That’s right, I’m back on my bullshit and doing Let’s Plays again.
The first rule of appreciating the “Xenaverse” established by Hercules: The Legendary Journey and Xena: Warrior Princess is to just go with the flow. This is especially important if, like me, history is your bag and/or you’re a bit of a mythology buff. Oh boy, is it important. Honestly, not that long ago, I had to have a chip installed in my brain to keep my head from exploding because of cognitive dissonance watching Xena‘s take on Greek and Roman history.
I write a lot, maybe too much, in this space about the significant changes in the entertainment of my youth and the entertainment of today and how these seismic shifts in the culture can be both good and bad. I really do think (with, of course, huge exceptions) that television and movies geared toward kids in the last decade or so are smarter and more well-crafted on a basic storytelling level than what I usually had when I was still a pre-teen. I mean, I love old-school Transformers, but compare that to, say, Gravity Falls or Steven Universe. By the same token, in our hyper-referential, irony-driven culture, I’m not entirely sure you could do a show like Xena. Yes, it did have its postmodern-y, self-referential episodes (including one where Xena and Gabrielle and the entire cast are bothered by a modern-day tabloid reporter interviewing everyone in character and in-universe), but there was also an earnestness about it in the midst of the camp that I don’t think could survive for long today. In a sense, it was both ahead of its time but also could only exist in that brief magical era in the mid-late ’90s when ironic referential culture was beginning to form but was far from its global conquest.
Hence we get a show where Xena faces off against one of the infamous rulers in history that also ends in a somber reflection on whether the means justify the ends. And still has lots of fan service for people of all sexualities.
Now your first question if you’re not familiar with the show is, “How could Xena fight Caligula? Isn’t she in pre-classical Greece or something? Did she time travel or what?” Don’t be ridiculous. In reality, it’s just that in the Xenaverse Ulysses, Hercules, Julius Caesar, Helen of Troy, and Homer all co-exist in roughly the same time period. But at the very least the show did have an almost three-decade time skip where Xena and Gabrielle pull a Rip Van Wrinkle in an icy cavern. Please bear with me and turn on your own anti-cognitive dissonance chips, if you have them.
It’s also important to note that Christianity also exists in the Xenaverse, but only sort of. They’re the Elijans, followers of an Indian magician named Eli who became a faith healer and preached a message of love and peace (and was unjustly killed, just not by Romans, but by Xena’s great frenemy, the god Ares) and who worship a “God of Love” who has angels and archangels working for it. “Wait”, you interrupt again. “How does this cosmology with what’s heavily implied to be the Christian monotheistic god but also all the various pantheons of gods who are explicitly referred to as gods work exactly?” To which I say, “If you want to spend your whole afternoon researching this stuff on the Hercules and Xena fan wiki, have at it. I’ve got better things to do like making my ramen and Rice-a-Roni meals for the week eventually.” The rest of the Cliff Notes version is that Xena has an adult daughter as a result of the aforementioned time skip who was named Eve but became Livia of I, Claudius and “being the real-life wife of the first emperor of Rome, Augustus” fame (!) and who is now basically the St. Peter to Eli’s Jesus (?!?) and is also the reincarnation of Xena’s archenemy Callisto who was also an angel for a while (?!?!?!). Oy, writing up a last season episode of continuity-heavy shows like this definitely is a job.
With all that out of the way, what happens is that the archangel Michael (just roll with it) enlists Xena to take out Rome’s new emperor, Caligula (played by the late Alexis Arquette), since 1) he’s not only claiming to be a god, but is becoming a god, 2) he’s persecuting the Elijans, and 3) Xena has to be the one to strike down Caligula since she still has the power to kill gods given to her by the God of Eli so that she could pull a Kratos before there was a Kratos and slaughter the Greek pantheon except for Ares and the goddess of love Aphrodite (definitely just roll with it). Xena, who isn’t exactly on the warmest terms with Michael, only agrees when she learns that her daughter Eve is leading the Elijans at Rome and is intent on confronting Caligula and trying to convert him. (Xena’s also hilariously unimpressed with Caligula’s track record: “He’s a pscyho, a sex addict, and a murderer. Your run-of-the-mill Roman emperor.”) Investigating the root cause of Caligula’s godhood, Xena and Gabrielle find that their friend and goddess of love Aphrodite had gone downhill since her brother Ares lost his divinity. Because their influences on the world balanced each other, with Ares no longer a god, Aphrodite has lost her self-control and Caligula somehow seduced her in her confused, weakened state and is slowly absorbing her divinity (JRWI). Pretending to be a Celtic god of sex, Xena seduces Caligula into allowing her to challenge him to a chariot race (which, due to the show’s budget limitations, ends up taking place on a dirt road through the countryside). Unfortunately, Xena picked this one mission of deicide to threaten to drown Michael when she discovers that he decided to fix the problem by trying to force Xena’s hand by placing Eve in danger and then attempting to murder Aphrodite directly. This provokes the God of Eli into revoking Xena’s deicide abilities. Taking plan B, Xena convinces a now fully divine Caligula to go ahead with the chariot race, with Eve’s life as the prize. She takes her victory as an opportunity to turn the Roman crowd against Caligula (which, because this is Hollywood Caligula, isn’t that hard to do) and convince him that the only way he could become truly immortal and win the respect of future generations is by killing himself. He does so, leaving a depowered Aphrodite and a regretful Xena, who tells Gabrielle that Caligula was never evil, only “broken.”
Honestly, it would take at least 400 pages to cover all the historical inaccuracies here, but I do want to say I kind of wonder if the screenwriter confused Caligula with his nephew and later emperor Nero. There’s references to Caligula “killing his family” but that was more Nero’s thing given that he had his cousin/stepbrother, two cousins/stepsisters, and his own mother killed (Caligula actually had a better track record in this regard; while he did have a cousin of his murdered, even though two of his sisters were involved in a conspiracy to kill him, he only exiled them). Also there’s the Elijans/Christians being persecuted and having to hide out in the catacombs thing. And there’s a scene where Caligula is haunted by the taunting voice of his mother, who implies that he had murdered her. I guess it’s possible the script was written with Nero in mind but it was changed to Caligula for unknown reasons. Whatever they were, I like to think it was because the show’s producer Sam Raimi thought it was too incredulous to have Xena around to meet Julius Caesar and Augustus and then Nero. That’s just silly.
Also, while Rome’s second emperor and Caligula’s predecessor Tiberius is brought up very briefly, the fact that if Livia is Xena’s daughter, Tiberius should be Xena’s grandson is not. I can understand why, but there is a missed opportunity in making Xena not only the inventor of CPR and Santa Claus, but also a direct ancestor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty.
So does Alexis Arquette measure up to the role? Well, not really, but, after all, she’s up against the likes of John Hurt and Malcolm McDowell. And, really, there isn’t much you can do with Hollywood Caligula on a PG rating, although she is clearly having a great time with the role and at least they give us a pretty blatant suggestion that Xena is trying to win over Caligula with the suggestion of a bisexual four-way. The interesting thing, though, is that Alexis brings out a sympathetic look at Caligula’s madness, which builds up to Xena’s disgust at what she has to do to take the god-emperor down: talk him into suicide. They probably didn’t have all the recent scholarship on how Caligula was probably not literally insane in mind, but seeing the idea that Caligula should be an object of sympathy in this story of all places was a pleasant surprise that made me wish Alexis Arquette’s Caligula got to be a recurring member of Xena’s rogues gallery.
So, while this isn’t the best Caligula story by far nor the best Xena episode, I believe it does give a good look at the heart of the show. Xena is a compassionate and benevolent hero, no doubt, but she also nearly derails her own plans as a result of her rage against Michael, which leads her to rather explicitly torture and nearly kill him. The fact that she’s also able to cause Caligula’s own downfall via his own insecurities while also having sympathy for him despite his crimes says a great deal about why the show, unlike its sibling show Hercules, managed to strike such a powerful chord despite its campiness.
And, yes, indeed, there is a homoerotic scene of Xena and Gabrielle giving each other a bath. Seriously, did people ever doubt that this was intentional?
Oy, I promise I’ll try to do these more often than just twice a year…
At Wenley Moor Research Centre, which is located in a vast system of caverns in northern England, UNIT and the Brigadier are investigating mysterious power outages impacting experiments with a new proton accelerator, the cyclotron. When initial investigations go nowhere and it turns out that members of the centre’s staff are either disappearing in the caverns or having violent breakdowns, the Brigadier orders the Doctor and Liz to come to northern England. The Doctor grumpily says, “I never report myself anywhere, particularly not forthwith”, but Liz convinces him to go if only as an excuse to test drive his car, Bessie.
At the centre, the Doctor finds himself up against two tense authority figures, the head of the project, Dr. Lawrence, and the security chief, Major Baker, who are both determined to see the experiments continue no matter the cost since they both staked their careers on the cyclotron’s success. At the same time, a scientist couple on staff, Dr. Quinn and Dr. Dawson, know the cause of the power outages, but keep it to themselves. Meanwhile the Doctor sets out to explore the caverns, only to come across, to his shock, a dinosaur. The creature threatens him, but it withdraws when it hears a musical note from deeper inside the cave. Major Baker theorizes that the dinosaur is a machine, set up by saboteurs acting à la “Scooby Doo”. However, the Doctor deduces that the creature was not only real, but being controlled by another being who was not hostile. Still, Major Baker, while exploring the caves on his own, has a violent run-in with something unknown.
Later, Dr. Quinn goes into a secret chamber. There he argues with a voice coming over the announcer. The voice demands that he find the voice’s companion, who was injured and lost on the surface after the confrontation with Baker. Dr. Quinn counters with a request that the voice stop draining so much power from the cyclotron, since that’s exactly what has caught UNIT’s attention, but the voice refuses until it’s ready to generate its own power and threatens to not give Dr. Quinn access to its technology. With that one threat, Dr. Quinn reluctantly agrees to find the voice’s injured comrade and accepts a summoning device. The said wounded and missing being is hiding out in a local barn, where it surprises a farmer who, after a brief struggle, dies from a heart attack. While investigating the barn for evidence, Liz is also set upon by the injured being. When she revives, she claims that her attacker was a reptilian humanoid.
As UNIT scours the area, Liz notices that Dr. Quinn’s behavior has gotten suspicious. Without alerting the Brigadier, the Doctor visits Dr. Quinn at this house and, without giving away what he knows, subtly offers to help him, but Dr. Quinn refuses. While snooping through Dr. Quinn’s office, Liz and the Doctor find a miniature globe that resembles the Earth before the Great Continental Drift during the “Silurian era”. Dr. Dawson catches them, but before she can rat them out to Dr. Lawrence, the Doctor quickly tells her that he knows Dr. Quinn is hiding something. Unfortunately, the Brigadier accidentally interrupts before the Doctor can get anything out of her.
Dr. Dawson beelines for Dr. Quinn and insists he confess, but Dr. Quinn has become quite unhinged by his experiences and believes that the Doctor is out to steal the Silurians’ scientific knowledge from him. To make sure that doesn’t happen, Dr. Quinn plans to hold the wounded Silurian hostage until the others tell him everything he wants to know. Although the Brigadier slaps down Major Baker’s insistence on an all-out military expedition in the caverns, under pressure from Dr. Lawrence he does agree to send more UNIT troops into the caves, despite the Doctor’s frantic warnings.
Desperate to prevent a violent confrontation, the Doctor follows his only lead and goes to Dr. Quinn’s house, only to find him dead and come face-to-face with a Silurian. The Doctor extends a hand in friendship and asks the Silurians how they can be helped, but he runs off as the Doctor shouts a warning that the humans will try to destroy them all unless they make their agenda clear. In the meantime, the Brigadier tries to put an increasingly paranoid Major Baker under lock and key, but he escapes into the caverns where the Silurians capture him. The Doctor does not report finding Dr. Quinn’s corpse, instead demanding that the Brigadier call off all military excursions into the caves and instead send in a scientific team. Following a map the Doctor found in Dr. Quinn’s house, the Doctor and Liz follow the directions into a hidden chamber in the caverns which the Doctor is able to unseal using the device Dr. Quinn was given. Inside they find a room full of mechanical devices and Major Baker being held in a prison. He informs the Doctor he’s been asked logistical questions about human society as if they were planning an invasion. The Doctor also observes that the Silurians are using power from the research centre to revive their own numbers from a hibernation state. Unable to do anything, even rescue Baker, the Doctor and Liz withdraw to the centre.
The situation deteriorates even further when Dr. Lawrence’s own superior, the Undersecretary, arrives and threatens to have the government shut down the research centre unless the experiments resume. Back in the Silurians’ base, their leader insists that humanity should be studied peacefully, but another Silurian angrily calls “the apes” “dangerous and hostile.” This is the same conclusion reached by the Brigadier and the Undersecretary about the Silurians. Just when the Doctor is about to convince them otherwise, though, a grief-stricken Dr. Dawson appears at the worst possible time, reporting that Dr. Quinn had been killed by the Silurians and admitting that he had been working for them the entire time.
The Doctor rushes back to warn the Silurians, but they imprison him. Also they tell him that Earth “always has been” their planet. They fled underground and went into hibernation when a “small planet” came into Earth’s orbit and seemingly threatened to rip away Earth’s atmosphere, which the Doctor figures was just the moon getting captured in Earth’s orbit. When the Brigadier and a UNIT squad set out to find the Doctor, the hostile Silurian traps them in an underground chamber and attempts to kill the Doctor, but he is stopped by the leader, who insists on negotiating with the humans. Back in UNIT headquarters, Dr. Dawson argues for the extermination of the Silurians. Liz puts forward an argument for compromise, but accidentally brings the Doctor’s absence to the attention of Dr. Lawrence and the Undersecretary and they force her to admit that he had gone to the Silurians. Meanwhile the Doctor convinces the Silurians to make peace with humanity, proposing that the Silurians can co-exist with humanity by building cities in the parts of the planet that are too hot for normal human habitation.
Just when peace seems possible, the militant Silurian infects Major Baker with a bacterium that was once used by Silurians as pest control when “apes” would raid their crops. A sick Baker, whose skin appears to be literally falling apart, shows up at the centre, exposing nearly everyone there to infection. Worse, Dr. Lawrence without the Brigadier’s permission sends Baker to a local hospital, spreading the contamination further. Despite the Brigadier’s best efforts to contain the bacteria through quarantine, the Undersecretary returns via train to London. Before too long, the Undersecretary becomes a victim of the disease and the bacteria spreads across the city, to the point where people are literally collapsing on the streets. Back at the centre, Dr. Lawrence and Dr. Dawson also succumb to the disease and die. Still, Liz and the Doctor find that they can inoculate themselves with conventional antibiotics and set to work on a cure for those already infected. Just as the Brigadier receives word that the plague has spread from London to France, the Doctor finally works out a cure.
Before he can no doubt brag about his achievement, he is attacked and abducted by the Silurians, who plan to force the Doctor to help them switch back on the centre’s power resources and revive the entire Silurian population. Then they intend use the cyclotron to essentially cause accelerated global warming to decimate the human race and make the planet more hospitable for them. But the Doctor has Liz overload the cyclotron, causing a chain reaction that will flood the entire area with radiation and forcing the Silurians to flee. Unfortunately, the plan backfires. The elevators to the surface have been sabotaged by the Silurians, so there’s no way for the Doctor and the humans to escape the centre either. Instead the Doctor manages to short-circuit the cyclotron, preventing an explosion.
While the Silurians return to hibernation, the new leader volunteers to sacrifice himself by staying behind and making sure sure the hibernation process is complete. Just as he does so, the Doctor appears and confronts him. The leader viciously attacks, but is shot down by the Brigadier. With the remaining Silurians in hibernation, the Doctor plans to revive them one by one, so they can be more easily reasoned with, and heads off with Liz on Bessie to get equipment and find scientists needed to investigate the Silurians. Just as Bessie breaks down on the countryside, though, the Doctor is left to watch in horror as explosives ordered by the Brigadier detonate, destroying the Silurian base and everyone inside.
Sign of the Times
The Brigadier and the Doctor gently forbid Liz from joining them down in the caverns, despite Liz complaining that she’s supposed to be “liberated”.
The Undersecretary: May I ask who you are?!
The Doctor: You may ask.
Obviously, it’s the first appearance of the Silurians, one of the most iconic races in the franchise that has appeared largely as villains, albeit much more sympathetic ones than, say, the Cybermen, but also as allies (Madame Vestra from the “new” series).
The Third Doctor’s car, although it did appear before in “Spearhead from Space” , gets its name “Bessie” in this episode and its iconic yellow paint.
It’s heavily implied that human beings have some kind of intense, primal reaction to the very sight of the Silurians, but needless to say, this hasn’t really carried over to their later appearances. Nor has the psychic powers they exhibit here carried over to their more recent appearances. Presumably the fact that their appearance has radically changed over the course of the series has been explained by the fact that the Doctor has encountered different sub-species of the Silurians. I haven’t been able to confirm it, but I think the redesign of the Silurians in the “new” series is also meant to retroactively imply that the Silurians here are wearing elaborate helmets.
In one of the series’ most famous science goofs, the use of the term “Silurian era” is incorrect. The Silurian era is the geological period when the first terrestrial animals appear, not when dinosaurs were widespread. In fact, reptiles didn’t even evolve until the next geological period, the Devonian, which was still 24 million years away, give or take a few million.
Another big one is the cause for why the Silurians went underground and into hibernation. They mistakenly believed that a “small planet” heading toward Earth would have torn away the atmosphere, but the Doctor figures out they’re referring to the moon. Not only has the hypothesis that the moon was a planetoid that got caught in Earth’s orbit largely been discarded in favor of the proposal that the moon formed out of the Earth’s mass during the planet’s formation after a celestial collision, but the moon formed about 4.5 billion years ago, inconceivably long before life on Earth could exist. (I should be fair and admit that this might have been a prevailing hypothesis around 1970. I honestly couldn’t verify that, so it might be too cruel to call it a goof.)
Oh, boy, I wasn’t exaggerating when I said that the Third Doctor era represented a darker turn for the show. Here you have (somewhat) morally complex villains and a conclusion where one of the recurring heroes of the show essentially commits genocide. In the novelization, it’s instead said that the explosions only sealed away the Silurians’ base. Here, though, it’s made abundantly clear what the Brigadier does with the Doctor saying he “wiped out” the Silurians.
The Brigadier better be glad he was working with the Third Doctor and not the Tenth! He’d mess up your life for way less than that.
Anyway, this episode does a fascinating job of being a kind of deconstruction of the Second Doctor era and even “Spearhead From Space”. Instead of an innately violent and hostile species like the Daleks, you have a species that is alien (at least in the sense that they’re non-human, but not extraterrestrial) but composed of individuals with different assumptions and agendas. Granted this is mostly in the implication; there’s pretty much just one “good” Silurian and the rest are either just grunts or are mostly bad. I say “mostly” bad because even the worst of the Silurians, the one who murdered the more reasonable leader, is willing to sacrifice himself to secure the well-being of his people. Granted it was in response to a false threat, but still, while it may be shallow characterization by the modern standards of the show, it’s leaps and bounds over what we’ve generally seen from the show regarding its alien villains as well as most of its human villains so far.
And as if that’s not enough, we also have the Brigadier killing the entire remnant of the species (well, so everyone believed at the time). Even knowing what was coming, it still came across as a shocking climax for me. The show pulls no punches in either making the magnitude of what the Brigadier has done clear or in depicting the Doctor’s sincere optimism at one day reconciling humanity and the Silurians turn to despair. And this is only the second story of the season!
Anyway, this is simply one of the best stories in the franchise’s history, which hasn’t lost much of its original boldness even decades later, and it’s just in general a good case study of how you can do a strong story that deconstructs the show’s past well without undermining your basic premise.
If in the mid-late ’90s you watched a lot of movies over the weekend on USA Network (like me), you may recall being exposed to a quirky horror/sci-fi anthology film titled Future Shock. But, like me, you might not have even remembered the actual title of the film, instead only recalling a memorial scene where a shy, uptight man is driven to shout “Satan’s slut!” in recognition at seeing a woman’s dead body. Indeed, if you’re even more like me, you might have thought that the line “Satan’s slut!” was said multiple times, which, sadly, isn’t the case.
If not that, you might know this movie for Vivian Schilling, the writer/director and star of Soultaker of MST3K notoriety and who stars in the first segment, “Jenny Porter”. And if not that, you might have heard this movie stars Bill Paxton in its second and most well-known segment, “The Roommate”, or that the third writer/director to contribute to this anthology through its last segment, “Mr. Petrified Forrest”, is Matt Reeves, who created the TV series Felicity, directed the modern Planet of the Apes films, and has recently been tapped to fire up a new Batman film franchise yet again.
The narrative glue that brings this anthology together concerns Dr. Langdon (the hugely prolific Martin Kove), a psychologist who delves into the cutting edge of ’90s virtual reality for therapeutic purposes, treating his patients’ phobias and anxieties by subjecting them to intense and convincing false memories. Each of the anthology’s stories revolves around a different patient: a wealthy woman Jenny (Vivian Schilling) faces her fear of being home alone as she experiences being stalked by a mysterious wolf-like creature that defies even her paranoid security measures; a shy, neurotic, and easily intimidated morgue attendant George (Scott Thompson) gets stuck with the ultimate roommate from hell Vince (Bill Paxton), but things quickly get far more serious than just sleepless nights and late rent payments when George becomes the prime suspect in the brutal murder of Vince’s one-night stand, “Satan’s slut” (Timothi-Jane Graham); and a photographer Fred, after witnessing the sudden death of a close friend, has to choose between conquering his paranoia about death and a blossoming romantic relationship with a woman named Elfie (Pat Alexander)…that is, if he hasn’t already been marked by death itself.
As an anthology, it actually works quite well. The theme of being irrationally paralyzed by fear actually runs strongly through all three vignettes and the tone and quality remains consistent, although I do agree with the critical consensus—well, such as it is out there—that “Jenny Porter” is the best of the segments, especially in how it communicates a genuine feeling of helplessness and dread. It’s undermined a little by some constant shots of wolves and dogs where the story would have been better served by keeping the threat reduced to growls from an invisible source, but that’s a mild complaint for an otherwise genuinely well-presented and well-acted study of terror in isolation.
But that’s not to say the other two segments are worth skipping; far from it. “The Roommate” is darkly funny from how Bill Paxton captures the spirit of a grown-up bully in the same mold as the thug who kicks sand in the skinny guy’s face at the beach to George’s boss, who is (mostly) mute and communicates his emotions and instructions through very grim facial expressions. And while “Mr. Petrified Forrest” is probably ill-fitting for what is to some degree a horror anthology, it does its work through some pretty effective storytelling, like a fairly subtle scene where Fred’s father nearly breaks through his son’s paranoia but he realizes some badly timed news has made his efforts futile. It also has some beautiful shots, from Fred slowly watching a small plane that crashed and is burning in someone’s front yard to him sitting in bed bathed in blue and surrounded by film stock, highlighting his fear and its consequences better than dialogue ever could. There isn’t much to say about the framing story about Dr. Langdon because it isn’t much of a story in of itself, although it does also have a genuinely funny section in which a staff member frightens away a couple of prospective patients by arguing about a previous patient who went insane from the virtual reality treatment on the phone.
That said, there are some baffling creative choices here and there. There’s a bizarre sequence meant to communicate the idea of a “food chain” that involves a random man who is implied to have violently kicked a dog for no reason (!!). Also the ending, which sees Dr. Langdon apparently tempted by his own virtual reality device or questions his own sense of reality, and a brief scene where Jenny’s virtual reality experience is being observed by a group of doctors within the dream itself don’t really make sense and feel like remnants of an earlier draft of a script left in. This is somewhat supported by the fact that this movie had an indie comic book adaptation of all things, discussed by Linkara here, which does give more context to both the doctors and the ending with Dr. Langdon, but in my research I couldn’t verify if the comic is actually based on an earlier draft of the script, in which Dr. Langdon had much more sinister motives but was also himself a patient experiencing virtual reality, or if the comic was deliberately “dumbed down” for a stereotypical comic book readership or a little from column A and column B.
As for the movie itself, it doesn’t quite transcend its low budget, so it has an unpolished feel, which depending on your tastes is part of its charm or one of its flaws. Nor do all three of the segments seem to have been originally written for the virtual reality motif. Only “Jenny Porter” really feels as if it was intended for the framing story. “The Roommate” has a twist ending that really doesn’t make sense as part of George’s virtual reality experience while “The Petrified Mr. Forrest” has its own framing device of sorts, Fred having a near-death experience in Purgatory, which means in a way that the story is double framed. Again, though, the stories do share and effectively convey a common theme, which is more than can be said for a lot of movie anthologies.
While I’m more conscious of the flaws here than I was when I first saw the movie as a kid, I’m still very fond of it. It’s genuinely a solid anthology that I would still say is worth watching if you catch it on YouTube or dig up the DVD or VHS copy somewhere. This is even more true today, as it’s the sort of creative, low-budget movie that’s sadly an endangered species in our current era of mega-media monopolies and creatives who are spoiled by choice for potential platforms yet are starved of opportunities for getting their work out there.
Despite being a child of the ’80s and ’90s, I actually did get a fairly steady diet of sitcoms from the ’60s thanks to Nick at Nite. Catering to boomer nostalgia, the channel used to take up the nighttime air time after Nickelodeon’s kid-geared programming, so I wasn’t the only couch potato-in-training of my generation who managed to get exposed to yesteryear’s sitcom hits.
My favorite sitcoms, of course, were the ones coming out of the ’60s fad for outlandish sitcom premises: I Dream of Genie, Gilligan’s Island, and, of course, Mr. Ed, the story of a married man in Los Angeles named Wilbur and the horse that talks to him alone. And, no, you can’t even joke à la Jon and Garfield that Wilbur is hallucinating that Ed can talk because, yes, it’s canon that Mr. Ed can talk to other people; he just doesn’t want to for reasons…although you could probably still make the argument that Wilbur suffers from a particularly complex case of dissociative identity disorder.
The show’s running gag is that Mr. Ed, despite caring about Wilbur, apparently enjoys making him appear as deranged as possible to his wife and neighbors. This is made somewhat easier by the fact that Wilbur is hardly the post-World War II American masculine ideal. Actor Alan Young, to liberally paraphrase one of the show’s creators, was brought on to portray Wilbur as the sort of guy who would talk to his horse. If this does sound kind of like the relationship of Jon Arbuckle and Garfield, albeit with Jon supposedly not being able to understand Garfield, well, you’re not the only one. Maybe instead of dissociative identity disorder, it’s a demon that possesses animals and preys on socially awkward men?
That Mr. Ed is at least occasionally malevolent is definitely the premise of this adventure. Mr. Ed went running off around the neighborhood (did that kind of thing happen in the suburbs of southern California during the ’50s and ’60s?), causing Wilbur to miss a town meeting his wife Carol wanted him to attend. Mr. Ed is upset that a new member of the neighborhood, Clint Eastwood, has an alpha-male horse Midnight who is having an affair with his fillies. Note the plural. I guess being non-human means Mr. Ed is totally unrestrained by the mores of ’50s/’60s American television, given that the show makes it very clear that he basically has a horse harem.
Clint Eastwood gets further into poor Wilbur’s orbit when Carol retaliates for Wilbur’s disappearance by nominating him in absentia to head a committee for raising money for a neighborhood youth center. His only ally is his neighbor Roger, who was also drafted by his wife Kay. So Wilbur is not only stuck with a wife stewing with rage, but he is stuck with having to write a script for a play to put on to raise money.
You probably see where this is going already. What you might not predict is that Mr. Ed can somehow use a phone and dial, a convenient loophole to his own “only speaking to Wilbur” rule. Exploiting the fact that, at the time, neighborhoods often shared one phone line, Mr. Ed ruthlessly pranks Clint Eastwood and sabotages his conversations with a studio executive and his girlfriend, costing him a movie role and a relationship.
Suspecting Wilbur, a shockingly young Clint Eastwood is about to beat him up. In what I thought was the episode’s funniest bit, a star-struck Roger is somewhere between being nonchalant and outright egging Eastwood on about the whole thing. Alas, both Roger and the viewer is bound to be disappointed. Clint Eastwood is not only easily talked down from violence, but readily volunteers one of his old Western scripts to provide the basis for the fundraising play. Luckily, Carol getting enlisted as a hot frontier town lady also finally gives her the push needed to patch things up with Wilbur.
As for Mr. Ed’s problems…well, they get resolved pretty neatly through the power of convenient coincidence. It turns out that Clint Eastwood sold Midnight to a studio and got a hot, new filly, whom Mr. Ed promptly sets out to seduce. A promising subplot, in which Clint Eastwood volunteers to train and “discipline” Mr. Ed, doesn’t even really get off the ground once the whole plot is resolved!
It is interesting and a little disconcerting to see a very young Clint Eastwood, still mostly known just for his starring role in the TV Western Rawhide at the time of this episode, but how much you get out of this episode, and any episode of Mr. Ed really, depends on your taste for jokes like:
“Clint Eastwood does not ride bareback.”
“Then why does he call his show Rawhide?”
(Although it does make you wonder if certain slang terms that are prominent today had the same meaning back then…)
If you belong to my generation or younger, it’s also weird how much shows like this were completely and fatally deconstructed by shows like The Simpsons, namely for their tame jokes and the easily resolved conflicts and the lack of character growth. Experiencing the satire before the subject of the satire definitely gives shows like this a kind of unintended veneer that doesn’t exactly spoil them, at least for me, but also definitely doesn’t really make it easy to enjoy them on their own terms.
That said, it’s usually not fair to write off sitcoms from this era as being entirely toothless, and this episode is no exception. The show’s running gag about the quiet desperation that is the Addisons’ marriage actually has a tiny bit of a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? vibe:
“Forget you’re married to him. Pretend you love him.”
“You know you and Roger are crazy about each other!”
“Yeah, but that’s the only thing holding our marriage together.”
I genuinely did laugh at those jokes. It’s just that, if you do choose to dive into Mr. Ed, it’s best to ignore the moments like when Clint Eastwood’s housekeeper helps in the rehearsal by playing a Native American. I try to argue that sometimes different times aren’t as different from our own as we assume…but sometimes, they really just are.
I promise this isn’t turning into a Doctor Who fan blog. Not yet, anyway.
The latest crop from Big Finish’s lucrative “alliance” with the BBC and the resulting welding of the “official” continuity and Big Finish’s own corner of the Who universe is another mini-series starring everyone’s favorite frenemy, the Master…or rather Missy, with Michelle Gomez returning to voice the role. Missy, Series 1 takes place sometime before Missy’s botched judicial execution in “Extremis” and the subsequent efforts of the Doctor to single-handedly keep her imprisoned and redeem her. So, yes, we do get Missy in her full villainous glory all throughout.
In the first story, “A Spoonful of Mayhem”, an unhappy, upper middle-class family in Victorian London have their lives changed forever when the father hires a governess for his two adolescent children. The new governess becomes part of the family overnight, introducing the kids to a new, hidden world of magic and miracles and giving them the education of a lifetime. So, yes, it’s a lot like Mary Poppins; well, if Mary Poppins was a mass-murdering sociopath imprisoned on Earth…
Next is “Divorced, Beheaded, Regenerated”. Henry VIII is about to meet the woman who will become his sixth wife. Except she isn’t Katherine Parr. And Henry VIII isn’t really Henry VIII either, but the renegade Time Lord widely known as “Meddling Monk” who in this case isn’t a monk but is still meddling with human history. However, he’s about to learn he’s not the only one who is where and when he shouldn’t be. “Henry VIII’s” new royal bride-to-be is secretly the “artist formally known as the Master” and, as if that wasn’t enough for him to have to deal with, there are a pack of violent aliens hot on his trail…
The most gloriously odd pick out of the pack is undoubtedly “The Broken Clock”. It’s time for another episode of Dick Zodiac’s America’s Most Impossible Killers. This episode, New York City detective Joe Lynwood is investigating a string of murders that simply shouldn’t have logically occurred at all. Luckily to deal with this improbable case he does have an unexpected ally, a veteran homicide detective all the way from Scotland Yard, DI Missy Masters…
The last episode on the box set is probably my personal favorite, “The Belly of the Beast”. On a small, unnamed planet, slaves have been collected from various worlds and brought together to tunnel underground for a mysterious object at the behest of a ruthless tyrant named Missy. Stuck between Missy’s brutal troops and slavemasters and hostile monsters called the kobolds, three friends in one slave group strike out to join the fabled rebellion set on ending Missy’s reign of terror and misery once and for all. Unfortunately for them, their true circumstances might be even more horrific than they ever imagined…
The stories seem extremely disparate, but they actually do form a very loose arc that ends on a sequel hook. They are also united in that, if you listen to them in order (which I recommend), they slowly build up Missy as being as much of a ruthless villain as her predecessors as the Master. “A Spoonful of Mayhem” does present Missy as a sympathetic anti-hero with some dark edges but is clearly capable of empathy. However, by the time you get “The Belly of the Beast”, she gets up to some downright cruel and callous actions that make her schemes from the TV show look like vandalizing mailboxes in comparison.
To be honest, I am a bit biased because I have a soft spot in my heart for stories starring established villains. And the Master/Missy is one of my all-time favorites in that regard. That said, though, Michelle Gomez’s Missy and Big Finish is a match made in Heaven (well, Hell, honestly, but in a good way!). Big Finish has always cashed in on its license to be both darker and weirder than the TV series, allowing Gomez to take her flamboyant, grimly whimsical, fourth wall-winking interpretation of Missy/the Master to the next level. This is especially true for “The Broken Clock”, which threatens to kick all suspension of disbelief out the window, but by the end it does walk it back enough that it steers well clear of “the Doctor meeting the cast of EastEnders” levels. Overall, “The Broken Clock” as well as the mini-series as a whole is a bizarre but satisfying mix of the grim and the playful, much like Missy herself.
If I had any complaints, it’s that, as usual, the quality of the voice acting is a bit uneven, as is often the case with Big Finish. Also as much fun as it is to see Rufus Hound’s Meddling Monk bicker with Missy, I feel like there was a wasted opportunity in adding some not particularly interesting alien villains in the mix, instead of having it just be a story with two time travelers facing off against each other in a historical milieu much like the original Meddling Monk story.
Overall, though, the mini-series manages to capture the spirit of the character better than, dare I say it, the TV show itself. Add me to the list of people who are already eager for Series 2. Fans of Missy won’t be disappointed and it’s definitely recommended, even for those of you who are fans of the franchise but haven’t given Big Finish a shot before.