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The Champions 1.23 – The Night People

I swear it feels like Donald James wrote everything that we’ve watched for the last month! “The Night People” isn’t one of the best episodes of The Champions. In its favor, there’s some great location filming around the iconic Knebworth House, and Stuart Damon chose to play Craig as being an incredibly bad mood, short-tempered, worried about the missing Sharron, and snidely patronizing to everybody, including his friends and guest star Adrienne Corri, who plays a white witch in Cornwall. Thirty episodes of that would have been twenty-nine too many, but everybody’s due a bad day once in a while.

On the other hand, it feels too much like the far superior “Shadow of the Panther” from earlier in the season. It starts as a Sharron-centered adventure involving some fake magic hocus-pocus to cover up a more mundane crime, and the boys show up when Sharron goes missing. The problem is that Sharron was in command of the situation in “Panther,” and while she’s staying put and quietly learning about the situation while allowing herself to be imprisoned by guest star Terence Alexander, she is really sidelined and left out of all the physical stuff again. Watched after last night’s New Avengers, in which Purdey isn’t sidelined by anybody, it feels incredibly retrograde.

We’ll take a short break from The Champions to keep things fresh, but we’ll be back for the final seven episodes in about three weeks. Stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani (part two)

It’s somewhere in the second episode of this story that it really starts to feel like everybody working on this show is enjoying themselves a whole heck of a lot. Well, other than the script editor, who seems to have completely lost both heart and interest, anyway. But it’s really looking and feeling more like a bunch of television veterans and luvvies having a big showbiz party while making some run-of-the-mill, unthreatening, unchallenging television. Not one person involved with writing this script paid the slightest attention to the rule of showing and not telling. There are something like seven occasions where either the Doctor or the Master tells the viewers just how brilliant and amazing the Rani is, when the Rani steadfastly fails to actually accomplish anything brilliant or amazing. It feels like the writers are patting themselves on the back for creating a new returning character before she’s actually done anything to make her worth a return visit.

The Rani remains a massive missed opportunity who’s caught the imagination of thousands of fans, partly because she’s so unlike the Master and isn’t a revenge-crazed megalomaniac, and partly because she’s played by Kate O’Mara, who everybody loves. She was largely unknown in America in the mid-eighties, with only the flame-keepers of Hammer horror fandom really knowing who she was here, but her profile was so high in the UK that she was the obvious choice to come to Los Angeles for a year and play Joan Collins’s character’s scheming sister Caress on Dynasty for most of 1986. I hadn’t even seen “The Mark of the Rani” yet, but I’d read in Doctor Who Magazine that the new Who villain was on Dynasty, so I started watching the show for the only time, which was just about my only experience with prime-time soaps. (There was some time spent later obsessing over Knots Landing on account of some fool girl, but that’s another story.)

I’d like to think that the end of this television adventure isn’t actually the end of the Doctor’s time in 1810ish. Our heroes leave and the credits roll, but I choose to believe that they actually pop over to Redfern Dell and clean up all of the Rani’s silly mines that turn people into trees, and then return to hang out at the conference with Brunel, Stephenson, Faraday, and Davy, and to actually report the sad news that the good-looking character with the unbelievably anachronistic haircut had been killed. And with that paragraph, I can confidently say that I’ve spent more time thinking about the consequences of this story than the people who wrote it.

That’s four turkeys in a row. We are really due for something memorable and wonderful.

Photo credit: Radio Times

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Doctor Who: The Mark of the Rani (part one)

The nicest thing to say about tonight’s adventure is that it’s the only Doctor Who story directed by Sarah Hellings, and it’s an incredible shame that she never worked on the show again. The story was mostly filmed around two of the “living history” museums operated by the Ironbridge Gorge, and it looks completely fabulous. It’s a pity she wasn’t given a better script.

The second nicest thing to say about tonight’s adventure is that, like the previous one, it introduces a promising new villain badly in need of a better story. The Rani is an unethical, exiled-from-Gallifrey Time Lord scientist who is played by the awesome Kate O’Mara. It’s also a pity she wasn’t given a better script.

Anyway, “The Mark of the Rani” is also the first contribution to Doctor Who by the writers Pip and Jane Baker, and the nicest thing that I have to say about their work is that part one of this adventure is as close to entertaining as they ever get on the show. It’s a bland, boring hour with a guest appearance by Terence Alexander and the return of Anthony Ainley as the Master, who actually kills a dog this time out, just to remind you there’s no depths to which this criminal won’t sink. Our son said the only thing he liked about this story was the cliffhanger, in which the Doctor is strapped to a runaway cart. Hellings and her team truly did make the climax look great. Wonder how the Doctor will get out of this mess!

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The Avengers 7.15 – Love All

I’ve never much cared for this story by Jeremy Burnham. There’s perhaps the silliest computer this show ever had – it looks like a piano and writes romance novels – and a played-mostly-straight plot that uses super-subliminal microdots to influence whoever reads them. I think the most interesting thing about it is the complete transformation of Veronica Strong from an attractive young woman into a frumpy, chain-smoking cleaning lady who nobody would suspect as a femme fatale extracting secrets from her many admirers. That’s quite a good performance.

On the other hand, our son was on the edge of his seat during a moment where Tara is persuaded by Terence Alexander, playing the man she’s been subliminally hypnotized into loving, to jump out a window because life is no longer worth living without him. Steed arrives in the nick of time, but it’s touch and go for enough of a minute to keep our kid absolutely riveted with fear and concern.

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The Avengers 5.9 – The Correct Way to Kill

In the early days of color TV, producers would often remake black and white episodes. It showed a little bit of foresight – in time, many channels would stop running black and white TV – but it sometimes felt like a cheat. I think that Bewitched and Gunsmoke may hold the booby prize for most color remakes. With The Avengers, it made a little sense. The three videotaped seasons were not shown in America for many years, so the audience never had the chance to see “The Charmers,” which had used a largely similar script as this a few years before.

“The Charmers” is witty, but “The Correct Way to Kill,” Brian Clemens’ rewrite, is completely hilarious. It’s one of my all-time favorites, just full of sight gags and double entendres. Steed’s partner for much of the episode is Comrade Olga Volowski, played by Anna Quayle, while Mrs. Peel is briefly teamed with another agent from “the other side” played by Philip Madoc.

The plot is hilariously, or perhaps uncomfortably, topical. Some third party, their agents dressed as London “city gents,” is murdering foreign agents on British soil. Steed is outraged, in his unflappable way. Surely “the other side” would have the decency to recall their agents and kill them at home instead of doing it in Britain! Maybe in the sixties, Comrade Steed. These days, agents from “the other side” drop dead in London every month or so.

Anyway, Clemens just has a hoot with Olga’s dialogue as she tries to understand Steed’s decadent, subtle ways, while Mrs. Peel learns the hard way that a little cheating in espionage, even when there’s meant to be a truce, is to be expected. The episode’s full of great familiar faces like Terence Alexander, Peter Barkworth, Michael Gough, and Joanna Jones, and it climaxes with a downright amazing swordfight. It’s a great, great episode, and if you’ve never seen it, you should check it out.

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The Avengers 4.1 – The Town of No Return

You might make a fair case that six is a little young to start watching the adventures of John Steed, top professional, and Mrs. Emma Peel, talented amateur. On the other hand, there are a hundred-odd episodes of this show to see, and I want to watch them again, along with my boy.

You might also make a fair case that we could have not only waited a little, but also started with the earlier, less well-known episodes, instead of going with the ones that Americans know best. That’s fair. Generally, I don’t enjoy the second and third seasons quite as much, despite some great moments. My favorite episode of the entire show is a Tara King one, but my second favorite is “Brief For Murder,” from season three. But we have so many things to watch and so little time, and so I passed on picking up the first two sets from Studiocanal / Optimum last year. I think I made the right choice; as soon as I got the sets of the film series from Amazon UK, one of the many missing installments of the first series, “Tunnel of Fear,” was found. Maybe when I have a little more disposable cash, and somebody issues “Tunnel” on a new box set, I’ll buy that edition!

Anyway, The Avengers was made by the Associated British Corporation, one of the many different commercial television companies in the UK. ABC broadcast in one of Britain’s TV regions from 1956-68 before merging with Associated Rediffusion and becoming Thames TV. Many of these companies were looking for international sales and ABC approached the American networks with The Avengers, which was made, as most British TV programs were at the time, as a mix of videotape interiors and black-and-white 16mm film exteriors. They got some positive interest, but were also told that they really needed to make the program entirely on 35mm film if anybody in America was going to buy it.

Every TV company in Britain was told this. Very, very few listened. Associated British, in one of the greatest television decisions of the decade, decided to go all-in. They were in the process of recasting and rethinking anyway, as Honor Blackman, who played Steed’s principal co-star Cathy Gale – there were three others as well – had left the series, and they needed a new actress with M-Appeal, somebody who looked stunning in black leather fighting evil henchmen twice her size. Elizabeth Shepherd originally won the role of Emma Peel, but after several weeks of filming, having completed “The Town of No Return” and most of a second episode, the producers agreed that she was not right for the role after all. Diana Rigg became the new Emma Peel, and she was rushed in for retakes of the second episode. “Town” was left abandoned for several months, remounted midway through the block of 26 stories, and chosen to launch The Avengers‘ fourth season, in September 1965.

I should pause here and note that The Avengers has one of the most confusing and remarkable production histories of any TV drama from its era. The current school of thought is that the correct order for the series should be the original production order, as the various British TV broadcasters showed the series in different orders, on different days of the week, and the American order was different still. But this is my silly blog and we’re going to watch them in the order that I got to know them, which is the broadcast order… until we get to the arrival of Tara King and things got real weird, anyway.

And yes, there is an American order! It doesn’t matter all that much for now, because the black-and-white Avengers was made for British television and sold to the ABC network later, but its sale is super-important. The Avengers was not quite an all-conquering ratings giant like we’d like to imagine it was, but ABC bought it as a midseason replacement for the medical series Ben Casey, which was cancelled after five years. ABC also picked up ITC’s The Baron as a replacement for Burke’s Law at the same time, so in 1965 there was definitely some financial interest in looking overseas for programming that was less expensive than making new shows in Hollywood.

This seems to have been started by CBS, who jumped on the sixties spy bandwagon by purchasing ITC’s Danger Man and giving it the new name of Secret Agent, and would continue here and there for the next six years or so, with The Saint, Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased), The Champions, The Persuaders! and other British dramas all showing up in the prime-time schedules, usually programmed against something that was going to win the night no matter its competition, but The Avengers lasted longer on American television than any of the others. US broadcasts began with the third episode of season four, “The Cybernauts,” on March 28 1966. “The Town of No Return” didn’t screen here until September; it was the last of 21 episodes (five weren’t shown), while the first of 26 in the UK.

I’ve written a lot and didn’t leave myself much time to talk about the episode. Our son, happily, enjoyed it, especially the fight scenes. I paused with each commercial break to ask him a few questions to keep him focused. Where did he think all of the people are? Why are the village schoolchildren all on vacation in the middle of the year? This wasn’t a very complicated story, and a good one to start on. It has a pretty small cast of very recognizable faces, including Patrick Newell (later to play a regular character in this show), Juliet Harmer (who would soon play the sidekick in Adam Adamant Lives!), Alan MacNaughtan (The Sandbaggers), and Terence Alexander (a regular guest star face in darn near every British show from the period). The director was Roy Ward Baker, and the story was written by Brian Clemens, who we’ll hear a lot about as this blog goes on. But a thousand words is plenty for now. We’ll see another episode next week.

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