Thursday, November 27, 2008

Doctor Who 45th Anniversary

Last Sunday was the 45th anniversary of Doctor Who. It’s hard to believe that Doctor Who has been around for so long. When I started to watch it Peter Davison was the Doctor and once I got into the series, I was mesmerized. I was/am fascinated by virtually everything about the series. If I may indulge in how I became a fan of this series, it goes all the way back to 1984.
I knew of Doctor Who for much of my life but I was a Star Wars fan. I saw Star Wars in theaters in 1977 at the very young age of 3. My parents brought me to see it. Obviously, visually it was astounding. It was fast paced and everything was perfect for am impressionable you to watch. It made me think anything was possible. The ideas behind the story was vast and on a massive scale. That was my benchmark in watching anything that was remotely labeled as science fiction. Doctor Who was shown on our PBS station KTCA in the early 80s running the Tom Baker episodes on a Mon-Fri schedule. I think at 5:30pm every night. I say I think because I never watched it. I know the bully at my school watched it as he would mention it while he was pushing me to the ground. That might be another reason why I never watched it. That and also because when I turned it on one day I caught a glimpse of it and it looked extremely cheap and did not hold my interest. It just made me turn the channel.
Jump forward a couple of years and on one Friday August night, (September I would enter the fifth grade) I am at home and my Mom calls me into the kitchen where she was watching TV. I started to watch this really fun program with her. The show already started but it was a science fiction/fantasy affair that was based in seventeenth century London. It caught my Mom’s attention because she thought the costumes were colorful and somehow appealed to her. Amongst all of these strange characters, there was a colorful android which would dress in a black robe and where a skull mask and there was another guy who wore a beige/cream colored outfit with a coat that had red piping and for some reason (which I really still do not buy to this day) wore what looked like celery on his lapel.

Obviously, I am talking about Doctor Who. The story was The Visitation. At this point in the broadcast history of KTCA showing the series, Doctor Who moved on from daily broadcasts to once a week now as a movie version broadcast. While watching the story, I thought to myself this must be Doctor Who even though I didn’t really know what Doctor Who was. Somehow I just sensed this even though I hardly ever seen it. I knew the character Doctor Who that wore a long scarf and had floppy curly hair but I didn’t know about this new different guy. So, when my suspicions were confirmed that I was watching Doctor Who, I just assumed that it meant that there were two actors who had played Doctor Who at this point. Good old KTCA soon set me straight.

Goodness me there are five of them now!
About a month after I started to watch Doctor Who on a regular basis, KTCA broadcast The Five Doctors. From what little I cobbled together of the series based on the few episodes I had seen up to this point had been completed blown out of the water. It was a complete shock that there were five Doctors and that they were all meant to be the same character. Also, it was a massive surprise to me to learn the series had been running for twenty years!

I greatly enjoyed the story but the one thing that grabbed my interest more than any treacherous Time Lords, Raston Robots, or Mind Probes was the opening sequence with William Hartnell. I knew the series was old but it came as quite a shock to see that short sequence when everything else I had ever seen of Doctor Who was of a younger man playing the title role as well as stories shown in color. It was like this distant message that broke through from some other dimension. It was magical. When The Five Doctors started with that short excerpt from Flashpoint, it’s like I knew I was going to be a fan for a long time and I wanted to see as much of the series as I possibly could.
Over the years I met many fans. I been to many conventions, worked on many conventions and even ran a couple. I ran fan clubs, viewing societies, and panels. I met and personally know actors and actresses who have appeared in Doctor Who. Friends of mine who were fans have gone through phases where they stopped watching for a while and eventually came back. I never stopped watching. I enjoy Doctor Who as much now as I did when I saw The Visitation all those years ago.
I did my own personal celebration Sunday November 23rd watching the documentary Doctor Who: Origins, An Unearthly Child, and Journey’s End. It was a very enjoyable evening.
This week is Thanksgiving and as I have Friday off, I will be spending the day watching more Doctor Who. To me, I will always associate Doctor Who with the Thanksgiving holiday. I am probably not the only fan who feels this way but, that’s another story…..

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Secret Service

What on Earth is Supermarionation? It’s funny because Gerry Anderson throws around that term as if it is a way of filmmaking such as Cinemascope. Though, I suppose that is exactly what it is! Instead of filming television series using boring old wooden human actors, Gerry Anderson chose to create television series using wooden marionettes. OK, maybe not so wooden. The thing is that it is more than filmmaking; it is truly an art form. The first Supermarionation program was in 1960 with a program call Four Feather Falls and by the time we get to The Secret Service in 1969, the Supermarionation process was quite refined. The original supermarionated (if that is even a word) figure is, to me, was almost grotesque and creepy. They have big bulge eyes and over exaggerated features. The general reason for this is that the apparatus in the head that automatically opens the figure’s mouth to sync up with the pre-recorded dialogue was in its infancy and was quite large. By the time Gerry Anderson, or more accurately Century 21 productions, made The Secret Service the apparatus in the marionettes head was small enough to make the head be in scale with the rest of the body. This is one of the things which make watching The Secret Service so appealing is the miniatures of the cast and sets with all of its minute detail.

This DVD set has been in my library for some time but I never really got around to watching it. So as this was pulled from the mysterious envelope as the program I would be watching this week, I decided to look at the first two episodes.

A Case for the Bishop
Basically, this is what the Secret Service is about: the series followed the adventures of Father Stanley Unwin, a priest who moonlights as a secret agent for an organization called B.I.S.H.O.P. (British Intelligence Service Headquarters, Operation Priest). Answering to a man known as "The Bishop", Unwin is partnered with Matthew Harding, who works as his gardener as cover for his espionage work (Wikipedia.2007). The first episode is about the the Healy KX20 mini computer being stolen from the UK government by Dreisenberg agents. Father Unwin is called into action to get it back with the help of Mathew. To be honest, this was a disapointing first episode for me. One of the hallmarks of a Gerry Anderson series is that sometimes when a character needs to switch a light on or is trying to open a door, we will see a shot of a real hand up close doing those things. As my wife and I call it, a “Real Hand Alert” because it is so intrusive to what we were just watching. It’s actually kind of charming and I understand the reasons for doing it. In the case of this episode of The Secret Service, this use of real people for certain shots go well beyond just a hand on the screen. I would say about 20% of the episode was real people walking around, lots of close ups of hands, and real buildings. Real cars drive up and down real streets as well as real airplanes are in the…er…..real air. My thought, as I was watching it, was why bother with the marionettes? You might as well just make a TV series with live action people. Well, Gerry did do just that later that year with UFO but that’s another story. The plot for this episode was uneventful and was not as interesting as I had hoped. I was not interest in what the Dreisenberg agents stole and by the time they were trying to escape, I was hoping they would just so the episode would end. As that episode ended, I was a little concerned about watching the second one.

A Question of Miracles
Rule #1 in a Gerry Anderson production: if there is a cool looking model of an airplane, building or whatever, you should expect it to blow up with a lot of flames. Derek Meddings who had been responsible for all the minature buildings and special effects since the earliest of Gerry Anderson productions, had a staff who build some incredible miniatures. With each series they would get better and more detailed. This episode starts off with a shot of a British-designed desalination plant that explodes after 250 hours of operation. Is it a faulty design or is it sabotage? Father Unwin is brought in to figure out what is going on. It is clear that these episodes follow a certain structure. Part of this structure is that Father Unwin needs to rendezvous with Mathew at some point in the episode but ends up getting delayed by someone trying to talk with the priest. In the first episode it was a policeman and in the second it is someone who liked Unwin’s car. The Father then starts speaking in gibberish to confuse the person he is talking with to the point where the other person just gives up. This is known as Unwinese. Father Unwin was played or rather voiced by Comedian Stanley Unwin. Part of his act was this form of speaking which is called Unwinese. Apparently, it was popular when he did it; it annoyed me. It also annoyed Lew Grade from ITC who thought Unwin’s language would not work for American audiences to whom he was trying to sell the program. Grade cancelled it. Only 13 episodes were made of The Secret Service. I personally found the second episode to be much better than the first. As with most of the Supermarionation series I have seen, there is not a defined first episode in terms of introductions of character, situation or anything like that. You could generally run the fifteenth episode in place of the first and no one would who had not seen the program before would be the wiser. Therefore, I think this episode would have been a better first episode. To start with, there is more Supermarionation and less shots of live action people. Also, the plot is more interesting and has some fun plot devices. For example, an agent is sent to the desalination plant just as a device in Father Unwin’s plan to allow the Father access to the plant without blowing his cover. It’s ingenious, far-fetched, and fun all at the same time. Actually, I think that sums up Supermarionation perfectly.
I viewed these episodes from the A&E NTSC R1 DVD set that was released in 2003. I personally have enjoyed the quality of the all of the Gerry Anderson releases. The film looks in good condition and the sound is crisp. I know that The Thunderbirds have been released on Blue-Ray in the UK but I am not on the HD bandwagon yet. I have an HD TV but do not plan to get Blue-Ray for some time.
Next week: Frankenstein (1931) Universal. Sourced from the Legacy Collection DVD set.
If you want to know more about The Secret Service, check out these links:

It's Been A While...

So, it has been over a year since I made my welcome post explaining all the exciting things I was going to do with this blog. As you can imagine, it was going to be amazing. Well, as you can see nothing happened with it over the last year and a half. Luckily, I do not have anyone who even knows this blog exists or I may be in danger of having someone read it. Over the past few years, I have been back in school. First getting my bachelors degree and going onto my masters.
Although I may not have written in this blog, I had been doing what this blog was all about. Dipping into my library of television and films and watching the really cool stuff. Over the last year, I have been watching stuff such as I Claudius, Sapphire and Steel, Hancock’s Half Hour, The Quatermass Experiment and As Time Goes By. Well I did say it was random!
Although this blog may be me just writing to myself, I am going to try and update it on a regular basis. I want to practice writing and share my passion and enjoyment of the stuff I have in my library. This blog journey starts with the Gerry Anderson production, The Secret Service.