Classic British Telefantasy: My Top Ten Favourites (Part Two)

Here’s the second part of my rambling list of favourite Classic British Telefantasy series:

At Number Four is Sapphire and Steel, one of the strangest telefantasy series ever. Short on budget, hence relatively scarce (but effective) special effects, but oozing with quality writing, and oppressive, frightening mood and terror, this was a truly classic sci-fantasy series, featuring two of the most charismatic and mysterious central characters in telefantasy history, Sapphire (played by Joanna Lumley) and Steel (played by David McCallum). The sheer mystery, the fact that nobody ever found out who or what the main characters really were, where they came from, or what the hell was actually happening most of the time, added greatly to the attraction of the show. The fact that Sapphire and Steel was rarely repeated on television also added to the effect, as all we had to go on for many years were our fading memories. Luckily the series has been made available in recent years, firstly on VHS video, and then on DVD. And even more fortunately, it definitely lives up to our fond memories of the show.

At Number Three, it’s UFO, by far my favourite of the Gerry Anderson shows, not a stone’s throw from the top of my list of favourite British telefantasy series. First airing in 1970, and set in the not so far off future of 1980, the gorgeous hardware, the aliens, sexy women (those gorgeous moonbase babes – Gay Ellis, oh my poor heart!), and interesting characters were a huge attraction for a young boy like me. From an adult perspective, that totally kitsch, retro futuristic feel (unintended at the time, of course), gives UFO an undeniable charm that allows the series to still hold up really well today. The complex alternate-universe 1980-that-never-was, combining a mix-mash of styles from 1970 and the imagined future “1980” (which actually feels more mid- or late-21st Century) give it a retro but also an undefinable “sometime just a few years from now” feel which makes the show work even in 2013, although its version of a 1980 “future” is actually thirty-three years in our past.

At Number Two, it’s Quatermass. If there’s any British telefantasy that might give Doctor Who a run for it’s money, it has to be Quatermass. The original Quatermass serials were well before my time (I wasn’t born until 1960, and those serials appeared in 1953, 1955 and 1958), although I really enjoyed the three film versions and the 1979 Quatermass serial featuring John Mills as the Professor. Reading a number of excellent Quatermass articles in various telefantasy fanzines during the 1980s really fired up my interest in the original 1950s serials. I was also fortunate, at some point during the early 1980s, to come upon three books containing the scripts/teleplays of all three original 1950s serials (complete with nice b&w photos). I was hooked on the original serials even more by that time, and, just to complete the circle, soon afterwards I also bought the novelization of the 1979 serial. I was now a hardcore fan of Quatermass in all its forms, both serials and films.

A few years later, I was absolutely elated to get my hands on the VHS video release of the third (and the best of the three) 1950s serial, Quatermass and the Pit, and finally got to see what all the hype was about. I’d always loved the 1967 film version of Quatermass and the Pit, but the original serial absolutely blew my mind. It was way, way better than the film, and remains, to this day, my favourite ever single piece of British telefantasy. If the first two serials had been as good as the third (only two episodes of the first serial still exist), Quatermass might’ve made it to the Number One spot in my list. I was doubly delighted, about ten years ago, to get my hands on the excellent three-DVD release of The Quatermass Collection, featuring the beautifully restored Quatermass and the Pit, the entire (unrestored) Quatermass II, and the two surviving episodes of the Quatermass Experiment. This remarkable DVD set is an absolute treasure, and any British telefantasy fan worth their reputation should have a copy of this in their collections.

And finally, at Number One, it’s Doctor Who, just about my favourite telefantasy series of all time. I’ve been watching Doctor Who since I was five or six years old, way back in the mid-1960s. I like the modern version of Doctor Who, but not as much as the classic 1963-1989 series. I love the classic 1960s Hartnell and Troughton b&w stories, but my favourite Doctor Who eras were the Jon Pertwee years and the first half of Tom Baker’s run on the show. In my opinion, the Tom Baker/Philip Hinchcliffe years were, without a shadow of a doubt, the best ever in the show’s history. This show had (and still has) so much history, continuity and detail. The Doctor(s) and the Tardis, travelling anywhere in time and space, Daleks, Cybermen, Ice Warriors, Sutekh the Destroyer, Omega, the Master, the list goes on and on and on, spanning the alphabet, from Autons to Zarbi, Doctor Who is immense. It was a huge part of my growing up process from early childhood right up into adulthood and to the present day (I’m now 52), this is the British telefantasy series (indeed THE telefantasy series, British or not) that has had the biggest effect on my life.

And just outside the Top Ten, in no particular order:

The Avengers – I quite enjoyed the weekly exploits of John Steed and Emma Peel, and later Tara King (I was too young to remember the earlier stories with Cathy Gale). Emma and Tara were certainly extremely easy on the eyes, and those two ladies absolutely kicked ass each and every week. The series was extremely psychedelic (hey, it was the Sixties!) and was overly camp at times. I was never a fan of the camp thing (hated it, actually), a major reason why I didn’t enjoy the show quite as much as other UK telefantasy shows. I also quite liked The New Avengers, although it only occasionally crossed into telefantasy from its primary action adventure format. But it was worth watching for Joanna Lumley, playing Purdey, another gorgeous yet kick-ass Avengers female.

The Champions – enjoyable super-spy hokum in which three super-powered agents save the world each and every week from mad scientists and other menaces. I quite enjoyed this, although, with the exception of a handful of episodes, there was very little real sci-fi in the series, other than the agents showing their weekly portion of super strength, super speed or telepathy. I mostly liked it for the great theme tune and the epitome of eye candy provided by the absolutely gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo (who played Sharon McCready), who was, as far as I’m concerned, one of the most beautiful women ever in the history of telefantasy.

Thunderbirds – loved the hardware, but, unlike Captain Scarlet, most of the stories themselves were not sci-fi enough for my tastes, even at that early age. Also, and despite my liking for Captain Scarlet, I was never really a fan of those damned puppets. I hate those wooden actors! I always preferred the live-action Gerry Anderson series.

That’s about it for the more famous British telefantasy series. At some point in the future, I’ll be devoting one or more blog posts to other, more obscure British telefantasy, particularly series aimed at children. My own memories of most of these are very incomplete and vague, so I’ve been buying a few of the more recommended classic children’s sci-fi series on DVD from Amazon UK. So far, I’ve got my hands on the entire original series of The Tomorrow People, Timeslip, Sky, Children of the Stones, The Owl Service, The Demon Headmaster and the 1980s version of Tom’s Midnight Garden. I think I’ll nab a few more series so I can post a reasonably comprehensive blog review.

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Doctor Who Returns to UK Television

This coming Saturday, 30th March, at 6.15pm, sees the return of Doctor Who to UK television screens, as we finally get to see the first episode of the second half of Series 7, The Bells of Saint John. I’m really looking forward to the start of this sequence of new stories, as is, I’m sure, every other Doctor Who fan on the planet.

As far as I’m concerned, Matt Smith has been a huge success as the 11th Doctor. His zany, eccentric portrayal combines the best elements of previous Doctors, but is influenced mostly by my favourite Doctor of all, Tom Baker, which has to be A Very Good Thing (at least in my book). Even in the Doctor Who stories which are… let’s say… not exactly the best, Smith puts in a performance that is rarely less than excellent, and, by sheer acting ability alone, often elevates the quality of those episodes beyond that of the mediocre scripts.

I’m also looking forward to seeing how he works with his new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald (played by Jenna-Louise Coleman). We’ve already seen her a couple of times before, firstly in last season’s Asylum of the Daleks, and then in the last Christmas Special, The Snowmen. She’s already died twice, but keeps coming back, which bodes well for some intriguing story and character development in coming stories. From what we’ve seen so far, Jenna-Louise Coleman is an excellent young actress, and Clara Oswald should more than ably fill the shoes of The Ponds as the Doctor’s new companion.

But most of all, and I’m sure many Doctor Who fans will empathize with me here, I’m looking forward to the monsters. Yes, the monsters! What adversaries, both old and new, will the Doctor be facing this year? I’ve caught the trailer on TV a few times over the past week, and I’m pretty excited about it. The Cybermen are back, looking better than ever. But what excites me the most is that we’ll at last be getting to see the Ice Warriors, the very first time they’ve appeared in the new series.

The Ice Warriors have always been one of my favourite classic Doctor Who monsters, right up there with the Daleks, Cybermen, Autons, Silurians, Sea Devils and Zygons, and it’s long, long past time that they made an appearance in the new series. They look absolutely amazing, at least from the brief glimpse that we got of them in the trailer. I don’t know which episode of the new season the Ice Warriors will appear in, but I can’t wait to see them. Hopefully Moffat and co. will do them proud with an excellent story.

Roll on Saturday evening, 6.15pm!