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Posts Tagged ‘Barry Letts’

Eric Paice’s The Little Wonders is a hard episode to dislike, which makes it just as well that there’s not much reason to. Well, maybe there’s the fact that the derivation of the title seems a little obscure, but that’s all. Things get underway with the arrival of an elderly bishop at the surgery of a distinguished consultant: apparently his lordship is in very poor health and may soon be gathered up to meet his employeer. The punchline of the tag scene comes when the doctor requests the Bishop take off his outer vestments, preparatory to an exam, and the clergyman removes a shoulder holster.

More evidence of clerics behaving badly at the airport, where one Reverend Harbottle has been detained, with various unseemly and unusual items discovered in his luggage. Apparently the reverend had a bit of a chequered past, which is why he was picked up. Steed suspects he was a member of a very old crime syndicate known as Bibliotek (operating mostly in the old Empire territories and the commonwealth) and that the organisation is gathering some of its senior members in London. Steed alludes vaguely to going away for a few days but packs Cathy off to investigate a doll which Harbottle had in his possession.

The doll plot feels a bit like filler and mainly serves to overcomplicate an otherwise fun episode: various bad boys from Bibliotek are indeed gathering, to sort out the succession what with the Bishop being in such poor health. The main gag is the mismatch between their ecclesiastical trappings and the cor-blimey-guv’nor demeanour most of them have: there’s Fingers the Frog, Vicar of Toowoomba, Big Sid, Dean of Rangoon, and several others. Joining their number, like you couldn’t have guessed, is Reverend Harbottle’s last minute replacement: Reverend Johnny ‘the Horse’ Steed!

Patrick Macnee is, as you might expect, utterly in his element in this absurd scenario, and is clearly having great fun. The premise is strong enough to overcome most of the plot issues and there are some fun supporting turns as well: apart from David Bauer as the Bishop and Kenneth J Warren as Fingers the Frog, Lois Maxwell plays a key role and honestly gets more to do in this one Avengers episode than in a dozen of the Bond films of which she was a long-time fixture. Her best scene comes when she appears unexpectedly with an enormous tommy-gun and wastes half a dozen of the supporting cast. All this plus a scene where Cathy has to masquerade as Johnny the Horse’s girlfriend, which means allowing him to take a few liberties not normally available to Steed. The twinkle in Macnee’s eye speaks volumes. A series which is in its groove and going well.

Steed collars the Bishop.

Martin Woodhouse’s The Wringer is up next, one of the episodes from the 1993 re-run that I actually ended up watching, albeit not until some years later (picked more or less at random from a stack of videotapes, I’m sure). Some interesting guest artistes in this one, both mainstream and niche: the episode opens with a man on a train having a troubled nap, during which he reveals he is carrying a photo of Steed (it looks very much like the kind of publicity shot Patrick Macnee’s agent would have done, but this is par for the course). The man in question is played by Peter Sallis (the early stretches of his career are much more interesting than his 37-year stint in 295 episodes of Last of the Summer Wine might lead one to expect).

Sallis is playing Hal Anderson, the only agent to come through the Corinthia Pipeline in Austria alive in the last couple of months. This vital piece of plumbing is about to be shut down, as it has clearly been compromised by enemy activity, but Steed’s boss (Paul Whitsun-Jones), who’s just called Charles – the old One-whatever system has apparently been retired – puts him in charge of finding Anderson in the hope this will reveal the truth and just how security has been breached.

This being the 1960s, a few words with Anderson’s tailor (Gerald Sim, one of those familiar faces who seemed to spend most of his career playing vicars and doctors) puts Steed on the trail, and he tracks Anderson down to a fire-watching tower somewhere in darkest Scotland (needless to say this is a studio set). Anderson recognises Steed, as he should, but admits to having a two month gap in his memory. That night, however, the memories resurface and he remembers who the traitor who’s sold the Corinthia Pipeline out to the Other Side is – it’s Steed!

Well, of course it isn’t, but the top brass don’t know that and Steed is packed off to be interrogated and then disposed of. Mrs Gale, quite properly, doesn’t buy it for a moment and practically blackmails her way in to see him. At the risk of spoiling the story, a very New Avengers-ish plot twist ensues: the Other Side have managed to infiltrate and suborn the interrogation centre, and so rather than extracting information, the beat-poet in charge – the eponymous Wringer, played by Terence Lodge – is brainwashing Steed to confess, just as he’s conditioned Anderson to believe Steed’s a bad guy.

Maybe it doesn’t all make absolute sense (and even if it did, it would still be a wildly tall tale), but this is still a solid story without some of the overplotting these episodes occasionally fall victim to. Perhaps it’s even a little ahead of its time with some of its psychedelic elements; it certainly seems to be anticipating The Ipcress File in some respects.

What makes it particularly interesting for those of us of a certain tribe is the presence of an actor named Barry Letts as the deputy of Steed’s boss. His performance is solid but not spectacular, and it’s what he would go on to do that makes this comparatively rare on-camera appearance so fascinating. Letts started off as an actor, but the demands of raising a family led to his going behind the camera, first as a director and then as a producer. It would not be an understatement to say that his work on the BBC’s most prominent fantasy series changed the course of TV history: together with Terrance Dicks (also lauded in this series of reviews) he took a weary-seeming series on the verge of cancellation and transformed it into the fixture of the schedules it remained for many years, making its style and storytelling much more sophisticated. His work on the BBC classic serial was also impeccable, too. A bit of an unsung hero, if you ask me – but it’s fascinating to see him at this earlier stage of his career. What you’d call value-added content for an episode which was pretty good to begin with.

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I wrote about Meglos a little while ago and, in a spirit of fair but honest assessment, said some fairly harsh things about it. Needless to say I was quite surprised when all my regular correspondents got on at me and told me off for being too harsh about the poor old thing. Well, maybe I should try to take a more balanced and positive approach.

That’s all very well, I suppose, but with some old Doctor Whos the instinct to just let rip with both barrels is very hard to resist. It’s well over ten years since I watched The Time Monster, an oldie from 1972, and a story which I only recall having watched a couple of times prior to this latest occasion. The Pertwee years are, according to fan consensus, one of the few eras of Doctor Who not to feature any of the very worst stories, but you could argue that The Time Monster is the one that comes closest to disproving that thesis.

You know that thing that happens when someone has a great success, attempts to repeat it only moreso, and only ends up with something awkward and campy and rather less satisfying? I’m thinking of the relationship between The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker in Bondworld (Skyfall and SPECTRE too, now I think of it), and Star Trek IV and V, that sort of thing. Well, that’s what seems to me to have happened with The Time Monster: it’s an attempt to copy and surpass The Daemons.

The parallels between the two stories are too numerous and too obvious to bother detailing – oh, go on then. The Master, utilising a fairly transparent pseudonym, is attempting to make contact with and access the power of a colossally powerful being. Atlantis gets mentioned. The Brigadier and his men get stuck on the outside of a peculiar, and economically-realised, force barrier of some kind. The Doctor and the Master don’t actually come face-to-face until late on in the story, and not for long. In the end everything gets somewhat-unconvincingly resolved by Jo Grant offering to sacrifice her own life.

timemonster

I could go on about the weird structure of the story, the fact that they don’t actually get to Atlantis until the final third, the peculiarly jokey tone of much of it… but you know what, I’m going to stick to my resolution to try to be positive about The Time Monster and step briskly past all of that stuff. You could even argue that this is in fact some sort of plus, as it lays bare the close connection between Pertwee-era Doctor Who and the original incarnation of The Tomorrow People, which this surely resembles more than any other stuff – it is jokey, it does have strange obsessions with pop-pseudoscience, the plot is all over the place, and yet it’s somehow not as annoying to watch as you might expect.

That’s the saving grace of The Time Monster, it seems to me: the great thing about Doctor Who is its ability to incorporate nearly any idea the writer cares to come up with into an SF-fantasy context. And the distinctive thing about The Time Monster is that, somehow, it appears to include every idea Barry Letts and Robert Sloman came up with, even casually, while brainstorming the story. A plotline about Women’s Lib! Time slowing down and speeding up! A comedy speeded-up Bessie! Race memories! People being brought through history to do battle! Atlantis! Impossibly nested TARDISes! Telepathic TARDISes! The minotaur! The daisiest daisy in the annals of Buddhism! Sergeant Benton in his first nude scene! Seriously, were there any ideas they decided not to use?

At least The Time Monster is never completely dull, even if it’s never remotely credible, it has one of the most ridiculous monsters in the history of the programme, and it never really finds enough for the bodacious Ingrid Pitt to do. It would be very, very easy to tear it apart as a story that tries to do far too much with not nearly enough discipline, but it’s almost wholly innocuous – even the third Doctor is at his least objectionable.

I suspect you really would have had to have been there at the time in order to genuinely love The Time Monster, for this is a rather flawed story if we’re really honest about things. But it’s full of the colour and energy and fun of the period, and the regular actors are all clearly having a whale of a time. So I give this one a pass, avert my eyes and indulge it in all its trippy craziness.

 

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It is, I suppose, possible that some people reading this may come away with the idea that I am some sort of obsessive Season 8 fan: there are a couple of Pertwee seasons I’ve barely scratched the surface of, and yet here we are talking about Terror of the Autons, meaning that more than 80% of this particular run is done.

This is a story with which I have a slightly odd relationship. It was one of the very last stories from the 20th century run of Doctor Who that I saw – I bought it on VHS in the Spring of 2004, and probably only watched it once before, well, the series came back, and DVD became my preferred format, and all that sort of thing.

And yet this was one of the first Pertwee stories I – well, not watched, but certainly experienced, outside of the novelisation format, certainly. In the early summer of 1986 I came across someone at school who had the story on audio tape. Younger readers will probably find this impossible to comprehend, but audio tapes of old Doctor Who stories remained a big deal into the 1990s: the complete availability of the existing series on any format seemed like an impossible dream, and swapping audio tapes could go on under the radar of the BBC’s legal team. So it was that my first time through Terror of the Autons with actors and so on happened not in front of a TV but next to a hi-fi.

Hey ho. This is not, I would say, a story best suited to the audio-only experience, consisting – in very characteristic Robert Holmes style – of not much more than a string of bravura set pieces strung together by a somewhat perfunctory plot.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) is still exiled on Earth in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s). To be perfectly honest, the Time Lords could have exiled him to one small English county in the 1970s (etc) and it would have made no difference as far as this story is concerned, because every key location seems to be remarkably close to all the others.

Anyway, the Doctor’s old enemy the Master (Roger Delgado) turns up to cause trouble, quickly forging an alliance with the Nestene Consciousness and its polymer-based servitors, the Autons. What follows is, basically, a series of plastic-themed death-traps with the odd action sequence thrown in for good measure.

delgado

The obvious thing to say about Terror of the Autons is that this is the story where Barry Letts took a firm grip on the series he had inherited, slightly less than a season earlier, and thoroughly reworked it into the style he wanted. This is where the Pertwee style of popular conception really gels. Henceforth, none of those sprawling seven-part stories; none of that quasi-grittiness and adult restraint. Season Seven often looks like it wants to be The Avengers or Department S: Season Eight is the one you can imagine inspiring The Tomorrow People. It is brash, it is colourful (often to the point of garishness), and given the remarkable body-count it is often strangely cosy.

Strangely enough, though, none of these things are really what you would want to remember Barry Letts for – none of them are tied up with his greatest contributions to the series. Quite what those are – well, different people will have different ideas, I shouldn’t wonder, but for me they are the creation of a Doctor Who which took itself and its own mythology a little more seriously, and also a considerable elevation in the sophistication of the series’ storytelling, both morally and narratively.

As I say, not much of that is visible here: Terror of the Autons is largely just razzle-dazzle, but entertainingly done. I suppose you could argue it partly constitutes a commentary on early 70s Britain’s love for plastic consumer tat, but this is hardly a profound message. To be honest, the story really only functions as an introduction to another of Barry Letts’ great innovations (though here Terrance Dicks should take his fair share of the credit), the Master.

The Master is the first of the regular characters to appear and for most of the story he has the most pro-active role, even if it is basically just to kill lots of disposable guest characters and make various doomed attempts at killing the other regulars. Delgado, of course, ensures that the character is always great fun to watch, even if he is always a cartoony villain in a cartoony story. Not just cartoony but also quite as cosy as any other element of the format – you know he’s never going to kill anyone important, or murder a woman or a child.

This isn’t close to being the greatest Master story, or even the greatest Master story of the Pertween years. But it is one of the very few occasions where the Master is as utterly central to the narrative as the Doctor, if not moreso – it’s interesting to note the number of parallels between this story as The Sound of Drums, which is arguably its 21st century counterpart. And the story fits him like a tight leather glove: he may be quietly ridiculous, cartoony, and not stand up to serious consideration for more than a few seconds, but then neither does Terror of the Autons. It doesn’t stop either of them from being a lot of fun to watch.

 

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How are you supposed to find something new to say about The Daemons? This is surely one of the most dissected, remembranced, and praised Doctor Who stories of all time: they were making nostalgic DVD extra features about this story long before DVDs were actually invented. At one point it was voted the greatest Doctor Who story of all time (nothing lasts forever: the last time anyone checked it came in at #38, not even as the highest-placed Pertwee story). Nevertheless I suppose I shall have to try.

The plot runs thusly: still trapped on Earth at some point in the 1970s (or possibly the 1980s), the Doctor is passing the time by making various modifications to Bessie likely to invalidate her MOT, not to mention patronising his co-workers. His despair at Jo’s credulity (falling for a load of southern Californian Age of Aquarius stuff) is abruptly dispelled when an archaeological dig due to take place in the country village of Devil’s End is mentioned. The local white witch is auguring dread tidings if the local barrow is penetrated, and for once the Doctor tends to agree with her. Meanwhile the new village clergyman (the old one having disappeared in obscure circumstances) has a well-trimmed goatee beard and clicks his fingers a lot. Clearly something rum is afoot – or possibly ahoof.

daemons7

In a sense it’s stories like The Daemons that really give the lie to this suggestion that the UNIT stories are really set in some vague near-future world: never mind the fashions, the elements of this story are thoroughly early 70s. Quite apart from the references to hippy counterculture, this is one of the first Doctor Who stories to draw upon the ancient astronaut theories of the Swiss hotelier and fraudster Erich von Daniken, whose works were at the peak of their popularity in 1971. However, one should not fixate too much on this, as some of the influences on The Daemons obviously come from rather closer to home.

When we talk about gothic horror-influenced Doctor Who, it’s a no-brainer that the place to start the discussion is with the Hinchcliffe-Holmes stories from the mid 70s. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other examples elsewhere, of course, and it’s equally obvious that The Daemons was playing the classic-horror reference game long before Hinchcliffe and Holmes were in post. The location with an odd history and the name Devil’s End, the ancient spacecraft buried under an archaeological site, the image of the horned beast as a misunderstood recollection of alien contact: all of these things are central to The Daemons, and all of them seem quite plainly to have been pinched from Quatermass and the Pit. (I reiterate that I’m aware I am not offering bold new insights here.) The question is really why the later horror-influenced stories like Pyramids of Mars and Image of the Fendahl (another tale cannibalising Kneale) feel like just that, genuine horror lurking behind a SF rationale, while The Daemons has much more the sense of a jolly runaround with some startling imagery but no real sense of darkness about it.

Partly I suppose we must thank the sensible, thoughtful philosophy of Barry Letts for this: here was a man ever aware of his responsibilities to the family audience. I suspect he would have been pathologically incapable of pushing a story beyond the boundaries of decency and good taste, even one like The Daemons. Imagine a version of this tale scripted by Robert Holmes, on the other hand: it might well have caused Mrs Mary Whitehouse to spontaneously combust. I think the difference is that Holmes was interested in telling horror stories, and for him the SF rationale wasn’t much more than an enabling device to be established as rapidly as possible as a plot device, while Letts (together with co-writer Robert Sloman) does seem genuinely interested in exploring the ramifications of Clarke’s Law (which is what The Daemons is largely about). There are numerous lengthy philosophical discussions about the difference between magic and science, and the Doctor is given numerous opportunities to express his ultimately rationalistic world-view. As I say, this is what the story is about, at least as much as it is about enjoying and playing with its satanic imagery.

So The Daemons isn’t as suffused with darkness as you might expect – the Doctor even makes the point that the Daemons themselves are amoral rather than actually evil, compare and contrast with the distinctly malevolent but otherwise highly similar Sutekh from Pyramids of Mars – but it does work as a spiffing adventure in the countryside for all the regular characters. Everyone gets something to do – Mike gets to ride a motorbike and be heroic, Benton gets his hero moment rescuing the Doctor from the evil morris dancers, Jo gets to be daffy and unwisely intrepid, the Brig gets to be dry and understatedly heroic, and the Doctor gets to be very sagacious (and also a breathtaking hypocrite). There’s such a lot of fun stuff going on that it probably takes two or three viewings before you notice that not a huge amount happens to advance the plot in the middle episodes of the story – the Doctor and his team spend most of it ensconced in the pub, occasionally venturing out for a car chase or what-have-you, while the Master is equally confined to the crypt, from whence he occasionally emerges to glower and issue various evil directives you just know his staff are not going to be able to carry out.

At least some of the success of the story must therefore be attributed to Christopher Barry’s direction, which works with a polished and ambitious script to achieve a level of stylishness not often seen in the series around this time – the show-within-the-show sequence in episode one is just a single example of this, but so is the serial’s fondness for high-angle and helicopter shots (it must be said that the enormous amount of location shooting benefits The Daemons enormously).

In the end there is perhaps less going on in The Daemons than meets the eye, and the climax of the story finds the series once again falling back on sub-Star Trek deus ex machina plotting (I’m sure there’s a gag to made here along the lines of this story having a daemon sine machina climax, but my Latin’s just not up to it), but most of the story still stands up and entertains extremely well: this is surely the best story of its season. Given that it was relatively rare for 20th century Doctor Who to manage to pull off a truly effective season opener or finale, this is one more thing that makes the story noteworthy: but even so, it’s probably the only aspect of the story to put you mind of the current series. The rest of it is defiantly and magnificently of its period.

 

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