this stranger; he thought the Doctor was being targeted because of the destruction. “That’s not fair! The Doctor didn’t break their machines,” he shouted.

“The Krotons,” a four-part adventure which originally aired in December 1968 and January 1969, has never got very much respect from fandom, but it’s not a total disaster. I quite like the imagery of the Kroton computers and their strange pinging noises. It’s got Philip Madoc in it – he was in everything in the seventies, including three further Who serials – and he’s always fun to watch. The director is David Maloney, one of the most reliable hands working on the show. Still, something’s definitely missing in this story, and I think it has a lot to do with the poor set design. There’s no sense of scale or place to any of this, including the Krotons’ ship, but especially the concept of a dangerous “waste land.” Where do the people live in relation to this “waste land,” and what physically prevents anybody from going there? It’s a badly executed production, but not necessarily a bad script.

About which, I’ve mentioned that season six of Who was plagued by script issues. Derrick Sherwin isn’t actually credited with any involvement on this story for the first time in a while. He was working ahead, trying to salvage the back half of the season after three (three!) serials fell through. “The Krotons” was a very late replacement for one of these. Initially not having anything to do with Doctor Who, this story was originally written as a six-part serial called “The Space Trap,” and was rejected by the BBC in 1965, but a copy made its way to the Who production office. Three years later, script editor Terrance Dicks found the copy, contacted the writer, Robert Holmes, and they worked to adapt it into a Who story.

This was absolutely one of the best things that ever happened for Doctor Who. We’ll be seeing a lot more of Robert Holmes in the future.


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