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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
I’d read that there was a lot of Avengers and Department S in this series’ DNA, but it seems to have a lot of The Famous Five in it as well, what with these kids having their adventures and following criminals rather than calling for police or anything. I was thinking that even before tonight’s installment, in which Mike phones the RAF (!) to rescue Steve from Ryan and Burke, who are shooting at him from another airplane. And sure enough, the air force scrambles four fighter jets to bring down their prop plane.
But the real Famous Five bit comes when Burke starts mumbling about a lighthouse so that Sue can hear it. It’s uncannily close to “blah blah blah secret plans, blah blah blah Third World War…”
Jerome Willis isn’t in this episode, which our son enjoyed a good bit more than the previous one. We did have to pause and explain what Buchan was doing at one point. In his third disguise and silly voice so far, he pretends to be thrown into Burke and Ryan’s cell in order to gain their confidence. But overall he really seemed to enjoy it, and even shouted “Yes!” when the stock footage of the RAF’s jets showed up.
Our son was quite candid and honest when I asked whether he’s enjoying this series. “Not really,” he said. He explained that there’s not a lot of action in it. That’s despite two people being knocked unconscious by blows to the back of the head, an exploding airplane, and a weird burst of radioactivity that turns the room blue and bathes the villain, Nero, in psychedelic colors.
We learn this time out that up until recently, Nero was Professor Barnet at Cambridge, a respected researcher into oceanographic studies. Like a lot of misguided scientists in the 1970s, he was trying to solve the world’s foot shortages, and his solution was the Medusa project, which stimulated plankton into unnatural growth via radiation. What this has to do with melting gold into frying pans and shipping them to France is still a mystery.
In fact, lots of this is kind of hard to figure out how each plot element fits into each other. It’s almost like they went on location, filmed a lot of material based on what was available and handy – like the big air show in this story – and then crafted a final script around that before they went back into the studio to tie it all together.