Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Doctor Who S12 Ep79: Revenge Of The Cybermen

"My colleague is a doctor of medicine and I am a doctor of many things." -The Doctor referring to Harry Sullivan and himself [Revenge Of The Cybermen]-

"Cybermen do not subscribe to any theory of morality." -The Cybermen-

The relationship between Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen continued to exude chemistry and establish them both as one of the premiere Doctor/ companion partnerships in the series. Baker reflected back on his relationship with Sladen in a tribute to her in Doctor Who Magazine #440 [p.27]. "We'd be sitting around all the time rewriting the scripts. We made them better." Baker admits, "Television, in many ways, is grotesquely overwritten. Everyone's talking all the time. There's no silence in television." Baker and Sladen, with their gift for physical drama and their enormous reservoir of facial expression moved to rectify such areas. The two new how to steal a quiet moment or explore one without becoming overly talky.

Doctor Who, Season Twelve, Episode 79, Revenge Of The Cybermen [1975] wraps up Season Twelve with its fifth and final story of the block. The serial entry comes by way of four parts rather than the six overly lengthy segments filmed for Episode 78, Genesis Of The Daleks [1975]. I couldn't help but wonder where I would fall in a revisit of Revenge Of The Cybermen with its much tighter storytelling approach. The Sontaran Experiment was short and sweet at just two installments.

Revenge Of The Cybermen has often received mixed reviews by critics and fans alike. Most are hardly as enthusiastic as they are toward the overly lauded Genesis Of The Daleks. The latter received the praise largely because that particularly ambitious story by Terry Nation was especially sharp in its final payoff. The last two parts in that work remain strong and underscore a philosophical debate that transcends science fiction into our very own lives with that powerful question - "Have I the right?". The damning concept begs the question whether or not the Doctor, or the human race, have a right, essentially, to interventionism. In the case of Genesis Of The Daleks, did the Doctor have the right to wipe out an entire alien species? Carter Burke, played by Paul Reiser, utilized a similar tact to protect the xenomorphs in Aliens [1986] from being destroyed in an effort to protect them for the corporate interests and investment stakes of Weyland-Yutani and likely a bio-weapons division. Science officer Ash even alluded to the same ideas in Alien [1979]. The same ideas were well-articulated in Genesis Of The Daleks, but unfortunately it suffers from a lethargic pace. It is diverted by long and seemingly endless diversions to finally illustrate its much stronger, thought-provoking point. Yes, Genesis Of The Daleks had some brilliant ideas and, again, a clever payoff with a good performance by Tom Baker, but it certainly hasn't aged well and it pains me to point out the sometimes laborious process of watching the classics. Rediscovering the classics can sometimes be disappointing. Mind you, I'm not talking about special effects. When it comes to Doctor Who, Land Of The Lost and others we must be forgiving of those shoestring budgets so that we might enjoy the other special aspects of the production from the tale to the often terrific cast performances.

A lot can be gleaned from a man's shoes. To refer back to the opening statement by Baker, the Sladen/Baker dynamic duo did indeed make these early era Doctor Who outings particularly strong thanks to their wonderfully charming and colorful personalities the unique Tom Baker years still remains a standout in the pantheon of Doctor Who.

So, with a much more refined four installment story does Revenge Of The Cybermen fair better after all these years? Does it deserve the criticism that placed it way down the list at #130 for the Doctor Who: The Mighty 200? Or is Revenge Of The Cybermen a surprisingly more entertaining potentially less cerebral tale than its much heralded predecessor? Or, would it be nothing more than a tin man? We find out if it indeed has a heart as we take the Tardis for a spin back into space and time launching headlong into the fifth and final serial of the season, Revenge Of The Cybermen.

PART ONE: It's incredible to me the evolution of man particularly the brain and how it receives information. The Doctor Who classics were certainly good enough for me as a child, but the idea of my son sitting to watch one - perish the thought. Everything is so much faster and the mind is wired today for certain visual expectations. Has my mind remained static? No. I've evolved [I think], but I can certainly appreciate the classics in a way that is unlikely to lure today's child. For them, and even myself, this is why the re-imagined Doctor Who is so refreshing and so stimulating. But that's another story.

So our good friend the Doctor, companion Sarah Jane Smith and third wheel, the temporary but terrific, Harry Sullivan return to the ark in space or Space Station NERVA beacon via the Time Ring. The ark of course was the setting for the epic The Ark In Space [actually filmed just prior to Revenge Of The Cybermen for the use of the established standing sets]. We have arrived at NERVA at a new time and location. The beacon monitors traffic around Voga long before it would one day become the cryogenic space Ark Terra Nova.

The station is littered with the dead. Only a few men survive. The remaining men on the beacon NERVA receive a distress call from the uncharted Voga, a planet of gold. Elsewhere on the beacon something metallic stirs about them in the shape and color of a silver worm dubbed a Cybermat.

A small band of survivors continue to operate the beacon despite the death of many of their colleagues from a space plague.

On Voga, an asteroid-like planet that surrounds Jupiter, a strange, alien race lives with abundant gold reserves. On the beacon, a double agent named Professor Kellman operates outside the scope of their Earth mission. Another man is injected with the plague by the Cybermat. As the good Doctor discovers, the survivors deal with the infected by shooting them dead. The Doctor won't allow it. He suspects the infection is treatable and is indeed suspicious it is the work of nefarious hands. The survivors don't know what to believe because their medical team was among the first to die. Fortunately there is Harry.

Elsewhere, the treacherous Kellman monitors the beacon's new guests. The Doctor quickly deduces that the plague virus is not a plague at all.

In probably one of the most impressive special effects moments, the team behind Doctor Who have crafted a very simple, but striking vein effect on the sickened man whereby his veins glow. This is a major coup and a significant leap forward from the bubble wrap of The Ark In Space however simple it may have been to achieve.

It's been seventy-nine days of plague and the survivors have been completely isolated in the hopes of preventing an Earth epidemic. The Doctor surmises correctly events suggest the handiwork of the "utterly ruthless, total machine creatures" called Cybermen.

The traitorous Kellman uses a kind of cybernetic Cybermen-version of morse code to communicate with the Cybermen.

The Doctor finds a Cybermat bite mark on the man's neck, "like a snakebite." It injects poison. The Doctor tells Commander Stevenson he smells a rat and looks for Kellman. Stevenson isn't certain about the Doctor and tells Sarah he wonders if the Doctor "is quite right in the head." The answer is most assuredly yes and no.

Later, the good ol' sonic screwdriver gains the Doctor entrance to Kellman's quarters. With someone coming the Doctor must hide under Kellman's bed. Kellman exits the room trapping the Doctor in his quarters. The floor is now electrified and the Doctor is forced to higher ground. Efforts to leave via the sonic screwdriver fail initially. Meanwhile, Sarah is attacked by the Cybermen snake tentacle, a device I recall being particularly terrified of as a child. Today, it doesn't have quite the same effect. Still, it struck fear in young hearts once upon a time. The sound of the theme song illuminates the speakers and leaves us with the now legendary Doctor Who cliffhanger. Many of them are not terribly effective today, but damn they were brilliant through the eyes of a child.

PART TWO: With Sarah infected, miraculously somehow, the Doctor's sonic screwdriver finally works and he escapes from the fumes of the smouldering quarters and the cliffhanger of Part One. "Can you get from your bed to the hall without touching the ground?," asks a question in Doctor Who Magazine 200 Golden Moments. Well, I'll have you know that it's funny they should pose that question suggesting the scene inspired make believe in young lads everywhere. I should think it did and, quite frankly, know it did. I constantly played that game as a child pretending lava was all about my room. In my mind, you absolutely could not touch the rug or you would DIE! What an exciting game that was too. I remember that. I spent way too much time watching Doctor Who, The Herculoids, Land Of The Lost and Danger Island. I was a goner.

Eventually, the Doctor arrives to save Sarah and manages to sprinkle some gold glitter dust from his pocket onto the Cybermat disabling it.

The Doctor is certain Kellman is a saboteur working for the Cybermen, but the double agent also works for the Vogans. The survivors, including Stevenson and Lester, head to Kellman's quarters. Kellman is armed and waiting having watched and listened to the Doctor remotely.

The Doctor succeeds in delivering Harry and Sarah to Voga via the transmat beam. It's a low budget version of the transporter from Star Trek: The Original Series. As a result the infection is removed and Sarah is cured. Harry and Sarah are captured by the alien Vogans.

With Kellman in custody, the Doctor explains why Voga, the planet of gold, is so lethal to the Cybermen. Gold can plate their breathing apparatus and suffocate them. It is a lethal metal.

The Cybermen, a masterstroke of design, are en route to Voga. The Cybermen retain classic enemy status along with The Daleks within the world of Doctor Who. I've always been riveted by the look and design that went into a race that pre-dates the Stormtrooper in the same ways Star Wars stirred the imagination. The Cybermen, like Stormtroopers and Clone Troopers, have clearly evolved in appearance with a variety of appearances to differentiate the ranks. The Cyberleader is designated with black head gear here.

Sarah and Harry are questioned by Vorus. Vorus is a leader of a militant sect called the Guardians. He informs there was a "plan" to leave four humans alive on NERVA. Sarah and Harry are sent to confinement. Between The Sontaran Experiment and Genesis Of The Daleks, Sarah and Harry know a thing or two about confinement. It wouldn't be Doctor Who without a little imprisonment from time to time for our dear companions.

Meanwhile on the station, the Doctor and the others interrogate Kellman for the Pentalium Drive, the key to retrieving Sarah and Harry from Voga.

Later, the power hungry Vorus meets with elder chief Tyrum who is displeased with him. There is a clear rivalry between the wise chief councillor and the young hot shot that is Vorus. He orders the humans be killed. Inside those gold caverns, Harry and Sarah break free of their gold chains. The film stock on the exterior shots [shot at Wookey Hole in England] is always more impressive than the near home video, staged-appearance of the stock for interior locations. Harry and Sarah escape and are on the run under heavy Vogan fire. When cornered by the Guardians they are saved by the rest of the Vogan race who force the Guardians to stand down. Tyrum believes Vorus to be a traitor to their race.

A craft approaches the NERVA beacon. The approaching craft is none other than the evil Cybermen. The Cybermen craft docks to board NERVA. Unable to stop their arrival the Cybermen board disabling all including the Doctor. "All resistance is overcome," states the Cybermen as they neutralize the survivors with head-based weaponry. It kind of foreshadows the whole "resistance is futile" catchphrase as coined for the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. What's fascinating watching these classics is how little resistance there was, two men with guns to be exact, and yet this was breathless excitement in 1975. With civil war on Voga, double-crossing abound, the Cybermen overtake NERVA and the music of Doctor Who begins.

PART THREE: The Cybermen are greeted by Kellman. The invading force indicates the humans are neutralized and remain part of their plan. Kellman attempts to learn more about the unconscious Doctor by emptying his pockets. After all we can learn much about someone from the contents of their pockets. Kellman finds a rotten apple core and a little bag of trademark jelly babies. Of course this actually reveals quite a bit about the carefree personality of the good Doctor.

The Cybermen plot to deliver a bomb to the shaft core of Voga intent on destroying the gold planetoid. The surviving humans on NERVA will deliver the explosives. The one gnawing fact is why the Cybermen feel so threatened by a small planet of gold in the vastness of outerspace. It simply doesn't feel like a logical threat with any real urgency, but okay. Down on Voga the civil war rages between the Vogans, one that reminisces of the Minbari strife of Babylon 5.

It would appear the Vogans have lived within the core of Voga undetected and safe from Cybermen harm. The Chief Councilor, Tyrum, explains the background of Voga to Harry and Sarah. He wonders if Vorus has brought the wrath of the Cybermen back upon them. Vorus zealously desires freedom from the Cybermen at any cost.

The Doctor toys with the Cyber Leader here and refers to the success of humans implementing the gold resources of Voga to create the glitter gun.

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Galactic domination never tasted so good, not since, well, at least Genesis Of The Daleks and the efforts of a similar campaign by the Daleks. The Cybermen clearly want to rid of Voga and its potential to interfere with a second military campaign following their defeat during the Cyber-Wars. A new Cyberarc and a new plan is ready to go. "We will rule the galaxy!" So, the Doctor is reigned in and put under the Cyberthumb.

Down on Voga double agent Kellman demands to see Vorus, but is informed by the other Vogans he is no longer in charge. On the beacon, the Cybermen have harnessed the Doctor, Stevenson and Lester with Cyberbombs [banned by the Armageddon Convention of which the Cybermen are not participating members - think United Nations]. If removed prematurely they will explode. They will have fourteen minutes to escape the "fragmatize" zone. The Doctor: "Fragmatize? Ah well, I suppose we can't expect decent English from a machine."

It's hard not to miss the lovely, heroic Elisabeth Sladen. Upon transmatting down to Voga the Cybermen [why would they physically go to a planet of gold?] are greeted by the Vogans with gunfire. The Cybermen quickly fire back with the four mini-cannons affixed to their helmets - a devastating piece of weaponry. The effects were incredibly limited back in the 1970s for Doctor Who. The only visual information is a few sparks from the Cybermen helmets. Most of the drama is presented via sound effects, but much was left to our imagination and by God as children we filled in the holes vividly.

Kellman has informed Tyrum that Vorus has a rocket, the Sky Striker, aimed at NERVA as Vogans begin reporting the Cybermen have arrived. "At least two" Cybermen have arrived [the math appears to make six]. Yes, sadly enough, invading armies were on a much smaller scale in the 1970s on Doctor Who. Costumes for Cybermen were clearly at a premium. Yet, the two units are picking off Vogans like two foxes in a hen house. It is impressive.

As the Doctor, Stevenson and Lester travel with bombs affixed the trio offers a bit of a humorous exchange. The Doctor: "I think my idea is better." Lester: "What is your idea?" The Doctor: "I don't know yet. That's the trouble with ideas. They only come a bit at a time." He is a nutter. Despite the nifty Cybermen head weapons, the writing in this particular installment is a little daft.

Sarah heads back to the station beacon via transmat to warn the doctor of the impending launch of the Vogan rocket. When Sarah arrives she discovers the Doctor is on Voga and he has been betrayed by the Cybermen who deceived the men regarding their allotted escape time.

Vorus is unable to launch the unfinished rocket despite his dreams to give freedom to the Vogans. Writer Davis even taps into the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. for Part Four. Tyrum indicates he should never have trusted the despicable Kellman.

The deeper the Doctor goes into the caverns he realizes perhaps the gold density might disrupt the Cybermen's ability to monitor their progress giving them a chance to escape.

A wall of gold breaks apart and causes a gold slide. The wonderful Harry Sullivan survives and Kellman is killed ending his dreams of galactic domination or master of riches. One group of styrofoam gold rocks falls upon the Doctor knocking him unconscious. The theme music kicks in as the ignorant Harry attempts to remove the rigged bomb harness from the Doctor. NO!!!

PART FOUR: So those gold styrofoam rocks may have killed lesser men, like Kellman, but not the Doctor who is very much alive. The Doctor, Harry, Lester and the Commander plan to overtake the two roving Cybermen with gold dust. When the Doctor and Harry's first attempts fail, Lester jumps down from a ledge upon them in an act of heroism and with his bomb destroys himself and the two Cybermen in a ball of flame. It's a pretty effective and believable moment, but I'm not sure how these bombs would have been enough for the core.

Is Tom Baker not crazy as a loon? As a result of stopping the two Cybermen, the rest of the Cybermen on the beacon are unable to detonate the bombs foiling their plan to explode Voga.

Meanwhile Sarah has informed the Cybermen of Voga's planned rocket. There's a clear love of rockets between The Ark In Space, Genesis Of The Daleks and now Revenge Of The Cybermen. You have to love the overly dramatic, earnest performances of classic Doctor Who.

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Armed with a bag of gold dust and jelly babies the Doctor returns to NERVA for Sarah Jane only to discover the Cybermen plan to crash the beacon loaded with Cyberbombs into Voga. The Cybermen have set the timer and plan to exit. This sweet little moment between Sarah and the Doctor are the moments we cherished from their chemistry and their relationship in their run together on the series.

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Vorus is anxious to launch the rocket and obsessed with becoming the Vogan leader. He sees redemption in the maneuver.

The Doctor loads the Cybermat with gold dust. When one seeks out the Doctor and Sarah to kill them the Cyberman gets a nice little surprise from the lethally-charged Cybermat with the golden bite.

A struggle ensues on Voga and the rocket is launched [using NASA footage of the Saturn V no less] and Vorus is killed.

On NERVA, the Doctor and Sarah are captured. The Cybermen depart. The Doctor and Sarah free themselves and manage to advise the Commander on Voga to steer the rocket into the Cybermen's escaping ship. Likewise, the Doctor does it again evading collision with Voga in NERVA. And the Tardis arrives to wrap things up nicely with the trio of companions reuniting. The Doctor assures he will now set the drift compensators to avoid losing track of the Tardis in the future. There was always something very reassuring and comforting about the sight and sound of that little Tardis, one of the mightiest, coziest of travel devices to ever come from the mind of man. The Tardis always had a way of providing safety to our fragile, young minds. Finally, the trio is summoned back to Earth by the Brigadier to kickoff Season Thirteen, Terror Of The Zygons.

With the arrival of the final entry of Season Twelve, much has been said of Revenge Of The Cybermen. With a brand new Doctor on board, according to Producer Philip Hinchcliffe [1974-1977], many of the stories were mapped out for the twelfth season before Hinchcliffe could really dig into some new ideas. Thus, Producer Barry Letts [1969-1974] and script editor Robert Holmes [1974-1977] had some degree of influence and felt bringing back old but beloved faces would help support Tom Baker. The Sontarans, the Daleks and now the Cybermen [first time in color and never appearing during the Jon Pertwee years] were all enlisted for Baker's inaugural season. Hinchcliffe believed the season really reflected a group that "played for safety."

Writer Gerry Davis came on board because he had written previous Cybermen stories [The Tenth Planet, The Moonbase, The Tomb Of The Cybermen]. He also served as a script editor on Doctor Who along with some of the best like Terrance Dicks and Robert Holmes. But Hinchcliffe felt Davis was coming from a place of writing the series for children and felt the story, while a good one, needed to be a little more complex. Some were disappointed by this particular entry from a writing standpoint and ultimately it never quite achieves the desired complexity. This is how Robert Holmes got involved and became an uncredited writer.

Director Michael Briant noted the episode's visual limitations adding to its problems in the documentary Tin Men And The Witch. "You've only got three or four of them and they're meant to be a taking over the universe." This is a nice bit from director Briant and producer Hinchcliffe.

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And as we've noted, the Cybermen are beautifully designed and "iconic" as Hinchcliffe put it. But Briant admits he feels he did not do enough to strengthen the "horror" component of the Cybermen. He didn't add anything new to that element and in this regard he felt he "failed."

Magrik is played by none other than Michael Wisher of Davros Genesis Of The Daleks fame. Wisher actually filmed his role as Davros following Revenge Of The Cybermen in the production order. Despite some positives many were ruthless regarding the episode. The Discontinuity Guide called it "A contradictory, tedious, and unimaginative mess," and even thought the title was "rubbish." Again, Revenge Of The Cybermen may be a bit extreme for an enemy devoid of emotion, but for wide-eyed children in the 1970s it certainly sufficed.

Doctor Who: The Television Companion noted it was "a story with a weak script and a poor plot." David Owen wrote in In-Vision magazine that he appreciated the symbolism whereby "Stevenson and Lester stand for human good and the value of cooperation. Kellman is human greed and corruption." Some felt the use of gold merely lessened or minimized the Cybermen threat even further. But most everyone agrees that the Cybermen design as well as cave locations were uniformly exceptional.

Without question Genesis Of The Daleks had grand ambitions and told a tale of the Daleks that generally gave us an original, origin story, and one that offered a great deal of new information about one of the Doctor's age old enemies. Does Gerry Davis deliver the same kind of ambition to Revenge Of The Cybermen? Most certainly not. Still, Revenge Of The Cybermen, moves along at a cracking good pace at just four installments. It is a much breezier entry than Genesis Of The Daleks though much less cerebral. Briant's direction is also sharp and keeps thing visually interesting. Elisabeth Sladen actually complained in her autobiography about Briant being a special effects director concerned much more about visuals than his principals' performances. The greatest weakness here is dialogue particularly for the Cybermen who should have been more terrifying. Seeing the Doctor shaken by a Cyberman on the shoulders is hardly convincing.

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Perhaps my expectations were low but its a relatively good bit of science fiction most of the time. Only in the final portion does Revenge Of The Cybermen start to go off the rails, but damn it's hard not love those Cybermen. Some aliens should never be seen again. The Vogans are some of them. Those Cybermen, on the other hand, are always welcomed guests to the telly. Those Cybermen speak to my inner child, which is why I find watching these Doctor Who classics as nostalgic fun. While there's no comparison on many production levels to the new Doctor Who, there is still much to appreciate here. Mind you, today, these classics aren't nearly as incredible as they once were back when I was a youngster. It's of course much easier to see problems with the Cybermen emoting revenge, but these inconsistencies shouldn't stop you from finding aspects of the classics to enjoy. Revenge Of The Cybermen rounds out the five tales that comprise Season Twelve and glimpse the chemistry of Tom Baker and Elisabeth Sladen in the making.

Revenge Of The Cybermen. B-. Writer: Gerry Davis. Director: Michael E. Briant.

Cybermen episodes: The Tenth Planet [1966]/ The Moonbase [1967]/ The Tomb Of The Cybermen [1967]/ The Wheel In Space [1968]/ The Invasion [1968]/ Revenge Of The Cybermen [1975]/ Earthshock [1982]/ Attack Of The Cybermen [1985]/ Rise Of The Cybermen [2006]/ The Age Of Steel [2006]/ Army Of Ghosts [2006]/ Doomsday [2006]/ Cyberwoman [Torchwood] [2006]/ The Next Doctor [2008]/ The Pandorica Opens [2010]/ A Good Man Goes To War [2011]/ Closing Time [2011].

Actor footnote: Jeremy Wilkin [1930-present]. Wilkin delivers a terrific role as double agent Kellman in Revenge Of The Cybermen. In the world of genre entertainment he was employed for a number of science fiction parts including the voice of Virgil Tracy for Series 2 of Thunderbirds. He offered voice work to Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons as well. He also had a recurring role as Lt. Gordon Maxwell on Gerry Anderson's UFO as well as voice work for The Secret Service and Joe 90 making notable contributions on five Gerry Anderson productions. Further he played Captain Forsyth in The Spy Who Loved Me [1977]. He also appeared on Blake's 7 for The Way Back.

DVD Extras: The extras are small but mighty. There is the Audio Commentary by Philip Hinchcliffe, the late but lovely Elisabeth Sladen and David Collings. The Tin Man And The Witch [25 min] is a splendid behind-the-scenes look at the making of Revenge Of The Cybermen with input from Hinchcliffe, Barry Letts and many others. Cheques, Lies And Videotape [25 min] is an outstanding documentary that may make this particular DVD worth the price of admission alone. It is a brilliant look back at the technological deficiencies that plagued fan collecting in the 1970s and early 1980s through the prism of Doctor Who. But, you could apply it to anything. A discussion of bootleg episodes that fans paid through the tooth for makes for an amusing look back at how far the fanatic will go to enjoy their hobby. Just getting a VCR was hard enough. It could break the bank. Then there was the format war between VHS and Betamax [essentially the Blu-Ray / HD war of the 1970s]. Finally, videos, when they were finally releasing them officially, were offered at a lethargic pace. Heck, people were watching 10th generation bootlegs at ridiculous money on the black market. To think people complain about DVDs today right? It's an amazing look back at the hampered fan and what they had to barter, beg and borrow to seek out rare Doctor Who episodes. There was no internet. Communication was brutal. One girl was willing to give her right arm to see Pertwee and Sladen's Planet Of The Spiders. It will bring back terribly good memories of watching fan-recorded film and television with all of that snow on the screen. Fans literally had to record over shows to get new ones or an even more favorite episode because VHS tapes were not cheap and budgets were limited. I remember the very first VHS I bought and it was The Terminator and it cost roughly 90 dollars. That's no joke. Can you imagine? That was the retail price. You can't sell VHS tapes for a penny today. So this documentary is genuinely pertinent to Doctor Who, but it also offers an invaluable look back at an era where technology and television viewing were at a crossroads and if you were there and you lived it you will laugh out loud. It's a wonderful artifact and highly entertaining.

2 comments:

Maurice Mitchell said...

Thanks for the great flashback Sci-Fi Fanatic.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

My pleasure Maurice. I enjoy it immensely. Thank you for saying.