Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (parts four and five)

Resuming this serial with a double-bill tonight, our son still says that he isn’t enjoying it, but he does at least enjoy the gunfights. That is, I think he likes the idea of the shootouts, because what happens on screen is not all that thrilling. Honestly, I’m not taken with Paul Bernard’s prowess as a director of action sequences. This isn’t the only time in Doctor Who that the design of a set got in the way of a director who needs to stage a shootout – “The Claws of Axos” comes to mind – but it’s every bit as frustrating to watch. The scene where the Ogrons capture Jo is so sloppy. It doesn’t look like Bernard gave any thought at all to where his cameras should be.

For many reasons, I’m not as familiar with this story as I am most of the Pertwee years. Around 2002, when I was watching the series with my older son, circumstances forced me out of the room to deal with unpleasantness for the first five episodes, five nights straight of real life awfulness, and that hangs over this story for me. So it’s locked in my memory as going from prison cell to prison cell and me unable to enjoy even that. I had forgotten many of the details of my original copy, which I taped off air in the eighties and watched several times afterward.

WGTV had shown this during a pledge drive and interrupted the compilation movie at the approximate points of the original cliffhangers. This led to an interesting surprise tonight. At the end of part five, the Master turns on his fear box and the very last shot is Jo looking in horror at something that we can’t see yet. The next part will open by showing her a few of the most recent monsters in the show: a Drashig, a Mutant “mutt,” and a Sea Devil, and that’s the point where WGTV had faded to black, so I thought we’d be seeing them tonight.

Since I’m not as familiar with this as I could be, I had forgotten just how darn good Katy Manning is, especially in this climax. She and Pertwee and Roger Delgado carry almost all of part four with limited interruption from other characters, which is incredibly entertaining, and they dominate the critical scene in the throne room of the Draconian Emperor, played by John Woodnutt.

But at the end, the Master tries to hypnotize Jo again, and she is not having any of that. She is amazing! Delgado goes right into his party trick of “You. Will. Obey. Me!” and Manning stares him down with cold fury, reciting nursery rhymes in his face. He hypnotized her with ease on their first meeting, on her very first UNIT assignment, but she is not the same scatterbrained kid from “Terror of the Autons.” That’s a fantastic scene.

Doctor Who: Frontier in Space (part three)

Thank heaven Roger Delgado turns up this week, because otherwise this episode is like watching paint dry. It’s more and more and more of prison cells and Earthmen not believing the Doctor and Jo. It’s agonizingly repetitive. For those of you who missed the previous two parts, don’t worry, because the other characters are going to force Jon Pertwee to explain the plot twice this week. So when the Master arrives toward the end in the guise of the police commissioner of the dominion planet Sirius IV, it’s the best thing by miles.

Once again, though, the story doesn’t pause to consider an avenue that’s a million times more interesting than what it does give us: 26th Century Earth is an authoritarian hellhole. Michael Hawkins’ general tells the weak president that she is in danger of being replaced by a military dictatorship, but she already presides over a planet where political prisoners are immediately sentenced to life imprisonment on the moon. At this time in its life, Doctor Who was not afraid to depict nasty futures and, in the manner of some good science fiction, warn against taking the wrong avenue. But later on, the producers and writers of the 1980s and 2000s would do more with totalitarian governments and pit a more active Doctor against them.

It’s difficult to square the way this Doctor treats future Earth as just another setting for adventures, albeit an ugly one, with the way the Doctor of “The Happiness Patrol” overthrows the government of a corrupt Earth colony, or the way the Doctor of “The Christmas Invasion” decides that Harriet Jones shouldn’t actually be the UK’s prime minister after all. Looking back at nineties fandom, I recall the way that older, Pertwee-loving fans of the show would praise Malcolm Hulke’s political edge while dismissing the show becoming “silly” in the late eighties. But Hulke’s stories, while sometimes brilliantly constructed and full of nuance and question around the issues of corruption, might have been even wilder if he had been allowed to position the character of the Doctor against the horrible corporations and government of the Earth he showed in “Colony in Space” and in this story. In a couple of weeks, we’ll watch “The Green Death,” where the Doctor is pitted against a corporation set on present-day Earth. It’s a shame that he never got the chance to similarly bring down the IMC, or this horrible president.

Meanwhile, I should point out that our son is just barely hanging on to this story, and the whole lot of nothing that doesn’t happen this week didn’t thrill him one bit. He certainly loved “The Three Doctors” and says that it is tied with “The Power of the Daleks” as his favorite adventure, but after the confusion and horrors of the last story and the frustrations of this one, he really, really needs something big to turn things around. But we’ll see that something big in a few days, after taking a little mid-story break.

One other thing to note this week is that Ray Lonnen’s character has left the narrative after two weeks. Episodes one and two were the only Doctor Who credits for this fine actor. Richard Shaw is in this part, and the next, as a trustee in the moon prison. Shaw had appeared in the 1965 serial “The Space Museum” and would appear in Who again five years after this, but we “remember” him best as Ryan, one of the recurring criminals in series five and six of Freewheelers. I use air quotes around remember because our son has watched series six of Freewheelers twice and remembers the character but, of course, doesn’t recognize the actor!

Freewheelers 6.13 – Pay Off

Oh, good. Buchan figured it out like I was hoping last time. After the first storyline ended through luck and betrayal instead of any actual work on the heroes’ part, I was a little worried.

This one has a pretty terrific finale, full of fistfights and gunplay and a visit from both a naval helicopter and some stock footage of a couple of destroyers. Our son was really pleased with this adventure and all the excitement. I was very glad that he enjoyed it so much.

Unfortunately, as I wrote a few weeks ago, this is the only Freewheelers story available at present. This would be the final appearances for Colonel Buchan, Ryan, and Burke, and the last for Sue for a while. Series seven, shown in the fall of 1972, featured Mike and Steve along with a new character played by Caroline Ellis getting involved in a couple of adventures. In the fall of 1973, series eight featured just Sue, along with a new character played by Martin Neil, in a thirteen-week story.

It ended there after 104 episodes, which is an insanely high number for a British show from this period. The last two seasons were repeated on a satellite channel in the nineties, from which some bootlegs made their way around. Some wiseguy even got a listing on Amazon UK for his DVD-R boots of these episodes. I confess that I was tempted, but decided to hope that one day they’ll get a legitimate release. Fingers crossed!

Freewheelers 6.12 – Red Herring

Caine’s plan is devious, I’ll admit, but I’m not all that sure I’m ready to agree that it’s plausible. Having replaced the lug nuts and muffler and other parts of Buchan’s Lotus with painted gold, he arranges for Buchan to be recalled to England, where customs officers search the car. They’re not immediately ready to believe that he’s from MI-5 and they find the gold.

So what Caine wants to do, while actually moving the gold by boat, is convince Buchan that they’re scheming to smuggle it out £60,000 at a time on one hundred cars. I’m hopeful that Buchan won’t fall for this. Surely he’s going to realize that somebody tipped off customs, right? If they accidentally and randomly pulled him over, then it’s possible that they stumbled on the scheme, but the tip-off obviously means that Caine wants Buchan to think this is the real plan, meaning it’s a red herring. But will Buchan figure it out? The answers in the (hopefully) exciting conclusion, next time…

Freewheelers 6.11 – The Race

So all the action moves over to Amsterdam, and a windmill near the town of Weesp where Caine has holed up. Interestingly, Leonard Gregory didn’t get to come on location with everybody else.

For people who enjoy looking at the way British television used to be made, there’s a very curious little scene here in which Colonel Buchan discusses the criminals with Captain Rylandt of the Amsterdam police. As you often see with British TV from the seventies, the show is made with the exteriors shot on 16mm film, and the interiors done in the studio on videotape. Rylandt’s office is filmed, therefore it appears to have been shot in the Netherlands with the other material.

But Marie said that a couple of things about it clued her in to the likelihood that this wasn’t filmed abroad. There are two posters for the Rijksmuseum in Rylandt’s office, which struck her as being a lot like the captain’s office in an episode of Law & Order having a couple of posters of the Statue of Liberty. She also said that the actor’s accent wasn’t right. She was correct. It’s a British actor named Arnold Diamond, who had dozens of small roles in films and TV shows, mainly police dramas, in the seventies and eighties.

I wonder whether we’ll see Diamond actually on location in the next episode, or whether the producers shot this and other scenes in his office in the UK, using a film camera rather than building an office set in a studio, using the different appearance of film and tape to fool viewers into thinking he was really Dutch?

Anyway, it turns out that part of Caine’s plan involves smuggling some of the stolen gold back to the UK by way of disguised auto parts. Buchan’s own car is nobbled and the garage that the villains are using is recommended, and Ryan and Burke install a brand new solid gold muffler on his Lotus. Seems a shame that they had to paint it all silver, really.

Freewheelers 6.10 – The Parcel

So much happens in these episodes! This time out, we’ve got a rescue at sea, Colonel Buchan having no trouble whatsoever getting rid of a bomb, Burke planning something involving a television crew and a yacht race, and even more business with the code that the previous episode introduced.

I wonder whether there was some way for viewers to follow along at home and crack this code. Throughout the seventies, the magazine Look-In (“the Junior TV Times“) ran comics and features based on ITV’s adventures aimed at kids and families. If they didn’t run this code for families to puzzle over, they sure missed a trick.

The episode seems to end with a surprising twist. Commander Caine goes off to retrieve that missing £6,000,000 in gold, but it’s apparently not in France after all. At the climax, we see that he’s made his way to the Netherlands. Marie and I were both born in 1971, the year this was made. She was born in Minnesota, but her mother is Dutch, and she’s made many trips to the Netherlands to visit family. We’re going to enjoy seeing what that country looked like when she was an infant.

Freewheelers 6.9 – Cypher

I don’t have too much to say about this episode, other than to note the absolutely terrible pun my son improvised. It’s all built around an incredibly complex cypher that Nero had used to hide that £6,000,000 he sent to France. It has three layers, and Commander Caine can break one of them with a key that’s on a ceramic plate. So Steve, held prisoner by the villains, kicks the plate out of Caine’s hand, where it shatters on the floor.

“He cracked the code,” our son cheered. His pun-loving mother was so proud.

Freewheelers 6.8 – Black Box

With Nero defeated, killed in the huge explosion last time, a new villain enters the proceedings. Mike and Steve, escaping from Ryan and Burke, meet him, but he seems to be a perfectly amiable retired naval commander. He even gives the boys a lift to the bus stop. It’s only after Ryan and Burke show up on the boys’ trail that we learn Commander Caine has plans to pick up where Nero left off, and jobs for them. Fortunately for our heroes, Caine never learned that they had the black box that he needed all along.

Commander Caine is played by Kevin Stoney, and I was pleased that our son remembered him as Tobias Vaughn from the Doctor Who story “The Invasion” a couple of months ago. He may have a little trouble remembering that his name is Caine, though. He noticed that Nero was introduced in an episode called “Nero,” and so he concluded that the new villain would be named Black Box. I’m pleased that he’s thinking about these things, even with such a funny flaw in the logic!

Freewheelers 6.7 – Doomsday

Our son has turned around a lot on this show. He was really excited tonight and thought this was completely thrilling. It included a helicopter chase and ended with a huge explosion as Nero’s plans are foiled.

I must say, however, that Col. Buchan is not entirely in the same league as John Steed or John Drake when it comes to saving the UK from evil threats. He does have the sense to send “the kids” out of the way when he goes to stop Nero, but his plan wouldn’t work at all if the villains all hadn’t started double-crossing each other. He’s even completely in the dark about Nero’s big change of plans. He’s not going to blackmail the world at all, just kill everyone with Medusa while he and his hand-picked survivors wait out things underground for two years. Lucky for us everybody started stabbing each other in the back, then.

I kid, it’s all in good fun, but there is a real disappointment this week, and that’s Jerome Willis going completely loopy. My wife and I recently finished watching the excellent spy series The Sandbaggers (1978-80), in which Willis appeared as an office-bound twit, albeit who should never be underestimated, and I was so used to his controlled and measured performance there that seeing him chew the scenery talking about destroying the world caused me to wince. We’ll see him again in Doctor Who a few months from now as a somewhat more successful villain.

Freewheelers 6.6 – The Threat

It’s fair to say that our son is not completely entranced by this show, but he is concerned for our heroes. This time out, Mike and Steve rescue Sue from the anchor that she was tied to in part five and he was visibly relieved. The characters are not shown to be indestructible; Mike took a nasty blow to the head in part five and Colin got shot, so there’s room for concern.

We learn Nero’s plan at last, and it seems that the scientists are not quite as kidnapped as Colonel Buchan and the kids believe. Professor Nero, cutting a dangerous profile in his dashing seventies comfy sweater vest, plans to blackmail the world’s governments to destroy all weapons of war, or he’ll unleash his oxygen-eating Medusa plankton into the ocean, killing all life in a matter of months. Buchan, cutting an equally dangerous profile in whatever the heck you call that shirt he’s wearing, is moving in to attack the lighthouse at dawn. I can’t swear that this is television’s most exciting cliffhanger, but I am curious what will happen next.

Freewheelers 6.5 – Pirates

As we watched the black and white Doctor Who serials, I concluded that four nights in a row was about the limit for our son’s pleasure, so I chose to break these thirteen episodes into four chunks. This proved to be a very good idea. Three mornings ago, he awoke to let us know that he had a bad dream about the two villains in Freewheelers, who put a bomb in his room which he had to “throw into another country.” If that’s not a sign that a kid needs a little break, I don’t know what is.

So rested and recharged with some sea monsters, yellow brick roads, and bionic action, we resumed this story in time for more action built around whatever in the Cornwall area they could find to film. Nero’s men take over a sailing ship and bring it to his new lighthouse base, where he’s got sixty kidnapped scientists working for him in the tin mines below. Sue, who’s been scouting around the region with one of Buchan’s other young agents, gets captured and tied to an anchor on the beach before the tide comes in. Our son was a little unclear about this part; he didn’t understand it was an anchor and Sue couldn’t just walk away.

The level of location filming is really impressive, and while the scenes of the other agent running from Nero’s armed guards isn’t the most dynamic scene ever shot, it’s a great location and it’s staged well. The program is undeniably a low-budget one, but the designer created a great hidden entrance to the lighthouse’s secret elevator, and it is much more impressive than what you often get in these videotape dramas.