Friends, although I have no doubt whatsoever that in my youth I had heard some of the popular songs of Harry Nilsson, while traveling in the car with my Father, the sad truth of the matter is I wouldn’t have realized it. In fact the first time I ever remember hearing the late and great singer and songwriter was thanks to the animated film adaptation for The Point!, the children’s album which marked the sixth studio album by Nilsson. The ABC Movie of the Week was produced by Murakami-Wolf Films (The Mouse and his Child, Puff the Magic Dragon) with narration and performances by Alan Thicke (Growing Pains) as well as Mike Lookinland (The Brady Bunch). When The Point (notice they took off the exclamation mark) was originally aired on February 2nd of 1971, I was far too young to have caught it, but thanks to it being rebroadcast throughout the ’80s I fell in love with the music of Harry Nilsson long before I was aware of the artist himself.
You will no doubt have noticed that the narrator in that clip was not Alan Thicke but Ringo Starr, that is because the legendary musician lent his voice to the role of narrator for the VHS and DVD releases for The Point. It is a delightful animated movie that we have watched after closing down the arcade on many a night in the past, if you have not had the pleasure of watching the film for yourself I cannot recommend it highly enough.
A little over a year after that animated film premiered, it turns out that Harry Nilsson took part in a special for the BBC entitled The Music of Nilsson, which was presented as one of the In Concert series. Recorded in ’71 but not released until New Year’s Day of 1972, the special allowed Nilsson to perform the likes of “Mr. Richland’s Favorite Song“, “One“, “Gotta Get Up“, and “Coconut” among others. Smarter folks than myself have correctly observed that for the taping of “Coconut“, Nilsson is quite obviously making a nod to the popular sketch comedy act The Nairobi Trio as featured on The Ernie Kovacs Show.
“Coconut” was one of ten songs featured on the 1971 studio album Nilsson Schmilsson, and marked the third single to be released for the LP the following year. The song managed to nab Billboard‘s #66 spot for the top songs released in ’72 and has gone on to be featured in the likes of Reservoir Dogs, The Addams Family, and Hey Arnold!: The Movie.
Friends, I hope you won’t mind too much if we start off our Halloween 2020 celebration here on the PCR site – by sharing yet another piece of television history that features Vincent Price. The other evening we had the opportunity to enjoy the legendary Price as host of The Horror Hall of Fame from back in 1974. Today we are going to offer up a brief interview from the popular BBC talk show entitled Parkinson, as the host was Sir Michael Parkinson, with not just Price but Wilfrid Hyde-White (Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) as well. The interview itself is barely over four minutes long – but right at the beginning Parkinson makes mention of appearing with Price previously in a film – that happens to be 1974’s Madhouse.
It might not surprise you to learn that Parkinson portrayed a television interviewer in Madhouse – although it was a tiny role it should be pointed out that he had a bigger part in the iconic UK TV movie entitled Ghostwatch. Originally airing on Halloween night 28 years ago – while having been filmed it was aired as if it was live – an investigation of poltergeist activity in a home located in Greater London. It is a surprisingly effective bit of horror – especially if you keep in mind that audiences thought they were seeing a live news program – one that initially isn’t taking itself seriously and then things spiral out of control… the end really sticks with you. Even though the beginning of the program plainly stated it was written by Stephen Volk (The Awakening) – many people were ‘tricked’ into believing it was real – it has been said that the BBC had 30,000 phone calls from frightened and angry people after the program was aired. For ten years it wasn’t allowed to be shown again in fear that it might frighten viewers once again.
This 1976 interview Sir Michael Parkinson allows Vincent Price to showcase his talents as a natural raconteur – sharing some amusing anecdotes about his career in the horror genre and even being mistaken for Boris Karloff!
Former Kids of a Certain Age will have no problem remembering the haunting 1977 TV series Children Of The Stones, a single-season paranormal epic whose theme song alone was enough to scare the faint-of-heart away from their TV screens. And even though it was made in the UK, American kids got their own dose of the show via Nickelodeon’s “The Third Eye” programming block in the early 1980s. In fact, we’ve even profiled the show on Pop Culture Retrorama before.
And now, just in time for Halloween, it’s back – but in a decidedly more modern form.
BBC Radio 4 has revived Children Of The Stones as a brand new radio drama formatted as a podcast with each episode lasting anywhere from ten to twenty minutes. The basic story outline – newcomers to the quaint town of Milbury find that there’s something sinister with the townsfolks’ constant pursuit of happiness – remains the same. The characters and details, however, have gotten a modern makeover. The story now centers on young Mia Brake (Matthew in the original TV series), a wanna-be paranormal podcaster who decides that the mystery of Milbury could make her show a breakout hit. She doesn’t find out until too late that investigating that mystery could make her a threat to somebody’s plans…
The complete story – told in seven 25-minute episodes in the original TV incarnation of the tale – now takes up 10 episodes in this new audio iteration, and all ten are free to listen on Radio 4’s website (at least while supplies last). If you’re looking for a good scare between your ears, this latest generation of Children Of The Stones is a treat.
Or colourful, if that’s how you spell things. But there’s quite a saga behind these Daleks.
It seems like just yesterday that I was writing about both Daleks and upcoming Doctor Who action figures, though they didn’t exactly arrive right on schedule (but this being 2020, does anything happen as planned or on schedule?)…and now there’s another set.
But this one is really cool – if you know what details to look for. This is definitely a product that falls under the heading of “deep-cut fanservice”.
In 1965, the first Peter Cushing Doctor Who movie was filmed – the first appearance of the Daleks in color, or in a medium other than television. Faced with the prospect of seeing the Daleks in full color, the movie’s designers faithfully echoed the Dalek design already established by the BBC, with some minor modifications to make them more suitable villains for the big screen. (Raymond Cusick, the designer who ended up with the task of designing the Daleks for their first appearance on TV in 1963 when a fellow BBC designer fell ill*, later claimed he was paid a grand total of ₤5 for the use of his design on film.)
The movie Daleks had bigger speaker lights – the lights on the Daleks’ heads which flash in synchronization with that Dalek’s voice – and a larger base concealing larger, all-terrain wheels needed because the movie Daleks were filmed on terrain more varied than a smooth studio floor. And the Dalek color scheme was completely thrown out for the big screen, with some fairly flamboyant color schemes being chosen to take advantage of color film. Some of them had large mechanical claws instead of sink plungers.
But the two Cushing movies – Dr. Who And The Daleks and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. – were not made by the BBC. While the rights to the Doctor, the TARDIS, and other characters had to be obtained from the BBC, and the rights to the Daleks negotiated with their creator, writer Terry Nation, with a payment (apparently a very small one) to Cusick for the design, the rights to the movies these days rest with Studio Canal+; any merchandise from the movies, including their “enhanced” Daleks, has to be negotiated with that entity. (Fun fact: for the 50th anniversary episode Day Of The Doctor, then-showrunner Steven Moffat originally planned to have the then-current Doctor, Matt Smith, walk past the theatrical one-sheet posters for the Cushing movies in UNIT’s archives, with an on-screen explanation that the Cushing movies were part of a cover story to convince the public that a Dalek invasion attempt was simply part of a film. This scene had to be abandoned, because Studio Canal+ wanted too much money for those two posters to be seen on TV.)
So: it’s a given that Studio Canal+ wants top dollar for any use of any element – any element at all – from the Cushing Doctor Who movies. But…maybe there’s a way around that for some of those elements.
This is where it gets interesting. The BBC rented some of the movie Daleks, fresh from the filming of the first Cushing film, and put them in the background of scenes for the television story The Chase, which would – due to the difference in the time needed for film post-production vs. TV post-production – be broadcast beforeDr. Who And The Daleks premiered in cinemas. The movie Daleks were used in the background of some scenes on TV, some with their taller bases removed (but not all), with sink plunger arms instead of the movie’s “claws”, thus grandfathering them in as part of the TV series – and therefore fair game for Character Options’ action figure line. Holy legal loophole of the Daleks!
The Doctor Who “The Chase: Jungles Of Mechanus” action figure set brings two of the colorful movie-Daleks-on-loan-to-the-TV-series to our toy shelves, complete with their movie color scheme (which, of course, couldn’t be seen on black & white TV). Sure, they were in the background of only a few scenes of two episodes of a six-part story. But this is the Character Options Doctor Who line – pretty much the British equivalent of the original Kenner Star Wars figure line – so even a Dalek variation glimpsed fleetingly in the background is worthy of an action figure.
Does this mean that this incredible toy line, which has already given us figures of every Doctor from William Hartnell through Jodie Whittaker, is about to jump into the parallel universe of the unconnected-from-the-TV-series-in-any-way movies, to bring Peter Cushing’s oddball, non-canonical Doctor Who to our toy shelves? Sadly, probably not. While any of the TV Doctors – and, more recently, their best-known companions – can be assured of selling well in action figure form, the Peter Cushing version of Doctor Who… is a decidedly niche bit of Doctor Who history whose owners think it should command top dollar.
Perhaps someday, some sea change will bring Peter Cushing as Doctor Who to toy shelves, but in the meantime, the Daleks who menaced him on the silver screen have escaped through a legal loophole to terrorize your other action figures – at least for a limited time, since Character Options has made it clear that these figures can only be ordered within a certain narrow window of time.
With Star Trek and now reportedly The X-Files bucking the live-action production shutdown by going animated, could the universe of Doctor Who be far behind?
Animation is already proving to be the salvation of Doctor Who’s past, and there have been past instances where it was part of the show’s present (such as the animated adventures The Infinite Quest and Dreamland, both of which starred the show’s then-current star, David Tennant). But with prodution of live-action shows remaining shut down in most parts of the world, the makers of Doctor Who should be giving animation a serious look yet again.
The makers of audio Doctor Who certainly are. Big Finish, makers of Doctor Who in audiobook and audio drama form for over 20 years, is rising to the occasion with the announcement of an upcoming five-part animated miniseries, simply titled Daleks!, premiering in November. Nicholas Briggs, who has been voicing the Daleks since 2000 for Big Finish and on TV for the BBC since 2005, will naturally be reprising the role of every Dalek in the universe.
Briggs will not be the only familiar voice, however. Anjli Mohindra, a former star of the Doctor Who spinoff series, The Sarah Jane Adventures, has signed on as well. Joe Sugg and Ayesha Antoine have also provided voice work for the series.
Daleks! will be part of the Time Lord Victorious story strand that will be unfolding through 2021 across numerous media; think of Time Lord Victorious as Doctor Who’s answer to the Star Wars: Shadows Of The Empire transmedia experiment. Without a current TV series, Time Lord Victorious – a storyline spanning all of the Doctors from the modern Doctor Who series – will play out in comics, novels, and Big Finish’s own audio dramas. And, of course, there’ll be merch – brace yourself for the pre-requisite Time Lord Victorious figurines, games, and other goodies.
Daleks!, however, will be viewable for free on YouTube, starting in November – a much-needed boost for Doctor Who fans worried about the fact that the live-action show won’t be shooting new episodes anytime soon.
A classic Doctor Who story whose original video footage has been lost to time resurfaces from the depths in animated form.
Originally aired in six weekly episodes from March through April, 1968, the Doctor Who story Fury From The Deep hails from the original show’s fifth season, forever enshrined by fandom as “the monster season” – a stretch of the show that was bookended by two Cybermen stories, included two battles with the Yeti and the Great Intelligence, and introduced the Ice Warriors.
And then there was Fury From The Deep, which introduced its own monster in the form of a malignant species of seaweed that could take over human bodies to do its bidding on dry land.
In many ways, Fury hews closely to the traditional trope of the Doctor Who “base-under-siege” story, a frequent-flyer story outline of the time (and one that continues to crop up even in modern Doctor Who) that makes a virtue of production economy: if the characters are stuck in one place with danger encroaching from outside, you don’t have to build many sets, and you get to concentrate instead on casting some decent guest stars who can ratchet up the tension. But perhaps more than anything else in the show’s fifth season, Fury From The Deep is a little six-part horror film unto itself.
And, of course, like many a great B&W Doctor Who story, it’s missing from the BBC archives. There are a handful of surviving clips (literally found on the cutting room floor where they were left when censors at the Australian network that bought Doctor Who in syndication felt that some scenes were simply too much for audiences down under). Those clips…amount to less than five minutes. Here is literally all that’s left of Fury From The Deep.
The rest of the story is gone – which not only deprives us of one of the fifth season’s most disturbing installments, but also deprives us of the departure of Victoria Waterfield, a companion from Earth’s past who traveled with the Doctor for this season only. Played by Deborah Watling, Victoria is a companion seriously impacted by the BBC’s practice of wiping “old shows” for which it saw no future use (keep in mind that, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there was no home video market to give already-broadcast TV an afterlife). At one point, the only surviving record of Watling’s season on the show was the season opener, Tomb Of The Cybermen, which itself was once considered lost forever until tapes were recovered in 1992. Since then, The Enemy Of The World and all but one episode of The Web Of Fear, both of them six-part stories, miraculously resurfaced in north Africa in 2013, while four episodes of the six-part The Ice Warriors have also been recovered. Fury From The Deep is Victoria’s (and Watling’s) exit from the series.
Previously, Fury From The Deep was available in audio form – a 1990s cassette release narrated by Tom Baker (in character as the fourth Doctor relating a story from one of his previous lives), and remastered for CD release in the 2000s with new third-person narration by Frazer Hines (who played TARDIS traveler Jamie McCrimmon in the original story). But now the BBC is reviving the entire story, in animated form, on DVD and Blu-Ray.
The BBC has animated several classic Patrick Troughton stories already, either in their entirety to revive stories almost completely lost from the archives (The Macra Terror, The Faceless Ones, The Underwater Menace, and Troughton’s first appearance as the Doctor, Power Of The Daleks), or in hybrid releases with some existing surviving episodes and animated episodes taking the place of lost material (The Invasion, The Moonbase, The Reign Of Terror). Though the animation is sometimes about as limited as early ’70s Filmation animation, original production photos and directorial notes are consulted to make the results as faithful to the original missing episodes as possible.
Reanimating the episodes from scratch also handily solves the problem of the fact that the original footage wasn’t shot in anything remotely resembling high definition; as usual, both color and B&W versions of the animated episodes are included. The three-disc package also has audio commentaries, and features on the making of both the original 1968 story and its 21st century animated revival.
Speaking of 21st century revivals…do Mr. Oak and Mr. Quill (in the first YouTube clip included in this article) remind you of something or someone from a much more recent episode? Maybe they should…
Though no one on screen ever makes the connection, I wonder if one can’t connect the dots and assume that the deadly “alien” seaweed from Fury Of The Deep might be ordinary Earthly seaweed that somehow came into contact with The Waters Of Mars?
Perhaps the bonus features on the new release of Fury From The Deep can shed some light on this? Fury is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK on September 14th; a North American release date has not been announced yet.
Part one of a brief history of one of the BBC’s best sci-fi TV exports – a show so influential that it started the sea change that has washed over all of TV sci-fi today.
Terry Nation, like it or not, was a former comedy writer now forever pigeonholed as a science fiction writer. His first TV sci-fi script, for a 1962 episode of the ABC (as in Associated British Corporation, not American Broadcasting Corporation) anthology series Out Of The Unknown, was a half-hour adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story; a year later, after being fired from his regular joke-writing gig for TV comedian Tony Hancock, Nation turned in desperation to Doctor Who…and the result was the Daleks, a very merchandisable menace that made Nation a very rich man. Desperation, as it turns out, was a pretty good source of inspiration.
In 1975, Nation had already left his latest creation, the harrowing BBC pandemic series Survivors, over constant disputes with the producer assigned to the show, Terrance Dudley. Nation was content to keep earning royalties from having created the series, but left it behind for Dudley to run as he saw fit, tired of a full season’s worth of behind-the-scenes tug-of-war. In September, though, Nation was due back in the offices of the BBC brass, where he was expected to pitch more ideas for more shows, since he was no longer involved with Survivors on a day-to-day basis.
And once again out of desperation, Nation rattled off a story outline involving a group of criminals in a powerful spacecraft of unknown origin, taking arms against a fascist Earth government that wanted them dead. Forced together by circumstance, the characters wouldn’t necessarily get along on either the macro (ideological) or micro (this week’s plotline) scale. Pressed for further details, Nation – who was tap-dancing for his future writing career – said that the show was called Blake’s 7, and that it would be something like “The Dirty Dozen in space.”
If anyone else had made such an off-the-top-of-their-head pitch, there might have been some polite glances around the table before they were shown out. But this was Terry Nation. The Dalek guy. The Survivors guy. Give that man a series order!
But also give him the Monday night time slot that had already claimed the life of the police drama Softly, Softly Task Force, and only give him the same budget as the police drama with which to make a powerful spacecraft of unknown origin. No problem, right? This is Terry Nation. He’ll make it work.
As work progressed on the show, Nation ended up mostly-writing all thirteen of the first season’s script – or at least that’s what the on-screen credits would reflect. The truth is a bit more complicated: writer Chris Boucher, who had created the popular character of Leela in a well-regarded 1977 Doctor Who story, was hired to serve as Blake’s 7’s script editor, and often found himself “filling out” somewhat skeletal scripts that Nation started…but didn’t quite finish.
Nation’s dark futuristic dystopia was taking shape, however: Roj Blake, a former revolutionary subjected to a mind-wipe after being captured, breaks through the blocks placed in his memory when he witnesses a massacre of Federation citizens gathering to discuss a simple campaign of civil disobedience. Upon learning that Blake is again becoming dangerous, the Federation whips up some false charges as an excuse to send him to the prison planet Cygnus Alpha for the rest of his life, where the population of common criminals will probably dispatch him more effectively – and less publicly – than a Federation firing squad would. As a prison ship is taking Blake and a number of other convicts to Cygnus Alpha, the ship encounters the remnants of a space battle, including a massive ship that isn’t the product of Earth technology. The prison ship’s captain sees an opportunity to rake in a salvage free that would make him rich enough to never have to fly a prison ship again…but the first two members of his crew sent to board the derelict die horribly. Solution? Send prisoners to board the ship, at gunpoint. Blake, convicted smuggler Jenna Stannis, and Kerr Avon, a brilliant but utterly amoral computer hacker busted in the midst of a daring attempt to defraud the Federation banking system to the point of collapse, are sent to find out what happened to the previous boarding party, only to encounter an automatic defense system that uses their own memories against them – as it did the two dead prison ship guards. But Blake, all too aware pf his recent discovery that some of his memories were implanted, sees through the mind tricks and disables the automatic defense system. After a short firefight with the prison ship’s first officer, Blake closes off the airlock, and Jenna – an ace pilot – is able to take control of the unknown ship. Naming it the Liberator, they now have a weapon with which to fight back and free their fellow prisoners.
This all unfolds across the first three episodes, which points out the major sea change in sci-fi storytelling that Blake’s 7 truly represents: this was the first live-action sci-fi series to carry storylines across an entire season, building up to something bigger. Beginning with shows such as Babylon 5 and Buffy in the ’90s, and carrying through to 21st century series such as Battlestar Galactica, Lost, and virtually everything that’s come down the pike since Battlestar Galactica or Lost, this is a perfectly normal thing to expect a science fiction show on TV to do.
They all do it now. Blake’s 7 was the first. (For the record, J. Michael Straczynski, creator of Babylon 5, owns up to being a Blake’s 7 fan and admits that it’s an influence on Babylon 5.)
Later first-season episodes introduce the scheming, politically ambitious Federation Supreme Commander Servalan, who dispatches the ruthless Space Commander Travis – permanently disfigured in a battle with Blake during Blake’s earlier rebellion – to bring Blake and crew in, dead or alive. The end of the first season builds up to a race between the Liberator crew and the Servalan/Travis team to acquire a rumored supercomputer supposedly capable of accessing any system in the Federation; that adventure sees the Liberator crew walk away with the prize, a temperamental machine called Orac, but then leads into the equally surprising revelation of the cyborg-like builders/owners of the Liberator. Season 2 sees a build-up to the discovery of a top-secret hidden installation from which the entire Federation computer network is controlled, affecting everything from space traffic to climate control on hundreds of planets. If only Orac could be plugged into that…
Doctor Who was doing multi-part stories from its very first season, but each four-or-six-or-seven-part story within each season tended to exist in isolation, with occasional scenes to tie one story into the next added by that series’ story editor. Blake’s 7 was consciously constructed to tell a story on a larger canvas, though this happened haphazardly at times, especially once Nation once again left his creation, this time to seek his fortunes in the United States. A Nation script initiated the second season of Blake’s 7, but a script credited entirely to Chris Boucher ended that season. Blake’s 7 also introduced the Massive End-Of-Season Cliffhanger that’s practically expected of any series in the genre today.
Another innovation Blake’s 7 brought to small-screen sci-fi was its morally ambiguous characters. Avon makes little secret of the fact that he’d very much like to ditch Blake and keep the Liberator for himself; several of Blake’s comrades mention more than once that they’d prefer hiding out to taking on the Federation in direct combat. After two seasons of fighting the Federation, even Blake himself has cause to question whether he’s a freedom fighter, or just the terrorist that the wanted posters say he is (this element – our heroes being considered terrorists – is probably the one thing that has kept Blake’s 7 from being remade/rebooted in a post-9/11 world). In the second season, not in the cliffhanger but much earlier, one of Blake’s crew dies tragically, the victim not just of their Federation pursuers, but also of the fact that Blake just didn’t plan things out very well. The rest of the crew has to stop and consider if Blake is who they should be following.
The cast was impressive; Gareth Thomas, late of Star Maidens and Children Of The Stones, brought real moral heft to Blake’s obsessive quest for justice, while Paul Darrow made his career with Avon’s never-ending displays of dry wit and ruthlessness. Since Avon wasn’t the hero of the piece, he was allowed to be even more morally ambiguous than Blake, and in some ways become the more interesting character by default. Darrow’s fame relied on this; Gareth Thomas noticed it too, and, already worried about typecasting, declined to renew his contract after the second season aired in 1979. This wasn’t entirely unprecedented – after making an incredible impression as Travis in season one, Stephen Grief bowed out as Travis, who was recast in the form of Brian Croucher, an actor to whom fandom hasn’t been entirely kind in retrospect, despite being handed the unenviable task of recreating a fan favorite.
But you couldn’t have a show called Blake’s 7 without Blake, could you?
In the best Blake’s 7 tradition, I’ll just say…to be continued.
A couple of years before Moonbase Alpha, there was Moonbase 3 – the BBC’s attempt to mine the sci-fi genre for more “grown-up” stories.
News flash: the producers behind Doctor Who are going to launch their own original science fiction series, and they’re going to try to tell more nuanced, adult stories, and the show will launch between seasons of Doctor Who!
So, this is about Torchwood, right? Not quite. That news flash was equally applicable to 1973, as Doctor Who producer Barry Letts and script editor Terrance Dicks prepared to launch their own side project on BBC1, Moonbase 3. The BBC had approached them, on the basis of their success with the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who (and on the basis of their transforming that show into something that tackled real world issues through a sci-fi lens), with the opportunity to explore the genre in a way that wouldn’t fit in Doctor Who’s more consciously kid-friendly format.
Unlike Torchwood, however, Moonbase 3 was not set in the Doctor Who universe (though technically, there really isn’t anything that explicitly rules that out either – there you go, fanfic writers, the starting gun has fired). It was set in the year 2003, which was far enough in the future from 1973 that surely we would have moonbases – you know, on the moon! – as well as travel to and from the moon that’s close enough to routine that people on those moonbases are no longer too concerned about day-to-day survival and are relaxed enough to fret over things like their career trajectories.
Moonbase 3 is run by Europe (Moonbases 1 and 2 are, respectively, operated by the United States and Russia), with characters representing several European countries. Their British administrator is tragically killed in an accident involving a routine rocket flight to Earth and an overworked, stressed-out pilot who shouldn’t have been in the flight rotation to begin with. Thus begins the search for a new chief administrator of Moonbase 3, and the controversial choice of Welshman David Caulder (Donald Houston) doesn’t sit well with those on Moonbase 3 – especially Frenchman Michel Lebrun (Ralph Bates), who hoped to get the promotion to that office himself.
Once Caulder is in the office, however, he orchestrates a jarring demonstration of what happened that led to his predecessor’s demise: the Moonbase’s highest-ranking officers have become so complacent that they don’t actually care about their jobs anymore, and as such didn’t flag down the late pilot for his readily observable behavior before it got him (and his boss) killed. By deliberately engineering a situation in which those same high-ranking officers have to rely on one another to survive, Caulder forces them to care…and then leave it up to them if they’re going to stay in their jobs and give a damn this time, or go back to Earth in disgrace. Lebrun, head astronaut Tom Hill (Barry Lowe), and Moonbase 3 counselor Helen Smith (Fiona Gaunt), believing their lives are in danger, do proceed to care… and even once the ruse is revealed, they now know their new boss means business. (Helen Smith, by the way, might just be the first series-regular sci-fi TV space shrink in the history of the genre, 14 years before Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Counselor Troi.)
And that’s just the pilot. The five episodes that follow continue exploring the pressure-cooker environment of being stuck in close, enclosed quarters with the same people, day-in and day-out, in a place that’s still so far away that they can’t just go home. A potential major scientific discovery starts a rumor that picks up steam – as well as amendments that were as incorrect as the original rumor – as it works its way through all of the moonbase’s personnel. A debate begins over whether or not Moonbase 3’s science division needs to produce results that could potentially generate revenue. An international space mission goes awry, ratcheting up tensions between the various nations who have bases on the moon.
In the final episode, because you want to end the season on a feel-good note, an experiment conducted in Earth’s upper atmosphere causes the atmosphere to go completely opaque, cutting off communications and leading those on Moonbase 3 to believe that all life on that planet has been wiped out, leading to a breakdown of discipline and morale so severe that Caulder considers venting Moonbase 3’s atmosphere into space slowly, which would euthanize the entire crew gently since no further supplies will be coming from Earth and they may all be doomed anyway as a result. To put it politely, the tone of Moonbase 3 is grim – perhaps too grim for the already bleak early 1970s, which saw the western world grappling with energy shortages and other sources of international tension.
Terrance Dicks, especially, realized that this was a failing of the show; neither he now Letts were necessarily surprised when the BBC declined to extend the life span of the series beyond its six-episode first season. But the two did make note of what did work: numerous cast members, as well as some of the more interestingly futuristic-looking bits of the show’s sets, would crop up in the next season of Doctor Who (which was also the last for Letts and Dicks before they, too, moved on to make way for the production crew that would take over the show along with Tom Baker).
Moonbase 3 was actually a very early example of an international co-production; the above-average-for-1973 model work was made possible by a financial infusion from 20th Century Fox, who in turn was granted the rights to sell the show to an American network (in this case ABC, which aired the series in a quickly-forgotten late-night slot). It’s that unlikely international connection that made it possible to release the series on DVD in the real 21st century: the BBC did not retain the original tapes of Moonbase 3, and the show was generally considered “lost” until copies converted to the NTSC video system were found in the vaults in the U.S., suddenly making the entire series a thing that could be viewed and released again. (Terrance Dicks’ memories of Moonbase 3 were obviously fond, as it’s often said that his reaction, upon being informed that Moonbase 3 could be back in circulation again, was to blurt “oh sh*t!”)
In hindsight, the bleakness of the show really does work against it; Moonbase 3 is better in small doses, as a binge-watch would probably bring on existential despair. (Interestingly, the sometimes-equally-dreary Harlan Ellison series The Starlost was on the air at roughly the same time, resulting in a kind of sci-fi despair-o-vision.) But the issues examined in the stories are ripe for exploration…and could probably still be explored in a better show, one not as bogged down by the stagey shouty-ness that was the death knell of more than one British drama in the ’70s. Moonbase 3 had the right cast and crew on board, and a set of scripts that took things perhaps too seriously.
Friends, a couple of days ago I shared that 1963 interview with Ian Fleming – part of the BBC Desert Island Discs radio series. Back when I had the honor of writing for the Retroist I had talked about how I came to be a fan of the James Bond films and books rather late – with Roger Moore being the first actor I saw in the role of 007 in Moonraker, which I caught at the local Drive-In back on June 29th of 1979. It wouldn’t be until much later until I actually saw Sean Connery in the role of James Bond – my love of his work came from films like Darby O’Gill and the Little People, The Man Who Would Be King, Outland, and of course Highlander. One of my best friends, who it is safe to say was a bigger 007 fan than myself, was taken aback over dinner when he learned I had never seen a James Bond film with Connery – in fact after we had scarfed down our portions of pizza he demanded we hit the local Blockbuster to rent Dr. No. That was how certain he was that I was going to flip out over the Sean Connery version of the character – he was totally right too.
Afterwards I dove straight into the books and films of 007 – Sean Connery became my favorite actor to portray James Bond for the longest time – with George Lazenby a close second and then followed by Dalton and Moore. I will admit that list was immediately altered when I watched Casino Royale in 2006 – Daniel Craig in his first outing reminded me a lot of what I love about the character from Fleming’s novels.
It has been said that both Harry Saltzman as well as Albert R. Broccoli, the Producers for Dr. No, had considered the possibility that Cary Grant (His Girl Friday, North by Northwest) could play 007. That did not come to be as Grant would only agree to play the part in a single film – which would knock the idea of a franchise into a cocked hat – then there was the matter of his age. Other actors up for the role of 007 in Dr. No include David Niven and Patrick McGoohan (The Prisoner) – the latter would have absolutely killed in the role although he was very much against the casual violence of Bond.
Did you know though that Burt Reynolds was approached to play 007 in Diamonds Are Forever – it has been said he refused the part as he felt the character needed to be British and he wouldn’t be able to pull off the accent. Thanks to this Deepfake video however we can see what it would have looked like if Reynolds had been able to star in Dr. No – with Connery’s voice no less.
It’s hard to pull off an original police drama. It’s hard to pull off an original science fiction series. This is the story of a show that attempted to do both.
Space police. Everyone foresees the need for them, and numerous writers in numerous media have tried to extrapolate the distant future of crimefighting, from Minority Report to Gerry Anderson to David E. Kelley.
The TV attempt that may have gotten it closest to right appeared and disappeared on BBC in the summer of 1987.
The late ’80s were not fertile ground for new sci-fi at the BBC. Following the behind-the-scenes debacles that marred Colin Baker’s stint as Doctor Who, Baker had been unfairly scapegoated and dismissed from the role; his successor, Sylvester McCoy, did not have an easy job ahead of him in trying to improve that show’s fortunes. Red Dwarf was in development for an early 1988 premiere, but it wasn’t drama; it was a comedy entrusted to the BBC’s Light Entertainment department.
And then there was Star Cops. Devised by former Blake’s 7 script editor Chris Boucher, it was an attempt to take a serious look at what crimes might lay ahead in the near future – a few decades down the road – that are nearly unimaginable now, and how a small but dedicated group of law enforcement officers whose jurisdiction reached at least as far as the moon would deal with those crimes (and the criminals perpetrating them).
Boucher definitely had the chops for this oft-tried and oft-failed collision of genres. By many accounts, Boucher was the writer most responsible for the BBC’s storied late ’70s/early ’80s space opera Blake’s 7; series creator Terry Nation would frequently turn in scripts that were more like outlines, which Boucher frequently had to “fill out” with actual dialogue and character interactions. But Boucher had also worked on two popular UK crime dramas, Bergerac and Shoestring, so he had ample experience working crime and crimefighting into his stories.
Populating the show was a variety of characters, including middle-aged, straight-arrow police veteran Nathan Spring, played by David Calder. Calder wasn’t a typical leading man; far from being a spandex-clad space hero, Calder’s character was balding, had a bit of a paunch, and was really looking forward to an earthbound retirement. The pilot episode’s seemingly uncrackable case (and rising body count) changes Spring’s mind, and sets his career on a trajectory for deep space.
Backing Spring up was Colin Devis (Trevor Cooper), an abrasive, sexist, racist cop whose personality had nearly cost him his badge numerous times, but whose crimefighting instincts had kept him from ever being relieved of it. David Theroux, a street-smart NYPD veteran, was played by African-American actor Erick Ray Evans (1945-1999), who emigrated to the UK in the early ’80. Australian actress Linda Newton played Pal Kenzy, who, like Devis, had a personality often at odds with her career momentum. None of the Star Cops were perfect, and sometimes they barely worked as a unit, part of Boucher’s attempt to portray a grittier, more realistic future police force.
But Boucher made, by his own admission, one major mistake in selling Star Cops to the BBC: he wanted to be the show’s writer, not its producer. The role of producer fell to a producer already on the BBC payroll, Evegny Gridneff, who had very different ideas from any plans Boucher might be developing for his own show. Gridneff added characters that weren’t part of Boucher’s plans (over the objections of the show’s creator), and made other unexpected executive decisions, such as commissioning Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues to write and perform a theme song that seemed only tenuously related to the show.
BBC Music was able to market a single of Hayward’s Tony-Visconti-produced song, which sounded an awful lot like an outtake from the Moody Blues’ 1988 Sur La Mer album, but beyond the second episode – which brutally dispensed with the character of Nathan Spring’s girlfriend – the song didn’t really connect to the show at any two points without that relationship dynamic. Philip Martin (creator and writer of the stylish ’70s UK crime series Gangsters), and John Collee (future writer of Master And Commander: The Far Side Of The World and Happy Feet) were recruited to write scripts alongside Boucher. (Like Boucher, who had written a couple of well-regarded Tom Baker-era Doctor Who stories, including the one which introduced popular companion Leela, Martin had written for Doctor Who, but much more recently, introducing the slimy recurring villain Sil.)
Star Cops “exterior” space scenes were actually of a very high-quality for their era, created by the same in-house BBC effects team that had wowed audiences with the season-opening shot of a massive Time Lord space station for 1986’s Doctor Who season premiere; the same team would go on to create the above-average slow flybys of Red Dwarf for that series. Apollo and Skylab-era NASA astronauts served as technical advisors to the show, offering suggestions about zero-gravity scenes in particular.
Star Cops only lasted nine episodes.
The battle behind the scenes for control over the direction of the show took their toll, noticed by cast and crew alike. Boucher was a big fan of director Graeme Harper, who had made a name for himself directing two much-loved, hard-edged Doctor Who stories in recent years (one of which was Peter Davison’s final TARDIS trip); Harper favored darker, more realistic lighting, which worked well on a film but was a challenge for the BBC’s policy of shooting studio scenes on video. By contrast, Evegny Gridneff favored director Christopher Baker, who tended to light scenes much more brightly, creating a visual feel for Star Cops that swung wildly from one extreme to the other on a week-by-week basis.
Gridneff had also injected an entirely new regular character, Dr. Anna Shoun, played by Sayo Inaba, over Boucher’s objections. In an interview in the fantastic early 2000s series The Cult Of…, David Calder talks about the tension between the creator of the show and the man entrusted with shepherding the show to air as being palpable.
Even though the final episode of the first season dangles tantalizing hints of the Star Cops needing to extend their reach as far as Mars, Star Cops would not be continuing. Boucher asked the BBC to assign a new producer to the show, and voluntarily brought his own creation to an end when the BBC wouldn’t budge. Star Cops could have become a new science fiction franchise for the BBC – one could envision new branches and new spinoffs appearing as the human race continued to explore and colonize (and commit crimes in) the entire solar system, but it was not to be.
Other shows have attempted to mine the same subject matter with wildly varying results; at one point, David E. Kelley was deep into developing a series for American television with a somewhat similar idea, but that show never made it to air. Gerry Anderson took a much more camp approach to the subject matter with a 1989 pilot called Space Police, which underwent massive reworking before finally reaching airwaves as the internationally syndicated series Space Precinct in the early ’90s, though that show’s odd tone kept it from surviving the early ’90s syndicated sci-fi glut that followed the success of Star Trek: The Next Generation. No matter who has tried their hand at the concept, nothing has appeared that was as smart or as instantly addictive as Star Cops.
Big Finish Productions has, thankfully, called the Star Cops back into action in audio form in this century, reuniting as many of the surviving cast members as possible, and adding new recruits to their ranks, and fulfilling the promise of the original series’ hints that the Star Cops would be patrolling Mars. (Big Finish did not, however, adopt the much-derided Justin Hayward theme music, leaving it to compete with the theme from Star Trek: Enterprise for the coveted title of most-misunderstood sci-fi TV theme song.)