Monday, September 24, 2007


I recently returned from a trip to New Mexico. This is the second time I’ve been there (the first was on my honeymoon), but I’ve been dreaming about the Land of Enchantment for 17 years, thanks to that All-American Super-Spy Matt Helm.

In 1990, I decided to pick up a second-hand paperback copy of The Silencers, primarily to see how different the literary Matt Helm was from the celluloid one. I knew the novels couldn’t be as absurd as the movies, but I wondered if any of the plot from the book was retained for the movie. As it turned out, quite a bit of the story was carried over to the movie, but it was twisted, pretzel-like, so that it resembled a James Bond spoof rather than a hard-boiled spy thriller. I was so impressed with the novel’s gritty realism, I suddenly felt sad that the movie series was such a lost opportunity. However, I was glad that I read the book and was particularly taken with the book’s setting: New Mexico.

The author, Donald Hamilton, followed the writer’s adage of “write what you know” and based Matt Helm in Santa Fe, Hamilton’s hometown at the time. Although Helm would later become something of a globe-trotter, early novels like The Silencers remained rooted mostly in the Southwest. I was immediately captivated by Hamilton’s descriptions of the quaint town and the stunning high desert which surrounded it. Of course, these desolate stretches were perfect backdrops for high speed chases and tense shootouts. No witnesses and little chance of police interference. These open expanses of brush-dotted desert also forced Helm to be a bit of an outdoorsman, something Donald Hamilton was in real life. By the time I finished reading The Silencers, I was convinced that New Mexico was a place I wanted to move to one day. Thankfully, after meeting my wife, I was able to talk her into my dream as well, and this latest visit to the state was a chance to make a serious assessment of our future home.

As we drove around those deserts and mountains, I couldn’t help but think about those harrowing battles Matt Helm fought under the blazing sun, with little cover and no hope of reinforcements. When my wife and I got caught in a heavy thunderstorm on our way to Bandelier National Monument and were forced to pull off the road, I was reminded of the scene in The Silencers when Helm and his witness were forced to spend the night in his truck after getting caught in a snow storm. Coming from a congested state like Maryland, I’m always struck by the wide open nature of New Mexico. There’s a real sense that you could get stuck out there and have to contend with rattlesnakes, heat stroke, or vicious storms. It’s a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time.

When we visited the town center of Santa Fe on a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, I was reminded of the opening of The Retaliators, when Matt Helm visits “the gleaming, modern lobby of the New Mexico National Bank.” The bank’s probably been remodeled since 1976, but it’s still there. I also thought about the following passage from later in the book:

Formerly, leaving Santa Fe southwards, you were out in coyote-and-prairie-dog country almost immediately; nowadays, the town peters out gradually through a dismal twilight zone of gas stations and drive-ins and housing developments that no self-respecting wild canine or rodent would tolerate. The desert is still out there, however; you just have to drive a little farther to find it.

If Mr. Hamilton could only see it now! Santa Fe, from any direction, is now surrounded by the kind of suburban sprawl that infects every city and town in America. I would only update his statement to say “Targets and Starbucks.” Just in the seven years since I was there last, the growth is astounding. There are housing developments on the west side of I-25 that didn’t exist seven years prior. I just hope that by the time my wife and I can move there, downtown Santa Fe doesn’t look like Baltimore!

Fortunately, growth in New Mexico is limited by the presence of Native American Reservations and National Parks. There are still vast stretches of breathtaking desert and mountains. Along with the sunshine and dry climate, you can’t help but feel happy every time you look out the window anywhere in New Mexico. I’m really grateful that Donald Hamilton, through his paperback thrillers, opened my eyes to a whole new world.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I’ve been watching the third season of the new Dr. Who series on the Sci-Fi Channel, and I’m surprised to find that I’m really enjoying it. I watched the first season (or series as they say in Britain), and although the production values were way above the original show, I couldn’t quite accept Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor. He was too serious and testy for my taste. David Tennant, on the other hand, has the friendly, quirky quality I associate more with The Doctor, and he embodies a certain vulnerability that no other actor has ever brought to the role. I’m really glad that the BBC found a way to resurrect such a great character and make him relevant to the 21st century.

As an American kid in the 70s, Dr. Who was one of those mysterious legends that I read scant bits about but could never see. I knew that it was a long-running British science fiction show, but that was about it. The confusion only grew when I would see pictures of different actors listed as The Doctor. Were these misprints? How could the character get younger over time rather than older? I was really dying to see this show, but for some strange reason, it was never syndicated in the U.S.? We could have Monty Python; why not Dr. Who?

My interest was further heightened when I stumbled across a book called The Making of Dr. Who at my local comic/used book store in the fall of ‘77. Although it was a slim volume aimed at the pre-teen market Dr. Who primarily served, I found it a well-spring of valuable knowledge on this mysterious TV show from across the pond. The book explained the whole production history, from its roots as an educational show on history and science to its transformation into a monster-filled adventure show for all ages. The book also explained how The Doctor had the ability to change his physical form whenever he became seriously ill. This was a great excuse when they had to hire a new actor to fill the role, but it also allowed producers the opportunity to re-invent the character and the very nature of the show every few years, keeping it fresh and adapting to changing tastes.

At the time, Tom Baker was playing Dr. Who in his fourth incarnation. Baker would become the most famous Doctor, with his trademark floppy hat and flowing scarf standing as icons for the series. While he was certainly the most unique of the Doctors, I was more interested in his predecessor, Jon Pertwee. Although primarily a comedic actor, Pertwee was a dashing figure with an elegant pile of curly silver locks and an athletic stride. He chose to play The Doctor as an eccentric James Bond, wearing smoking jackets and frilly shirts while beating up bad guys with his Venusian Akito. Further solidifying his Bondian mystique was the fact that he spent most of his adventures on Earth, working for a group called U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce). This group fought aliens bent on taking over the planet. Who knew so many aliens would choose to start their wars in quarries near Sussex? As a 13 year old, I could ignore the silly premise. I was fascinated by this flamboyant dandy of a hero and his family of soldiers and scientists with whom he worked. My pubescent hormones also liked his young, pretty assistants which I learned of from the picture section of the book.

Now I was dying to see this program. I wrote to my local independent TV station WBFF-TV Channel 45, but they informed me the show was not available in syndication. My next best bet was to acquire the novelizations based on the TV serials, but since they were published in England, they were almost as hard to find as the show itself. My initial books were purchased at science fiction conventions, then the book store I mentioned earlier would get some in and set them aside for me. These short, easy-to-read novels only piqued my interest even more. I would learn later that reading the books without prior knowledge of the show was an asset, since I could make the stories as elaborate as I wanted in my mind, free from the limitations of a miniscule BBC budget. One perfect example of this was in the book titled Terror of the Autons. On the cover and in the novel itself, the Autons appear in the form of this huge, bizarre Chimeras-type creature with body parts that don’t seem to belong to the same creature. In the book, the fight to destroy this horrible monster was exciting. A decade later, when I was finally able to see the show, the monster appeared completely off-screen, presumably because the BBC was too cheap to pay for the special effects. What a let down!

For the next year and a half, Dr. Who books were my only access to the show. Once the guy who ran the book store knew I was into Dr. Who, he even found some collectibles for me, including the original Dr. Who novel from 1964 and several annuals (the Brits were big on doing annuals of popular children’s programs). I loved all this stuff, but I wanted to see the real thing. Finally, in September 1979, the first four seasons of the Tom Baker era were syndicated in the U.S., and my friends at WBFF-TV were nice enough to carry it (I’d like to think because I tipped them off to it). It was great fun to see the show at long last, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the poor production values. In the first Tom Baker serial, there was a forced-perspective shot with an obviously plastic, toy tank in the foreground masquerading as the real thing. I laughed heartily at this pathetic special effect, but I was also pained by how bad this show was. The special effects and production values only got worse with each subsequent episode that aired. I learned later that the BBC was having severe budgetary problems during the late 70s and Dr. Who was one of the shows that suffered most from the cuts. At the time, though, I was just plain disappointed.

I still held the show in great affection during the 80s and was thrilled when Maryland Public Television started showing the old Dr. Who serials commercial free, as they were intended to be aired. By the late 80s, I was even able to see the shows with my favorite Doctor: Jon Pertwee. Ironically, while the 80s saw a spike in Dr. Who’s popularity in the states, the show was struggling for survival in Britain. They were showing the new shows here on public television along with the reruns, and I too was disappointed by the strange turn they were taking. Although the production values improved, the producer seemed fixated on modeling the show after Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams even served as a story editor for a time). While I suspect Douglas Adams was inspired by Dr. Who when he created Hitchhiker’s, I don’t believe Dr. Who was ever meant to be an absurd comedy. I think many viewers felt the same way since Dr. Who was canceled in 1989.

Fox attempted a pilot for a new Dr. Who show in the mid-90s. It wasn’t bad, and it even bore some resemblance in style to the current show, but it was just a little bland. A regular series was never made. After being such a fixture of British television for so long, it seemed strange that The Doctor would be forever gone. Then in 2005, the BBC found a way to make the old hero work in a new century, and I’m mighty glad they did.