Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tarot Guards! Tarot the Diamond Man!

TV graveyards of the 1970s are littered with the discarded remnants of fantasy shows developed in order to grab some of the Doctor Who demographic. From the escapades of Simon and Liz through the fence in Timeslip, via the adventures of Catweazle 900 years into his own future, all the way to the campy awfulness of The Tomorrow People, the various ITV regions tried and failed time and again to usurp Who from its throne as the most popular family sf show of all time.

Sometimes (as with Catweazle) the effort was excellent in its own right but didn't have the legs to become a long-running serial; sometimes (as with Timeslip) a brave idea floundered under the weight of a small budget; and sometimes, as with The Tomorrow People, everything about the show was utter tosh* from start to finish. And on at least one occasion, a decent concept, backed up with good scripts and an intriguing setting, was blown out of the water by the sheer poverty of the acting.

Not that Ace of Wands looks all that promising as you slip the DVD into the player and sit back . For one, it gets off on entirely the wrong foot with the worst title song ever. Against a backdrop of folk psych images, some Rod, Jane and Freddy wannabe burbles out a toe-curling shitty hippy ditty which includes such lyrical gems as
"Jet white dove/Snow black snake". Snow black snake, eh? Really? Are you sure about that? Well OK, if you're certain...

Moving swiftly and mercifully on, though, it's reassuring to see that "The Meddlers", the first story in series 3** was written by the mighty P J Hammond, the creator of Sapphire and Steel and writer of one of the very few non-rubbish episodes of Torchwood last year. So, some thoughts...

1. The two lead actors are absolutely dreadful - two of the worst actors I've ever seen in a popular show. In their defence they both seem to have gone onto have better careers than the vast majority of Who companions, so possibly their mannered and stilted performances were the result of directorial fiat but regardless of cause watching them here is a painful experience.

2. This particular story has a fantastic set-up and scenario, largely thrown away by bad acting. The band led by Spoon, the duplicitous prophet of doom, and the almost Report on Probability A-style man in the tower block are all brilliant and, even if the actual realisation is a bit shoddy, the plot makes sense and everything ties together nicely in the end.

3. If you'd stuck McCallum and Lumley in this, it'd be a really good episode of Sapphire and Steel.

Actually that last point does kind of force me to conclude that this is better than I gave it credit for at the time (though it's also faitr to wonder if Hammond had ever read the Campion novel Tiger in the Smoke, which features a very similar creepy band/dodgy lock up) ^. As I say, replace Mackenzie and Markham with McCallum and Lumley and you have something which wouldn't be embarrassed in the highest fantasy company. And if it's that good, then maybe it's not possible for bad acting to blow it out of the water completely.

Hmm, maybe it's time to give the Diamond Man a second chance to shine^^?

* There's a reason Naoko Mori is called Tosh on Torchwood, you know. Originally she was going to be called Crap but Chris Chibnall thought that sounded more German than Japanese.
**
the first two series having been lost in the same great television purge of the seventies which destroyed nearly all of Magpie***
*** Oddly, you can download a pretty good dvd cover for the lost first episode, in spite of the fact that it's missing. Someone has gone to a lot of trouble for an essentially useless item.
^
I started writing this about four months but then stopped - this post is the result of remembering about it and then scraping the Drafts barrel on blogger
^^ Really - the crap I write at times :-)

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35 Comments:

Blogger SAF said...

Unfortunately, Ace Of Wands rings no bells for me. But that post had me laughing all the same. Amongst other things: Tomorrow People - the Torchwood of its day? :)

10:59 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

It's worth a watch for anyone who liked Sapphire and Steel and/or finds the idea of a psychic version of Jonathon Creek a positive thing (bizarrely and wholly unprofessionally, I forgot to mention in the review that (a) the hero is called Tarot and (b) he's a stage magician, which leads to fabulously bad disappearing tricks where you can *really* see the join).

12:17 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

Bad?! What are you talking about? The theme's great and so's the title sequence! Jet black dove, snow white snake - it's supposed to be the opposite of what you think, cos it's like magic. Bah!

As for the magic, yeah, it did look a little rubbish, although best to remember that back in those days, they took about a week to film an episode so even the best tutelage from Ali Bongo (the series' magic advisor) and three seconds' worth of chromakey time in the compositing suite was never going to turf up the best effects. But then compare and contrast with Doctor Who at the time - Invasion of the Dinosaurs, the Doctor's 'magic' in Ambassadors of Death, Metebelis 3 - and you realise that everything looked rubbish then.

The Meddlers is quite disappointing, so I'd recommend Peacock Pie as probably the only really tolerable one from that season, since it's a little eerie. It's worth watching all of PJ Hammond's as well, since it's interesting to see that Sapphire and Steel didn't emerge fully formed from the vacuum without prior heritage - you can see various PJ obsessions, such as the scariness of household objects (The Beautiful People), the scariness of blokes who play music in the street (The Meddlers), telepathy (and baddies who can listen in on the telepathy), etc, in his scripts.

As for the acting, yes, it's rubbish, but to a certain extent, that was the style of the day. Cos they all did theatre, back in those days, don't you know? Again look at DW with all the proper actors (ie not Tombo, who'd really done a lot of filmwork by then, or Pertwee, who was a radio ham, but Lis Sladen, Caroline John or Katy Manning, for example), particularly the ones with minimal TV experience, and they all shouted their lines to the back of the royal circle in every episode like they'd been taught. But Petra Markham really was awful no matter which way to try to rationalise it.

I also have the suspicion that series one and two of Ace of Wands were better - better cast (eg Tony Selby, Russell Hunter), better writers (Trevor Preston) and better characters (Mr Stabs). Unfortunately, the tapes were all used to light Lew Grade's cigars so we can't be sure, although the Dramarama Mr Stabs episode written by Preston is pretty damn good. I reckon basing your opinion of Ace of Wands on the third series is probably akin to basing your whole opinion of Doctor Who on Seasons 22 or 24. Yes, it might be turn out the first two series were like seasons 23 or 11, but equally they might be like season 7.

And then I rolled a 2 and a 4 but he rolled...

But it was disappointing to watch, I will readily admit. Curse Time Screen - they built up my expectations too much!

12:05 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

mediumrob: "Lis Sladen, Caroline John or Katy Manning"

One of those things is not the same. ;)

SAF

12:57 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

I would agree that Lis Sladen was better than Katy Manning or Caroline John. But even she was a product of the acting of the time. I read an interview with her recently when she was talking about coming back to Who and then to the SJA and how she was nervous because the style of acting had changed so much since her day. She's changed accordingly and she's very good now.

Go watch Ark in Space or even K9 and Company again and tell me Lis Sladen isn't a little louder than she needs to be at times...

1:22 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

mediumrob: "I would agree that Lis Sladen was better than Katy Manning or Caroline John."

Actually, I was meaning Lis and Caroline were both in a different class to Katy. A lot of what they did in their respective roles was about quiet understatement and, while I'm not disputing - far from it - that styles - in both production and acting - have changed, those two did consistently brilliant work with the material they were handed.

On the other hand, if you're out to make a point about poor acting, then Katy's fair game. ;)

2:50 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

Ah. I still regard Liz Shaw as best ever companion and Caroline John is great in all her stories, if a little inexperienced in Spearhead in Space, so I'm with you on that – although I'd say that Lis Sladen was more consistent after she'd got the hang of things (let's forget about Time Warrior for now). As for Katy, oh well...

BTW, Is it legitimate to have a go at Katy round here, what with it being Iris Wildthyme land?

2:59 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

mediumrob: "let's forget about Time Warrior for now"

That's the next DVD on my shopping list, as it happens.

Meanwhile, I think we can safely separate Katy Manning from Iris Wildthyme. :) And in fairness to Katy, cos, you know, I always believe in being fair, there's really not much to Jo Grant that many actresses could have brought to life in more than the one dimension.

Lis Sladen, Caroline John and Louise Jameson, for the record, my top three actresses in DW companion roles. Jacqueline Hill, back when DW was even more "theatre with a camera stuck in front of you", also does brilliant work with a great character.

Ah, but pardon me while I wander off in a reverie of reminiscence... ;)

3:25 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "I also have the suspicion that series one and two of Ace of Wands were better"

Have you heard the audios of selected stories from series 2? Even without images, they're enough to make you wish they'd destroyed anything with Ms Markham and kept the earleir stuff, so I take your point about judging a series based on one season.

However I'm invoking the Genre TV equivalent of Godwins Law after admitting that - breifly stated it says that "Any argument which necessitates mention of the dinosaurs in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' is onto a loser before it even starts"

As for series 3 - there are enough proto-S&S touches for it to be worth watching and I *did* love the businessman in the tower block which seemed a very seventies kind of thing to do - in modern TV he'd have been explained as an alien or a government agen tin the first five minutes of the first episode, possibly by means of coloured, flashing arrows.

8:43 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Actually, I was meaning Lis and Caroline were both in a different class to Katy."

Rob: "I still regard Liz Shaw as best ever companion"

Now that's the level of wisdom I liek to see in people's comments. Lis is a thing of wonder and Liz is Best Companion Ever.

Rob: "BTW, Is it legitimate to have a go at Katy round here, what with it being Iris Wildthyme land?"

Slagging Katy is fine - just don't slag off my own sweet Iris (who she plays very well, to be fair).

8:46 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Lis Sladen, Caroline John and Louise Jameson, for the record,"

Tut tut Simon - you were doing so well until you mis-spelt 'Jacqueline Hill' as 'Louise Jamieson' :)

8:47 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Tut tut Simon - you were doing so well until you mis-spelt 'Jacqueline Hill' as 'Louise Jamieson' :)"

To be fair, Jacqueline's excellent and Barbara is a great companion. But those other three are great companions played really well who also have the added advantage of being highly fanciable. :)

Can't say I ever felt that way about Barbara. That may be a schoolteacher thing. Of course, equally, that may form part of her appeal for others :)

10:14 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "Any argument which necessitates mention of the dinosaurs in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' is onto a loser before it even starts"

Lol. That's a good law, that.

10:16 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "Can't say I ever felt that way about Barbara. That may be a schoolteacher thing."

But the schoolteacher in her twinset and pearls, the ample figure, the swish of the cane through the air, the sheer sens...

I've said too much. It's the public school education coming through...

10:18 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Heheh. You must have brought apples in for your teachers by the wheelbarrow. :)

10:27 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

'However I'm invoking the Genre TV equivalent of Godwins Law after admitting that - breifly stated it says that "Any argument which necessitates mention of the dinosaurs in 'Invasion of the Dinosaurs' is onto a loser before it even starts"'

You can only invoke Godwins Law if there's an argument - are you arguing that chromakey in the 70s was really good? ;-) If so, I refer the honourable gentleman to Terror of the Zygons and Underworld as alternatives. Or even, to get back on topic, to Ace of Wands' Peacock Pie...

I would also refer you to my minor essay on why Liz Shaw was great, which is something all Right Thinking People can agree on.

10:38 pm  
Blogger SK said...

And amusingly (to sad people like me) the move from Old Cavendish Lab (impressive Victorian building in the centre of town) to New Cavendish Lab (concrete square in a field) happened right in the middle of the UNIT Dating Mess.

(Discovered this when helping someone who was using her in a story for the Big Finish with some research.)

So it's impossible to say for sure exactly where was the lab she was dragged from, and where she went back to -- and they could have been in completely different buildings.

Yeah, that is just people like me, isn't it?

9:38 am  
Blogger MediumRob said...

That's interesting to me! But I'm sad, so there you go.

Course, it depends exactly where Cambridge's meteorite research department was back then. Would it even have been with the Old Cavendish or would it be allied to Astronomy rather than Natural Sciences?

9:56 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "You can only invoke Godwins Law if there's an argument - are you arguing that chromakey in the 70s was really good? ;-)"

Ah, but the Douglas Amendment to Godwin's Law can be invoked at any time :-)

Plus it's not entirely chromakey I'm complaining about! The example I'm thinking of in 'The Meddlers' is one where Tarot makes something disappear from his hands in the shop - it looks like a locked off camera shot, but one where everyone involved moves slightly between shots.

Rob: "I would also refer you to my minor essay on why Liz Shaw was great,"

With a title like that, who could resist? :-)

10:06 am  
Blogger SK said...

Good point, good point, but from my reading of the Astronomy Istitute's website (I've never actually been in it) it's all telescopes and computers -- lots of spectroscopic analysis and people doing maths with big numbers, no actual laboritories. So if she was actually looking at bits of meteorites she'd probably have been in Physics -- or maybe Materials, actually, which still hasn't moved to West Cambridge (things happen slowly when your medium-term planning is the next couple of centuries). So then she'd still have been on the New Museums. She'd
certainly have had to pop down there to use their electron mcroscope (if they had one at that point -- I'll have to check with my clever friend James).
Was she actually researching meteorites at the time she was seconded to UNIT? The BBC lists her as an 'expert in meteorites' but also that she has research interests in 'a dozen other subjects', so it's possible she'd moved on to some other area.

10:14 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "I would also refer you to my minor essay on why Liz Shaw was great, which is something all Right Thinking People can agree on"

You'd think so, wouldn't you? And yet you seem to have unleashed a can of whup-ass on yourself in the comments section :)

10:18 am  
Blogger MediumRob said...

"Tarot makes something disappear from his hands in the shop - it looks like a locked off camera shot, but one where everyone involved moves slightly between shots."

Whereas this (about one minute in) was perfection... And Ambassadors is my third most favourite Doctor story ever: such a shame.

"You'd think so, wouldn't you? And yet you seem to have unleashed a can of whup-ass on yourself in the comments section"

I did, didn't I? It's one of the reasons I try to keep a relatively low profile on the Internet, if even the most obvious and self-evident assertions of facts can cause that degree of furore. They never really understood the irony of chastising people for "privileging one form of feminist behaviour over another" - wouldn't that, um, be privileging one form of behaviour over another then, love? Oh well.

" The BBC lists her as an 'expert in meteorites' but also that she has research interests in 'a dozen other subjects', so it's possible she'd moved on to some other area."

Probably, although I'm sure the Brig would have been looking for someone with up-to-date research experience in meteorites, given he was looking for someone to deal with his meteorite problem. He was a bit focused that Brig. Maybe she had an annex at the back of the Fitzwilliam. That would have been fun.

10:25 am  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Rob: "Whereas this (about one minute in) was perfection... And Ambassadors is my third most favourite Doctor story ever: such a shame."

God, that's seamless - season 7 is like watching early Industrial Light and Magic at times :)

Rob: "I did, didn't I? It's one of the reasons I try to keep a relatively low profile on the Internet, if even the most obvious and self-evident assertions of facts can cause that degree of furore."

That could be a definition of the internet. Certainly of most Who/genre mailing lists.

10:34 am  
Blogger SK said...

I can't really see the Brigadier doing much research into current scintists either; I always assumed he picked up the telephone and said 'get me the country's top meterotie chap, pip pip and P.D.Q, what?' (and his aide, rather than tell him that the 'phone hadn't been connected yet, went and talked to somebody at the Cav).

It's a long time since I've seen 'Spearhead', but wasn't she supposed to be a Doctor-substitute (given the Brig didn't know the Doc was about to fall into his lap (almost literally) again) rather than to deal with one specific threat?

This must be one of the most pointless discussions I've had this year, which is a hell of an achievement. Keep it up!

10:37 am  
Blogger MediumRob said...

"I can't really see the Brigadier doing much research into current scintists either; I always assumed he picked up the telephone and said 'get me the country's top meterotie chap, pip pip and P.D.Q, what?' (and his aide, rather than tell him that the 'phone hadn't been connected yet, went and talked to somebody at the Cav)."

Nah. MI5. They'd have dossiers on all the decent scientists - they'd all be suspected commies back then, particularly the Cambridge ones, so MI5 would be tailing every one of them.

"It's a long time since I've seen 'Spearhead', but wasn't she supposed to be a Doctor-substitute (given the Brig didn't know the Doc was about to fall into his lap (almost literally) again) rather than to deal with one specific threat?"

She was. The Brig even says there was some other chap he'd been hoping to recruit instead. That's motivational leadership for you. I'd like to see a UNIT version of The Office on the strength of that.

I think the intent was she would be an all-rounder, and one with the flexibility to deal with alien stuff. So the idea of hiring someone with meteorite knowledge might have been forward thinking of him. Alternatively, maybe the new meteorite just swayed him into picking her from the shortlist rather than Professor Doktor Otto von Strangelove, the previous frontrunner whom MI5 had already given a clean bill of security health to. He certainly seemed more interested in that particular PhD of hers than her others in xenobiology, moon rocket engineering and French, for some reason.

"This must be one of the most pointless discussions I've had this year, which is a hell of an achievement. Keep it up!"

Welcome to the Internet. I hope you are already enjoying your first few minutes with this marvellous new communications medium for the 21st century. ;-)

10:49 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "You'd think so, wouldn't you? And yet you seem to have unleashed a can of whup-ass on yourself in the comments section :)"

'Liz Shaw was great' is, as rob says, something all Right Thinking People can agree on, and not something that really needs an essay, which is presumably why he refers to his essay as 'minor'. ;)

Of course, the internet is open to everyone, not just us Right Thinking People. And therein lies the problem :)

1:48 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

"Of course, the internet is open to everyone, not just us Right Thinking People. And therein lies the problem"

Is there something we can do about this?

2:39 pm  
Blogger SK said...

Yes, but apparently murder is illegal.

2:51 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Murder's a bit extreme.

A simple entrance exam for the internet should suffice. One question: What's your opinion of Liz Shaw? I mean, if we can agree on the Basic Facts, the rest shouldn't matter. :)

3:29 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

Now there's a thought - what questions should be in the Internet Entrance Exam?

1. Liz Shaw or Rose Tyler?
2. Nigel Plaskitt or Prentis Hancock?
3. Torchwood or The Sarah Jane Adventures?
4. Actually, Torchwood or K9 and Company?

That should do it...

5:11 pm  
Blogger SAF said...

Lol. And to think I was ready to let them through on the basis of one question! :)

6:37 pm  
Blogger MediumRob said...

It's a bit too much like the League Against Tedium's Either/Or though: "Shirley Bassey or Celibacy?"

Plus we'd have to draft in a "Liz Shaw limbo" for those poor souls who have never heard of her. It would be hard for people to do the research without the Internet. Or we might be starting a burgeoning "Citizenship of the Internet" service industry. There'd be books and everything. Chapter 1: What you need to know about Liz Shaw to pass the entrance exam. You'd probably need to be able to whistle/hum/diddly-dum the Doctor Who theme tune as well.

6:43 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

I've had a thought about Ace of Wands - how much better would it have been if instead of the three leads the show did have in seris3, the actual leads had been Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter from season 12 of Doctor Who? Just move the earth exile from Pertwee to Baker - the fourth Doctor was far less of an establishment figure, so he sods off to one of the scruffier bits of London and sets up there as a down at heel, eccentric private investigator of sorts...

11:53 am  
Blogger SAF said...

Stuart: "how much better would it have been if instead of the three leads the show did have in seris3, the actual leads had been Tom Baker, Lis Sladen and Ian Marter from season 12 of Doctor Who?"

You know, if we're just talking about reworking things to create our own fantasy TV, then I could just take a line from your blog post:

"the escapades of Simon and Liz"

and work wonders with that. Purely in my head, of course. :)

2:29 pm  
Blogger Stuart Douglas said...

SAF: "You know, if we're just talking about reworking things to create our own fantasy TV, then I could just take a line from your blog post: "the escapades of Simon and Liz" and work wonders with that. Purely in my head, of course. :)"

LOL - that's getting dangerously close to that story I offered SBJ a tenner to write for me last year :)

4:51 pm  

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