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Posts Tagged ‘Malcolm Hulke’

We find ourselves back in the orbit of Venus for Roger Marshall and Jeremy Scott’s The Removal Men, which is a bit less pedestrian than it sounds. Marshall has said he was not initially interested in writing for what he believed to be a rotten programme, but agreed after he decided that sharing the credit would mean he only got half the blame. Once again this is a very uncharacteristic and occasionally quite slow episode, but one with some entertaining moments that go a long way to redeeming it.

We open in a nightclub where two men are apparently discussing a very important business deal – they finally agree on terms, but the twist is that they are actually working out the contract for an assassination (the ‘Removal Men’ of the title are actually hired killers). The scene then shifts to an apartment, where the lady of the house (alone in the place) is awoken by a burglar in the dead of night. This turns out to be a gun-toting Steed, who relieves her of her jewellry before locking her in the bathroom (she opts to take a bottle of wine in with her).

It turns out that Dragna (Reed de Rouen), the husband of Steed’s victim, is the leader of the assassination gang, and following reports around town (we are somewhere non-specific in the south of France this week, although naturally the episode is filmed almost entirely in the studio) of an Englishman – ‘dark, snazzy dresser, acts like life’s a big joke’ – trying to sell his wife’s jewels, the head man tracks him down to the nightclub run by his henchman Siegel (Edwin Richfield doing an interesting Australian accent). He is here visiting Venus, who is in the area quite by chance, it would seem. Steed claims to be on holiday too and contemplating retirement, and Venus actually buys this obvious load of old nonsense.

Dragna and Siegel turn up and they prove to be just as credulous as Venus, as Steed professes to have heard of their operation and has been actively trying to attract their attention so he can apply to join them. Once Steed arranges for a vacancy to open up, they take him on for their next job – a young film starlet (a 19-year-old Edina Ronay, exceedingly well-cast as the Bardot type) has been making some unwise political interventions and is now to depart the scene – and Steed is to arrange her final exit…

(Why Edina Ronay never became a much bigger star mystifies me (if you will forgive a brief digression). Could it just have been down to the slightly dodgy roles she ended up taking? Oh. Well – British film and TV’s loss was knitwear’s gain, I suppose.)

So, a slightly mixed bag, but much more positive than negative in the end. The plot is rather reliant on multiple coincidences to function, while the episode also contains some very obvious filler scenes: there are not one but three musical interludes, one of which is an instrumental, and the director eventually resorts to just pointing the camera at Julie Stevens’ shimmying midriff to pass the time. This isn’t a dreadful episode for Venus, I suppose, but her role in the show basically seems to be Steed’s stooge – he occasionally wanders into her life and creates complete havoc, for which he smoothly evades any responsibility: the final scene depicts Steed, relaxing on a studio-set beach in his bermuda shorts, while Venus (suitcases in hand) complains that she can’t get home as Steed shot her boss before she got paid. It’s amusing, but a bit cruel.

Patrick Macnee is in his element as Steed goes undercover with the assassins, and gets another particularly droll scene where he meets up with his boss One-Ten, once again on the beach. Both men are in their swimsuits and all the procedural exposition is mixed up with Steed being asked to put sun-tan lotion on One-Ten’s back – the follow-up to this comes at the end, where One-Ten is looking after Ronay’s character in the same location, and possibly enjoying himself just a bit too much. This is an uneven episode, but still probably the best non-Cathy episode of the season so far.

Something much more like ‘classic’ Avengers comes along next, in the shape of The Mauritius Penny, the first contribution to the series by writers Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks (both of whom are far better remembered for their work on a different Sydney Newman-created fantasy series). This was in fact Dicks’ first TV writing credit, and the beginning of an immensely distinguished career that was only brought to an end by his recent death (like many of my generation, I feel I owe Terrance Dicks an enormous debt as both a reader and a writer, and I make no apologies for being so fulsome in my praise of him).

The episode is set in the unexpectedly cut-throat world of stamp collecting, and opens with a stamp dealer being interrupted in the middle of a phone call and shot dead by his own assistant (you can’t get the staff any more), the subject of the call being the apparent discovery of a Mauritius Penny, an immensely rare and valuable stamp. As it happens, the victim had a tangential connection to a recent murder on the continent, which is why Steed happens to be having his phone tapped. Rather surprisingly, it turns out that philately is one of Mrs Gale’s areas of expertise, but she finds the reference to the rare stamp in this context baffling.

Well, Steed goes to a stamp auction where the sound of someone being shot is masked by the bang of the gavel, Mrs Gale gets a job working in the shop, it turns out that the stamp collecting world has been heavily infiltrated by a neo-Fascist group looking to stage a coup, there’s a bit with two evil female dentists, and it’s all rather ridiculous and delightful. Honor Blackman gets to have a fight with Alfred Burke (this was still a few years before Public Eye got going), we see Freckles the dalmatian again, and there’s a very witty scene where Steed, after being knocked out, wakes up on the floor of his flat to find his cleaning lady hoovering around him.

In short, there’s not much wrong with this at all, as it is smartly scripted, giving both Steed and Cathy some great moments, and well-directed too. Of particular interest to some viewers may be a sequence where Mrs Gale infiltrates a rally of the neo-Fascists, where various rousing speeches are being made in what’s basically a function room – but she is rumbled and taken captive: an almost identical scene features in another Terrance Dicks script from the mid-1970s, and the similarity was apparently a great surprise to the writer when it was pointed out to him many years later. But as the great man said, to be a successful writer you just need a good strong original idea, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be yours. In this case it turns out he was stealing from himself, and I’m sure that would have amused him. A great episode from two great writers.

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It occurred to me the other day that if anyone in Doctor Who had the right to feel they’d been unfairly sidelined in the anniversary year, it would be Jon Pertwee. All the living Doctors prepared to be associated with the show were up there on screen (even if it was only via the Internet or Red Button), nine whole Patrick Troughton episodes were reclaimed, and William Hartnell had a flippin’ biopic made of him.

And yet of Pertwee there was nary a sign – even in the big anniversary trailer, the third Doctor was portrayed by a slightly dodgy lookalike. I expect some people will say that with Peter Capaldi looking set to channel Pertwee in a very big way in the coming season, we should be grateful for the respite, but beyond the costume we have no evidence that this is actually how he’s approaching the part.

I would be surprised if he did, given the show is still currently under Steven Moffat’s curatorship, because Moffat seems to have got it into his head as some sort of principle that the Doctor is, at least in part, a comedy character: I imagine Moffat’s notes on the depiction of the Doctor most often run ‘More cute. More zany’. Looking at a Pertwee story now one of the striking things about Jon is just how non-cute and non-zany his Doctor is. The costume is by a very long way the most whimsical thing about him, and even then I would say it was stylish and distinctive rather than full-on eccentric.

And to be honest, even though for a long while I’ve been less than enchanted with Pertwee’s bullying, egomaniac, Tory hippy of a Doctor, at the moment I’m finding it very refreshing to see the character played quite so straight and seriously. Even stories which are historically not well regarded sometimes have a straightforwardness and sincerity which comes as rather a remedy for the worst excesses of Moffat plotti-wottiness.

colony-in-space-master-jon-pertwee-roger-delgado

Take Colony in Space, from 1971, written by Malcolm Hulke. Like The Moonbase this is one of those stories with a basic-nominative title (it strikes me as significant that both tales had their titles significantly sexed up for their novelisation releases – Colony in Space is retitled The Doomsday Weapon, despite the fact that said McGuffin isn’t mentioned on screen until the climax is in progress), indicating it is part of a culture only accustomed to SF of a relatively limited level of sophistication.

The story opens with a very brief prologue in which the Time Lords, who are attempting to hang on to their War Games gravitas and mystique and not really managing it, discover the Master is up to no good as usual and decide to pack the Doctor off to stop him (thus providing a pretext for the show to do a non-contemporary-setting story for the first time in two years).

The Doctor and Jo thus find themselves in the year 2472 on Uxareius, a planet long ostracised because its name is so bloody difficult to spell right, but as it will be another three episodes before the Master arrives they occupy themselves by getting involved in the affairs of a struggling human colony. The colonists are occasionally threatened by the degenerate natives and more chronically troubled by the continued failure of their crops. Sudden attacks by what seem to be giant lizards and the news that another colony has been wiped out by the same creatures only add to their problems, but then the arrival of a shipload of miners from the Interplanetary Mining Corporation intent on exploiting the planet makes things even worse. Can these things be connected somehow…?

You can sense a certain narrative tension at the centre of Colony in Space, with the result that it is ultimately another of those slightly broken-backed six-parters which never really settles down to tell one story all the way through. Malcolm Hulke famously had a very good working relationship with Terrance Dicks and Barry Letts – he contributed more stories to the Pertwee years than anyone else, after all – but it’s fairly clear here that while Terry and Barry were keen on a sort of Forbidden Planet-filtered-through-Star Trek pulp space opera sort of story, Mac was rather more interested in an allegorical space western which neatly doubles up as a piece of anticapitalist agitprop.

The middle episodes of Colony in Space, prior to the Master’s eventual arrival, are as sustained an attack on Big Business as Doctor Who ever mustered. If anything as openly partial to socialism was broadcast in the series today, it would probably lead to the privatisation of the BBC and the Daily Mail-masterminded lynching of all the creative people involved. Hulke is too good a writer not to include a sympathetic IMC man (capably played by Bernard Kay) but the rest of them are thorough-going ruthless, callous, murderous bastards. Meanwhile, all of the colonists are decent, committed, homespun types, of course. It would be disingenuous to suggest that this is particularly deep or subtle writing, but it moves along smartly enough and you can sense the writer’s commitment.

Eventually it does just devolve into a series of back-and-forth reversals between the colonists and their persecutors, but by this point the Master has (finally) turned up and the Doomsday Weapon plot is coming to more prominence. You can sense Hulke isn’t quite as interested in this particular storyline, not least from the climax in which the Alien Guardian cheerfully agrees to blow up both himself and his entire civilisation for no especially convincing reason, while allowing the Doctor and Master to nip off smartly prior to the unhappy event (at least the Doctor pauses to say thanks before running out of the door). However, the fact the Master isn’t in league with IMC (they eventually turn on him as well as the Doctor) makes for an unusual and appealing story dynamic.

So it’s not especially subtle and it does seem to run out of steam in its closing stages, but I did enjoy Colony in Space on my most recent viewing of it (this in another of those rare stories I’ve only seen a bare handful of times). This is not least because of the self-evident fact that the writer really understands how to write for both the Doctor and the Master – this is a fairly mid-table Pertwee story, after all, yet it contains some dialogue which everyone writing the Doctor should have pinned up above their desk: ‘Are you some kind of a scientist?’ someone asks our hero. ‘I’m every kind of scientist!’ the Doctor snaps back, while later on we get the definitive ‘I want to see the universe, not rule it!’ The Master doesn’t get anything quite as good, but he at least has a plan which makes a vague kind of sense, and he’s quite capable of causing the Doctor serious problems without even resorting to brute force.

Recently I have found myself prone to imagining how current Doctor Who might handle some of the story material treated upon by the 20th century version of the show. By modern standards, Colony in Space would be a fairly significant story on a couple of counts – not only is there a companion’s first entry into and journey to another time and place in the TARDIS, there’s also a threat of universal domination by the Master. And yet this is the stuff of a routine mid-season 1971 adventure, not particularly dwelt upon – even so, care has been taken to provideĀ a solid, coherent plot and numerous accessible characters. They made less of a fuss about some things back in those days, that’s for sure, but they knew how to get the important stuff right.

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