An Appreciation of the Tom Baker Era (Part 1)

Fourth_Doctor_androidTom Baker portrayed the Doctor for seven years, the longest run of any of the actors who played the part on television. Originated by William Hartnell, refined by Patrick Troughton and played with class by Jon Pertwee, it is Baker’s take — and look — that would come to be the definitive version of the character. But like the previous actors, this performance was not shaped in a vacuum and its success is due in equal measure to Baker, incoming producer Philip Hinchcliffe and script editor Robert Holmes. Oh, and I suppose some shout-outs should be given to outgoing producer Barry Letts, script editor Terrence Dicks and Bill Slater, the de-facto executive producer of the show at the time.

Which takes us back to Pertwee’s final year. With the key production people leaving, the BBC brought on Philip Hinchcliffe to shadow Letts and learn the ins and outs of the show. Meanwhile, Letts began looking for an actor to replace Pertwee as the final recording of the season would be the incoming Doctor’s first outing.

At the same time, down-on-his-luck actor Tom Baker had trouble landing parts and was working on a construction site when he wrote a letter to Bill Slater asking for work. Slater was the head of serials at the BBC and, for the purposes of this story, the executive in charge of Doctor Who‘s production. Slater previously suggested Elizabeth Sladden to Letts as the Doctor’s new assistant and, seeing Baker’s note, suggested him as well. The producer recalls taking it under advisement and scheduling a meeting with the tall, odd man. Following the meeting, Letts and Dicks went to see a film Baker managed to land — The Golden Voyage of Sindbad — and were convinced he was right for the part.

Granted, it wasn’t the part of Letts originally envisioned.

After five years of Pertwee’s athletic, action-oriented Doctor, the production team thought they might return to an older, Hartnell-esque persona. Baker’s chops and personality swayed the plan and it would be the key element, along with companion Sarah Jane Smith, Hinchcliffe inherited when he took over the next year.

Meanwhile, Dicks found a replacement in his favorite freelance writer, Robert Holmes. Holmes delivered some of the most memorable stories of the Third Doctor era, including Pertwee’s first, “Spearhead from Space” and its quasi-sequel, “Terror of the Autons.” Dicks also arranged for Holmes to commission him as the writer of the first Baker era story. Dicks recalled writing the Doctor as particularly erratic following his regeneration and assumed it would mellow out as time went on, but it meshed well with Baker’s personality and never really mellowed.

As seen in this first adventure, “Robot”, the Fourth Doctor emerges from a troubled regeneration anxious to leave Earth. He is swayed only by the passing memory of his friends, Sarah Jane Smith and Brigadier Alistair Gordon Lethbridge-Stewart. They convince him to stick around and help investigate a number of strange robberies. But before they can begin, the Doctor assembles his new dress-sense.

The Fourth Doctor

The costume, like Baker himself, is immediately iconic. And though there would be refinements for both over the years, it is, even now, what people think of as Doctor Who.

We also see a Doctor far less refined than Pertwee. A man whose priorities seem at odds with the humans around him. Though still as gifted as he ever was, his manner appears scattered, verging on foolish. But his foolishness disarms his opponents as they discount the vagabond with an absurdly long scarf. While aloof, he still cares a great deal for Sarah Jane. The two actors had an immediate chemistry that served the characters well for the next two years, even if their first season featured a third traveler, UNIT medic Harry Sullivan, conceived of when Letts expected to cast a much older Doctor and rendered surplus with the casting of Baker.

Though, I will say Harry, as played by the late Ian Marter, did mix well with the group. It was just a shame there was never enough story to go around to keep him onboard. He would depart at the season’s end and make a one-off appearance the subsequent year.

That first year, Hinchcliffe and Holmes would work from stories commissioned by Letts. They would feature the return of the Daleks and Holmes’ Sontarans amongst new creatures like the Zygons and the Wirrn. Recalling the earliest days of the program, each story set up the following one; a device that would not return for six years following this brief experiment. While the stories themselves would not represent the material Hinchcliffe had in mind, they began to take on some of the darker, serious tones he and Holmes would infuse into their second year. The production also began to look more grand with the arrival of production designer Roger Murray-Leach. Once given the reigns fully, the show became parade of macabre stories with gothic production values and an increased emphasis on drama and tight plots. This also meant the violence increased.

Several of these stories are looked on as classics now, such as “The Brain of Morbius,” a riff on Frankenstein, a Mummy mystery called “The Pyramid of Mars” and “The Talons of Weng-Chiang,” a love letter to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that is looked upon as Holmes’ masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I don’t like “The Talons of Weng-Chaing.” I might go into greater length on that some day, but instead, I’d rather highlight a story that sees Baker, Hinchcliffe and Holmes at the peak of their skills and forever cements an important facet of the mythology: “The Deadly Assassin.”

Leaving Sarah Jane behind, the Doctor returns to Gallifrey (the name itself an invention of Holmes) to stop the assassination of the outgoing Lord President. It represents the first, full-scale exploration of Time Lord society and no one was better suited for the task than Holmes himself. Never a fan of the concept, he conceived of Gallifrey as a stagnant — and oddly American — society of be-robbed bureaucrats high on their own perceived power and invulnerability. Like some of the other stories of the era, it is a riff — however loosely — on an older story, “The Manchurian Candidate” in this case, but it is expertly told by Holmes, expertly executed by Hinchcliffe and his production team and expertly anchored by Baker, who goes companion-less for this story; a series first. The story also introduced the Seal of Rasslion, Rassilon himself, the Eye of Harmony, the High Counsel of Gallifrey and the recently negated notion of the 12 regenerations limit. But beyond all that, it’s just great mid-70s British television.

The villain was a disintegrating 13th Master at the end of his regeneration cycle.

The villain was a disintegrating 13th Master at the end of his regeneration cycle.

A cliffhanger from the story featuring the Doctor apparently drowning also got the production in trouble with a British watchdog group. The kerfuffle led to the BBC Director General apologizing and no doubt contributed to Hinchcliffe’s and Holmes’ decision to move on.

But first, they would continue on for a handful of stories in their format — sci-fi infused gothic retellings of great stories — before handing the show over to Graham Williams and a string of script editors hopelessly outclassed by Holmes (including one name that will surprise you in Part 2). The show would never see such cohesion again until the 2004 revival. Interestingly enough, both Russell T. Davies and Stephen Moffat point to the Letts/Dicks and Hinchcliffe/Holmes eras as their goalposts in terms of effective storytelling and production values.

Which, Graham Williams would erode, but that’s a story for another day.

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Yakmala: The Warrior and the Sorceress

“Add more muscles to the poster.” “David, you have the physique of a 50 year old pee wee soccer coach.” “I SAID MORE MUSCLES!”

One evening, I went over to a friend’s place for a movie night, and he said, “So, what do you want to watch? Sci-fi? Horror? Fantasy? Bad fantasy?” Any loyal reader knows exactly what I picked, and that was how I was introduced to The Warrior and the Sorceress, which is basically just Yo-Jimbo with David Carradine and a talking lizard.

Tagline: An age of mystery and magic… of swords and sorcery.

More Accurate Tagline: An age of fat guys and grunting lizards… of shin-kicks and inconvenience.

Guilty Party: Writer, director, producer, and auteur John C. Broderick. He’s only directed four movies and after this one, there’s over a decade gap. So the universe has a sense of justice after all.

Synopsis: Look, I can save everyone a ton of time here. This is Yo-Jimbo. Well, minus all the parts that made Yo-Jimbo one of the best movies ever made. Noted genius Dashiell Hammett wrote a story called Red Harvest which was adapted by other genius Akira Kurosawa into a badass samurai movie. Due to the simplicity of the plot and the iconic hero, it’s become the “Twist and Shout” of movies, namely that everyone covered it, and probably sometime in the ‘80s.

We open on two suns, because goddamn it, this movie is going to steal from everyone. We’re on one of those desert worlds that was super popular in the heyday of ‘80s fantasy, and like most, we have a wandering warrior. The credits list him as Kain, but he’s only ever called the Dark One, so that’s what I’m calling him. It’s David Carradine, rocking a wispy gray bowl cut, a space sword, and a cast on his left arm that the filmmakers are trying to pretend is a gauntlet.

He walks into a town situated — seriously, go watch Yo-Jimbo. It’s a million times better. Right, so there’s two warring factions, the one led by Zeg the Tyrant and the other by Bal Caz the… I don’t know. The Opposed to Cardio, I suppose. Zeg is a possibly British guy, who hangs out with the Captain of the Guard, a beefy dude who looks like he should be singing lead in a Journey cover band. I’m fairly certain these two are a couple. Then there’s Bal Caz, a tittering fat guy who takes advice from a lizard that talks exactly like a special needs gremlin. I am a hundred percent certain these two are a couple.

Here they are, getting their picture taken at a mall.

Zeg also has this topless woman, the titular (no pun intended) Sorceress, but she never does any magic. She just wanders around in different colored thongs. Maybe the locals think that’s what magic is?

The Dark One immediately starts working for both sides, you know, exactly like in Yo-Jimbo. He also has a pal in town, the Prelate, who might be the Sorceress’s father. It’s unclear. It’s implied that the Dark One is some kind of ancient jedi warrior from a fallen empire, and come on, guys. You seriously pitched this as Yo-Jimbo on Tattooine. You’re not even trying here. So the Dark One is kind of loyal to the Sorceress, but he hilariously makes her carry his gold when he breaks her out of the pokey.

Eventually, he presses his luck a little too far and Zeg’s guys kick the crap out of him. (They trap him with a four-breasted woman doing a strip tease, who also has a scorpion living in her vagina, and I swear to god, I made not a single word of that up.) Then there’s a big battle and Bal Caz dies (the lizard too), and everyone unites. That’s when Burgo the Slaver, who is this weird pig monster we’ve seen before, shows back up and enslaves everyone. I don’t know what it is with fantasy movies and pig monsters. I really don’t.

Then the Dark One, now wielding a new and better space sword, leads the villagers against Burgo. He kills them, then offs the Captain of the Guard (still miffed his boyfriend Zeg was killed). After that, it’s time to wander the desert some more, and hope that arm heals up. Casts are murder in the heat.

Life-Changing Subtext: Lawyers have no power here.

Defining Quote: Roughly 70% of the dialogue is people screaming, “AAAAAH! AAAAAH!” Sometimes it’s fear, sometimes happiness, sometimes denoting a deep ennui that only those who have experienced loss at the end of a bittersweet summer can truly understand.

Standout Performance: I have to go with the lizard. I think he has a level of untapped versatility we have yet to see. Don’t be surprised if he pulls a Matthew Lillard-esque career renaissance, first with a supporting role in a Clooney picture, then in a critically-acclaimed yet low-rated cable drama.

What’s Wrong: You know when you’re watching a movie and you wish you were watching another movie? This is the hardest case of that in history.

Flash of Competence: If you’re going to rip someone off, Kurosawa is the way to go.

Best Scenes: The soundtrack wears the movie’s “influences” proudly, even brazenly. About half the time, it’s someone trying to do a Sergio Leone cowboy track, but when the battles start, it instantly morphs into the rollicking orchestral score of Krull. And yes, this means I wished I were watching Krull.

You’d think that in a move that lives and dies by the swordfights, those would at least be good. You would be so wrong. I don’t know if Carradine was paranoid about breaking the other arm, or he was just old enough he was terrified of falling down, but he goes through every fight as gingerly as a new father navigates a carpet covered in Legos. He wobbles up to an enemy, kicks him gently in the shins, then maybe bops him with the sword, maybe not. Depends on how he’s feeling.

Transcendent Moment: In a series of events too dumb to relate, the Sorceress winds up in the possession of Bal Caz. Naturally, they want a hostage exchange in the center of town where everyone can see. So Bal Caz brings out the topless Sorceress and threatens her to Zeg, and you get that Zeg’s panicking a little bit. But then, the best thing happens. Zeg brings out the lizard (which the Dark One had abducted earlier), and starts threatening him. Bal Caz loses his damn mind. I’m sorry, he’s fucking that lizard. It’s not even in doubt. And when they exchange, the lizard runs over to him (it’s suddenly bipedal here, because who cares), so it’s clear this is a consensual thing. This instantly makes it the most romantic scene in the movie.

CAAAAAN YOU FEEL THE LOOOOOOVE TONIGHT

The Warrior and the Sorceress is terrible, and it should really be the victim of several lawsuits, but if you ever wanted to see what it looks like when David Carradine doesn’t give a fuck, there is no finer example.

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An Axe to Grind: Episode 7

Justin and Erik take on Lifetime’s “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” in a weekly podcast about murder, bloodspray and costume porn. Week seven introduces the Grimke sisters: schoolteacher Annabelle and her catatonic sister Lenore. The show receives a new status quo that leaves behind the cheerful reality of Fall River for the madness of Cumberland, Maine. Oh, but don’t those sisters look almost exactly like the Bordens? Early psychiatrists and TMZ reporters threaten Lizzie’s retirement. Random people die and Frank Sobotka from The Wire arrives to take the place of Cole Hauser.

And we might’ve found a connection to House Bolton.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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New Satellite Show Episode 25: Who’s Melissa George?

Erik reveals his inability to say “Hamburglar.” The panel discusses the upcoming Supergirl series, Legends of Tomorrow and NBC’s Heartbreaker. Various Kickstarter campaigns and Rob makes a special Comic-Con announcement. This months Yakmala film is an episode of Webster called “Moving On.”Host: Erik. Panel: Elsha, Dave, Dante, Rob, Legal Counsel Louis Allred, Justin, Clint.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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Spring Reruns

I started writing for the Satellite Show in February of 2010, which proves a simple point: I do not know when to quit. Since that time, three regular features have emerged: Now Fear This, when I talk about underrated (mostly horror) movies worth your time, Yakmala, of which I am but a yellow lion in a larger Voltron, and Lifetime Theater, where I talk about… something. I forget. I’ve done so many that it’s inevitable a few might slip through the cracks. This is where I play Louis Black and reiterate some recommendations for your next movie night.

Now Fear This
When you’re looking for a Now Fear This movie, you want something you can enjoy without any irony, probably alone or with a few others, and in relative silence. I’m choosing my favorites of the lesser-known movies, since that’s the whole point of this feature.

Mute Witness: The very first Now Fear This entrant. You can tell because, man I sucked at writing back then. This is a classic low budget thriller that wears its Hitchcockian pretensions well.

The Strangers: Legitimately one of the most terrifying movies I’ve ever seen.

Session 9: It’s hard to be this scary with so very little, but this movie manages with aplomb. It still has one of my favorite final lines in film history.

Dark City: Director’s Cut: Really one of the best SF/Fantasy movies out there. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Cast a Deadly Spell: There is perhaps no movie more influential on my own aesthetic. It’s a nifty weird noir mashup that presages HBO’s status as the beloved creator of original content.

Yakmala!
Here, I want to recommend movies that make great drunk party viewing. Get some friends together, put out the beer, and let the riffing commence!

Blood Freak: A film I introduced to the gang, so it’s always had a special place in my heart. Plus it’s nice and short, and the best moment is the very end.

The Man Who Saves the World, a.k.a. Turkish Star Wars: Has to be seen to be believed.

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo: Its subtitle has become hacky shorthand for dumb sequels, but the original movie is a delirious day-glo fantasy that could not be more fun.

After Last Season: Only a movie in the loosest sense of the term, this feels like the fever dream of a madman.

Samurai Cop: Finally getting a bit of the recognition it deserves, this is what would happen if a Boo Radley-style shut-in ever tried to make an ‘80s buddy cop film.

Lifetime Theater
Lifetime movies are at their best when they go careening off the rails. There’s a lot of overlap with Yakmala, and the best of them can be watched in the same kind of atmosphere.

Jodi Arias: Dirty Little Secret: How do you turn a hideous murder into half a you-go-girl anthem? Well, Lifetime isn’t sure either, but they sure did take a shot at it.

Drew Peterson: Untouchable: Rob Lowe really brings it in this bizarre true crime story.

Talhotblond: A favorite amongst the Yakmala crowd for very good reasons. It’s a more-or-less competently made film with insane twists that will keep you guessing.

Petals on the Wind: My Dollanganger obsession is reaching a fever pitch, but thus far the series hasn’t gotten any better than its second installment. This is when the people at Lifetime realized what they had and just decided to go with it.

The Lizzie Borden Chronicles: A distaff Hannibal, it’s also completely insane. These reviews are in podcast form!

If you only watch a few of the movies I recommend, those are the ones to watch.

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An Axe to Grind: Episode 6

Justin and Erik take on Lifetime’s “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” in a weekly podcast about murder, bloodspray and costume porn. Week six sees the resolution of the majority the plotlines … almost as though this was meant to be the season finale. But that can’t be right, there are two more episodes to go. A favorite character is eulogized while we postulated what a Lifetime Avengers would look like. Erik issues a correction about Gregg Henry and Justin maintains his favorite kill of the week.

Oh, also, there was some big TallShip stuff, too.

Click here or subscribe on iTunes.

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Yay for Comics! May 2015 Edition

yaySo, a million years ago, Paul Pope drew an illustration of his THB protagonist, HR Watson, jumping for joy and exclaiming “Yay for Comics!” It is a reminder that the medium is filled with excitement. Yet, it can be difficult to enjoy comics with the sexist and violent tirades of certain fans, the thin margins under which the industry operates and the continuing racial and gender inequality in the creative sector of the business, but there are still things to love about it. Things that make me jump for joy, just like HR Watson.

Has it really been a year (baring the odd month off) since I first shouted Yay for Comics? In the beginning, it was in response to a lot of negative things going in in fan circles, but it strangely brought me much closer to comics than I’d been for nearly ten years. At the same time, that seems to be the cycle; every ten years, things get really exciting in comics, so let’s talk about some of that excitement.

Convergence: The Question #1-2: What’s this? An event title tie-in? It’s true, The Question, by Greg Rucka and artist Cully Hamner, is a tie-in to DC’s current weekly event, CONVERGENCE, but the particulars of that event are meaningless here. The important thing: Rucka and Hamner have been reunited with Renee Montoya, a character that roamed Gotham as a police detective for a decade before taking on the mantle of the Question in DC’s first 52 series. She subsequently appeared in a backup strip in the pages of Detective Comics by Rucka with art from Hamner and it was a breath of fresh air. Besides her mask, Renee uses her fists and her wits in interchangeable order to fight injustice. This Convergence story sees her trying to redeem the soul of Harvey Dent, a man morbidly fascinated with her even as he hopes to die at the hands of another universe’s Harvey Dent (comics!). Along for the ride are the Helena Bertinelli version of the Huntress and Renee’s ex-girlfriend Batwoman. Hamner’s art is energetic, different from the norm and something I would buy monthly if given the option. The story, even with its universe-bending backdrop is firmly focused on Renee, where she’s been since we last saw her and what saving Harvey would really mean for her soul. This character breathes like few others and I hope once Convergence ends, there might some room for her in the DCU to kick ass.

Art from Convergence: The Question #1

Art from Convergence: The Question #1

Giant Days #1-2: Our one non-fantastical entry this month is the brainchild of writer John Allison with art by Lissa Treiman. The book, a continuation of Allison’s webcomic, centers on three college-aged women at university somewhere in England. Susan is the practical med student who is in no way addicted to nicotine. Esther is vaguely gothy and good at just about everything. Daisy comes off the youngest and most sheltered. While there are some ongoing plotlines, like Susan’s beef with a transfer student named McGraw, the first two issues are largely self-contained and feature college-age foibles, like the cold all three characters get in issue #2. Each face various, and funny, challenges while dealing with their colds. The best is Daisy and her “probably Polish” and not-at-all homeopathic pep pills. She writers a novel with a typewriter she has no memory owning and ends up talking to pigeons about being sick. Treiman’s art is cartoony and full of wonderful expression. The book is set to be six issues, so it remains to be seen how tight the plot will get, but Giant Days is enjoyable just for how it renders small, usual happenings.

Art from Giant Days #2

Art from Giant Days #2

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4: I’m singling this issue out because it does what the best Marvel comics do: unexpected character moments. Here, we finally see the confrontation between Squirrel Girl and Galactus and … it turns out they get along really well. So well, in fact, he trusts her to find another world to devour free of intelligent life. Writer Ryan North and artist Erica Henderson breath poppy, lighthearted fun into the Marvel universe every month with this book and this particular issue really highlights what you can do with the characters when you need to find alternatives to fighting. Though the book started rough, it’s found its feet and has become my favorite of the Marvel comedy titles.

Art from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4

Art from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #4

The Multiversity: I’ve kept Grant Morrison’s DC swansong out of the column because, like so much of his work, it needs the whole to be appreciated and this is no different. For the last several months, Morrison and various collaborators have taken us on a tour of the infinite possibilities contained in the DC framework, from the simple core strength of Captain Marvel (no, the other one … no, the other, other one) to the thrill of remixing Superman into a cruel alien raised in the Nazis regime. The main story saw that framework invaded by a grimdark force seeking to rain death and angst upon it all, but the heroes of multiple worlds banded together to fight the infinite crisis. It’s big superhero comics at its absolute loudest and more outlandish, but it reminded me why I liked these crazy ideas in the first place. Superhero comics can be a source of mad energy and when executed correctly, it looks just like The Multiversity.

Art from The Multiversity Guidebook

Art from The Multiversity Guidebook

Star Wars: Princess Leia #1-3: In my Star Wars piece last week, I mentioned my difficulty reconnecting with Star Wars, but this minisieres — written by Mark Waid with art from Terry and Rachel Dodson and colors by Jordie Bellaire — brings me back to that far away galaxy in a way the other recent Marvel Star Wars titles do not. Set immediately after the award ceremony at the end of the original Star Wars, Leia and a fellow survivor of Alderaan go in search of other survivors scattered across the galaxy in hope of preserving the lost planet’s culture — a thing we’re told was one of Alderaan’s most treasured commodities. The Empire is out to get her, and any other survivors, so the race is on while treachery lies in the shadows and even a few of the survivors themselves aren’t so thrilled to be rescued. Though the Dodsons’ art is not as polished as their usual work, I think it serves the story quite well. And Waid just know how to breath life into characters. Leia is immediately recognizable and Evaan, her Brienne of Tarth-esque sidekick, is snappy and fun to read.

Art from Star Wars: Princess Leia #3

Art from Star Wars: Princess Leia #3

And that’ll do it for May. I’m unsure where this journey will take me into the second year, but DC promises to release some interesting titles. Marvel continues to make their characters more accessible and the indie creators all give me plenty of reasons to continue shouting Yay for Comics!

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