Saturday, March 04, 2017

Lidsville Comic Book (Gold Key)


Lidsville Vintage Lunch Box


Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Lidsville: "World in a Hat" (September 11, 1971)



This week, I begin reviews of another Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series of the 1970s: Lidsville (1971-1973). 

As you may recall, the series is live-action in nature, and all seventeen episodes aired on ABC. That’s just one season, though reruns also aired on ABC in 1972-1973.  The series was something of a pop culture phenomenon, at least for a while, and much vintage merchandise (lunch boxes, board games, Halloween costumes, etc.) from the series was produced.

Very much like H.R. Pufnstuf (1969), Lidsville is a trippy -- meaning apparently drug-fueled -- series about a young man stranded in a fantasy world and attempting to return home.  In this case, however, the fantasy land of Lidsville is a world of living, talking hats.

Butch Patrick stars as the displaced teen, Mark, and the first episode “World in a Hat,” begins his bizarre and colorful odyssey.

After watching Merlo the Magician (Charles Nelson Reilly) at Six Flags Amusement Park in Texas, Mark tries to learn his secret by sneaking backstage. When he gazes into Merlo’s hat -- which has grown to gargantuan proportions -- Mark falls inside. He tumbles through a vortex and emerges in a strange world of colorful characters and bizarre landscapes.




First, Mark is captured by the malevolent but incompetent tyrant Hoo Doo (Charles Nelson Reilly), who believes him to be a spy. Fortunately, Mark also encounters a friendly genie, named Weenie (Billie Hayes) who claims she may be able to send him home. 

Together they escape Hoo Doo’s grasp, but face the challenges of the Shampoo River.

Fortunately, the hat denizens of Lidsville rescue the Mark and Weenie, and give them haven from the evil Hoo Doo.

“World in a Hat” establishes the premise of Lidsville well.  First we meet Mark, and are told he hails from Jackson City. He notes that he just wants to get home to his friends and family.  This means the longer that he is stuck in this bizarre world, the longer he is separated from those he loves. His quest, like Dorothy’s in The Wizard of Oz, is to return to the world where belongs.

We also meet here Mark’s allies, namely the goofy Weenie, and the people of Lidsville…who are hats.  We meet here, for instance, Mother Wheels (a motorcycle helmet) who drives Weenie and Mark through The Hair Forest.



Some of the hat characters are voiced in the style of famous characters or actors. One hat talks with a John Wayne-styled voice, another exactly like Charlie Chan.

Finally, we encounter the villains of the series, Hoo-Doo and his posse of incompetent, bungling minions. Among them is Raunchy Rabbit, Jack of Clubs…a deck of cards, and Mr. Big, a gangster whose body is actually a fedora. His base is a top hat, and inside it is a miniature band that plays at inopportune moments.



If this all sounds weird or surreal, well, it certainly is. The whole episode is weirdly frenetic and impressionistic, with an oppressive laugh track blanketing the half-hour, and removing any real opportunity to assess if the show is actually funny, or just strange.

Although The Bugaloos (1970) falls between H.R. PufnStuf and Lidsville, this series nonetheless feels like a sideways remake of earlier Krofft series. A boy gets lost in a fantasy world, makes an enemy who can use magic, and befriends lots of weird characters, who are given life in elaborate and bizarre costumes.  The “hat” angle is really the only new wrinkle.

Then again, this show does feature Charles Nelson Reilly, which automatically lands Lidsville in new territory, if you ask me.


Next up:  “Show Me the Way to Go Home.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Ghost Busters: "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" (September 27, 1975)


A ghost gypsy, Sophia (Dodrio Dennery) and a ghost werewolf (Lenny Weinrib) materialize in the graveyard seeking an amulet which will end the curse of his lycanthropy forever.

Unfortunately, that prized amulet is already in the hands of Spenser (Larry Storch), Kong (Forrest Tucker) and Tracy (Bob Burns).

Their latest assignment: de-materialize the ghost of the gypsy and werewolf!




“Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf” showcases again the awkwardness of The Ghost Busters' (1975) format. Instead of encountering an actual werewolf, the comically-inept ghost hunters go after the ghost of a werewolf, ostensibly so they can de-materialize him at the end of the episode, securing a happy ending and a sense of closure for the youngsters watching.



But the facts that these folks are ghosts, and not just monsters, is disconcerting and confusing. From this story, for example, we must glean that the curse of lycanthropy lasts beyond death, since Harry Albert (Lenny Weinrub) suffers from it even while a ghost.  

Wouldn’t the werewolf curse end with his death?

The episode doesn’t make sense on other grounds, either.  

For example, why wouldn’t the Ghost Busters just give Harry the amulet thus curing him of lycanthropy, instead of all the tug-of-war over it?  But more trenchantly, how come a corporeal amulet cures the lycanthropy...of an incorporeal ghost?

This episode also cements another aspect of the series formula: the relic. This is the fourth episode so far of the series, and we have encountered the “thing” in the first episode (The Maltese Monkey), the Canterville Diamond (“The Canterville Ghost”), and now the amulet, here.  So it’s fair to state that -- at least so far -- these episode tend to involve not just ghost-busting but the recovery of valuable antiquities.


The best gag this week is a modification of a running joke set in the office. Usually Spenser has a tough time with a row of filing cabinets.  This week, the werewolf has an even more difficulty with the cabinets.

Next week “The Flying Dutchman.”


Friday, March 03, 2017

Cult-TV Flashback: The Sixth Sense (1972)


“You enter a strange room for the first time, yet you know you’ve been there before.  You dream about an event that happens some days later…A coincidence?  Maybe. But more than likely, it is extrasensory perception, a sixth sense that many scientists believe we all possess, but rarely use.”

-          From The Sixth Sense Press Kit, published in Senior Scholastic: “The Sixth Sense,” September 18, 1972, page 22).
-           

I am still troubled about the sad fate of The Sixth Sense, starring the late Gary Collins (1938-2012). After originally airing for two seasons on ABC in the early 1970's, this hour-long series was brutally cut-down to a half-hour length so as to be syndicated along with the episode catalog of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery. Mr. Serling even filmed new introductions in the famous black gallery for the re-crafted The Sixth Sense episodes. 

But The Sixth Sense’s “Night Gallery” stories, if you ever saw them, were always nonsensical, in part because they were trimmed down literally fifty-percent from their original running time.  It was this abbreviated, hacked-up The Sixth Sense that aired on The Sci Fi Channel in the 1990's, for instance. In 2007, Chiller ran episodes of The Sixth Sense, but I'm not certain if it was the chopped-up version, or the original.

Butchered in syndicated format, The Sixth Sense episodes are almost unwatchable. Characters appear without introduction or preamble, and allude to events that are no longer depicted.  Characters are alive in one scene and dead the next, with no explanation for how, why or when, their demise occurred. The series in this corrupted format is baffling and incoherent, to put it mildly.


This is a shame because fans and TV scholars are denied the chance to see the series as it was meant to be seen. By today's standards, some episodes may seem slow paced.  But -- like Sweet, Sweet Rachel -- the stories here are pretty intriguing and even visually dynamic.

I don’t mean to suggest The Sixth Sense is some kind of un-excavated genre masterpiece, only that it hasn’t been granted a hearing by genre fans in an un-corrupted form for over forty years.  No series deserves such a fate, frankly.

Imagine how well Star Trek would play cut down to a half-hour, or Kolchak, or Mission: Impossible.

Writer Anthony Lawrence originally created The Sixth Sense after the success of a 1971 TV movie titled Sweet, Sweet Rachel, which involved a parapsychology expert, Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier) protecting a woman, Rachel (Stefanie Powers) from psychic assassins.  When the television movie proved successful in terms of ratings, ABC wanted a quick follow-up.  Lawrence and developer Stan Shpetner thus crafted The Sixth Sense, a series which would follow the adventures of another parapsychology expert, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins). 


During every episode of The Sixth Sense the preternaturally patient and calm Dr. Rhodes would investigate a complex mystery featuring psychic overtones.  That case might involve astral projection (“Face of Ice”), premonitions (“If I Should Die Before I Wake,”) automatic writing (“I Do Not Belong to the Human World,”) aura photography (“The Man Who Died at Three and Nine”), witchcraft (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright”), apparitions (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), spiritual possession (“With Affection, Jack the Ripper) cryogenics (“Once Upon a Chilling”) or even organ transplant (“The Eyes That Would Not Die.” Usually Rhodes solved the mystery at hand by working closely with a beautiful woman in jeopardy. 

This damsel-in-distress role was played, in various installments, by beloved genre actresses such as Mariette Hartley (“Eye of the Haunted”), Pamela Franklin (“I Did Not Mean to Slay Thee”), Stefanie Powers (“Echo of a Distant Scream”), Tiffany Bolling (“Witch, Witch, Burning Bright), Lucie Arnaz (“With This Ring I thee Kill), Mary Ann Mobley (“Shadow in the Well), Carol Lynley (“The House that Cried Murder) and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave?”)


And among those talents working behind-the-scenes on The Sixth Sense -- at least for a time -- were Gene Coon, Harlan Ellison and D.C. Fontana.  I had the opportunity to interview Ms. Fontana in 2001, and our conversation veered briefly to The Sixth Sense.  She recalled to me that in her opinion, developer Shpetner was difficult to work with because he had so many story dislikes:

He didn’t like children.  He didn’t like women.  He didn’t like men…He didn’t like stories about sick people, or emotionally ill people.  He didn’t like stories about poor people.  He didn’t like stories about ethnic people.  Essentially it came down to us doing stories about rich white people who didn’t have any problems.  And that was a problem for me.”

Fontana’s tenure on the show was, perhaps not surprisingly, short-lived:  “I left one day, and Harlan Ellison left either the day before me or the day after me.  It all happened in fast succession, I can tell you that much…It’s too bad, because the potential for stories about extra sensory perception and abilities was great.”

The abundant flaws of The Sixth Sense are apparent today. For one thing, Dr. Rhodes always helped beautiful, young (25 – 35) white women, but never actively romanced any of them.  He just seemed to inhabit a white, upper-class world of beautiful, psychically gifted females. 

And secondly, as a character Rhodes was not permitted to grow or show much by way of passionate emotion. Collins’ performance on the series is actually kind of brilliant in a weird way, simultaneously minimalist and intense. 

But the writing never ascribes much by way of humor or personal life to the man.  As a lead character, Rhodes is certainly dedicated and helpful -- and physically capable – but we know precisely nothing about him save for his unwavering support for ESP and parapsychology studies. It would have been great if the series had more fully explored his background, including his childhood and the development of his abilities as a “sensitive.”


On the other hand, The Sixth Sense triumphed in two notable areas.  In the first, it features some great guest appearances by the likes of Joan Crawford (“Dear Joan: We Are Going to Scare You To Death”), William Shatner (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), and Lee Majors (“With This Ring, I Thee Kill.”).  Today, it’s a thrill to see Cloris Leachman, Patty Duke, Sandra Dee, Henry Silva, June Allyson and Sharon Gless, among others, get menaced by strange paranormal “phenomena.”

Of more legitimate interest is the series’ second strength: jarring and disturbing visuals and special effects.  Some of the imagery in the series remains downright haunting.  In “The Heart that Wouldn’t Stay Buried” a man is attacked by the statue of a bird, and it’s a trippy moment.  In “Witness Within,” jump-cuts, slow-motion photography and a nice eerie blend of light and shadow make a nocturnal attack almost pulse-pounding.  Likewise, in “Lady, Lady, Take My Life,” an insufferable bureaucrat is murdered by a psychic “cathexis,  and the he screen goes blood red (with terror) as the poor man suffers twin aneurysms. 

In one of my favorite episodes, the bizarre “Once Upon a Chilling” a man’s spirit is projected outside of his cryogenic chamber and his spectral face is coated in dripping, cracked ice…an image which terrifies rather than informs.  In moments such as these you can sense a real imagination in the visual presentation of the stories.  If the stories were all up to snuff, and not so predictable in terms of character, The Sixth Sense would have been a contender.


Some of the more intriguing episodes in the series include the one starring Shatner and Anne Archer (“Can a Dead Man Strike from Beyond the Grave”), written by Gene Coon.  And “With this Ring I Thee Kill,” starring Lee Majors and Lucie Arnaz proves a weird call back to Faustian legends and stories. The episode featuring Joan Crawford (and directed by John Newland) is also memorable, since it pits the Hollywood legend against Mansonite cult member crazies.  

In spite of flaws, The Sixth Sense must be viewed as something of a pioneer in terms of horror television programming.  It is the first horror-oriented series, for instance, to feature continuing characters rather than an anthology format.  It pre-dates Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974) by two years, in this regard.  Considering that place of importance in the horror genre, the series certainly merits a better fate than to be cut to ribbons and offered only in a corrupt format. 

Failures and all, The Sixth Sense deserves a full DVD/Blu-Ray release with all twenty-five episodes restored to original formatting.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Logan's Run 40th Anniversary Blogging: "The Judas Goat" (December 19, 1977)


After the illogical plotting of "Fear Factor," it's a relief to watch the crowded, loaded-with-elements, exciting next episode of Logan's Run, titled "The Judas Goat." This is a strong installment of the series, with call-backs to franchise history, some fine characterization, and real thrills too.

Here, a Sandman (Nicholas Hammond) is given plastic surgery -- courtesy of the New You Laser drill prop featured in the Logan's Run feature film -- to resemble a Runner, Hal 14 that Jessica (Heather Menzies) once befriended.

After being given the runner's memories, this Sandman is sent out into the wild to bring back Logan (Gregory Harrison) and Jessica. His story is that the City of Domes has changed, and that all it would take to destroy Carousel forever is testimony from runners who have survived outside the hermetically-sealed domes. In truth, the Council of Elders promises the agent a seat on the ruling body if he completes his mission.

Logan and Jessica find the idea of revolutionizing their corrupt civilization a tantalizing one, and after encountering the Sandman/runner begin to contemplate the idea of a return to the Domed City. But then, they run into a primitive society run by an all-powerful "Provider."  This provider sends out patrols, led by Garth (Spencer Milligan), to protect him from Sandmen.

This Provider is actually Matthew 12 (Lance Le Gault), the very first runner...the first man who ever fled Carousel six years earlier and headed out into parts unknown in search of Sanctuary! Now the Sandman in disguise realizes he could bring back an even greater prize to the City of Domes, and with Jessica and Logan tries to convince Matthew 12 to return to the City to lead to an insurrection.

But Matthew has his own agenda at work too. He refuses to let his “guests” leave, and tries to kill Logan and Hal. REM (Donald Moffat) detects his treachery just in time, and by reversing an explosive detonation, kills Matthew, violating the android’s “first law,” and harming a human being.


Written by John Meredyth Lucas, “The Judas Goat” moves with twice the pace and twice the complexity of your average Logan’s Run episode.

Each of the characters in this drama possesses competing and selfish motivations, and there is more than enough plotting and back-stabbing for a two-parter here, and as a result, this is one of the most fast moving and entertaining of the Logan's Run canon. We even get another “corrupt” pre-holocaust installation here (tying into the series theme about state-sponsored assistance), since Matthew 12 uses the locals as slaves, rewarding them for being his protectors by "giving them joy," aka computer-sponsored memory flashes of happy times.

Another fine element of this episode involves my favorite character: Donald Moffat's android, REM. In this episode, REM must make a choice between saving his friends and committing murder...an act which runs counter to his very programming. Here, he kills Matthew 12, rather than seeing Logan die. He admits to feeling "disturbed" by his action, and this is an intriguing development for the character. In many ways REM is inspiration or the forerunner of Brent Spiner's Lt. Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation. He's learning more about humanity and what it means to "be human" all the time. This week, that learning involves a dark lesson. And he looks absolutely bereft after breaking his “First Law.”


The episode also succeeds on the basis of the information it reveals about the runners and the City of Domes. Here, we encounter the “first runner,” Matthew 12, and learn that his escape from the city (and hunt for Sanctuary) began only six years before Logan and Jessica began their adventure.  

This means that runners are still a relatively new phenomenon, and makes one wonder what exactly the Sandmen did in the city, before Matthew began his escape. In the film, the City of Domes computer establishes that there are 1056 unaccounted for runners, suggesting that runners have probably always existed in the society.


 Production-wise, the episode hauls out the costume for the New You surgeon in the film, as well as the laser drill.  In this case, the drill doesn’t cause gory cuts, but (bloodlessly) re-arranges facial features.



The only downside of “The Judas Goat” is that in virtually a millisecond, Logan, Jessica, REM and their betrayer drive all the way back to the City of Domes.


I thought they'd been traveling for months and months, so it seems odd that they would just turn around and reverse their entire journey so quickly. That fact established, there is a lovely matte shot in the finale of the episode, of the Solar Craft pulling up to the City of the Domes. It's a great visual, and a rare "big" effects moment in the series.

The story's climax is also quite rich, with the duplicitous Sandman mistaken for a runner and shot down by his own brethren. I love that “cosmic justice” kind of ironic ending, and it was the icing on the cake in this enjoyable, solidly-made episode. It's also a pleasure to see Spencer Milligan in a role outside of his famous portrayal of Rick Marshall in Land of the Lost (1974-1977).




"The Judas Goat" is a thoroughly entertaining and worthwhile addition to Logan's Run, but in a way it just reveals how schizophrenic the series really was. One week it was way down (“Fear Factor”), the next it was up, and there was no consistency from story to story.

In two weeks, Logan's Run blogging resumes with the stylish “Futurepast.”

Cult-TV Movie Review: Sweet, Sweet Rachel (October 2, 1971)


In the 1971 TV movie, Sweet, Sweet Rachel, celebrity musician Paul Stanton (Rod McCarey) dies under unusual circumstances, jumping out the window of his seaside mansion.

His beautiful young wife, Rachel (Stefanie Powers) witnesses the fall, and receives a mysterious phone call immediately afterwards.  She becomes convinced that she is responsible for her husband’s death.

Rachel visits Dr. Lucas Darrow (Alex Dreier), an expert in parapsychology, who believes that she is actually a victim of “constant psychic harassment.”  Perhaps she is even being framed for the murder of her husband. The first order of business is to find the mysterious phone caller.

Dr. Darrow and a blind sensitive with ESP, Carey Johnson (Chris Robinson) investigate Paul and Rachel Stanton, and learn that Rachel’s mother, Lillian (Louise Latham) seems to possess the ability to communicate with the dead.

When Lillian turns up dead, however, Rachel is suspected by the police, but Darrow and Carey look at her uncle Arthur (Pat Hingle), and his daughter Nora (Brenda Scott), who may also possess psychic abilities.


Created by Anthony Lawrence, Sweet, Sweet Rachel is the backdoor pilot for the 1972 “psychic” sci-fi series, The Sixth Sense (1972-1973).  That series, which was cut-up badly and syndicated in half-hour format as part of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery (19701-1973),  involves a handsome (but oh so bland…) parapsychologist, Dr. Michael Rhodes (Gary Collins), and his encounters with people (usually lovely young women) who are being manipulated by people with psychic abilities.

Sweet, Sweet Rachel is intriguing for spearheading the premise of the series, but also for featuring a more intriguing cast than its successor. Dreier’s Dr. Darrow is a portly, grave man with a solemn demeanor and a baritone voice. He isn’t your typical 1960s-1970s “handsome” or athletic series lead, and he brings an incredible gravitas to the role. 

Similarly, Dr. Darrow gets a sidekick, which Rhodes never did, at least not on a regular basis.  Early in Sweet, Sweet Rachel, Darrow recounts the story of how he received a “psychic message” from one of his patients, Carey, while in surgery for another patient.  His receipt of this message led to the beginning of their friendship, but also the beginning of his fascination with the paranormal.  This is more background, incidentally, than The Sixth Sense ever really provided about Dr. Rhodes.  It’s nice to get that information here, in the form of a flashback.

But it works well for this movie (and this format, which The Sixth Sense adopts…) to have the lead doctor teamed with an actual sensitive; so they can bounce ideas back and forth.  Here, the real murderer is outed only after Darrow hypnotizes Carey, and Carey attempts to reach out with ESP to contact the killer. In The Sixth Sense, Rhodes works alone, and is psychic himself.

Intriguingly, Sweet Sweet Rachel may also qualify as a film noir, at least in terms of its style and general subject matter (murder). The film’s lighting is extremely dark and expressionistic, and the subject matter is a crime of passion, but with a psychic twist. Those conspiring to frame Rachel and make her look insane, are out for their own financial gain, although one of Paul’s murderers was also in love with him.  The killers are avaricious schemers who operate from the shadows, and must finally be exposed.

The central detective, in this case, Darrow, becomes involved in the case in a most personal way.  He is nearly a victim -- in the film’s most tense scene -- of a psychic assassination as well.

Suspense mounts as the psychic assassin takes control of Darrow, causes him to wreck his car, and then nearly makes him light a match in his gas tank. Finally Carey -- fumbling in the dark -- stops Darrow from blowing them both up. This scene remains quite effective, even today, and suggests the power of the psychic assassin (perhaps too effectively).

This TV-movie also has much in common with its follow-up The Sixth Sense, in a negative way. The telefilm’s storyline is muddled and unnecessarily complicated, and those who possess psychic powers are, as suggested by my previous paragraph, practically all-powerful. Sweet Sweet Rachel is filmed well, and short at roughly 71 minutes, and yet it feels long and slow, and occasionally incoherent. It has a plodding nature to it, somehow.



This telefilm film was quite popular in 1971, and is well-regarded historically, which is why the concept became a weekly series, I suppose. It is not difficult to discern how viewers must have tuned in, and been immediately grabbed by the colorful death scene in the preamble.  The film’s prologue, with Paul practicing his ESP skills, and then experiencing a vision that sends him to his death, remains absolutely chilling, and well-orchestrated.  The rest of the movie, other than the psychic assassination scene, is a bit of a letdown in comparison to the stylish opening murder.

This was a key flaw, as well, of The Sixth Sense. The psychic death scenes were always incredibly inventive, but the rest of the narrative always seemed like repetitive, tired melodrama.  Today, after screening Sweet Sweet Rachel, I have to wonder if the follow-up series might have done better with a less photogenic, but more interesting lead character (Darrow), and his sidekick sensitive, Carey.  They are interesting enough people to follow through a weekly series, and they might have made the stories of The Sixth Sense a bit less dull.


It is intriguing, finally, that this telefilm is called Sweet, Sweet Rachel, since Rachel is a bit of a passive character, always acted upon, never acting for herself.  

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Doctor Who: "The Robots of Death" (1977)


The Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion, Leela (Louise Jameson) find that the TARDIS has landed inside a vast, tank-like mining vehicle traversing a barren desert world.

The travelers in time and space also find that they are in terrible danger.  Specifically, crew members aboard the colossal rig are being killed by an unseen assailant who leaves behind “corpse markers” on each victim.  These tags are typically used to signify that a robot has been destroyed.

The Doctor and Leela soon learn that the rig’s crew -- and the society from which it hails -- is completely dependent on humanoid robots.  In fact, several “classes” of robots are aboard the rig, including the Dumbs (mutes), the Vox, and the SuperVox.  The Doctor concludes that somehow the robots have overcome their peaceful programming and are committing murder.

The question soon becomes one of human survival.  Are the robots developing awareness of their status as slaves, or is there a dark humanoid force behind the killings?


In my 1999 book, A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television, I tagged “The Robots of Death” as one of the best Doctor Who serials ever produced, and I still feel that my initial assessment is accurate.  In particular, I believe that this conclusion regarding quality is merited because of the production design and costuming, which enhance a story that is about nothing less than the horrors of slavery.  In this case, however, the slaves are not human beings, but robots.

First and foremost, the robot costumes in “Robots of Death” underline the theme about slavery.  The machines wear Asian-themed serving clothes which suggest their status as underlings.  Their molded plastic faces, similarly, show only a mask of politeness.  In other words, the robots represent the smiling but subservient face of a peasant or slave class. The Robots don suits of plain green, or black, and this gives the impression that they are not really meant to be noticed.  They are but…background noise in an indulged culture.


By purposeful contrast, the men and women aboard the mining rig wear impractical, ornate, glittering costumes that shine and dazzle.  These costumes are frequently gold or silver, to boot.  Each human character also wears an ostentatious or flowery head-dress to indicate his or her individuality and even, in some sense, “royalty.”  Again, a clever costuming touch creates a contrast with the appearance of the robots, who all look virtually identical.  Individuality then, is for masters, but not slaves.

Similarly, the mining rig “crew” wears elaborate painted eye-make-up, and again, if there is time to apply such intricate designs on the face every day then it is clear that someone else -- namely the slaves -- must be responsible for the day-to-day operation and survival of the Empire.



The costumes and make-up in “The Robots of Death” thus express beautifully the idea of an alien culture both decadent and indulgent in its own luxury.  In regards to the production design, the interior of the mining vessel forwards the very same notion.  It looks more like a comfortable ocean liner than a utilitarian mining craft. 

The crew’s behavior -- indulging in petty competition, gossipy talk, and lavish feasts -- also reinforces the notion of a culture that is so separated from the struggle for life and death that its people no longer even recognize that they are in danger.  The humans here treat the robots only as things, and have grown so lazy and complacent that their race would actually die out without the robots serving and maintaining the basics of civilization. 

Outside of the production design, wardrobe, and make-up choices that adeptly reinforce the notion of a corrupt society and an exploited underclass, “The Robots of Death” plays very much like an Agatha Christie novel.  Each character on the mining vessel boasts a mysterious history, a secret identity and perhaps, even, a motivation for murder.   

The story resolves with the truth about a man named Taryn Kapel who was raised by robots and is sensitive to their exploitation.  The name Taryn Kapel seems very similar to Karel Čapek, the late-nineteenth century author who introduced the world to the term “robot.”  In this way, "Robots of Death" connects right here to our experience and history on Earth, and the development of automation.

“The Robots of Death” is a remarkable serial, and one augmented by brilliant execution, but it succeeds so admirably because it reminds viewers of an unpleasant human quality (and one later seen in regards to the Ood). 

Humans prize comfort, at times, over equality or justice.   Only the Doctor -- an outsider -- can point out this foible.

And he does it with a grin.

Doctor Who: "The Ark in Space"


The fourth actor to portray the famous time traveling "Doctor," Tom Baker followed on directly from the Jon Pertwee years, a span wherein -- for a substantial stretch of time -- the renegade Time Lord from Gallifrey was trapped on 20th century Earth, unable to explore the universe.

That travel ban had been lifted previous to Baker's arrival (following the anniversary celebration, "The Three Doctors), but "The Ark in Space" represents the fourth Doctor's first foray away from terra firma; and a harrowing one at that.

"The Ark in Space" is also an early and prominent example of producer Philip Hinchcliffe's new template for the long-lived series, one that involved a dramatic shift towards more overt horror territory. 

Indeed, seasons 12 through 15 of Doctor Who --which still represents a kind of golden age for the classic series -- presented one outer space  horror-themed serial after another, with titles such as "Terror of the Zygons," "Planet of Evil," "The Pyramids of Mars," "The Brain of Morbius," "The Seeds of Doom," "The Masque of Mandragora," "The Hand of Fear, "The Face of Evil," "The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "The Horror of Fang Rock," and "Image of the Fendahl." 

In these tales, the universe itself seemed to take on a new, distinctly mysterious and dark aura.  There was a strong Lovecraftian angle to the series at this juncture, as monstrous gods (Sutekh), species (The Fendahl), and personalities (Morbius) threatened to arise from centuries-long slumber, or even from entrapment in the ice (Krynoid) to threaten mankind and the universe at large.


"The Ark in Space" expertly sets that terrifying tone for this new concentration on horror, and does so from the inaugural shot; a point-of-view perspective shot that reveals some kind of green-slime-covered monster attacking a sleeping human inside a suspended-animation chamber.  

Aboard the T.A.R.D.I.S., Doctor and his two companions, Sarah Jane Smith (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry Sullivan (Ian Marter) set down near the site of the attack, on a seemingly abandoned "artificial satellite," the space station called Nerva. 

The station is an example of "30th century construction," and the time/space travelers quickly discover that Nerva is also a "cryogenic repository" warehousing the survivors of the human race.  These poor souls have been asleep for some 5,000 years, following solar flares which devastated the surface of Earth.

 Now, the "entire human race" awaits "a trumpet blast," to wake up, start over again, and re-populate the healed planet.

In an early portion of the first episode, the Doctor delivers a stirring speech about mankind and the species' possibilities, and his words bear repeating:

 "What an inventive, invincible species! It's only been a few million years since they crawled up out of the mud and learned to walk. Puny, defenseless bipeds. They've survived flood, famine and plague. They've survived cosmic wars and holocausts. And now, here they are, out among the stars, waiting to begin a new life. Ready to out-sit eternity. They're indomitable.  Indomitable."

However, those future pioneers of Earth now have a big problem.  An alien race called the Wirrn that the Doctor likens to "galactic wood worms" has infested the station.

The Wirrn swarm once lived in the Andromeda Galaxy but their "Old Lands" were seized by space faring human beings, and the giant bugs have been looking for a new home ever since.  Not to mention revenge. Again, consider how the discussion of "Old Lands" and the resurrection/return of an ancient evil resonates with the Lovecraft template.

The Wirrn plan to utilize the sleeping human race on Nerva as their primary food source, and more.  When they digest life forms, the Wirrn also absorb the knowledge of all such life, and so plan to become a "technological species" within one generation.


As his wont, the Doctor has once more stumbled into an inter-species battle for survival, and must pick a side for which to fight.  Given his history, and the affirmative quotation regarding mankind above, it's not too difficult to guess where his loyalties fall.  

But one delightful element of  "The Ark in Space" is that it isn't simply a serial about man vs. alien, or the Doctor racing to the rescue; much like the proverbial Time Traveler negotiating the breach between the Eloi and the Morlock.

On the contrary, this Doctor Who serial comments on an intriguing trend in the 20th century workplace that began in the 1970s and probably reached its peak in the mid-1990s. 

In this tale by Robert Holmes, the future humans in suspended animation are all workers with very specific assignments.  They are specialists, able to perform with great talent their assigned duties, and only their assigned duties.  They are advanced technologically, quite bright, and yet also rigid.   One woman named Vira (Wendy Williams) is a physician; the man named Noah is a leader, and so on. 

But beyond their specialties, these examples of future man are lost; diffident and vulnerable.

In real life, the debate was whether or not workers would be more productive simply doing one task, or multi-tasking.  In the Recession of the early-to-mid 1990s, the trend towards specialization largely faded out and multi-tasking -- the performance of multiple tasks by one person -- carried the day.   With layoffs and an epidemic of "down-sizing" (a new term in the 1990s) workers had to prove their flexibility and worth to companies looking to cut and slash.


"The Ark in Space" debates this issue, in the process considering every shade of each argument.  Vira is designated a physician, but when Noah, the team leader, is absorbed by the Wirrn, she must step up to the plate and take command.  It is not her nature, and it's not her "job description," but fate has made these arrangements for her. She will either grow...or fail.  And if she fails, the human race fails.

The Wirrn represent a strong contrast to the trend of specialization in the work place: they gain knowledge easily, through biological absorption and can pick up new talents, skills, and data without re-education or any personal learning whatsoever.

They need only to...consume talented individuals to grow and fatten and prosper.  Because they are an insect culture, the Wirrn are also a hive mind.  And another word for that, of course, is "corporate entity."

So make any comparisons you wish there, between business executives and parasitic insects.  They are the "users" of the workers, who end up on top by "absorbing" the talents of those they exploit.

The more closely one studies "The Ark in Space," the more fully this debate about specialization in the human animal bubbles through to the surface.

In Part Four of the serial, for instance, Sarah Jane Smith -- a reporter by trade -- leaves her comfort zone behind in more ways than one by transporting an electronic cable through an egregiously tight vent shaft.

Like Vira, who becomes a sturdy and dependable commanding officer, Sarah adapts to the needs of the environment instead of sticking to one particular skill set.  Rather than specialize herself into oblivion, she grows and changes.  Again, this is gazed upon as an extemely valuable trait.

Yet there's a yang to this yin, as well.

An engineer named Rogan ultimately saves the day by releasing the docking clamps on a space shuttle containing the Wirrn.  Before he does so, Rogan tellingly informs the Doctor "This is my job," with the emphasis on the descriptor "my."  He meets his destiny by fulfilling the task he was trained to do.  He considers that task an oath, as we can see from his self-sacrifice. 

Similarly, Noah retains enough of his humanity to also fulfill his training...as a leader.  In this case, he saves the humans by deceiving the Wirrn into space; to the outside hull of the station. 

Uniquely, Noah has not only fulfilled his compact with the humans, he has also, in a very strange way "led" the Wirrn as well.  Right off a cliff, so-to-speak. It's illuminating to consider that the humans and the Wirrns are both, at times in this four-part serial, led by one man: Noah.  This means, I suppose that once a leader, always a leader, regardless of the species one commands.  Once more, the idea being explored in "The Ark in Space" is training or career preparation as nothing less than destiny. 

"The Ark in Space" diagrams the debate between specialization and multi-tasking quite fully, without ever lecturing or becoming pedantic.  The end point seems to be not that one approach is worlds better than the other, but only that flexibility and expertise are the keys to survival in any Darwinian struggle for survival.  The humans (and the Doctor) do adapt, and fight back against the Wirrn.  The same cannot be said for the bugs.

The Wirrn continue to live by their biological life cycle (eat, absorb, lay eggs, then start again) and in the end that's simply not enough to make them the dominant species. Possessed of a corporate mentality, they cannot, apparently, resist from following Noah (their metaphorical CEO, I suppose...), into disaster. There must be learning and adaptation for survival, this serial implies.

In terms of context, "The Ark in Space" is also fascinating because it reveals Dr. Who, along with Space:1999 (also premiering in 1975) at the spearhead of the movement to re-define space adventuring in darker, more grotesque terms than in previous TV efforts. 

In the late 1960s, Star Trek had beautifully and colorfully presented the idea of the United Nations in Space, with Cold War enemies such as the Klingons and the Federation, and each unaligned planet representing an island across a cosmic ocean, to either join the Federation, or team up with the enemy.  By the late 1970s, the paradigm shifted.  Space, in 1999 and the Hinchcliffe years of Who, no longer existed simply as an extended metaphor for East/West relations here on Earth. 


And at the end of the decade, of course, Ridley Scott's brilliant film Alien (1979) took the concept of outer space horror about as far as it could possibly go, with the riveting, gorgeously visualized tale of a "perfect" (and perfectly hostile) alien parasite.

If one were to gaze at episodes of Space:1999 such as "Dragon's Domain" (with an alien octopus inhabiting a derelict space ship...) and "End of Eternity" (featuring a malevolent alien kicked out an airlock, when there's no way to kill him), as well as "The Ark in Space," which posits a parasite co-opting human bodies for the furtherance of its life-cycle, the "seeds" of Alien are quite evident.  

Today, one scene in "Ark in Space" forecasts Alien especially closely.  Sarah Jane goes into that tight vent shaft, wearing a head-set "two-way radio," while in another chamber crewmen monitor her progress going from "juncture" to "juncture." 

At one point, Sarah encounters the Wirrn, but they are (safely) on the other side of a vent grille.  In Alien, of course, Captain Dallas goes into the Nostromo's air duct, also wearing such a head set, and is monitored closely by Lambert and Parker, moving from "junction" to "junction."  He comes to a much unhappier end, than Sarah-Jane.

The point of this comparison is not to declare in any way, shape or form that Alien ripped off this TV show or that TV show, only that there was clearly something in the water in the 1970s, so-to-speak, moving space adventure in the direction of more dark, paranoid, chaotic imaginings. 

Perhaps it was the Energy Crisis that made all the difference: a global race for resources during a period of scarcity and market manipulation.  In many of these dramas, from "The Ark in Space" to "Dragon's Domain" to Alien, it is man himself who becomes the ultimate resource for otherworldly beings; to be used up, and rather maliciously so.

"The Ark in Space" sets the dark, ominous tone for much of Tom Baker's early tenure on Doctor Who, and so there's a chilling, unsettling atmosphere to the entire enterprise.  In this story, man is dislodged from his home on Earth and sleeping in the ultimate "dark" -- outer space itself.  And worse, there really are hungry monsters under the bed, just waiting to get him.

"The Ark in Space" exploits this universal fear well, despite a not-very convincing Wirrn monster costume, and succeeds in being suspenseful largely because it is well-written and well-performed.  The Doctor goes on at length about the idea of being "digested" and "absorbed" by the Wirrn, and his colorful descriptions are more than enough to give those with a strong imagination a lingering case of the creeps.

By 1975, Doctor Who had been around for more than a decade.  But "The Ark in Space" is worth highlighting because it nearly feels like a pilot for a new series; a purposeful and efficacious re-direction of Who from its more action-oriented, earthbound, James-Bond-like Pertwee phase towards more ominous imaginings about outer space, and man's possible future role in that mysterious and unsafe realm.

Doctor Who (Fourth Doctor) 3-D Clay Picture (Remus Play Kits)


Doctor Who (Fourth Doctor) Letraset (1979)




Action Figures of the Week: Doctor Who (Fourth Doctor): Denys Fisher Edition