Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Planet of Gold

DOCTOR WHO - REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN (1975)

The highlight of this serial is its location shooting at Wookey Hole, home of the Witch of Wookey. A chagrined woman, she used her arts to blight girls' lives and keep them from the joys denied to herself. Turned to stone by the Holy Clerk of Glastonbury, the Witch still haunts the caverns.

THE Time Ring takes the Doctor (Tom Baker), Sarah (Elisabeth Sladen) and Harry (Ian Marter) back to the space station Nerva, but to a period many thousands of years earlier than their previous visit in THE ARK IN SPACE (1975). The station is currently acting as a beacon warning space traffic of the existence of a new asteroid orbiting Jupiter, Voga, also known as the planet of gold. A plague has killed all but a handful of Nerva's crew and visiting civilian scientist Kellman (Jeremy Wilkin) is in fact a traitor working with a group of Cybermen, who want to destroy Voga as gold dust can coat their breathing apparatus (and the plague is the result of poison injected by Cybermats). Kellman however is really a double agent, working with one faction of the Vogan, whose plan has been to lure the Cybermen onto the beacon and destroy them with their Skystriker rocket.

A weak link in Doctor Who's otherwise excellent twelfth season, REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN is nevertheless fondly remembered as the initial Cybermen serial in colour, as well as being the first commercially available story released on VHS in 1983. Scripted by Gerry Davis - who had jointly devised the monsters with Kit Pedler in 1966 - the tale has long been a guilty pleasure for Whovians. The four-part adventure features an alarming array of double entendre, knowingly enjoyed by cast and crew alike. "Take the Cybermen from behind," "We're still heading for the biggest bang in history," and  "Pull it harder, it's coming" are typical examples, and the antics of the black-helmeted Cyberleader (Christopher Robbie) are unintentionally hilarious; often arms on hips, his strangulation of the Doctor near the end of the story looks more like a Swedish massage. Sladen's experience of her attack by a limp Cybermat - which had to be hugged by the actors to make them seem even remotely threatening - led her to decide to quit the series, only for the actress to thankfully reconsider once the show moved onto much better-realised productions.

Chris Achilleos' cover for the Target novelisation of REVENGE OF THE CYBERMEN (#51, May 1976), written by Terrrance Dicks.

The Vogans are an interesting addition to the series' mythology and their society can be seen as an allegory of 1970s Britain - a power that was once great but is now bitterly divided over how to exploit its remaining resources. But the story is spoiled by the titular menace; it may have been a return for the Cybermen after a long hiatus (they were last seen in THE INVASION (1968)), but they appear uncharacteristically emotional and have terrible dialogue. The idea of them being susceptible to attack with gold dust is also less than inspired; previous entries have shown them to be vulnerable to radiation, solvents, gravity, low temperatures, electric currents, force fields, emotional impulses and grenades, and the revelation of this latest weakness only serves to further reduce their potency. Their ineffectiveness is underpinned by the Doctor's famous outburst "You're nothing but a pathetic bunch of tin soldiers skulking about the galaxy in an ancient spaceship," a viewpoint certainly reinforced by their subsequent appearances.

The network of natural caverns known as Wookey Hole, near Wells in Somerset, was an inspired choice of location for Voga. The show caves had gained a reputation for being haunted by a Dark Ages witch, now petrified as one of the cave's rock formations, and stories of the serial's curse are more interesting than the programme itself. While scouting, director Michael E.Briant's wife discovered several Iron Age arrowheads, which she kept as mementos. This precipitated a chain of strange occurrences which beset the production, which began when Briant encountered a potholing ghost while scouting. Potentially the most serious incident occured after certain crew membes disobeyed instructions and interfered with the “Witch” formation. During the afternoon's shoot a boat driven by Sladen on the “Witch's Parlour” cave went haywire, forcing the actress to jump overboard to avoid smashing into a cavern wall.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Beast Within

THE BEAST MUST DIE (1974)

Time is running out for Peter Cushing's Norwegian accent during
the infamous "Werewolf Break" of Amicus' cult curio.

AMICUS' THE BEAST MUST DIE mixes Blacksploitation, THE AVENGERS and Agatha Christie in an uproariously silly production made at the height of British horror desperation. Tom Newcliffe (Calvin Lockhart) is a black millionaire big game hunter whose elaborate mansion security system - run by Pavel (Anton Diffring) - has been constructed to keep tracks on a potential prized conquest, a werewolf. Newcliffe explains that his guests have been invited for one reason only – one of them is a lycanthrope. Everyone has a suspect past: outrageously accented Dr Lundgren (Peter Cushing), concert pianist Jan Jarmokowski (Michael Gambon) and socialite girlfriend Davinia (Ciaran Madden), artist Paul Foote (Tom Chadbon), and diplomat Arthur Bennington (Charles Gray) all have places at the table. Also, could the werewolf be Caroline (Marlene Clark), Tom’s wife?

Adapted from science fiction author James Blish's novelette There Shall Be No Darkness (1950), THE BEAST MUST DIE was Amicus' last horror film. Directed by Paul Annett - who devoted most of his career to television - the film plays more like a made-for-TV movie with obvious budgetary constraints: the werewolf is actually an Alsatian. At the beginning a Valentine Dyall voice-over tells us to “watch for the werewolf break," so the viewer can contemplate their own decisions who is the shape-shifter. When it actually arrives it is a 30 second William Castle-style gimmick, but the whole premise is self-defeating, as the film does not portray any legitimate structure for sleuthing; everyone has been portrayed as being as guilty as everyone else, which rather debunks that the film is “A detective story – in which YOU are the detective."

To illustrate the ramshackle nature of the production, even the werewolf in this one-sheet isn't actually from the picture, rather an image from Universal's THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF.

THE BEAST MUST DIE's stance on werewolf lore is confusing, mixing wolfs bane, lympth glands and everyone's favourite party game Pass the Silver Candlestick. The performances range from the sublimely ridiculous to the ridiculous and amazingly Lockhart was the first black actor to play leads with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Lockhart's statement “Money buys…. things….” is as profound as the character gets, with the actor delivering his lines as effective as Thornton Reed in GARTH MARENGHI'S DARKPLACE (2004). Of the other cast members Gray is suitably slimy, Cushing uses the term “transmogrification” to prove he is a scientist, and Gambon's slightly troubled expression doesn’t change throughout, even when playing out one of the most tedious car chase scenes in 1970s cinema.