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The Avengers 6.8 – Mission… Highly Improbable

Who can resist a shrink ray episode, particularly one with a guest cast as wonderful as this one? Philip Levene’s “Mission… Highly Improbable” is a fun little break from the Avengers norm, because the villain is pretty far from a diabolical mastermind. He’s a scientist who’s improvising the whole time. Since the old fellow in charge of his department has developed a shrink ray, using government money that he shouldn’t have, the baddie is looking to sell it, and since he’s just as corrupt as an intelligence officer from “the other side,” they seem to have some big plans to discuss.

You know, I just realized this episode might have been even more fun if they had brought back Warren Mitchell’s character of Ambassador Brodny instead of this fellow. Never mind, it’s delightful all the same. Our son had an early case of squirminess, but he settled down very quickly once he realized what was happening in this story and really enjoyed the terrific sets, the wonderful reaction shots from actors spotting the shrunken characters, the fights, and the great little comeuppance for the scheming villains.

Making this an even more entertaining episode than the usual high standard for this series, darn near every one of the players is a very recognizable face from the period. Anybody who enjoys British television from the sixties and seventies will enjoy seeing Nicholas Courtney, Richard Leech, Francis Matthews, Jane Merrow, Ronald Radd, and Kevin Stoney, among others, in this one. Courtney gets one of the most delightfully gruesome deaths of anybody in The Avengers, which is saying something.

Jane Merrow, curiously enough, would apparently be back at the Associated British Corporation’s offices very soon after this was filmed to audition for the role of Mrs. Peel’s replacement. Nailing down precise dates has always been a little more difficult for The Avengers than the meticulously-documented Doctor Who, but it appears that “Mission… Highly Improbable” was completed in September 1967, and Linda Thorson’s first episode as Tara King was completed two months later, and I’m not sure how many actresses that John Bryce screen tested and auditioned before choosing Thorson, but time wasn’t on his side. More on that next time.

“Mission… Highly Improbable” was the last of eight episodes screened as The Avengers’ sixth season in Britain, but it was the first one to air in the batch of fifteen that ABC started showing in January 1968. Next time out, as we’ll see in a couple of days, everything would change.

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts three and four)

The most important thing to note this morning is that our son really, really enjoyed this adventure. It’s easily one of his favorites from this Doctor. He didn’t get frightened or scared, but he got into things hugely. When the workers begin their uprising, he was cheering them on. He also had a blast with the cliffhanger to part three. It’s a very well done moment, with the pressure rising and only seconds to go before Leela is steamed to death in a public execution, and one sadly undermined by the total lack of urgency in part four as the Doctor rescues her, but wow, his eyes were as wide as they get and his feet kicking furiously as the credits rolled.

Our son says he had two favorite moments: he loved that buggy in part three, and he loved the Doctor’s confrontation with Henry Woolf’s vulgar Collector. This great scene ends with the Collector reverting to his true alien form and shrinking down into his survival chair, and he was imitating the villain with shouts of “Liquidate, liquidate!”

I’ve always thought this was a pretty good story, but I enjoyed it even more this time around. Woolf and Richard Leech are a great double-act, and they get all the best dialogue. I loved it when the Collector gets a scent of the Doctor’s moral outrage and sneers about it being the “vicious doctrine of egalitarianism.” I was also intrigued by the Collector researching the Time Lords and the Doctor, finding them a commercially non-viable target, and the Doctor himself a very well-documented thorn in the side of countless oppressors and tyrants over the centuries. If you remember that scene in 2008’s “Forest of the Dead” where the Doctor tells the Vashta Nerada “Look me up,” I think its spiritual ancestor is this little bit.

I think “The Sun Makers” is sometimes overlooked because it doesn’t have a monster, and because the black limbo sets are unconvincing, and because all the location filming in the basement of some building succeeds in making this look nothing like Pluto in the year six million and exactly like the basement of some building. But the script and the acting are so fantastic! I enjoyed seeing this one again almost as much as our kid enjoyed seeing it for the first time.

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Doctor Who: The Sun Makers (parts one and two)

I was all set to talk and talk about the choices that director Pennant Roberts made in using 16mm film versus videotape in this story, and then our son derailed my thoughts by “collapsing” at the sight of the buggy that the armed guards on Pluto use in their long, weird corridors when it shows up at the cliffhanger to episode two. “It has seven turbo machine gun cannons,” he told us! All I saw was a dressed-up golf cart. There’s more proof we should all be watching television in the company of children. Sometimes they’ll appreciate the things that you overlook, and sometimes they’ll keep their boring old dad from writing an even more boring blog post than usual.

What I was going to say was that Robert Holmes’ story “The Sun Makers” marks the debut of Anthony Read to the show as its script editor, a post he’ll hold for the rest of this season and all of the next. It features some very entertaining guest performances by Richard Leech and Henry Woolf as the money-obsessed villains who drug Pluto’s population and burden them with inhumane tax rates. Michael Keating, who would join the cast of Blake’s 7 right after making this story, also has a small role as one of Pluto’s rebels, but the real fun is watching everybody bowing and scraping to Leech, and watching Leech bowing and scraping to Woolf.

Our son was, of course, mostly taken by K9 and the buggy, but he paid good attention tonight and enjoyed the adventure, even if he’s vocally outraged by how evil the company that runs Pluto is. We had a pre-show chat about some things he knows about that might help a seven year-old understand this story. Earlier this year, we visited The Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge and saw some examples of company scrip, which Appalachian mining corporations would issue to exploit their workers. We also talked about the good that comes from paying taxes, but how it would be wrong for the government and the only job on the planet to be one and the same, and for that job to collect taxes from the wages that they pay you. There’s even a tax on medicine, which is pretty cheeky considering the population is all on the verge of nervous exhaustion from the hours they have to work and the fear drugs pumped into the air conditioning.

In other words, this is the sort of society that we’re going to greatly enjoy the Doctor knocking over when we sit down for the next half!

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