Category Archives: TV

Irish monsters, silent lovers and a controversial Velma

GRABBERS (2012) is an Irish ET Monster film in which a meteor storm deposits tentacled flesh eating horrors on the coast of Ireland; the one chance the local village has is that the creatures find alcohol as deadly as the aliens in I Married a Monster From Outer Space (the creators are aware the jokes write themselves but that doesn’t stop them cracking the jokes). This is a solidly entertaining film and for once the mass of tentacles doesn’t look like just overdone CGI. “It’s always the quiet places where the mad shit happens — just look at the paper.”

PAID TO LOVE (1927) is the earliest extant film by future Thing from Another World director Howard Hawks, a silent comedy in which a banker agrees to invest in a struggling postage-stamp kingdom if he and the monarch can convince the car-crazy heir to the throne (“He won’t even look at a girl if she doesn’t have eight cylinders and a carburetor.”) to find a woman and ensure continuation of the dynasty. The solution is to hire an actor to seduce him but on the way to court the woman falls in love for real with a man she thinks is but an ordinary member of the royal guard.

Like most of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films, nothing about this feels distinctive to the future great director, nor particularly entertaining. The most fun comes in early scenes such as a seedy but quiet Paris bar that fakes underworld brawls for the tourist trade. William Powell plays a lecher. “What he needs is a female alarm clock to wake him up.”

When HBO Max announced the VELMA animated TV series I had my doubts — a Scooby-Doo based series with no Scooby? — but there have been equally implausible prequels I’ve enjoyed. And I do think that diversifying the cast makes good sense (Velma’s Indian-American, voiced by show co-creator Mindy Kaling, and Daphne is Asian-American). However the story of how Velma brought the human members of the team together has the same kind of meanness I despise in Rick and Morty, generally unlikable characters, and the first episode felt blandly, generically edgy. Learning the second episode has a bad #metoo joke (Velma claims she says the truth without filters, “like comedians before metoo!”) killed what interest I might have had. If I get the itch for Scooby Doo material there’s no shortage of better out there. “Have you ever noticed how pilot episodes of TV shows always have more gratuitous sex and nudity than the rest of the episodes?”

I watched the first couple of episodes of the British 1966 TV series THE BARON recently and while not as distasteful as Velma, it’s not very interesting. American actor Steve Forrest plays John “the Baron” Mannering (he has nothing in common with the John Creasey series protagonist he’s nominally based on) a London antiques dealer who in the opening episode gets entangled in international intrigue. What follows is by-the-numbers TV spy stuff, though it does make a fascinating capsule of mid-1960s fashion, cars and Cold War attitudes. The second episode, by veteran Doctor Who writer Terry Nation, has a great opening and a wonderful weasel of a villain, but ultimately it’s more of the same. So I think my viewing time can be better spent elsewhere.

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Resident Alien, second season, with spoilers, plus seasons of other things

The first season of RESIDENT ALIEN ended with Harry (Alan Tudyk) flying home, knowing his people will eventually destroy humanity, only to discover Max (Judah Prehn) in his back seat. At the start of the second season Harry returns to Patience, Colorado and sets out to ensure that his friend Asta (Sarah Tomko) survives. She, however, pushes him to do more — can’t he convince his people to call off the apocalypse?Things get much more complicated when Harry makes contact with another alien from his world and learns the invasion has been called off: another race has laid claim to the Earth and his people don’t want to fight for it. It turns out the Greys have infiltrated human society via human/alien hybrids (shades of the X-Files) including General McAlister’s (Linda Hamilton) X-files-type black ops project. At the end, Harry’s joined forces with McAlister to fight for the Earth but can they succeed?

There’s a lot going on in the middle of all this: Max’s parents fight over plans for a new Patience resort, Darcy (Alice Wetterlund) getting back into skiing and getting hooked on pain meds, Asta’s relationship with the kid she gave up for adoption, Harry adopting an alien baby and more. If anything, the show got a little overstuffed on subplots, with some of them giving the actors something to do for a couple of episodes, then wrapping up way too quickly — though one subplot, involving Kate’s (Meredith Garretson) pregnancy, took a surprising twist.

The cast is great and Tudyk, as in S1, is amazing as the egocentric, selfish, but not unredeemable extraterrestrial. However the shift to a serious alien invasion plot (somehow when it was Harry’s people it was still more comedy than horror) doesn’t work for me, and I’m not sure they can pull it off, though the sitcom People of Earth managed it. I may not be alone in that: ratings dropped in the second half of the season and SyFy has cut the S3 order from 12 to eight. But if I’m wrong and S3 is awesome, I’ll be delighted.

The third season of MCMILLAN AND WIFE, by contrast, stuck true to form. Mac and Sally (Rock Hudson, Susan St. James) visit the McMillan ancestral home in Scotland (Death of a Monster .. Birth of a Legend), deal with a Satanic cult The Devil You Say), investigate a murder involving Mac’s old espionage team (The Man Without a Face), try to figure out how a man can jump out a skyscraper window and disappear (Free Fall to Terror) and in the season’s final episode have Mac impersonate the gigolo who impersonated him the previous season (Cross and Double Cross). The cast is enjoyable — seeing Mac and Mildred (Nancy Walker) dance the tango in Cross and Double Cross is a classic scene — and the mysteries are fun though often straining credulity (and the Satanic cult is about as cliched as you could ask for). On to S4!

I never caught the 1984-6 ROBIN OF SHERWOOD when it aired on cable here but since it’s on Britbox, I tried the first season. Michael Praed plays a Saxon whose village was butchered by the Normans; years later, the spirit Herne the Hunter summons him to become a champion of his people. In the two-part first episode, Robin pits himself against a sorcerer with very nasty plans for Marian (Judi Trott) but most episodes pit him against the conniving, cunning sheriff (Nickolas Grace) and the much less intelligent bullying knight Guy of Gisborne (Robert Addie. Praed’s good as Robin and the show has a scruffier, more down to Earth tone than Errol Flynn’s classic swashbuckler. On the downside, I watched it anticipating a sword-and-sorcery fantasy but despite Herne’s presence it’s mostly mundane episodes. However I did like the ending episode with John Rhys Davies’ Richard the Lionheart proving just as flawed a king as John, in contrast to the usual swashbuckler cliche that restoring the rightful king will fix everything.

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Bing Crosby singing White Christmas twice (and other Christmas stuff)

 I might have skipped WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954) this year but it filled a morning when I was too busy with dogs to read. A fine piece of Hollywood craftsmanship, this has Broadway superstars Danny Kaye and Bing Crosby falling respectively for sisters Vera Allen and Rosemary Clooney, then staging a production of the guys’ hit Broadway show to save their former general’s Vermont inn from going belly up. Ethan Mordden’s Coming Up Roses makes me realize the kind of plotless musical revue Kaye and Crosby produced was a dinosaur by ’54 but it does give the film maximum freedom to throw in whatever musical numbers make for the most fun. So why fuss when it’s so much fun? “You’re happy for the wrong reason which is the same as being lonely and miserable, only worse.”

Bing Crosby first sang “White Christmas” in 1942’s HOLIDAY INN (1942) after his character loses his woman to Fred Astaire, then retires from the showbiz rat race to open a country inn that only opens holiday weekends. But when Astaire shows up (the woman having dumped him too) and puts moves on Crosby’s leading lady, will romantic history repeat itself?

I’ve often thought how lucky it was that the minstrel-show numbers in White Christmas weren’t in blackface and this movie confirms it: Bing blacks up for his Lincoln’s Birthday number about Honest Abe freeing the slaves and it’s not pleasant to watch at all. The movie, in any case, is much less entertaining, with a weaker supporting cast, weaker female leads and a much weaker plot so I’m not missing much if I never see it again. It is of historical note that while the original lyrics to “White Christmas” set it on “a lovely day/in Beverly Hills LA” (you may have heard them occasionally on some cover versions), when Bing sang it for this film without that opening, Irving Berlin had his publisher strike the opening off the sheet music — it worked better without. “What a girl — always seeking greener pastures and ending up with spinach.”

CHASING CHRISTMAS (2005) once again has Tom Arnold as the target of “the annual Christmas guilt trip,” which leaves stressed out Christmas Past (Leslie Jordan) disrupting the time stream (“If you talk to your past self we could return to a present ruled by giant apes!”), Arnold falling for Christmas Present and Present discovering how easy it is to steal a car in 1965 (“Nobody locked the doors and here’s where everyone kept the spare keys.”). A fun one I’m glad to add to my Christmas perennials list “Were you not listening to the dead fish guy?”

KARROLL’S CHRISTMAS (2004) apparently didn’t click with most viewers as I didn’t turn it up anywhere but YouTube. But I enjoy the story of pissed-off greeting-card writer Karroll getting saddled with even more dour Wallace Shawn’s ghostly Christmas Eve visit (“Couldn’t you pretend to be him? It’d make the paperwork much easier?”) even though it’s pointless for Karroll to go through it — and he certainly doesn’t have any Christmas issues to work out, right? With a black Jacob Marley (“My ancestor spent some time on his family’s Jamaican plantation, mon.”), a Jewish Christmas Present and Vern Troyer as Christmas Yet To Come; Arnold’s ex in Chasing Christmas plays Shawn’s estranged daughter. “He’s suing them on Christmas Eve — wow, I just realized that makes it a Santa suit!”

I haven’t watched THE GREAT SANTA CLAUS SWITCH (1970) since I first saw it and apparently not many people do (it’s another one I only found on YouTube). This Muppet special starts Art Carney as both Santa and the conniving sorcerer Cosmo Scam, who plans to replace Santa Claus, then rob every home in the world on Christmas Eve — but will his monstrous Muppet lackeys go along when they learn about the magic of Christmas? This feels like a dry run for stuff Henson would be doing better later (Cosmo’s familiar is physically the prototype for Gonzo) and Carney’s performance doesn’t match The Night of the Meek, but this did make for a pleasant time filler. “I made a vow to leave this Earth just a little bit worse than I found it.”

Like White Christmas, CHRISTMAS IN CONNECTICUT (1945) proved a good choice while I was busy with dogs as I know it so well. Barbara Stanwyck plays the homemaker/columnist who can’t cook, Dennis Morgan kisses married women, Sidney Greenstreet puts words in Stanwyck’s mouth (“I felt like Charlie McCarthy.”) and Una O’Connor and SZ Sakall debate the difference between Irish stew and goulash. Always a pleasure. “You don’t understand Mr,. Yardley — we meant to get married.”

Rewatching NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989) confirmed it doesn’t make my personal perennial list (I have friends who adore it though) but the story of the Griswold’s dysfunctional family Christmas with William Hickey and Randy Quaid among the gather relatives is watchable enough to fill time.

Moving on to new stuff — A NOT-SO-MERRY CHRISTMAS (2022) is a Mexican comedy (it’s the first time in years I’ve watched something dubbed that wasn’t anime) in which a man learns his sour attitude towards his family, Christmas, and his family at Christmas has cursed him with amnesia for the other 364 days of the year. Effectively time-jumping from Christmas to Christmas leaves him as bewildered as Adam Sandler in Click until, of course, he learns What Really Matters. A “talking lamp” but one of the better ones I caught this month. “Have you never seen a Christmas movie? I’m not going to spell it all out for you.”

A CHRISTMAS MYSTERY (2022) is another good one, a very Nancy Drew tale as the daughter of a small-town sheriff stubbornly starts investigating when her BFF’s father is arrested for stealing the town’s lucky McGuffin (bells supposedly fallen from Santa’s sleigh!); in the process, she brings together not only her own family but heals a couple of others. Sweet and winning, with even the bad guy’s family getting a sort-of happy ending; Beau Bridges plays the worried mayor. “I’ve learned a lot sitting at the police station doing my homework.”

YOUR CHRISTMAS OR MINE? (2022) is a British rom-com where a young couple pull a Gift of the Magi by crashing each other’s family Christmas, leaving the guy stuck with the girl’s lively, loud family (and the fiancee he didn’t know she had ) while the woman winds up dealing with his icy aristocratic father in a fusty old mansion. This worked better for me than most Christmas romances but suffers from their respective discomfort not balancing out, just as the reveal the female lead is a former street magician pales compared to the guy having abandoned his family’s military-officer tradition. “Let me put it this way, a lot of people would have to croak for me to get the crown.”

THE NOEL DIARY (2022) is also better than average, but not as much to my taste, as a woman hunting her birth mother and a guy grieving his own mother’s death find themselves bonding. “You know that saying, time heals all wounds? It doesn’t.”

I BELIEVE IN CHRISTMAS (2022) was. by contrast, a flat rom-com in which a woman who hates Christmas discovers she’s fallen for a Christmas-holic — which wouldn’t be so bad to watch but the plot took so long to get going, I gave up.

As always TYG and I wrapped up the Christmas viewing with A CHRISTMAS STORY (1984) in which Peter Billingsley writes the perfect theme for his teacher, Darren McGavin misses his shot at Christmas turkey, a boy’s tongue sticks to a flag pole and Billingsley worries he really has shot his eye out. I was amused that having ended this on HBO Max last as the credits rolled, the system remembered and started there again (I rewound, of course). Always a delight. “It’s a leg — like on a statue.”#SFWApro. Rights to all images remain with current holders; Witching Hour cover by Nicholas Cardy

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Is Christmas Eve the night of the meek — or the night the world exploded?

The TWILIGHT ZONE episode The Night of the Meek is a Christmas perennial for me, though the permutations in streaming offerings mean that instead of watching it on Hulu or Netflix I wound up buying the episode on Amazon. Ar Carney plays a drunken department-store Santa (“I either drink or I weep, and drinking is so much more subtle.”) fired on Christmas Eve, returning to his poor, miserable tenement neighborhood … and finding a sack that enables him to give everyone any gift they ask for.Serling was a master at giving tormented losers a happy ending and the show makes the miserable, rundown setting look genuinely miserable, giving the miracle that much more punch. And Carney is a better dramatic actor than I think he usually gets credit for. “Yes I’m drunk — intoxicated with the spirit of Yule!”

Ordering and viewing that episode took longer than expected so I wound up watching THE NIGHT THE WORLD EXPLODED (1957) to fill the time. When a series of disastrous earthquakes rock the world (literally — we’re told the world is tilting on its axis, though little is done with that aspect) a brilliant geologist and his lovesmitten assistant discover it’s due to a mineral that grows and explodes when exposed to air  (“There are 111 known elements — I think we’ve found 112.”), reminding me of the superior Monolith Monsters. Unfortunately this movie is a slow, talky production with lots of disaster stock footage, though running little over one hour forces it move faster than 1965’s talky Crack in the World. “We’re faced with the greatest emergency man has ever known — we don’t have time for red tape.”

The CLAYMATION CHRISTMAS SPECIAL is apparently not a perennial for most people as I couldn’t find it anywhere but YouTube. But I love the dramatization of multiple Christmas carols, the search for the meaning of “wassail” and the fact it’s a Christmas special narrated by two dinosaurs. The ending scene with the California Raisins was meant to cash in on their popularity back when they were a new advertising gimmick; while they’re now otherwise forgotten, they fit perfectly with the rest of the production. “I told you there was a Christmas song about snacks!”

The first time I caught JINGLE JANGLE: A Christmas Story (2020) I didn’t care for it but thought it might have been my mood at the time (I don’t remember whatever was harshing my mellow though). Apparently it was, because I rewatched it and thoroughly enjoyed the story of genius toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whittaker) losing his career, his family and his love of his craft thanks to scheming automaton Ricky Martin; when Jeronicus’ granddaughter comes to visit, can she turn things around? Charming; Phylicia Rashad plays the grandmother narrating the story. “The square root of possible is the summation from one to infinity.”

By contrast UNACCOMPANIED MINORS (2006) fit my mood perfectly — I needed a talking lamp and the story of four kids running wild in a snowbound airport while the PO’d Authority Figure tries taking them down required nothing more than an occasional glance at the screen. And I didn’t give it that many glances, though in fairness, I am not the age to be the target audience.

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A Christmas sequel, an X-File and Mr. Magoo: Christmas stuff viewed

I suppose the sequel A CHRISTMAS STORY CHRISTMAS (2020) was inevitable, just as it was inevitable it wouldn’t measure up to the original. Peter Billingsley, the original Ralphie, cowrote the story of how Ralphie in the 1970s is a husband, father and apparently a failed writer (you will never ever guess what story he writes that finally makes him a success); when his father dies right before Christmas, the family has to decamp for Christmas in the Midwest with Mom (Julie Haggerty), giving Ralphie a chance to catch up with the rest of the original cast. Part of why this doesn’t work is that I never felt Ralphie’s dad was the magical Christmas figure he’s retconned into here. “The term ‘breaking and entering’ has always had an unduly sinister tone.”

THE X-FILES: How the Ghosts Stole Christmas has a lonely Mulder drag Scully out on Christmas Eve to investigate a haunted house where the ghosts appear on Dec. 24 and drive the occupants to suicide. Scully’s skeptical (of course), Mulder’s confident this’ll be a cakewalk but the spectres have other plans … with Lily Tomlin and Ed Asner as the ghosts, this sixth-season episode is one of their oddball ones, but more engaging than usual (though Scully comes off even more irrationally rational than usual).  “Mulder, is that a gigantic hound I hear baying on the moor?”

Back to my Christmas perennials — MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL has the nearsighted old geezer playing Scrooge on Broadway in a delightful musical, with heart-tugging moments with young Scrooge, and some really great songs. The most remarkable thing is that at 52 minutes they fit in almost everything of importance, leaving out only Scrooge’s nephew “Guineas and threepence and twopence and bob/Give them away and nobody can rob/You.”

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It’s the season for some more of those “Christmas Carol things”

As I’ve written before, A Christmas Carol works on multiple levels: a story of regret when Scrooge sees all he’s lost, a man cut off from humanity learning to reconnect, a reminder that business works better when the people in charge aren’t shitty human beings. That’s not to say all screen adaptations work, however.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST (2021) is a name-only rom-com (it would double-bill well with the superior Ghosts of Girlfriends Past) in which a fortuneteller warns a young woman at the office Christmas party that unless she makes it up to all those guys she ghosted on, she will never find true love. This is not a bad principle but as most of the guys she dumped were only at the tentative-online-contact stage of relationships, it doesn’t feel she has that much to atone for (as someone who’s been ghosted that way, it’s frustrating but not that big a deal). “Ghosting is a really strong word with harsh connotations.”

By contrast SCROOGE (1970) is a solid adaptation of Dickens (though my friend Ross is a Christmas Carol buff and can’t get into this one) that boasts the star power of Albert Finney’s covetous, joyless moneylender, Michael Crawford’s Cratchitt, Dame Edith Evans’ Past, Kenneth Moore’s Present and Alec Guinness’ Marley. I don’t normally listen to the overture (taken from the stage show) on the DVD but reading recently about how those became a thing on Broadway in the 1950s (a sign of musicals taking themselves as serious theater), I did (it samples from all the musical highlights). I’d say this shows how Scrooge’s intense emotional swings from isolation to joy fit well with a musical format … but keep reading. “To be visited by a ghost at one o’clock int he morning is hardly conducive to my welfare.”

Netflix remade SCROOGE (2022) for animation this year and it does not improve, or even compare, to its predecessor (most Christmas adaptations can wring tears out of me; this one always missed it). This replaces much of the score and rock concert-izes the numbers that survive, which doesn’t work at all for me; what works even less is giving the arch-miser (underwhelmingly voiced by Luke Evans) a dog — seriously, if Scrooge had a dog he’d be as mean to it as the Grinch is to Max. They do a better job giving Scrooge an origin — Dad lost the family fortune, Scrooge worked through childhood to support them, so he’s obsessed with financial security — but throw in that one of his early foreclosure gigs was on toddler Bob Cratchitt’s family, something that never pays off (other than being the point that Isobel realizes he’s not the mans he wants). Outside of making it clear that Tiny Tim is really ill (most versions don’t do that) this brings zero to the table. “Look friend, there really is no great secret to any of this.”

Speaking of the Grinch, HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS gives us Ebenezer’s rival as Christmas grouch, the Boris Karloff-voiced (Thurl Ravenstone provides the singing) recluse who, as we all know, conceives a scheme to deny those annoyingly perky Whos their loudly happy Christmas celebration. Chuck Jones does an amazing job bringing Dr. Seuss’s poem and sketches to animated life, making this a Christmas perennial for me for around half a century now. “And then the true meaning of Christmas shone through/And the Grinch found the strength of ten grinches plus two!”

WKRP IN CINCINNATTI‘s “Bah Humbug” episode isn’t as well known as the infamous turkey drop, probably because it has no one scene or lines as memorable as “The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement.” It is, nevertheless, excellent in its own right as Carlson (Gordon Jump) decides to stiff the station staff on Chrstimas bonuses (he’s going to spend the money on new equipment to impress his mother) but after he eats one of Johnny Fever’s (Howard Hesseman) brownies, he finds himself trapped in one of those “Christmas Carol things” and learns the true meaning of Christmas. A favorite of mine. “We can’t forget that Carlson has Genghis Khan for a mother.”

GHOSTBUSTERS: X-Mas Marks the Spot has the animated version of the team stumble through time, save some old Victorian man from three ghosts on Christmas Eve, then return home to find that Scrooge’s classic book A Christmas Humbug has discredited the Christmas spirit forever. Can they put right what they once put wrong? Well, of course, but it’s fun watching them struggle to do it. “No, Scrooge, don’t touch the magic window!”

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Movies from Halloween to Christmas

HALLOWEEN ENDS (2022) has an aging Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) fretting that even with Michael Myers dead and gone, years of dealing with his attacks have warped her hometown of Haddonfield into a paranoid, fearful mess. Case in point, everyone’s convinced that a local guy whose babysitting charge died accidentally, years ago, killed the kid and got off; that leaves him enough of an outcast to bond with Laurie’s granddaughter but also with the ghost (I think) of Michael Myers …

Despite the film’s efforts to show Michael has joined the choir invisible, gone to meet his maker, become an ex-parrot etc., the implication he can possess others leaves them a path to Halloween: A New Beginning if they want to take it. That aside, this is a mixed bag for me. Curtis gives an amazing performance (“Did you really think I’d kill myself?”) but the babysitter’s arc doesn’t quite work. Still, getting me to watch another movie in this franchise (my last was Season of the Witch) is no small accomplishment. “Did Michael Meyers let you live — or did you escape?”

A SNOW WHITE CHRISTMAS (2018) kicks off my annual deluge of Christmas treacle with a mediocrity in which heiress Bianca’s scheming stepmother using hypnosis to erase the young woman’s memory, thereby ensuring she won’t remember to claim her inheritance before the stepmom gets it. The actors are weirdly self-conscious and mannered, like they couldn’t get into the story, not that I blame them. “It’ll be alright, Bianca — I have a hunter to help me.”

HAUL OUT THE HOLLY (2022) has a recently dumped woman stay in her parents’ home over Christmas while they’re in Florida, only to fall afoul of the homeowners’ association’s Christmas rules which penalize people for not getting Christmassy enough. And which are, of course, enforced by the Most Obnoxious, Most Irritating Man She’s Ever Met. Talking lamp material. “The first thing you do is think of tigers.”

CHRISTMAS ON REPEAT (2022) was more fun, even though it recycles cliches from all the other Christmas time-loop films I’ve seen, such as the protagonist playing matchmaker for her elderly neighbors. The protagonist hopes that if the time-loop keeps repeating she can meet the demands of both her boss and her family and make everything perfect — but is perfection what she really needs? I’ll give them a point for not having her simply choose family over job, though I’m also reminded of the complaint that showing the conflict as Love Vs. High Powered, High-Paying Job ignores that people often end up working 60 hours a week at very low-powered job. Still, this was pretty fun. “If you were up all night, why are you so perky?”The sixth and penultimate season of YOUNGER was enjoyable but feels a lot like shuffling pieces around the board. Last season Liza’s (Sutton Foster) relationship with Charles (Peter Hermann) firmed up but he wound up stepping away from the publishing company, leaving it in Kelsey’s (Hilary Duff) hands. This season has Charles launch his own company before finally returning to Empirical, after which Kelsey leaves, then comes back. And Josh (Nico Tortorella) just wanders around pointlessly now that he and Liza are no longer together. The most interesting element was Charles’ ex freaking out when she learns Liza’s not a twentysomething (losing your husband to a younger woman is one thing but a woman your own age?) and exposes the truth. Overall, it’s probably a good thing there’s only one season left. “Ladies, there are bulging crotches in your face — please focus.”

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Doctor Who in Flux! Jodie Whittaker’s final season (with spoilers)

The thirteenth Doctor, Jodie Whittaker, wraps things up with the six part Flux serial and three specials. I’m inclined to agree with most of the online commentary that Chris Chibnall’s farewell, like most of his run, didn’t quite work.It doesn’t help that Flux — the season-long story arc, a la The Invasion of Time —  follows on the big reveal of the previous season, that the Doctor had dozens of regenerations before the supposed First Doctor, all of which he spent in service to Division, a black ops organization on Gallifrey. The Doctor had the ability to regenerate before the Time Lords — indeed it was her foster mother’s research on the Doctor’s DNA that made it possible for other Gallifreyans to do it. I didn’t like this idea but I didn’t hate it as much as many fans did. However, this season makes it worse.

The Flux is a cosmic force that breaks into the universe, destroying everything. One alien race is trying to protect Earth from the damage; the Sontarans hope to exploit it and conquer whatever survives. A sadistic creature called Swarm wants to destroy the Doctor for imprisoning Swarm back in the Division era.

The Weeping Angels show up hunting the Doctor and Yaz (the other Whittaker companions have gone) but it turns out they’re working for the Doctor’s foster mum, the head of Division. That organization now encompasses multiple races and worlds, and Mom wants the Doctor to come back to them. They’ve relocated outside time-space so whatever damage destroys the universe, they can shift to another. Or the Doctor can stay behind and die.

The series carries over the conceit of the previous season that the Doctor is not only the star of the show but the star of the universe: even the Apocalypse is about destroying the Doctor. Division apparently has no interests other than the Doctor (we’re told they’re Big, Big, Big but we don’t see it). It’s as absurd as The Trouble With Girls but that comic-book series knew it was absurd; Chibnall’s Doctor Who doesn’t. “I approach everything with caution — or abandon, one of the two.”

The follow-up to thwarting Swarm, Division and Flux was three specials, with a fourth to come introducing the new Doctor (though it looks like Whittaker’s gone at the end of the third). Eve of the Daleks has the Doctor, Yaz, some bystandards, and some Daleks trapped in a time loop on New Year’s Eve. While the Doctor and Yaz remember everything from previous loops so do the Daleks, so there’s no advantage; can the Doctor break out of the loop before everyone dies? “The Doctor will not save you. The Doctor will never save you.”

The Legend of the Sea Devils was fun, but stuffed with enough elements it would have worked better as a four part serial in the old days.  In ancient China the Sea Devils are hunting down a priceless McGuffin, opposed by the Doctor and Chinese pirate queen Mrs. Chang. It’s fun, but not well structured. It does acknowledge Yaz and the Doctor have feelings for each other but the Doctor doesn’t want to act on them, knowing no Companion ever lasts. “That’s the trouble with history, it’s never like the books — sort of like Stephen King movies.”

The same can be said of what’s apparently Whittaker’s farewell, The Power of the Doctor. We have the Master posing as Rasputin, classic paintings getting transformed (so the Mona Lisa and The Scream show the Master’s face), mysterious volcanic eruptions, a cyber-planet appearing over pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Master regenerating the Doctor into a clone of himself, enabling him, he hopes, to blacken her reputation.

What makes it work is that along with Yaz and the Doctor we get Ace (Sophie Aldred), the seventh Doctor’s companion, and Tegan (Janet Fielding) from the Peter Davison era. Ace is as amazing as she was in the old show — informed that she needs to climb down inside a live volcano, penetrate a Dalek base and stop them blowing up the world, she grabs up an aluminum baseball bat — “I”ll show you how I smashed Daleks in ’63!” (a reference to Remembrance of the Daleks). And the ending, after Whittaker has an initial, temporary regeneration (into David Tennant — I’d sooner have Matt Smith or Christopher Eccleston), shows a Companions support group including Bonnie (sixth doctor), Jo and the First Doctor’s Ian (William Russell, still alive). And yes, a few of the surviving Doctors put in an appearance too (Ace seeing Seven again was a great touch). The nostalgia factor made me love this one despite its flaws. “I could call this The Master’s Dalek Plan — but I think I’ll just call it the day I finally killed you.”

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Only murderers on the road to Bali — it’s a gas!

I finally wrapped up the second season of ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING last weekend and it’s just as fun as the first season.After cracking last season’s murder, Charles, Oliver and Mabel are riding high, with their success reviving all their careers. Unfortunately there’s the awkward problem of Mabel found over the bleeding body of Arconia co-op president Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell) while holding the apparent murder weapon — because if they’ve gone from murders in the building to murderers in the building their careers are likely to tank as fast as they rose.

Who did the killing? How does someone keep sneaking into their apartments? Will rival podcaster Cynda Canning (Tina Fey) destroy their reputations? Who can they trust? And what does a valuable painting of Charles’ father have to do with anything? If you liked the first season, I think you’ll have fun finding out. S3 will be out some time next year. “My legs haven’t hurt like this since I directed one of Suzanne Sommers’ Thighmaster informercials.”

It says something that I’d have sworned I never caught THE ROAD TO BALI (1952) but checking this blog shows I watched it in 2011. The “Road” movies cast Bob Hope and Bing Crosby as traveling entertainers constantly stumbling into peril and comedy, but this was the tail end of the series (the final film would come a decade later) and the formula is definitely worn down. That said, there are lots of amusing bits in this story of traveling entertainers coping with sexy Indonesian princess Dorothy Lamour and sinister prince Murvyn Vye (there’s a lot of brownface makeup, so be warned) but the plot is too flimsy to support them. “What else can we fight over when we don’t have any money (that’s for Washington)?”

GAS! or It Became Necessary to Destroy the World In Order to Save It (1970) — also known as just plain Gas-s-s! — was the B side of the Wild in the Streets DVD I watched recently, but it’s a much less successful youthsploitation movie. An experimental WMD goes off, wiping out everyone over 25; the hippy protagonists wander around the country encountering a variety of weirdos and dealing with their own wacky issues.

This Roger Corman film isn’t as funny or freewheeling as it tries to be, but it has its interesting points. The developing local cultures they run into — footballers, golfers, car thieves — comes off now like a dry run for TV’s Genesis II or the comics’ Kamandi. It’s also one of several stories that involves an apocalypse without physical destruction, often wiping out only a particular subcategory of humanity — adults over 25 here, men in Y: The Last Man and true godly Christians in Left Behind and other Rapture-based stories. “Now that you are sole heir to our world you will have every opportunity to achieve wickedness.”

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Doctor Who, Season Twenty: The Return of Just About Everyone!

I liked Peter Davison’s first season of DOCTOR WHO but the second season as the Fifth Doctor topped it.

In the opening serial, Arc of Infinity, Adric is dead, Tegan has apparently quit as companion so it’s the Doctor and Nyssa alone in the TARDIS. As she starts to instruct him in all the repairs the ship needs, the Time Lords bring the Doctor whom and put him on trial, part of a scheme by a mystery villain. Meanwhile, Tegan goes looking for her brother who’s encountered something awful while visiting Amsterdam. Why yes, these plot threads do tie together — and behind them is Omega, the villain from The Three Doctors. The story ends, of course, with Omega defeated and Tegan back on board, but it’s fun getting there. Future Doctor Colin Baker has a supporting role as a Gallifreyan guard. “Think of me as a friend … who holds your continued existence in the palm of his hand.”

In Snakedance, the Doctor once again battles the Mara from the previous season’s Kinda. Once again the Mara take possession of Tegan (who gives an excellent Evil Tegan performance) as part of a scheme to obtain a mystical McGuffin that will let them materialize physically. It’s a good episode though the script reduces Nyssa to an exposition excuse. “What matters isn’t what you saw but that you saw anything at all.”

Mawdryn Undead introduces Mark Strickson as Turlough, an apparent schoolboy who’s actually an alien trapped on Earth (we don’t get any explanation how this came about — the Doctor and the women don’t even evince much curiosity). As he and the Brigadier (Nicholas Courtney, making the first of several return appearances) become involved with an alien scientist the Black Guardian (Valentine Dyall) congratulates Turlough on becoming the agent he will use to destroy the Doctor (avenging his defeat in the Key of Time arc) — or else. Turlough is the same kind of unreliable companion the show tried with Adric but Strickson’s a better actor. In thirty years of soldiering I have never seen as much destructive power as demonstrated here, by the British schoolboy.”

In Terminus the TARDIS lands on a space leper colony, nominally a research station for treating Lazar’s Disease but in practice just a way for futuristic Big Pharma to extract money for isolating the contagious victims while doing as little as possible for them. It’s a weaker story but it has its moments; alas, we also lose Nyssa, as she stays behind on Terminus at the end to help research a curse. It was the last time in the classic series we’d have three Companions, unless you count Kamellion (keep reading). “Charm, the way I use it, is to disagree agreeably.”

Enlightenment forces Turlough to finally pick a side. The TARDIS is caught up in a spaceship race between Eternals, cosmically powerful but bored beings who feed off human emotion. In the chaos of the race, the Black Guardian figures Turlough can finally dispatch the Doctor — but of course, it’s not really that easy. Another good entry, shelving the Black Guardian’s threat for a long time. “You are a Time Lord? Can so small a domain as time have lords?”

The King’s Demons was a two-part wrap-up in which the Doctor arrives at the court of King John of England (the script emphasizes he’s not as black a villain as popular history paints him) to find things going very off from history — which turns out to be because the Master’s out to destabilize it as part of his newest plan. This introduced Kamellion, a shape-shifting robot, as a new Companion, but technical problems in operating him meant he’d be sidelined for the next year (hence his absence from The Five Doctors below). This story isn’t bad but it’s definitely minor. “John — he’s the one who lost things in the Wash?”

And then, between this and the next season, we got The Five Doctors. It’s an event that will never be matched given that Pertwee, Troughton, Courtney and Liz Sladen (Sarah Jane) have all passed on; while the show used Richard Hurdnall to fill in for the late William Hartnell I don’t see much point in replacing that many people.

The story: a mysterious force plucks the five Doctors out of time and brings them to the Death Zone on Gallifrey, though the Fourth Doctor and second Romana end up trapped in a time vortex instead; both declined to appear in the special so we got a brief appearance from what was then the unfinished serial Shada.The Death Zone is the Time Lords’ dark secret: long before they learned to travel in time, they found a way to pull other creatures out of time and drop them in the Death Zone pitting the universe’s deadliest creatures against each other for sport. Now someone’s dropped the Doctors and assorted companions — Susan, Sarah Jane, the Brigadier, Tegan and Turlough (a couple more companions appear briefly) — into this battlefield; if any of them die, the Doctor gets retroactively wiped out. Horrified, the Time Lords offer the Master a fresh cycle of regenerations if he’ll rescue the Doctor; he agrees, though the Doctors understandably don’t trust him when he appears (it’s Anthony Ainsley’s best performance as the Master to date). Then there’s the question of who’s behind this plot and what, exactly, they’re plotting to achieve.

That was a wonderful one to watch.

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