Monday, April 25, 2011

Pop Between Realities, Home In Time For Tea 4 (Adam Adamant Lives!, Batman, The Avengers)

Fun Fact #1 - Burt Ward, while playing Robin, frequently
had to be given emasculating injections to keep
his tights from being overly revealing.
Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea is a recurring feature in which things that are not Doctor Who are looked at in terms of their relation to Doctor Who. This time we look at the British series Adam Adamant Lives! and The Avengers, as well as the American series Batman.


Occasionally cultural history throws up a juxtaposition that is so brain-breakingly weird that it perfectly encapsulates an entire moment of history. For instance, nothing has ever clarified the nature and tone of Japanese narrative structures for me quite like knowing that My Neighbor Totoro and Grave of the Fireflies were originally released as a double feature. (Though I have yet to find a definitive statement on which film came first, which seems to me to be just about the most crucial fact in human history.)

I mention this because if you want to understand 1966 in Great Britain, it is possible that no fact is more immediately relevant than the fact that on Saturdays in 1966, at around 5:15 PM, the latter episodes of Season 3 of Doctor Who were airing opposite imports of Batman, the 1966 television series starring Adam West. If this fact does not sufficiently unsettle you, I highly recommend firing up, say, The Celestial Toymaker Part 4 or a random bit of The Ark and watching it back to back with a Season 1 episode of Batman.

What is most unsettling about this is the fact that with only three channels in existence at the time, that meant that ITV viewed Batman as the natural competitor to Doctor Who in that media environment. Because other than being adventure stories (and thus, it is worth remarking, "for boys" in a way that it never was before the dual roles of Barbara and the young female companion were collapsed into one female companion role, thus changing the show from being about a bunch of people in terrifying circumstances to being about a bunch of boys and their girl sidekick in terrifying adventures) there's not a lot of obvious similarities.

Up to this point, one of the major characteristics of Doctor Who has been the essential joke of the TARDIS crew being completely the wrong people for this sort of story. In its original form, this is clearest - two schoolteachers, a teenager, and an old Victorian inventor walk into an alien planet. Even when the companions were Vicki and Steven - two capable future types who have something resembling a valid reason to be traipsing about Galaxy Four - there was still the Doctor, who was by and large the antithesis of a correct action hero. The whole concept still hinged on the incongruity of the old Victorian inventor and these harshly modern (and increasingly postmodern) settings.

So where we've left the TARDIS crew off, that's still basically where we are. There's nothing too unusual about Ben and Polly as action heroes - unlike Ian (essentially a middle aged ex-soldier) and Barbara (the charmingly mumsy type), attractive young people are never out of place having exciting adventures. But the heart of the show - the main character - was still a conscious and deliberate contrast with what the show had him face.

The result highlights what the biggest contrast between Batman and Doctor Who was. Because every element of Batman was keyed towards the goal of frenetic and over the top action. Whereas thus far in Doctor Who, the goal has been explicitly to contrast the action/adventure elements with the fact that the protagonist is completely the wrong character for this sort of thing.

It's important to highlight this, because it's the one thing that really separates Doctor Who from all the other action/adventure shows going on. Doctor Who is about the gulf between its concepts and the juxtapositions created by them. Compare that to Batman. Even in the most sympathetic readings of Batman, where we accept that everyone involved understood that the show was ridiculous, it's hard to be that sympathetic to the show. To take the two-parter I watched, when the Joker uses a van equipped with mirrors on the outside that can cause it to appear invisible to kidnap the Maharajah of Nimpah who is actually just the Joker as part of a larger scheme to humiliate Batman into endorsing a ransom check...

Yes, it's completely mental and over the top. And this is something we're going to see a lot of in Doctor Who when, for instance, we get mad scientists trying to drain the ocean, robotic Yeti in the London Underground, or, to start on the other end of the series, the Doctor and Richard Nixon teaming up to fight The Greys. But in Batman, the knowing nods about how ridiculous it all is are all there is. There's something painfully sterile about the entire affair. The central idea of Batman - really its only idea - is dancing around the screen shouting "Look at me, I'm full of ridiculous ideas." Whereas the central idea of Doctor Who has always been to put the ridiculous and the everyday on the same screen and have them both steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that the other doesn't belong.

All the same, it's hard to get around the sense that Batman just looked cooler. Some of that is a matter of presentation - nowadays we view Batman in color, but in 1966 on ITV, it would have been transmitted in the same fuzzy black and white as Doctor Who. But for all its facileness, the fact of the matter is, Batman is trying to have more fun than Doctor Who is.

Fun Fact #2 - If you attempt to give Adam Adamant an
emasculating injection, he will cut you.
And it's certainly not that fun is the antithesis of quality in an action/adventure show. For proof of that, even ignoring Doctor Who's own future, we can pop over to Adam Adamant Lives!, aka "Oh Hey, It's That Verity Lambert Gal Again." Which is to say that while Adam Adamant Lives! is notable for a couple of things, including being the source of Adam Ant's name and the most obvious inspiration for Austin Powers ever, one of the things it is most notable for is being the project Verity Lambert and Sydney Newman turned their attention to after Doctor Who, along with Donald Cotton, who you might remember from one or two past Doctor Who stories.

Adam Adamant Lives! differed from Batman in several key ways, in that it was British, intelligent, and largely a flop. But watching it now it's hard to get past the sense that it's actually quite good. Its premise is that a classic Victorian adventurer (originally to have been Sexton Blake, before everyone remembered about that pesky copyright thing) is frozen and thawed out in 1966 in a plotline that was in no way stolen from Marvel Comics' The Avengers. (Look, they respected copyright on Sexton Blake, surely you don't expect them to have original ideas twice in a row.) He gets the obligatory swinging 60s blonde female sidekick, and, much as you'd expect, they fight crime.

The show is imperfect, to say the least, suffering somewhat badly from its inability to reconcile the ambitions of its premise with its underlying mandate to provide a generic adventure serial. Its leading actor, Gerald Harper, did an odd job with the part. Not necessarily a bad job, but he played the part with an impassioned straight-lacedness that was markedly (and willfully) out of place in the larger series. The result on the one hand captures the man-out-of-time feeling perfectly, and on the other hand is at times stultifyingly dull. When, on occasion, he gets a scene with someone who can play off of his demeanor (the episode I watched opened with a lovely scene with an actor named Patrick Troughton, who actually looks a bit like that horrid man who stole the Doctor's face at the end of The Tenth Planet) this works. More often, it either makes the show feel wooden or makes it look like everyone was scrambling around desperately to find a show that could actually match up with Harper's acting. (In the end, Sydney Newman ordered Harper to change how he played the part. Harper refused, and Newman cancelled the show.)

But on the other hand, when he was on his game, Harper provided a genuinely magnetic leading man performance, often holding the entire show together with little more than charisma and some eye boggling. (See also Tom Baker under Graham Williams) Which gets at one of the key features of this genre of show - one that is preserved to the present day in shows like Bones, House, or Castle - charismatic, funny leads. This is another area where Batman ultimately falls flat. Short of the endlessly entertaining drinking game of seeing how many times Burt Ward delivers a line in a tone that would not need to be altered at all if he were seething rage and plotting Adam West's demise, the leads on that show are played totally flat, never once seeming to be aware of the absurdity of their world, and thus giving the audience no foothold from which to laugh with the show.

Again, comparing to Adam Adamant Lives! is instructive. One thing Harper was unquestionably brilliant at in the show was using the wry smiles of his dandy character to provide an extra-diegetic meta-commentary on the absurdity of the situation. Or, to strip that of literary theory, Harper gives wry smiles that are on one level something Adam Adamant is actually doing in the story (that's what diegetic means - actually taking place in the story) and on another level commentaries on the story from Harper as an actor (which takes them from diegetic to extra-diegetic - that is, they go beyond merely being diegetic). The impact of this is massive - with one simple piece of gestural acting, Harper adds reams of intelligence to the show because suddenly we are left constantly navigating the differing narrative levels and genres of the story instead of just getting to take them for granted a la Batman.

But for all of Harper's charisma, Adam Adamant Lives! fails to hold a candle in the pure charm department to its most obvious influence, Sydney Newman's hit creation for ITV before he headed over to the BBC and made Doctor Who, The Avengers.

Fun Fact #3 - Emma Peel cures emasculating injections.
I could have put an entry on The Avengers at any point in TARDIS Eruditorum, as it predates the show by nearly three years, but the fact of the matter is, when people talk about The Avengers, most of the time they're talking about Series 4 and 5, and most specifically Series 5, which was produced in color and was the version that was actually a hit on US television as well. Series 4 and 5, you see, are the Emma Peel years.

It may be necessary to define some key concepts here for those who are not intimately acquainted with the particulars of classic British television of the 1960s. Specifically, and it really is very important that you understand this, Emma Peel is quite literally the sexiest character ever to be put on a television screen. She is the physical embodiment of classy sex appeal. Indeed, it is a little known fact that when homosexuality was finally legalized in Great Britain, the compromise was that it was now legal to be gay just as long as you made an exception for Emma Peel. (Given that Emma Peel gives Lady Gaga a run for her money in the "obviously designed to be a gay icon sweepstakes," this was not generally taken as an arduous requirement.)

If, for some reason, you are a horribly deluded person that does not recognize the transcendent eroticism of the character the moment you see Diana Rigg in character, that is basically irrelevant, as it is transparently clear watching The Avengers that the show is absolutely convinced of the character's sexiness, and that this truth is held to be more fundamental than piddly details of the universe like gravity.

If you are for some reason suspicious that I might be overselling the case slightly, I highly recommend sitting down with an episode of The Avengers. Because the debt that every other show with a charming double act as its lead characters owes to The Avengers cannot be overstated.

As a premise, The Avengers is possibly the flabbiest thing we have yet talked about on this blog. Its premise, and I hope you're hanging on tight, is that there's a guy named John Steed, who wears a bowler hat and is very dapper, and he teams up with a woman named Emma Peel, who wears sexy 60s fashions. And they fight crime. That's basically the whole of it. The show is a watermark in the subgenre known as spy-fi, in which light espionage plotlines are melded with light science fiction plotlines to have some plot in which Steed and Peel defend various civil servants from various outlandish and poorly explained technological menaces.

Or at least, that's the plot. Watch the opening credits, however, and you'll get a much clearer sense of what the show is about, namely the chemistry between Steed and Peel. Everything else is, at times explicitly, the frame upon which lightly flirtatious banter between a dapper Victorian and a sexy mod is hung. Watching The Avengers for the plot requires a catastrophic lack of active brain cells. However the show remains absolutely delightful because the fact of the matter is, Steed and Peel are absolutely brilliant to watch together. (A particular highlight is the episode Who's Who, in which they get body-swapped with some thoroughly uninteresting Eastern European agents. The scenes of Patricia Hanes and Freddie Jones trying to emulate the chemistry of Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee are frankly excruciating, but on the other hand, the scenes where Rigg and Macnee get to let loose and be villains who make out with each other frequently are every bit as wonderful as you would hope. In practice, the entire episode exists to put those scenes in, and everything else is just tiresome plot.)

So why go over all of this? Because in practice, one of the things that the Hartnell-Troughton transition was about was getting rid of Hartnell, who never played the part with magnetic charisma, and by this point was having enough trouble getting through his lines, little yet infusing them with charm, and replacing him with a more charismatic actor. We'll talk about the shift of the show towards more and more straight adventure yarns as we go. Because, yes - Doctor Who starts being more about monsters, more about action, and more about flashy visual setpieces a la Batman. (Though honestly, given that nothing in all three seasons of Batman save for Cesar Romano's painted-white mustache comes anywhere close to the barmy spectacle of The Web Planet, the bar is pretty well cleared there) But the single most important thing imported from this genre - although it will take at least until 1971 and arguably until 1979 before Doctor Who nails what The Avengers has going with Peel and Steed - is the transition from a detached and alien leading man to a charismatic and funny leading man. First and foremost, that is how the show attempts to compete with Batman, Adam Adamant Lives!, The Avengers, and their like.

Interested in any of these deeply odd series? The Avengers is out on DVD, as is the film version of the Adam West Batman. On the other hand, you'll have to import Adam Adamant Lives! from the UK. 

15 comments:

  1. I thought you were going to save the Avengers for when you covered the Invasion, given that that episode is basically a scene by scene Avengers episode with Cyberman in it.

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  2. I thought about it, but my general rule of thumb is to put the pop between realities posts right before it will first be useful to refer to them. Obviously The Invasion has a huge debt to The Avengers, and I'll bring it up in that entry, but ultimately so does Power of the Daleks.

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  3. I just wrote a giant comment and Blogger ate it, the bastard. Let's see what I can reproduce:

    1. I disagree with you on Batman. Yes, Burt Ward is a dreadful actor, but he's trying to keep up with Adam West, who is amazing, doing Shatner before Shatner was doing Shatner! Yes, they're aware it's a comedy-- note how Adam West can barely keep a straight face when he says lines like "I can't have you riding Bruce Wayne's thoroughbred, Dick. People might think it was weird." As John Cleese taught us, the only way to play comedy is to not play comedy.

    I've been watching Batman reruns consistently on an obscure cable channel, so it's all fresh in my head. I love it because it works on two completely different levels. When you're a kid, you take it deathly seriously, just like the characters. When you're an adult, you suddenly get all the (dirty) jokes, and you realize it's a mad comedy, just like the actors. Doctor Who has a similar audience of children and adults, but it only pitches out the one tone/level. Batman has two going at once, which is genius. Also, the fights are great.

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  4. 2. I just saw some of The Avengers for the first time a few weeks ago, just as it was expiring from my Netflix Instant queue. I agree with you whole-heartedly. Emma Peel became my favorite female fictional character over the course of about a dozen episodes. She's cooler, sexier, and tougher than Steed, but she also doesn't feel the need to flaunt it; Mrs. Peel is clearly the archetype for every tough female character who followed her who has since appeared in any genre fiction.

    In fact, The Avengers as a show (well, the color ones I saw) is clearly an influence on pretty much everything I like in any medium, be it film, TV, comics, what-have-you. Current Doctor Who owes just as much to The Avengers as it does to the Doctor Who of old.

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  5. Basically, you hit my current sweet spot with this post. Thanks for writing it! I'll shut up now.

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  6. I haven't seen actual episodes of the 60's Batman TV show since I was a kid, but speaking as a huge Batman fan, I have to say that the movie, which I have seen fairly recently, is in my opinion a pretty fantastic piece of comedy. Of course the "Bat shark-repellent" and "Some days you just can't get rid of a bomb" scenes are probably the most famous, and they're pretty funny, but there are great moments throughout, including when Alfred joins Robin on a surveillance mission wearing his standard Butler-clothes plus a simple eye-mask that does nothing to actually disguise his identity, and when Batman and Robin independently conclude that the answer to the riddle "What's yellow and writes" must be "a ballpoint banana."

    Oh, and if you ever find out whether My Neighbor Totoro came before or after Grave of the Fireflies in the double-feature presentation, let us know!

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    1. You should try the early season 2 Catwoman episodes (Hot off the Griddle"/"The Cat and the Fiddle").

      SPOILERS:

      There is nothing more memorable than Catwoman trapping Batman and Robin in a room, where she sighs and states how she could have a thing for him if they weren't on opposite sides of the law. Then goes on to say how the Joker called her for a date and that she liked him except for his green hair, and then goes on to say - and I quote "and the Penguin is too small for me". Holy double entendre, Batman! The "Some days you just can't rid of a bomb" line is hilarious, but that Catwoman scene takes the cake.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZH2rGNDQ4s
      About 3:40 in is when the fun begins... but try at 2:50 and the alliteration is so wonderfully silly... and yet "epicure" is a word that's been long absent from television, too... :)

      But that whole two-part story is riotously funny (laughing with it, not at it), and it's a shame the series isn't on DVD.

      I also recall a later story, also Catwoman (Newmar), where Batman is running toward a building and there are rectangular signs all around it saying "CATWOMAN'S HIDEOUT", "CATWOMAN IS IN HERE", etc, complete with arrows. Camp? Yes. Funny? They made it work in ways that would be "cornball" for any other show.

      And Adam West could do a whole show with alliterations and it would hold up today...

      Granted, season 3 did go downhill - Eartha Kitt had the right voice and rolling the "R-R-R-R" bit, but the scene where she introduces a "hair-raising bomb" at a woman's cosmetology convention was as shocking sexist as it got. Unless they were sending up or lampooning a stereotype, but it looked more like Catwoman was playing into it for cheap laughs.

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  7. these would have been the titles showing in 1965

    http://youtube/tvmgrnsaE1U

    Does the same job but, perhaps oddly, more succinctly. The stop-frame technique turns Steed and Mrs. Peel into posturing shop window dummies.

    Really enjoyed that article. Pretty much agree with all you said. Particularly this -

    '..the TARDIS crew being completely the wrong people for this sort of story. In its original form, this is clearest - two schoolteachers, a teenager, and an old Victorian inventor walk into an alien planet.'

    and this -

    'Whereas the central idea of Doctor Who has always been to put the ridiculous and the everyday on the same screen and have them both steadfastly refuse to acknowledge that the other doesn't belong.'

    As a kid I loved Adam Adamant but even then I had the feeling it wasn't quite living up to its own concept. The Avengers of course created a whole genre but personally I was very disapointed when Doctor Who began adopting the tropes of the 'charismatic male and sexy assistant fight monsters' show.

    I have problems with the Batman TV show. I understand what it's trying to do and it does it brilliantly but there's a little six year old on my shoulder saying 'this is stupid, Batman's meant to be scary and Doctor Who's on the other side'

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  8. Bill - I actually don't think Burt Ward was that bad - he was certainly unflappable. It's just that his curt delivery can have a habit of sounding like he's plotting Adam West's demise. I'm more skeptical of West's acting abilities, but perhaps my irritation is more the failure of the scripts to work with their two levels. I agree that there's the superficial action level and the deeper "my god this is staggeringly gay" levels are both there, but there's no interaction between the levels. Doctor Who, when it works, collapses the two levels into one level and just lets the juxtapositions play out naturally, which seems to me the more complex approach.

    But I agree with you on The Avengers. It's staggeringly more influential than its reputation would suggest. (Not that its reputation is bad, just that it's not the reputation a show that influential deserves)

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  9. BatmanAOD - I do have a soft spot for the movie, I will confess - perhaps because it seems to me to be the exact right length for that joke. There is some cleverness in the Batman series, but not nearly enough for the number of episodes existent.

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  10. Anton - One of the major themes running through fan debates on the Troughton era is the extent to which Innes Lloyd turned the show into an unceasing parade of bases under siege. I tend to think that's a bit harsh based on what I've seen of Troughton, but there's a lot more that's new to me in this era than that's familiar, so that's a tentative hypothesis. But you're far from alone in being a bit disappointed by the sense that Doctor Who somewhere in the late 60s just gives up and tries to be The Avengers.

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  11. It reaches its high point in the early seventies with Pertwee and Jo Grant. He's basically a cape twirling alien Adam Adamant and she's even supposed to be some kind of karate kicking secret agent seconded to UNIT isn't she? Bloody hell he's even got a souped up old jalopy. It pretty much carries on into the re-boot era. Except the Doctor's were channeling other sixties tropes. Ecclestone is The Prisoner meets Z Cars and Tennant is Joe 90 crossed with the Saint. Funny how both Martha and Rose ended up as dimension hopping SAS girls. Dunno what Matt Smith is up to but at least it looks like he might be trying to play Doctor Who.

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  12. Strange but (apparently) true: Fox exec. William Best regularly hung out at the Playboy Mansion on "movie nights", where friends gathered to watch old films, get drunk and laugh themselves silly. One night (or two?) they ran the 1943 and 1948 BATMAN serials. I happen to be one who feels the '43 serial is more authentic to the characters in the original comics than most, and so I don't find it (as at least one person described it) "laughably bad". But Best apparently did, and was inspired to do a BATMAN tv series.

    He handed it off to William Dozier, who hated comics and had no interest in doing it. Perhaps resenting his "assignment", he decided the "only" way it could work was to play it for laughs. The pilot (with Frank Gorshin) reportedly got the lowest ratings ever for a "preview audience". But the show got picked up anyway. The plan was to do a feature film for the summer of '66, then debut the weekly series in September, but ABC's ratings were so bad, they moved the series up to Jan'66 and did the feature between seasons 1 & 2.

    Incredibly, BATMAN (like THE A-TEAM many years later) hit #1, and shows like LOST IN SPACE, WILD WILD WEST and MAN FROM UNCLE all mis-guidedly changed their styles to try and imitate it. The balance of adventure and comedy somehow worked, though DC Comics' editors were horrified as they were hoping for something less silly (see THE GREEN HORNET for an almost perfect excample of a half-hour adventure show).

    Unfortunately (and many fans of the show seem oblivious to this), the tone and balance was lost when they finally got around to the feature, and moreso when season 2 started. Instead of an adventure show with humor, it became more like a sitcom with costumes. Instead of actors cast to play established villains, villains were created so actors who wanted to appear on a popular program would have something to play. It got a bit better in the 2nd half of season 2... but then things fell apart completely in season 3, for a large number of reasons (which included the simple fact that the format had normally been an hour-- split over 2 nights-- instead of a half-hour each week).

    So the 3 seasons of BATMAN are really like watching 3 very different series. On the whole, the actors who did the best were the ones who played it "straight"-- Adam West, Alan Napier, Frank Gorshin, George Sanders, Julie Newmar. Even Joan Collins. (Although, I'll give leeway to Victor Buono, if only because he's just so damn funny.)

    A big problem with season 2-up was they promoted the show's worst writer-- Charles Hoffman-- to story editor. Great. The worst writer they put in charge of everyone else's scripts. For contrast... Lorenzo Semple Jr. understood the balance needed between "adventure" and "camp humor" to make it work. Stanley Ralph Ross (he did many of the Catrwoman & King Tuts) skillfully combined drama and outright comedy. Hoffman just did "stupid". His scripts weren't funny-- just dumb. But apparently that's what William Dozier really wanted, since he was the one in charge. The show could have been so much better... if only someone, damn near anyone else, had taken it over.

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  13. We have just bought a season of The Avengers on DVD for my father for Christmas, having recalled his massive enthusiasm for the show and for Diana Rigg. I definitely plan on borrowing the set from him now.

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