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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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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part two)

You know, that hung together better than I remembered it. Alexei Sayle’s still the best thing about it, and it would have been a whole lot more wonderful with more of him blowing up Daleks with his concentrated beam of rock and roll, but I think it gelled for me a bit more this time, for some reason. Sayle’s sonic cannon was, of course, our son’s favorite part of the story. His eyes lit up and he had the biggest smile you can imagine on his face when that first Dalek exploded.

Actually, one reason I enjoyed this more than I have previously is that I used to really, really loathe a character played by Jenny Tomasin, and thought the actress did a rotten job. I was wrong. Her character is a really tough one for an actor to play; she’s meant to be much more pathetic than endearing, and foolishly duped by everybody around her. But apart from one snickeringly bad line reading in part one when she bellows “Find the intruders!” I think Tomasin played this role extremely well, which can’t have been easy when you’ve got an amazing actor like Clive Swift literally brushing you aside. I may have mentioned before that my time talking with and observing the actors at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta gave me a newfound understanding of what actors have to do to make their characters work at all. I’m always glad of the opportunity to reconsider the opinions I held when I was even more stupid than I am now.

But right behind Sayle, there’s William Gaunt underplaying his role of a disgraced assassin from a noble order, and Eleanor Bron, who’s magical in anything. I love how Gaunt’s character acts like he is in complete control of the situation in Davros’s lab, and responds to any obstacle without taking an extra breath, just communicating with his eyes and piercing stares. And Colin Baker and Terry Molloy get one of the better Doctor-Davros arguments – easily the first good one since “Genesis,” honestly – as they debate Davros’s latest sick scheme.

We won’t wait fifteen months until starting the next season of Doctor Who like us poor folk had to do in the eighties… in fact, we’ll be back for more adventures in time and space in about eleven days. But first, something else, like the other two shows that we’re watching, that I’ve never seen before… stay tuned!

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Doctor Who: Revelation of the Daleks (part one)

I’ve never really enjoyed “Revelation of the Daleks,” which brings this disappointing season to an end, but I do enjoy just how weird it is. I mean, this is an extraordinarily weird 45 minutes. It barely has the Doctor or the Daleks in it. It’s mainly a bunch of Eric Saward characters alternately yelling at each other or mumbling underneath the incidental music, having their own adventure that doesn’t concern the Doctor at all. Parts of the story are sort of narrated by the wonderful comedian Alexei Sayle, playing an oddball DJ piping music and long-distance dedications to a city full of stiffs in suspended animation. I could have done with a whole lot more Alexei Sayle and a whole lot less of desperate double-acts arguing with each other.

Sayle’s role prompted me to pause, because it occurred to me that once again our son has no frame of reference for something I took for granted. We never listen to radio, so the world of Wolfman Jack or Casey Kasem is another planet he’s never heard of. They still have DJs on some stations, I think, but I’m at work when the local NPR / college radio hybrid gets to play music – Chattanooga is woefully short a WUOG or WSBF or WREK – so he doesn’t even get to hear college kids, never mind celebrities.

And of course, he didn’t recognize William Gaunt from The Champions as an assassin called Orcini. Say what you will about this weird story, it’s got a terrific cast that also includes Eleanor Bron and Clive Swift, who underplays the role of the funeral director amazingly well and is so entertaining. Terry Molloy is back as Davros, making him the first actor to play the role twice, and the story is directed by Graeme Harper, who had made the previous year’s “Caves of Androzani” look so good. He can’t save this one, but he fills it full of moments that are at least interesting. Next time, the Doctor will actually have something to do and I recall it becomes considerably more ordinary.

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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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