Doctor Who’s Tenth Anniversary

I didn’t discover Doctor Who by finding it on television. I discovered it on the pages of a magazine. During my middle and high school years, I was an avid reader of Starlog Magazine, which covered science fiction media. One issue had a photo of a young blond-haired man dressed in a sweater, jacket, striped pants and a Panama hat and declared this man would be taking over the part of the Doctor in the series, Doctor Who, which had been running for nearly twenty years. Of course, this was the announcement that Peter Davison would be playing the fifth Doctor. It really piqued my curiosity how an actor could step into the lead role of a series after someone else had played that part. It would be like someone besides Leonard Nimoy playing Spock in Star Trek. My young mind couldn’t imagine it! I looked for Doctor Who, but discovered it wasn’t available on Los Angeles television at the time.

I finally saw my first episode of the series on a summer vacation to my uncle’s house in Florida. It was on at something like 6am on a Saturday morning, but I set my alarm and watched it. I was treated to the serial “The Robots of Death” starring Tom Baker and Louise Jameson. From then on, I was hooked, though I wouldn’t be able to watch regularly until my senior year of high school when the Los Angeles public television station finally started carrying the show. They started with “The Five Doctors,” which introduced me to all the people who had played the part so far including that blond-haired chap who had piqued my interest. I kept watching when I went to college and was especially delighted when the Albuquerque PBS station started playing older episodes of Doctor Who. They went back to Jon Pertwee, the third Doctor. I would sit enraptured on Saturday afternoons in a darkened room in the college’s “canteen” watching each episode in turn. Season ten stood out in particular. It started with the tenth-anniversary special which first aired in 1973 called “The Three Doctors,” then went on to bring back the Master, and the Daleks, and wrapped up with an emotional final episode. I was delighted to find this season now exists in its entirety on Blu-ray.

Doctor Who Season Ten Collection

I’ve long been impressed with the treatment the BBC has given the DVD and Blu-ray releases of Doctor Who. Like the season twenty-six pack I discussed a few weeks ago, the season ten set is chock full of special features. Some gave me insight into the writers and producers. Some gave me insights into how the effects were created. Yes, the special effects in this era of Doctor Who could be pretty cheezy, but it was impressive to learn they not only had a limited budget, but very little time to make their effects. Season ten introduced the “color separation overlay” process to Doctor Who, more familiar today as the blue screen or green screen process. This was early days of the process and while sometimes they used it to great effect, sometimes it just didn’t work.

That said, it’s never been the effects that attracted me to Doctor Who. The power of the series is in the writing, enhanced by actors who really loved their parts and did everything they could to sell the stories. Jon Pertwee, who played the Doctor, was famous for his comedy roles, but played the Doctor very straight. Of course, in his ruffled shirt and smoking jacket, he comes off as something of a flamboyant James Bond with an aversion to guns, but he pulls it off and fits in very nicely with the 70s aesthetic. Katie Manning plays his assistant, Jo Grant. By season ten, she’d come into her own and never feared going where she thought she should go. Doctor Who’s women of this era often have a reputation for being helpless and screaming, but I was surprised to go back and find Jo really never screamed and never was helpless. She could be klutzy at times, but she was stronger than I remembered.

This is the first season where I can remember something of a story arc. It’s not very strong, but there’s a running story about the Doctor trying to get to a planet called Metebelis III, which finally pays off in the season’s final episode. Also, the writers clearly know Jo will be leaving at the end of the season, so they start giving us clues in earlier episodes. I remembered being really moved when Jo left the Doctor at the end of “The Green Death” and was surprised to find the emotional power was still there, which was a combination of good writing and great acting. The season opener, which was the first time earlier Doctors came back in one episode was a lot of fun. Unfortunately, due to health concerns, the first Doctor, William Hartnell, had little more than a cameo, but it was great that he had one last outing. Patrick Troughton stepped into the role as though he’d never left it.

If you’re a classic Doctor Who fan, I highly recommend these Blu-ray sets. You will get a lot of behind-the-scenes information and nice presentation of the episodes. If you only know the series from its revival in 2005 to the present, these sets are a great way to look back at the older episodes and get a sense of where the series came from.

Acting Out a Scam

No one has ever accused me of being a financial analyst, but I once played one on the television series, Unsolved Mysteries. Here’s a somewhat blurry screenshot from the episode. I’m the tall, happy fellow in the yellow hard hat.

unsolved-mysteries

Back in my senior year at New Mexico Tech, while working on my physics degree, I had a few elective hours available and took a class in musical theater. We presented the Lerner and Loewe play, Brigadoon. The musical director was Mike Iaturo, who I gather played accordion on Broadway for Fiddler on the Roof. The play’s director was Carolyn Abbey. Carolyn’s husband, Mike, is the bearded fellow in the photo above.

After graduating, I remained at New Mexico Tech to work on my master’s degree in physics. I also joined a community theater group run by Carolyn and we put on a set of one-act plays collectively entitled The God’s Honest. Working on these plays was good experience for collaborating with editors and artists as a writer and publisher. I learned to listen, be flexible, and take criticism. The collaborative nature of plays taught me the freedom to change lines so they worked best for the scene as played. It helped me to avoid falling so much in love with my own words that I could never change them.

In the fall of 1989, Carolyn called me to say the television series Unsolved Mysteries was holding auditions in Socorro for a segment they would be filming. I went to the hotel where they were holding the auditions and stood in line for a while. The casting director looked me up and down asked if I had a suit and was willing to shave for the part. I answered “yes” to both questions and she called the next person. Since she didn’t ask me to do anything else, I was certain she wasn’t interested. The casting director surprised me a day later when she called up to say I’d been cast as one of the financial analysts who investigated a gold mine scam a few years before in New Mexico.

It was an interesting experience to see behind the scenes of the making of a television series. As I recall, I woke up at 5 in the morning, dressed in my suit and went to the hotel where I auditioned. I met the other actors and extras who were hired and they drove us to a mine just north of Socorro in the small town of Escondida. We were there until about 6pm. All of the extras playing financial analysts hung out together. From time to time, we were called out to play in a scene. When we were not acting, we had access to a trailer full of stuff to eat. As a graduate student, this was like a dream come true.

The segment featured Maurice “Ed” Barbara, who convinced people to invest in his fake cold mine near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Among the people he conned was famed attorney Melvin Belli, who played the Friendly Angel in the Star Trek episode, “And the Children Shall Lead.”

The episode finally aired on December 13, 1989. It was episode number 40, which was part of the second season. Here’s the part of the episode I was in. As you can see, twelve hours of filming was condensed down into about two minutes. I have to admit, it’s something of a thrill to have my actions narrated by Robert Stack.

I gather there was a follow up in episode 64, but unfortunately, I never saw that. If anyone has ever heard what happened to Ed Barbara, I’d be interested in hearing the end of the story. At the end of the episode, they said he had fled to Canada.

Hope my readers in the United States are having a good Thanksgiving weekend and staying away from scams on this busy shopping weekend!

Space Battleship Yamato 2199

Back in August, I discussed my thoughts about the Space Battleship Yamato motion picture. Yamato-2199-poster At the end of the post, I noted that a new series had been produced called Space Battleship Yamato 2199. The new series is basically a remake of the 1974 “Quest for Iscandar” season of the original series. I finally had the opportunity to watch the new series and I was thoroughly impressed. I just spent the week before Christmas rewatching the whole thing with my daughter and not only did it hold up, but I enjoyed it even more the second time around. The series is well worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either the original Space Battleship Yamato or anime in general.

As Space Battleship Yamato 2199 opens, Earth has been bombed into a dry husk by aliens from the Large Magellanic Cloud called Gamillas. Humanity has little more than a year to survive. Fortunately, aliens from the planet Iscandar have a device that can help save Earth if the humans can come pick it up. The Iscandarans have sent a drive that will allow humans to warp through space much faster than the speed of light. The humans build a starship in the form of the World War II battleship Yamato and equip it with the so-called wave motion engine. The crew sets off for Iscandar in the hope of saving Earth but the Gamillas do everything in their power to stand in the Yamato’s way.

The original Space Battleship Yamato focused on Susumu Kodai, a young Earth officer pressed into service aboard the Yamato because all available senior officers had been killed defending Earth from the Gamilas. Captain Okita of the Yamato takes Kodai under his wing. The story has a feeling not unlike the tale of Luke Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. That’s not the only similarity. Dogfights between Yamato’s fighters and those of the Gamilas are commonplace. There’s just enough similarity that I remember when the show was first introduced in the United States as Space Cruiser Yamato in 1978, critics accused it of being a Star Wars rip off … until they realized that Yamato appeared three years before Star Wars!

The new series follows the original closely, but adds several new characters including several women, who were noticeably lacking in the original. With the new characters come several interesting story arcs. It turns out the crew of the Yamato is not one big happy family. They all want to save humanity, but they believe there are different ways to achieve that end.

The new series worked strongly to keep everything that was cool about the original, while fixing plot holes, gaffes and things that were just plain goofy and embarrassing in the original. The Bee People of Beemela are just a memory, the Yamato’s construction is much less miraculous, Analyzer no longer sexually harasses Yuki, and the Gamillas don’t mysteriously change skin hue. I was especially pleased to see that they brought on a good team of science advisers and largely listened to them. There were a few times they hand-waved the science in the interests of story, but I was impressed with how much this was kept to a minimum.

The end result was that Space Battleship Yamato 2199 easily stands up with my favorite science fiction television series, such as Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon Five and Firefly. In fact, after spending this last week watching the whole thing for a second time, I think I’d rank it as my second favorite SF series after Firefly. Every episode was engaging and contributed to the overall story arc. The characters, humans, Gamillas, and Iscandarans, all had a wide range of agendas and motivations. All the characters felt quite real.

As an anime series, Space Battleship Yamato does have its share of angst and fan service. It’s hard to say the Gamillan agenda makes complete sense, but it’s also hard to say how much of that is muddied by the multitude of agendas, much as things in the real world often are. Every now and then the CG effects didn’t always blend seamlessly with the traditional animation, but overall, the show held together quite well. Sadly, finding affordable copies is not altogether easy, but it’s a quest well worth taking.

Yamato Model

One of my Christmas gifts this year was a beautifully detailed model of the Yamato from the new series. I look forward to building it once I get to a good break point on the new novel. It will take a place of honor next to my models of the Enterprise and the Firefly.



Space Battleship Yamato 2199 poster art copyright Bandai Visual and used to illustrate critical commentary of the series.

Revenge of the Wild Wild West

I apologize for my absence from the blogsphere the last couple of weeks. I sailed into a perfect storm of writing deadlines and astronomy job responsibilities that kept me off line for much of the last couple weeks. Now that I’m on the other side, I can report that my latest wild west steampunk adventure, Lightning Wolves, is now turned in to the publisher and I’m awaiting edits. Also, we were able to test out a new high resolution camera on the Kitt Peak 2.1-meter telescope. The results of those tests look like they’ll result in a new scientific publication. So, although I’ve been absent, I’ve hardly been idle!

Wild Wild West Season 1 Fortunately, the last few days have not been all work and no play. I was able to take some time to enjoy a couple of good books and a couple of a good videos. As I searched through my video collection, I came across my set of the television series The Wild Wild West. There’s no question that the show had a strong influence on my flavor of wild west steampunk storytelling. The problem with The Wild Wild West is that while it started strong, later incarnations never really lived up to the promise of the original series. In fact, the series itself was strongest in its first, black-and-white, season. As the show went on, network censors demanded that the violence be toned down and it was played more for laughs than for action. Still, the original series did pretty well throughout its four-year run. The real problem came with the sequels.

When I speak of sequels, the first thing most people will think of is the 1999 movie with Will Smith and Kevin Kline. Thing is, I’m one of a handful of people I know who actually kind of like the film. Of course, the operative words there are “kind of”. The humor in the movie falls flat more often than not, but I enjoyed the visuals and thought when they played it for action more than laughs, it showed real promise.

The movie wasn’t the only attempt at resurrecting the series. There are two sequels that many people don’t know about. These are the TV movies The Wild Wild West Revisited and More Wild Wild West that starred Robert Conrad, Ross Martin, and a host of guest stars, many of whom appeared in the original series. These films, which were broadcast in 1979 and 1980 respectively, should have been great, but like the 1999 film were played more for laughs than action and those laughs often didn’t work out as well as expected. The thing I love most about these films is that they were shot at Old Tucson Studios near the observatory where I work. The scenery is gorgeous.

Fortunately, the Wild Wild West saga isn’t limited to film. I recently discovered a limited comic book series that was published in 1990 by Millennium Comics. 1990 was the year I got married. I was in graduate school and starting a new job. I wasn’t exactly following comics closely during that time, so it’s perhaps not surprising I missed it! I recently came across it and picked up a copy of the series and I’m glad I did.

Wild Wild West Comics

I found that the comic series did a great job of capturing the spirit of the first season of the series. Not only is Dr. Loveless here as the villain, but he’s accompanied by Antoinette and Voltaire, his assistants from the first season. One of the things I wish they had done even in the original series was to have folded in a little more real history. This comic series brings in several historical figures who conspire in an elaborate plot to assassinate President Grant. The artwork was a little disappointing at times, but the story more than compensated for it. This was nicely done and I wish Millennium had produced more of these.

What’s more, the weird western and steampunk worlds have brought us some worthy successors to The Wild Wild West. I’m currently reading Cherie Priest’s Ganymede which is set in Seattle and New Orleans. Although one might not think of New Orleans as the west, it was certainly featured in The Wild Wild West. Of course, I’ve also enjoyed the Miles O’Malley stories of David B. Riley, which are now collected in an omnibus edition entitled The Devil Draws Two.

I hope Lightning Wolves also proves to be a worthy successor. I’m still in that afterglow of finishing the novel where it all seems wonderful and I fear it’s all terrible. Fortunately, it’s now in the hands of a great batch of editors and beta readers, who will help me whip it into shape while I start thinking about the directions the next book will take.