This was certainly our son’s least favorite episode of Jason King so far. It’s a very slow story in which a desperate and very stupid criminal, guilty of some awful elder abuse, murders a vacuum cleaner salesman for unclear motives. Norman Bird, Sylvia Coleridge, Dinsdale Landen, and Fiona Lewis all appear, and Lewis is wonderful as the girlfriend-of-the-week who can get Jason to cross the Channel for her with the help of a well-placed lie in the newspapers, but the only scene that our son honestly enjoyed features Jason advertising a hideous breakfast food that “tastes like rancid yogurt,” thinking better of it, and refunding the money.
So season thirteen concluded with a bang and a joke. This story was too scary for our son to ever want to see again – that’s this season in a nutshell – but he enjoyed the explosions and the Doctor and Sarah sharing a smile at the coda. I actually gave him a heads-up that the composting machine that frightened him, and absolutely everybody else who watched this, in episode four would be back to menace Sarah tonight, but that she’d be fine. The scene really is an amazingly tense one, with Tony Beckley’s character doomed, but he and Tom Baker fighting with amazing desperation.
The entire production is just terrific. I really enjoy the visuals and the music, and how the actors are playing this situation entirely believably. They’re trapped and terrified and I think this really rubbed off on our son. This and “Pyramids of Mars” are just wall-to-wall shocks. What a great, great season. Except for the last half of “The Android Invasion,” but 24 out of 26 episodes is an excellent run.
Speaking of “The Android Invasion,” I was saying how we wuz robbed of a farewell scene where the Doctor tells his friends that he’s moving on. Isn’t it strange that when the Doctor escapes from Harrison Chase’s estate, it’s to contact Sir Colin of the World Ecology Bureau? You and I know the production reason is “Because they’re paying that actor already and built the set for his office,” but he doesn’t make a beeline for a phone to call Harry, Benton, or Colonel Faraday. We hear that the Brigadier is in Geneva (still, or again, I wonder) and a Major Beresford is in charge, but why doesn’t the Doctor phone his other friends? The story opens with the Doctor already in the UK and visiting the World Ecology Bureau on somebody’s recommendation. Have he and Sarah been in England for some time, and he’d already told his friends goodbye and turned in the keys to his old lab? Is that why he wants to rush to Sir Colin, because he didn’t want to phone Harry a couple of days after figuring he was gone for good?
Anyway, a couple of goodbyes to note this time. This is the final Doctor Who story to be directed by the great Douglas Camfield, and the last of two to be written by Robert Banks Stewart. He’d go on to create two extremely popular crime dramas for the BBC, Shoestring and Bergerac. Camfield directed three episodes of Shoestring along with several other notable shows over the next eight years, including an eight-hour adaptation of Beau Geste, episodes of The Sweeney, The Professionals, and Danger UXB, and the acclaimed miniseries The Nightmare Man. Readers may recall that Camfield had a heart condition that waylaid him during production of the Who serial “Inferno” in 1970. He died of a heart attack in 1984, aged 52. When I was younger, I didn’t quite understand the fuss about Camfield. When I later felt the energy and the tension that crackles through his stories, I got it. He brought out some of the very best performances from all of the actors and really made these last two serials in particular something very special. Doctor Who often rises above the quality of its production, but it would be many years before the show would have a director who could kick things up quite as high as Douglas Camfield could do it.
We’ll take a short break from Doctor Who for all those in the audience with a nervous disposition, but stay tuned! We’re planning to start season fourteen in just a couple of weeks!
The story moves back to England for its middle parts, making this kind of unique in the seventies Earth stories in that it’s an actual globetrotter. Most alien invasions of the planet head straight for the UK. This one came to Antarctica tens of thousands of years ago.
And once the show comes back to familiar ground, the horror quotient just skyrockets. Our son absolutely hated the cliffhanger to part three, when it looks like the Krynoid pod is going to infect Sarah, and part four is just wall-to-wall terror. The big composting machine had him running upstairs to his own room. He came back down just in time to see the infected man, Keeler, lose every trace of his humanity. It’s a terrific shock moment, with the butler dropping his tray at the sight of a huge, angry, green monster in the room. He bolted upstairs again.
“Yeah, I’m not surprised. That really was a scary scene,” his mother said.
Conventional wisdom has it that the larger size Krynoid, which is a throbbing green mass about twelve feet high, isn’t the most convincing monster, but our son swears that’s the scariest moment yet. This is a great story, even if our son’s fear factor meant that we were a little bit distracted.
In lighter news, Sylvia Coleridge joins the cast as a daffy old lady, because that’s what she specialized in playing. There’s a repeat of the “And the music’s terrible” gag that was used in the previous story. Then, the Doctor was sick of the Sisterhood singing their hit “Sacred Fire, Sacred Flame.” This time, Tony Beckley’s character is playing Chick Corea’s keyboard parts from Miles Davis’s 1970 Fillmore West show because he thinks it will help his plants grow. Don’t believe me? Compare Beckley’s noise in that scene to “Masqualero” on Black Beauty. He’s lucky his plants don’t strangle him to death.
If the previous episode of The Avengers was heavy and dated, then this delightful comedy was just what we needed. Our son was very taken with it, which is encouraging, because it’s almost like the official template for the color series: lots and lots of dead bodies of unusually-named men in unusual circumstances, silly organizations formalizing a hobby led by a silly eccentric, grandiose crime, and great guest stars. It’s breezy and very, very fun.
Tackling the cast first, the big name here is the much-loved Bernard Cribbins as a fellow obsessed with knitting. His oddball knitting circle has the office next door to the baddies. Comedy star Liz Fraser plays Steed’s impromptu partner Georgie Price-Jones. She’s been hired to impersonate Mrs. Peel, who’s been kidnapped, and Steed brings her along to get to the bottom of it. There’s also the delightful Sylvia Coleridge, who we saw in an Ace of Wands installment, as a daffy old lady, and David Bauer, one of ITC’s deep bench of American actors, here playing an enemy agent from the eastern bloc. They never actually say Russian, of course. All part of the fantasy. Going back to the previous post about The Avengers and its unreality, even when Bauer’s character ends up in a jail cell, we never actually see a policeman on screen!
I really love the villainous enterprise this time. It’s called Art Incorporated and is led by Gregorio Auntie, played by Alfred Burke. Their shtick is they obtain the unobtainable for extremely exclusive clients and leave behind reproductions. Burke, who is best remembered for playing PI Frank Marker in the long running Thames drama Public Eye, is a really entertaining villain and he has a great scene opposite Macnee.
This template gets tweaked a little in the color series before it becomes pretty standard and, eventually, we have to admit, a little rusty. One positive change they’d make is letting the audience briefly meet the various oddballs with silly names before Steed and his partner find their bodies. Still, even though we have only the briefest acquaintance with John, Paul, George, and Fred Jacques (“the Starr Brothers”) in this outing, they’ll always be remembered.
The theme of “things were better when we had an Empire” fuels quite a lot of British drama in the sixties and seventies. We’re going to see this several times in The Avengers, and we’ll certainly see it in a serial in the next batch of Doctor Who that we’ll watch called “The Mutants.” In this Ace of Wands adventure, the nuts and bolts of The Major’s plan are left deliberately vague. He plans to kidnap a general, hypnotize him, hold him for ransom, and yadda yadda yadda, the British military will be wearing red colonial uniforms again. There’s so much of this going on in the television drama of the period that it seems that writers were tapping into a sense of resentment and regret.
Of course, Ace of Wands is a children’s adventure series and it doesn’t linger on politics, and so the Major’s powers and plans are nebulous; this is all about the creepiness. It’s a very effective serial for its limitations, one of the better stories to have survived Thames’ wiping of the show.
Victor Pemberton, who passed away earlier this week, penned another fabulously fun Ace of Wands adventure in 1972. This one’s full of creepy old ladies who really have unnerved our son, and one of them is apparently a hundred years old. That claim contradicts what the village postmaster tells Tarot. He says that old Matilda died a couple of years ago…
Whether a ghost or an impostor, Matilda seems to be in a co-hypnotizing act with a mysterious major, and, to test their powers, they hypnotize Chas into stealing £20 in money orders from the village post office. This makes the front page of the newspaper. Even allowing that £20 in 1972 is worth £184.50 today, that really must have been a slow news day.
Sylvia Coleridge, who was omnipresent in the sixties and seventies in the roles of daffy old ladies, plays Matilda’s sister Letty Edgington. As for Matilda, I fear the question is kind of instantly settled by the obviousness of the actor playing her. He might can fool a six year-old, but that’s clearly James Bree dragged up as Matilda, and even though he tries to give her an old lady voice, any time James Bree speaks in any role, all that I can hear is Doctor Who‘s Security Chief sneering “What… a… styoopid… fool… YOU! ARE!”
I tease, but this is a really good story, paced extremely well and dripping with menace and malice. We’ll have to wait a couple of days for the resolution, unfortunately, but I remember it being a good one.