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Shadows 1.6 – Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes

Before we take a summer vacation here at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time, an odd curiosity. Three years after Ace of Wands was unceremoniously cancelled by Thames, the show’s creator Trevor Preston brought back one of the villains for a one-off case. Russell Hunter had starred as the evil magician Mr. Stabs in a 1971 storyline, and he reprised his role in this oddball little adventure called “Dutch Schlitz’s Shoes.” (Say it aloud. It’s as ridiculous as those albums by the 6ths, Wasps’ Nests and Hyacinths and Thistles.)

Shadows was a low-budget anthology of supernatural-themed stories for younger viewers. The first series, made in 1975, was produced by Pamela Lonsdale, who had worked on Ace of Wands and a few other programs for families, like the 1967 Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and the long-running Rainbow. I’m not surprised that she’d have phoned Trevor Preston looking for a contribution, since they’d worked together at least twice before.

I was surprised, however, that this was a lot more humorous than I was expecting. There’s more slapstick and oddball plot twists than Ace of Wands displayed in the stories we could see. Mr. Stabs and his servant have fallen on hard times and his magical hand is losing its power. He can get a recharge from a magical glove in an old country house museum, but he gets greedy and also pilfers the shoes that belonged to a mobster from the 1920s. Except the mobster isn’t as dead and buried as everybody thinks he is…

You have to grade on a curve, because this wasn’t intended for overly critical grownups. The story’s honestly not bad, but the no-budget production really was a distraction for me. There isn’t any incidental music in it, and when actors are going for physical humor, there needs to be some kind of ooomph. Imagine an episode of another 1975 videotape series, The Ghost Busters, without either music or a laugh track. That’s precisely what this feels like. John Abineri shows up as a police inspector who can’t get his witnesses to agree whether the villain they’re looking for is called Stabs or Schlitz. You can feel the actors going for gags, although not particularly good ones, and the soundtrack just doesn’t punctuate what they’re trying to do.

In short, it was very nice to finally meet this lost TV villain, and of course it’s always nice to see Russell Hunter in anything, but I wondered whether I might be tempted to order some more episodes of Shadows to sample. Not on the strength of this, I’m afraid! But we’ll see Mr. Stabs one more time, a few weeks down the road…

Stay tuned, friends and fans! We’ll be back next Monday!

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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts three and four)

The one thing that I don’t like about “The Robots of Death” is that the plot required David Collings’ character, Poul, to completely flip out and become practically catatonic when he learns that these robots have indeed been programmed against their first law and can kill. The character suffers from robophobia, which many people in this future society battle against, because robots don’t have body language and people get uneasy around them. This is a really interesting detail that makes this society feel more alive than a typical Doctor Who society, but sidelining Poul masks the fun that we could have had with him and his robot partner. They are detectives, a tip of the hat to Isaac Asimov’s characters Elijah Bailey and R. Daneel Olivaw.

Even more fun, David Collings had played Olivaw when one of the novels that featured the duo, The Naked Sun, was adapted for a 1969 episode of the BBC’s Out of the Unknown. Sadly, the episode was destroyed, but there’s a partial reconstruction with stills on the BFI’s Unknown DVD set. I think it’s delightful that Collings played the robot character in 1969 and, eight years later, got to play the human half of a very similar team on Doctor Who. Except Lije Bailey never suffered from any foolishness like robophobia!

The robot detective in this story is D84, and he’s wonderful, taking everything literally and deducting with solid logic in his quiet singsong voice. The writer, Chris Boucher, gave him all of the best dialogue. I was reading about the spinoff audio plays that were made in the continuity of this story and Boucher’s novel sequel Corpse Marker. They’re called Kaldor City and also tie in to the TV series Blake’s 7. Collings got to play his character Poul in some of these. I’d like to think that Poul got over his robophobia and he and a rebuilt D84 had a successful career in Kaldor busting heads and solving crimes.

Our son took a little while to come around to this one. He was more bothered by the robots than many other Who enemies, not so much frightened as aggravated on our heroes’ behalf that they were not behaving according to their programming! He was unclear that the villain was actually a human disguised as a robot. He liked the climax, in which the silver robot SV7 turns on him, but the conclusion was so fast-paced that I’m not surprised that some of the details eluded him. Still, it’s a great story, and like I said last time, one of my favorites from the era.

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Doctor Who: The Robots of Death (parts one and two)

“The Robots of Death” is a badly named but otherwise fantastic story from 1977. It’s one of my favorites from the Tom Baker years. It’s written by Chris Boucher and was the final Who serial to be directed by Michael E. Briant. The great guest cast includes David Collings, Russell Hunter, and Pamela Salem. I absolutely love it. It perfectly places an Agatha Christie plot in an Isaac Asimov world, with tips of the hat to Frank Herbert and Poul Anderson along the way, and then designs the costumes and rooms of this huge, moving mine with a lush jazz age sheen. Our suspects and victims are all idle rich, with fancy clothes and gaudy makeup, and the robots who do the work are built to be more beautiful than functional.

Our son is being incredibly observant but his deduction skills need a little tuning. He didn’t see what we were meant to infer from the over-the-top headdresses and lush common rooms of the mine, but he did catch that there are three color schemes for the robots: black, silver, and emerald. The second episode explains that the black robots are mute D-class and the lone silver robot is the controlling SV-class, but it also gives us a black robot who talks a great deal to Leela when none of the crew is present to hear his voice. Wonder what’s up with that?

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