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Adam Adamant Lives! 1.10 – The Doomsday Plan

Surprisingly, just as soon as I mentioned it, the “conked on the head” flashback doesn’t appear in this morning’s episode, which was written by Richard Harris, but another recurring motif does. Adam Adamant has a complete blind spot to the possibility that any woman would be mixed up in the schemes of his enemies. I really hope the next time he wakes up in a cell with Georgie, who’s been in the cell for hours already, she hisses at him “WHEN will you learn to stop trusting women?!”

But speaking of enemies, today’s episode has a great one. It’s the wonderful actor Peter Vaughan as a doomsayer-type preacher who is organizing a fake nuclear attack to cause a mass panic while his men heist banks and jewelry stores. Our son really hated this guy. He got so irritated with him that he had to break out his trusty finger-pistols to start shooting at the screen. He also got so worried about Georgie investigating the enemy headquarters that he hid under his blanket, peeked out just long enough to see that she was getting away, and then gasped in total shock when the camera revealed Vaughan, showing that she wasn’t so lucky! Isobel Black plays the villain’s daughter, and Talfryn Thomas has a tiny walk-on part.

Thomas is only on screen during one of the filmed segments, and these are, again, completely beautiful. I’m always impressed by the restoration of black and white BBC material, but while the studio stuff looks very good – many of the same team worked on restoring Doctor Who – the film material looks like it was shot yesterday, with incredibly crisp blacks and resolution so fine you can marvel at the stonework on the old buildings in the London streets. There’s also a terrific scene shot at night where a man is surrounded by the doomsayer’s henchmen, each of whom is wearing one of those “The end is nigh!” sandwich-boards. There are probably people who saw this episode in 1966 and are certain it actually happened in an episode of The Avengers!

But two little elements just can’t help but remind you that you’re watching television and not the real world. One problem is that the studio set doesn’t match the exterior of the villain’s Mission Hall. The window that Georgie peeks through is on the opposite side of the front door when they cut from film to the studio. And the other problem is that Georgie’s fab scooter – is it a Vespa? – lies parked outside the hall for something like two days and nobody makes off with it!

(Note: I can play them, but I’m not presently able to get screencaps from Region 4 DVDs, so many of these entries will just have a photo of the set to illustrate it. Click the link to purchase it from Amazon UK.)

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The Avengers 6.15 – Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…

The brilliance of The Avengers is that it is said to be a program where absolutely anything can happen. So here, the veteran writer Dennis Spooner, who had contributed to Doctor Who and several of the ITC adventure series, decides to test that hypothesis and pushes the show farther into weirdness and farce than it had ever been before. It still doesn’t break. Now having said that, you can probably see the boundary from here. This is a deeply, deeply silly and hilarious episode, but it honestly doesn’t need to get any sillier than this.

If you’ve never had the great pleasure, “Look – (stop me if you’ve heard this one) But There Were These Two Fellers…” concerns a gang of “resting” vaudevillians who are targeting the board of directors of the Caritol Land and Development Corporation, a big firm that has just landed an extremely important government contract. But among their holdings is a defunct chain of music halls and palladium theaters, and a crooked Punch and Judy man who knows more than he’s letting on seems to have convinced the gang that by wiping them out, they can open the curtains on their old shows again. Jimmy Jewel and Julian Chagrin play the lead killers, and familiar faces Robert James and Talfryn Thomas are among the other “resting” artistes.

Not one line of this is played straight. Getting to the hilarious final fight, we get to enjoy some of the all-time great television death scenes. Years ago, I watched this one with my older kids, and my boy just about stopped breathing with laughter when Jimmy Jewel introduces some puffed-up aristocrat to his magic carpet trick. John Cleese plays a civil servant tasked with painting the copyrighted faces of clowns onto eggs, and Bernard Cribbins plays a gag writer who comes up with far, far more duds than winners, and they both meet hysterically gruesome ends. Both actors just had me in stitches before they met their grisly deaths. Cleese, in particular, is a delight in the role of a put-upon government worker who desperately wants to avoid letting any member of the public into his office.

Of course our son loved it. He laughed like a hyena in places. This would be a terrible introduction to The Avengers, but I can’t imagine anybody in the world not liking this. For a hour about one sick-in-the-head murder after another, it’s just so darn joyous, which makes it even more amazing that this could very well have been the program’s final episode! I don’t believe that ABC had renewed the show when this was made in March 1968.

As I mentioned last month, in the US, The Avengers was running opposite Lost in Space, and NBC’s The Virginian, which was crushing both programs. CBS gave the ax to Space, and in the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances, there was really no reason to expect that ABC would ask for more Avengers. By the spring of 1968, the spy craze was ebbing, Diana Rigg had moved on, and the ratings were dropping. But ABC did order a full 26 episode season of the program anyway, because something was going to happen in the fall of 1968 that was totally unlike the usual sort of Nielsen circumstances… but more on that another day.

That’s all from The Avengers for now, but Steed and Tara King will be back in August for more adventures. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (parts two and three)

Getting to the halfway point of this favorite of mine, I picked these two episodes to watch in one evening because if almost all the six-part Doctor Who stories could be edited to five without much incident, a lot of part two of this one could certainly be culled. It’s one of the flaws of the story: the Doctor tries to break into Global Chemicals to steal some cutting equipment that they won’t give freely and fails, and that’s all about six minutes of story that doesn’t go anywhere.

I also think that the Brigadier goes about the confrontation with Stevens in part three entirely the wrong way, wasting more time. He should have warned Stevens that there is something in those mines that could be threatening Global Chemicals. Instead, he makes an enemy of him far too soon. The whole premise of “we might have to close your refinery until we get to the bottom of this” is absolutely guaranteed not to work. Of course, the Brigadier may have remembered how he once tried to convince Peter Miles that they needed to investigate threats to his power station in Wenley Moor and got nothing but grief for it, but Miles’ character was an unhinged nut, and Jerome Willis’s Stevens seems so very reasonable.

And we learn this time that Stevens has a boss, called BOSS, with the silky and sinister voice of John Dearth. Great little double-act, those two.

Last month, we watched a Six Million Dollar Man adventure that was made a couple of years after “The Green Death” and I noticed a fun little similarity. In “Fires of Hell,” there’s a similar situation where a big corporate pollution machine becomes the economic engine driving a remote town and there’s a small group of ecology-minded hippies opposing them. I think it’s interesting that in both stories, the corporation is the villain and our heroes ally themselves with the hippies. There are certainly differences in the two stories – a crooked cop is helping the corporation in Six while there are apparently no police within a hundred miles of Llanfairfach, and it’s not really the corporation in Six but one greedy dude – but it struck a chord of amusement.

I really enjoy the hippies of Wholeweal. I think the writers did a great job making a believable little community from two speaking parts and some busy extras. I love how the Brigadier mostly relaxes and enjoys a supper of toadstool steaks and local wine while the Doctor entertains the dinner party with anecdotes of Venusian shanghorns and perigosto sticks. And of course I love how Jo falls completely in love with Cliff Jones and makes it look so believable and real. Later Doctor Who romances would be far, far less believable than this. Of course, Katy Manning and Stewart Bevan were actually a couple at the time, which probably helped.

I’ve got this far without mentioning the maggots. Because a Christmastime repeat of this story, edited into a two-hour TV movie, got one of the highest ratings that Doctor Who ever received in the UK, something like one in every five people in the country spent the next few decades asking “Man, you remember that Doctor Who with the giant maggots?” They’re not quite as amazing as the somewhat similar Drashigs, because using yellow-screen chromakey to move the puppets across the floor of the Wholeweal studio set isn’t completely successful, but they’re terrific, gross monsters, and has our son, who has memorized every word in his book Everything You Need to Know About Bugs feverishly wondering what this maggots will develop into before the end of the story.

This is a long post, but one last thing to mention: the sets in this story are downright amazing. Many people have written about how great the coal mine tunnels are, and they’re certainly right, but that room on the surface with the elevators and the huge spinning wheel is really something. I was impressed when Jon Pertwee rams a crowbar into the spinning thing to slow it, releasing a shower of sparks and a cloud of smoke. When you remember the “taped as live” nature of BBC television in that decade, it’s even more remarkable. If Pertwee wasn’t holding on tight, that bar could have been thrown into Talfryn Thomas’s head! I can’t imagine the health and safety representatives allowing the star of a television series to do anything like that in the eighties.

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Doctor Who: The Green Death (part one)

So it’s time for the end of another season of Doctor Who, and another big season finale written by Robert Sloman and Barry Letts. “The Green Death” was directed by Michael E. Briant and I think it’s thunderously entertaining. I really like this story a lot.

Watching the first part in isolation is a really fun experience. This is clearly a case – and a very rare case in the original run of Doctor Who – of a story built entirely around a companion’s departure. Jo Grant lets the Doctor know in the first episode that she does not want to gallivant off into space to have fun anymore when there’s a planet of her own to save. He knows, then, that their traveling days are over, but he thinks that she’ll still be with UNIT and they’ll work together when he comes back to Earth. And as befits a story built around the companion leaving, Katy Manning dominates this story. It’s all about her character and Katy is fantastic. It’s almost a shame that the very next Doctor Who companion would be so many people’s pick for the all-time best, because she overshadows Jo so much; at this point in the series, Jo is actually tied with Barbara as my favorite companion.

Anyway, this story is set in Llanfairfach, a town in south Wales that is suffering from the closure of its coal mine, and where an outfit called Global Chemicals has set up. Global’s director is a fellow named Stevens, played by the awesome Jerome Willis. He’d later play the disagreeably cautious Peele in The Sandbaggers. And it really, seriously looks like Stevens is under the control of the Cybermen. Honestly, this story looks and feels like a sequel to 1968’s “The Invasion.” It isn’t, but watch the scene where Stevens’ mind starts to wander and he loses track of what he was saying. It’s not quite as obvious an “I’m being controlled” performance as, say, Michael Sheard in part one of “Remembrance of the Daleks,” but something’s up. And then he puts on this futuristic-looking headphone set…!

But as much as I enjoy this story, it does have a couple of problems. One of these, which I may return to, is that the story’s heart is definitely in the right place, but its “pollution BAD alternative energy GOOD” tone is incredibly shrill and would be far less dated if it were a little less right-on. Another is a structural problem that leads me to employ the “unflattering cultural stereotypes” tag on this episode.

Since I’m almost totally unfamiliar with Welsh culture, I didn’t see anything as outlandish as, say, all the Scottish stereotyping in the Avengers episode “Castle De’ath,” but it isn’t really a case of employing cliche, it’s setting a story in Wales but telling a story about Englishmen. Tat Wood penned an essay in About Time entitled “Why Didn’t Plaid Cymru Lynch Barry Letts?,” and I don’t know that I would have noticed the problem until I read that. See, the Welsh characters in this story, even though they’re played by Welsh actors like Talfyrn Thomas, are not in control of their destiny. People from London are. Global Chemicals has moved to Llanfairfach to take advantage of the closed mine, and the hippie commune that opposes Global – about which more next time – is similarly made up of people who’ve dropped out and moved to the area because they share the young Professor Jones’s ideals and dreams.

Between these forces, the Welsh people here have no agency. They’re all unemployed, apart from the milkman and a few part-timers who inspect the mine for safety and, as we’ll see, green slime. And this story isn’t about them, even though they’re the ones who feel the immediate impact of what’s going on, as people start coming out of the mine bright green and dead. It’s about Jo first, and about Global Chemicals versus the Wholeweal Community second. That, along with the script making sure that the milkman says “boyo,” is what makes this a little unflattering.

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The Avengers 4.8 – A Surfeit of H2O

“A Surfeit of H2O” isn’t just writer Colin Finbow’s only Avengers credit; it’s his only credit, period, for any ongoing TV series, according to IMDB. He’d previously written an ITV play of the week, and would later write and direct some other obscure films, including the all-but-forgotten British adaptation of Something Wicked This Way Comes in 1972.

To prep our son for this episode, I first let him know what surfeit means, and then what H2O is. Starting from scratch this time. I also reminded him that The Avengers is full of eccentrics. Noel Purcell plays one this time out who’s getting ready for the next Great Flood, building an ark, shouting “Hallelujah” in every scene, and writing letters to the Times. We also get another great only-in-Avengerland business, a winery called Grannie Gregson’s Glorious Grogs, which is a front for villainy.

Unfortunately, all the prep in the world didn’t keep him from getting downright angry with this story. The villain, blessed with the comic book name of Dr. Sturm, has built a weather machine and can create torrential rains over a desired location instantly. We don’t learn this plan until nearly the end, when he’s got Mrs. Peel captive in a massive hydraulic vegetable press, which was too cruel a trap for his liking. He never did learn to love the over-the-top cliffhanger traps of Batman, you may recall. The climactic fight scene, in the rain-lashed courtyard, went some way toward saving a little bit of happiness, but honestly, the fight’s a little spoiled by Purcell bellowing “Hallelujah!” every three seconds.

Apart from Purcell, there are a few notable guest stars in this one, including Talfryn Thomas and Geoffrey Palmer, each of whom we’ve seen briefly in small roles in season seven of Doctor Who. We’ll see them both again in Who before the end of the year. Sue Lloyd, who seems to have made it into most of ITC’s action-adventure shows of the day (and was a regular in one, The Baron), plays the villains’ receptionist. Even diabolical masterminds like Dr. Sturm must maintain the illusion of being a respectable businessman.

Incidentally, this was one of five episodes that were not shown on ABC in the original US purchase of the series. I think that only 21 were shown because ABC dropped all their black and white programming at the end of August 1966, but I wonder who made the decision which five wouldn’t make the cut. “A Touch of Brimstone,” famously, never aired on the network for content reasons, but somebody must have made similar decisions about the other four. For whatever reason, this story apparently wasn’t shown in America until it was offered in a package for syndication in the seventies.

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Doctor Who: Spearhead from Space (part one)

In January 1970, Doctor Who returned after its longest break ever – six whole months – and it was all in color with a new lead, played by Jon Pertwee. When our son saw the new psychedelic title sequence, he went “Ooooh, color!” Behind the scenes, Derrick Sherwin was still producer, at least briefly, and Terrance Dicks was settling in for five more years as script editor. Nicholas Courtney was back as the Brigadier, now a regular member of the cast. And there’s a new companion in the form of Caroline John as the Cambridge-based scientist Liz Shaw.

The new Doctor spends almost this entire episode in bed. It’s the first act of a four-part serial by Robert Holmes, and our hero is experiencing what we’d later call the after-effects of his regeneration, but at the time, all that was explained was that the Time Lords changed his appearance. His antics are no less silly than what we’d occasionally see from Patrick Troughton; our son giggled as the Doctor grumbled about his missing shoes, and he had a field day when the Doctor made an escape bid from some shiny-faced men under the direction of guest villain Hugh Burden. He makes a getaway in a wheelchair, and our son just adored that.

Our boy didn’t really notice that the strange men have shiny faces. We’ll deduce later that these, along with Burden’s character (called Channing), are the first of the Autons that we’ll meet. The Autons only appeared in two serials in the original run of the show, but they quickly became iconic enemies and were used to relaunch Doctor Who in 2005 and appeared again in the form of some Roman legionnaires in 2010.

A couple of guest actors here would return in slightly larger roles later in the Pertwee years. Talfryn Thomas, who we’ll later see in “The Green Death,” plays the hospital’s porter, and Prentis Hancock, who will appear in “Planet of the Daleks,” is a reporter with a couple of lines. They’re only in this episode; we have several new characters to meet next time.

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