Tag Archives: the champions

The Champions 1.11 – The Dark Island

Tonight, we returned The Champions to the rotation for another several weeks. Our son was very happy about this. It’s among his favorite shows, and while I have a couple of short breaks planned, we’ll be watching this into June. This evening’s installment was written by Tony Williamson, and the guest villain is played by Vladek Sheybal. He’s operating from a small Pacific island and is in league with the Chinese military to launch a strike against the United States’ ballistic early warning system. You can tell that’s that’s the plan, because the underground base has all these posters of Chairman Mao on the walls, along with text that is written in Chinese, but the Big Board in the main room is conveniently written in English so we can tell what they’re up to.

Also in the cast this week, blink and you’ll miss him, but Anthony Ainley has a very tiny and uncredited role as one of two lookouts from a US Navy landing party. After the episode, I started it again to get another look at him and pointed him out to our son, who said “Wow, the Master in The Champions?” I told him “Why not, we’ve already seen the Rani in The Champions.” He said “Huh?” and I reminded him of Kate O’Mara’s character in a previous episode. “Yeah, I remember her,” he replied, “but who is the Rani?” So we prodded and poked and prompted until he said “Oh, her!” Good thing we got that cleared up, since we’ll see the Rani again in a little over a week.

Funny. There’s an anecdote that said that Steven Moffat was once asked whether he’d ever bring back the Rani, and he was against it, because nobody remembered her.

Anyway, before he went off and proved my point that this kid has no memory for faces, he underlined a different point, that he sometimes remembers sets and the like. Early in the episode, Richard is in a plane getting ready to parachute onto the island. We see stock footage of an airplane, and then a shot of two airmen in the cockpit. Our son said “Hey, that looks familiar,” and I pointed out that it might very well have been the same cockpit set that was used in the episode “Reply Box No. 666.” Then he clarified that it wasn’t the set that he remembered, but the stock footage. Well, I have no idea whether he’s ever seen that before.

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The Champions 1.10 – The Ghost Plane

“The Ghost Plane” is a fun globetrotting episode written by Donald James. It starts in the south China sea and jaunts everywhere from the Alps to Cambridge to Albania, taking in the same warehouse location that they’d used in “The Invisible Man.” The main guest star this time is Andrew Keir, and I think this must have been made a few months after Keir had filmed Quatermass and the Pit.

We only see the “ghost plane” itself in the opening scene. Somebody has arranged for a defunct idea that a British engineer had suggested to NATO to make its way to China, where a prototype is built and tested against four American jets. It’s a cute mix of stock footage and new model shots of the delta-winged plane. Oddly, I was actually thinking to myself that they should have knocked on Gerry Anderson’s door and hired his team to do the sequence when our son piped up and said “Hey! That plane looks like the Angels in Captain Scarlet!” I don’t think so myself, but I’m amused that he saw a connection. In fact, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons was in production at the same time as this series.

The best scene in the story by a mile was a great sequence where Sharron is locked in a deep-freeze refrigeration unit at the bad guys’ warehouse and the trio use their telepathy to rally to her rescue. I really enjoyed that. I guess that especially in the wake of seeing Captain Marvel, we’d rather have seen Sharron kick the door down herself, but while the Champions are really strong, they’re not quite that strong!

That’s all for The Champions for now, as we put this fun show back on the shelf for a few weeks to keep things fresh, but we’ll pick back up with episode eleven in mid-April. Stay tuned!

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The Champions 1.9 – The Iron Man

Not a lot to say about this one. It’s meant to be more lighthearted and it does have a couple of good jokes, but the obvious sexism on the part of the deposed dictator whom our heroes are protecting gets old real fast, and the biggest giggle came from the occasional appearances of a big string holding up the target in the closeup shots when people go out for a round of trap shooting.

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The Champions 1.8 – To Trap a Rat

The strange finger of coincidence visits our blog again. We just saw Kate O’Mara in a Doctor Who story filmed in 1984 a couple of days ago, and here she is in a Champions filmed in 1967. Although I was also telling Marie about how the actress had picked up a reputation of glamour and glitz in the late seventies and eighties – look, I don’t know whether it was earned or not, I’ve never seen Triangle – and here she’s playing the incredibly unglamourous role of a desperate drug addict.

The real selling point for this adventure is all the location filming in London. Sure, there’s some stock footage and Elstree backlot stuff too, but lots of material shot in city parks, major streets, inside a big department store, and the London Zoo at Regent’s Park. The story’s an entertaining one about our heroes busting some drug smugglers, but it’s also a wonderful time capsule of the city in the swinging sixties.

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The Champions 1.7 – The Survivors

Today’s story, written by Donald “wrote for everything back then” James, is the perhaps inevitable story where the heroes run up against Nazis, but it is done with a heck of a lot of flair and several really good twists. That’s Clifford Evans along with co-star Alexandra Bastedo in the picture above as a colonel from the Wehrmacht who was buried alive along with sixty men and several decades worth of supplies in a long-disused iron mine in Austria.

It’s a very good story, and we all enjoyed seeing it unfold, but I’m not sure that it’s a very good Champions story. There’s a huge disadvantage to the way that many programs were made back in the sixties, and that’s the lack of a central core of writers working in tandem to move the stories forward and maintain internal consistency. In the previous episodes, including one scripted by this same writer, we’ve seen that our heroes have several powers, but the one that they use most often is telepathy to communicate over long distances. They don’t use their telepathy even once in this episode, although there is a single “intuition” moment where Sharron “feels” an explosion near Craig and Richard. It would have changed the structure of this adventure considerably if they were less in the dark than they are throughout.

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The Champions 1.6 – Operation Deep-Freeze

Alexandra Bastedo is barely in this episode of The Champions, but a pile of recognizable character actors from the period are. Robert Urquhart is one of the good guys, and Patrick Wymark, Walter Gotell, and George Pastell all represent an enemy nation that’s testing small-yield atomic weapons in Antarctica. There’s also an amazing amount of stock footage. At one point, Gotell and his criminal associate have to shoot four men who are pursuing them, because that’s how many men are in the library footage.

“Operation Deep-Freeze” was one of fourteen episodes of The Champions that I taped off-air way back in 1987 from an Atlanta UHF station, channel 69. Launched as WVEU, and known today as Atlanta’s CW affiliate station WUPA, it began broadcasting in 1982 playing nothing but music videos. This was an odd little programming strategy that several metro areas saw at the time. In those days, a city would have a dozen or two dozen different cable companies, and many of them were really slow to pick up MTV, hence that station’s iconic “I Want My MTV” ad campaign. So investors would set up shop on a UHF channel and play all these wacky videos that Kids These Days wanted to watch.

By late 1985, however, just about everybody in America could see MTV, and these UHF channels were what you’d call surplus to requirements. WVEU scrambled for new, cheap, programming, and, in addition to the pollution-obsessed Japanese superhero show Spectreman, they started running several ITC programs from the late sixties and early seventies, including The Persuaders!, UFO, and, at 6 am Monday through Friday for at least a year, The Champions.

I remember that it was 6, because whatever it was that came next would start at 7 am on the dot. And you’re not going to believe this next part. WVEU didn’t employ the brightest bulbs in the television broadcasting universe. The Champions began their programming day, and I think Mr. Cletus Coaxial didn’t make it in to the station on time about six times a month. The Champions would sometimes start at 6:02 or 6:04, and if it was still running at 7:00, the broadcast would just end in the middle of a scene and at the 7:00 program would begin on time.

I was taping the show on any morning that I could shower and dress and make it into the den at six. I was sixteen years old and recording on SLP speed, using a block of super-fancy high-end Sony VHS tapes that my uncle had gifted me and which probably cost $10 apiece when I was usually buying blank JVCs for $5 each. Pausing to live-edit out the commercials, you could fit seven episodes on each tape. But because Mr. Cletus Coaxial would sometimes start the show late, I’d occasionally end up dragging myself out of bed, rush like mad to get ready for school, get the tape cued up, and have to abandon the recording because 6:03 would roll around and The Champions hadn’t started, and I knew WVEU would end the broadcast and start their 7 am show on time.

Eventually, I had fourteen episodes on two tapes, and over the course of the next five years, I think I copied two of those episodes in one swap. But videotape trading was a fun little hobby and sometimes you just needed to sit on things for a while. Over time, my trade list made its way to many other traders. And what I didn’t know was that The Champions was extraordinarily rare among many of the good traders. I also didn’t know that one of its three lead actors, Stuart Damon, had a large fan base in this country. In the late seventies, Damon found work in the UK drying up and he went back to California and landed the role of Dr. Allan Quartermaine on the daily soap opera General Hospital. He played Quartermaine for almost thirty years and when my trade list ended up in the hands of a VHS trader who collected Stuart Damon’s old shows, my old Sonys started getting quite a workout.

I was very clear to anybody who asked that the quality of the film prints that WVEU had used was pretty poor. These were beat-up, washed-out, color-faded 16mm prints. Worse, I’d recorded them on the dreaded SLP/EP speed because I was a dumb teen, but because I’d used those great high-end blanks my uncle Ronnie had gifted me, the copies were actually far better than they had any right to be. And I copied the hell out of them. I got trade lists in at least once a month inquiring about The Champions. Often, I couldn’t find anything on their lists I wanted, so I’d do a blanks-and-postage swap for TDK E-HGs, which was latterly my VHS tape of choice. I eventually added a limit to those, because one day I got a box on the doorstep with fourteen TDK E-HGs. To be honest, in the 1993-94 TV season, I was taping four shows off-air, so I needed the blanks, but doing seven tapes in a week was a real headache!

I didn’t keep track, but by the time I called it quits on tape trading in the late nineties, I bet I’d copied some of my Champions in at least thirty trades. They netted me all kinds of great treasures, everything from Frankie Howerd comedies to episodes of The New Avengers that didn’t come from The CBS Late Movie and have five minutes hacked out of each hour. I remember, with no great fondness, some of the pests that you’d run into on the VHS tape trading circuit, the bad traders, the snobs, the ones with the crazy rules, the people who didn’t know what they were doing and would send you garbage you didn’t want on BASF T-160s on the wrong speed. None of those memories are attached to anybody I traded The Champions with, because Stuart Damon’s fans are all better than that.

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The Champions 1.5 – Happening

Our son has the flu. He wasn’t feeling well last night, and then his fever started. He stayed home with Mommy and slept most of the day. I’ll be with him for the next two days and working at least one night, throwing our schedule off. So I shuffled this episode of The Champions, an incredibly fun one written by Brian Clemens, ahead, and I’m glad I did. “I LOVED this episode,” our son shouted. Good. Poor sick kid deserves a good television treat or two.

In “Happening,” Richard tries to get the drop on two enemy agents who have sabotaged a bomb test in the Australian outback. One of the bad guys is killed, but Richard is injured and the remaining criminal, played by Michael Gough, is perfectly willing to die in the service of his country to keep Richard from undoing their work. It builds to an amazingly long and really tense sequence where the villain, hiding behind an old billboard and armed with a rifle, has Richard pinned down. Our kid just about exploded. The scene is really well done.

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The Champions 1.4 – The Experiment

Tony Williamson’s “The Experiment” is one of the few episodes of The Champions to pit our three heroes against worthy adversaries. This was kind of the way of things in the sixties and seventies. Regular readers will recall that I would occasionally bemoan how most episodes of, say, The Six Million Dollar Man and the like would concern themselves more with counterfeiters in turtlenecks instead of having proper robot enemies and Bigfoot more often. So it is with The Champions, typically. These are good and entertaining spy stories, but the characters’ superhuman abilities just give them an occasional edge, and some very satisfying stunts, rather than a focus for the plot.

But in “The Experiment,” they run up against a quartet of characters whose reaction speed and fighting techniques have been artificially augmented. Remarkably, the villains in charge of the operation have been reading between the lines of the various secret agency secret reports and have figured out that Richard, Craig, and Sharron have superhuman skills and lure Sharron into their scheme under the guise of an experiment so they can study her speed and reaction first-hand. Their own boss never figures that out. So it builds to an exciting climax and a very good final fight scene that had our son hopping. It’s a really entertaining episode, probably my favorite of the fourteen that I originally had back in the tape trading days. More on that in a later post.

I’ve always thought that a great guest cast can elevate a good story, and this one’s just full of familiar faces. One of ITC’s regular Americans-at-Elstree, David Bauer, is the main villain, and he also has Robert James and Allan Cuthbertson in his employ. Jonathan Burn and none-more-posh Caroline Blakiston are two of the rival superhumans, and Nicholas Courtney has a small role as a doctor. There’s also a very familiar setting. Marie often says that she doesn’t recognize actors the way that I do, but she has an eye for places, and when Richard and Craig drive through the small village of Aldbury, she immediately spotted it as the location of a pair of Avengers episodes. Aldbury, Schmaldbury, everybody knows that town is Little Storping In-The-Swuff!

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