Thursday, September 20, 2018

Guest Post: A Simple Favor (2018)

Nancy Drew and the Case of the Gone Gossip Girl

By Jonas Schwartz

Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor is a deliciously twisty comedy-thriller in the Hitchcockian vein with two delectable performances by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively.

Square, single mom Stephanie (Kendrick, Into The Woods) tries just a little bit too hard to please. Her dull life turns upside down when she meets the dynamic Emily (Lively, Gossip Girl) through their little boys. Stephanie is instantly bewitched by the fashionable, flip sophisticate. They drink dry martinis London style and reveal dark secrets. Then one day Emily asks for just a simple favor, for Stephanie to pick up Emily's son from school. After that call, Emily vanishes. Her husband Sean (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) hasn’t heard from her at all, and her work doesn’t seem to notice she’s gone. Stephanie leaves it to herself to solve the mystery. The once buttoned up neurotic blossoms due to the excitement as she chases old secrets to their roots.

Feig plays homage to the French '60s neo-noir thrillers of Claude Chabrol and Francois Truffaut, who, in turn, had been kissing up to their portly Hollywood mentor, Hitch.  Feig sets the tone with a ravishing soundtrack containing post-modern French songs by Serge Gainsbourg, Brigitte Bardot, and Françoise Hardy and an enveloping score by Theodore Shapiro.  The costumes by Renee Ehrlich Kalfus mock trends of the 1960s with couture female tuxedos and hostess dresses in bright suburban colors.

The script by Jessica Sharzer, based on Darcey Bell's 2017 novel, follows the tropes of the scheming femme fatales and the good girls who climb into the mud after them. The characters are wickedly smart which makes both Stephanie and Emily worthy adversaries. Some of the strings do unravel, in particular the character of Emily's fashion empresario boss played by Rupert Friend could have been woven more into the mystery to add menace. Even without charting new territory, Sharzer keeps the audience on their toes, but still allows them to think they're two steps ahead of the script only to be dead wrong often.

Feig's cast has been obviously schooled on the conventions of the 1940's noir characters they tease, so that they're able to follow the established form, but also make the characters their own. Kendrick, who began her career on the stage as a child, is a winning protagonist. Her insecurities and constant babbling illustrate a woman desperate to belong. The script clues the audience in immediately when Stephanie reveals to her mommy vlogger audience that her best friend that she’s known for ONLY A FEW WEEKS has gone missing. Kendrick may be a pigeon, but audiences empathize with her loneliness and isolation. Lively plays Emily as a force of nature, a commanding presence who manipulates for the same reason other people breath. Like in Crazy Rich Asians, Golding projects an irresistible sexiness, but he unselfishly allows the dominant women surrounding him to take full focus in the film. Feig fills his cast with great supporters like Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla as the gossipy school parents, and Olivia Sandoval and Bashir Salahuddin as two over-jovial but heavily suspicious detectives, she for the insurance company, he for the police. Jean Smart as a boozy piece of the puzzle is a hilarious gem as always.

Like a rich, French meal, A Simple Favor savors its flavors, creating an appetizing treat that's a tastier whole than its parts may suggest on their own. Already adept at skewering the conventions of the spy thriller (Spy), the buddy cop comedy (The Heat), and the girl's-day-out comedies (Bridesmaids), director Paul Feig shows his flair for subtlety and intrigue without the gross-out elements upon which his earlier comedies relied.

Check out Jonas's other reviews at 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Horror Lexicon: "The Stay Awake" Shot

As I've often written, the horror film possesses a visual vocabulary all its own.  At the basis of this vocabulary or lexicon, is film grammar, the agreed upon language filmmakers deploy to vet their cinematic narratives.

Director Tobe Hooper explains further (in Jeffrey Horsting's Stephen King Goes to Hollywood, New American Books, 1986, page 20):

"Brian De Palma actually coined a phrase, 'film grammar,' which refers to the way particular shots are put together by particular directors in order to tell the story....You build sequences, such as a shot of someone coming through a doorway who looks at a table across the room.  On the table, there is a dagger, and as the subject approaches the dagger, the camera dollies back across the long room with the subject approaching the table.  And cutting to that person's point-of-view, which would be a moving shot traveling toward the table, getting closer and closer to the dagger...that's grammar."

Film grammar is the basis upon which all (good) films are constructed, and certain compositions or "sentences" of film grammar are virtually guaranteed to make audiences feel specific emotions or feelings.  You are already familiar with this lingo, at least sub-consciously.  A high angle shot (looking down) makes our heroes look small...vulnerable.  A low angle shot (peering up), makes a villain seem huge and menacing.  A subjective point-of-view puts us inside the body and eyes of a specific character.  Hand-held camera-work makes the action feel more immediate and urgent, and so forth.

In this new type of post here, called "The Horror Lexicon," I'll be spotlighting and examining the horror film's distinctive visual language, the language we all understand, at least psychologically.

I've written previously about the "Stay Awake" genre convention in Horror Films of the 1980's and Horror Films of the 1990's.  In those two instances, I cataloged at least 125 instances of this particular visual in 1980s and 1990s horror cinema.   A favorite of director Brian De Palma (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Raising Cain), the "Stay Awake" shot represents a visual shorthand for post-traumatic stress, and the fall-off ofter a crescendo of highest dramatic intensity. 

The "Stay Awake" shot (named by me after a very bad 1987 film called The Stay Awake) is what I term "the trademark" composition of the once-popular rubber-reality horror film.  The Stay Awake  shot most often (but not universally) features a close-up of the beleaguered protagonist, all sweaty and bothered, awaking from a traumatic dream, usually on a bed or in a sofa.  You will see the shot frequently in A Nightmare on Elm Street films, which explicitly deal with nightmares.

The Stay Awake shot often arrives immediately after a horror film has tricked us with a sequence in which the protagonist appears to be in inescapable danger.  At the moment of greatest jeopardy and terror, we suddenly cut to the Stay Awake, as the protagonist comes to conciousness from the disturbing phantasm.  We have been tricked by the harrowing action too, and identify with the character's relief (and fast-breathing, perspiring demeanor).  The Stay Awake composition builds an important link between protagonist and audience. It portends universality (we've all had bad dreams), and we've both, in this instance, been tricked.

Many directors and film scholars have compared the act of watching a movie to dreaming, only with our eyes open.  The Stay Awake shot seems to be a self-reflexive, mirroring of this dynamic.   We're actually watching a character on screen dream within a dream, as we are observing the larger dream of the film itself.

Sometimes, the Stay Awake shot is a movie's final, climactic sting (think Carrie [1976], Dressed to Kill [1980]), and sometimes, when a director is being exceptionally playful or mischevious, the audience is treated to a double Stay Awake (a second dream within a dream; as in the case of Prince of Darkness [1987].)  Sometimes, the awaking figure clutches dream wounds, further evoking a feeling that the dream was physically dangerous.

Below are some well-known post-dream, post-traumatic "Stay Awake" shots of the horror cinema.  Again, consider how here one shot alone has become part of horror's communal language, a critical part of the horror director's quiver.

The Stay Awake a la Cameron: Aliens (1986)

The Stay Awake a la John Carpenter: Prince of Darkness (1987)

The Stay Awake a la Tobe Hooper: Lifeforce (1985)

The Stay Awake a la Brian De Palma: Dressed to Kill (1989)

The Stay Awake a la Neil Marshall: The Descent (2006)

The Stay Awake a la Mark Pellington: The Mothman Prophecies (2002)

De Palma redux: Carrie (1976)

See also these prominent examples: Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984),  George Romero's Day of the Dead (1985), Alan Parker's Angel Heart (1987), Sam Raim's Evil Dead 2 (1987),  Ken Russell's Lair of the White Worm (1988) Don Coscarelli's Phantasm 2 (1988), Mary Lambert's Pet Sematary (1989), Kathryn Bigelow's Blue Steel (1990), Adrian Lyne's Jacob's Ladder (1990), Richard Stanley's Dust Devil (1992), Taylor Hackford's The Devil's Advocate (1997) and David Koepp's Stir of Echoes (1999).

Friday, September 14, 2018

Breakaway 2018: "All that Glisters"

Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) leads a team to a nearby planet when Main Computer reports that the world possesses the rare and vital mineral called Milganite required for Alpha’s life support system. 

On the team to find and mine the Milganite are Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), Maya (Catherine Schell), Alan Carter (Nick Tate), Chief Security Officer Verdeschi (Tony Anholt) and geologist David Reilly  (Patrick Mower), an Irishman who fancies himself a Texan cowboy.

Once on the planet surface, the Alphans’ Milganite readings lead them to a strange orange rock in a cave. When Reilly cuts off a sample of it, it bleeds and utters a scream of pain.  Upon the deposit of the rock in the Eagle, the rock flares energy, and apparently kills Tony.

Helena determines, however, that Tony still possesses brain function, a fact which becomes apparent when Tony is “revived” to serve as the arms and legs of the rock sample, retrieving another piece of the glowing rock from the cave.

Koenig and the others soon recognize that the rocks on the planet are alive, and desperate. They require water to survive, and have been enduring a seemingly-unending drought.

But, as Maya points out with worry, there is plenty of water in the human body…

“All that Glisters” is a quite disliked episode by many Space: 1999 (1975-1977) fans, and also, actually, by some of those who participated in the making of it. 

Martin Landau’s displeasure with the script is legendary, and if you watch very closely, you can also see Catherine Schell breaking character and succumbing to fits of giggling, in a scene set on the planet exterior, as the rocks take control over the Eagle. She must turn away from the camera, once her composure fails.

Why the dislike? 

Well, there are a number of reasons, for certain. 

The episode, about a silicon-based life-forms, doesn’t treat the main characters, for the most part, in appealing or intelligent fashion. The guest star, Mower’s Reilly, for instance, is an “Irish Cowboy” and attempts a dreadful Texan accent. 

He is an obnoxious character, with little in terms of human qualities to make the audience like, or even care about him. He hits on Maya in the Eagle, to Tony’s dismay, and then constantly acts counter to Commander Koenig’s orders.  He is obsessed with a living rock.  

So, an Englishman plays an Irish cowboy who is obsessed with rocks.  That’s quite a description!

Commander Koenig, a character I love and admire, also fares poorly in the episode.  

Perhaps because of Landau’s displeasure with the story, Koenig is constantly on the verge of catastrophic rage, shouting and yelling at his subordinates like a maniac.  

Worse, his orders sometimes make no sense.  After Tony is injured by the rock, for instance, Koenig orders that no one go near, look at, or in any way interact with any rocks.  

Well, if they do that, how will they save Tony? How will they understand their environs? It’s a dumb order, and Landau should never have been put in the position of having to issue it.

Dr. Russell also comes across poorly here. She has to say the line “I’m a doctor, not a miracle worker,” which, of course, comes straight from the lexicon of Star Trek (1966-1969) and its notoriously cantankerous physician, Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley). So Helena is a sort of cut-rate “Bones” here, frustratingly.

So why did I give such a favorable review of “All that Glisters” in my book, Exploring Space: 1999 (1997)? And why do I still appreciate it?

There are two reasons, primarily.  

First, I admire the episode’s photography. Much of the episode takes place in a darkened Eagle laboratory pod, as Helena and the others deal with the strange nemesis in their midst.  These shots are beautifully-crafted, with dim illumination, and lights sometimes cast only on eyes, or faces.  

It’s stylish and smart in visual approach, and reminds me of black-and-white horror photography from Hollywood of the 1940s. The familiar technological setting is rendered almost “supernatural” in its creepy nature, and given that so much time is spent there, the episode also boasts a nice, claustrophobic feel.  There’s a real sense here of an inescapable trap.

Secondly, and perhaps more important than the episode’s stylish photography, I appreciate how “All that Glisters” fits into my “horror myth” thesis about Space: 1999 overall.  

Basically, that thesis states that Space: 1999 is actually a horror series, not a science-fiction one, with all the old universal fears translated to the technological space age. We have the horror of the premature burial, in “Earthbound,” for example.  We have the man with the Midas Touch, instantly freezing other humans on contact, in “Force of Life.”  Other stories are about wicked, evil children (“Alpha Child”) or dragons (“Dragon’s Domain.”)

This conceit continued into Year Two. “The Exiles” was “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” at least after a fashion, and this segment, “All that Glisters” is very clearly a technological, space-age update of the traditional zombie story.  

Today, we primarly associate zombies with George A. Romero and The Walking Dead (2010 - ).  They are dead creatures who feast on human flesh and typically transmit a plague to those bitten.  But if you go back in Hollywood history to films such as White Zombie (1932) or I Walked with a Zombie (1943), you can see the interpretation of that monster that “All that Glisters” adopts and re-processes for the space age.  

Basically, zombies, in those situations are shambling, dead (or mostly dead…) servants of sorcerers or other puppet masters.  The fear was of being made dead, and then a drone or slave to some horrible person and his agenda. 

Here, of course, the rocks destroy Tony’s consciousness and make him, operationally, a zombie: a creature without higher thought, but bound to their control.  

Again, there are some very good, atmospheric shots of Tony blank-faced, walking across the alien planet surface. He is lit from below (by the glow of the rocks), so that his vacant life-less face appears menacing and inhuman. 

My grounds for admiring “All that Glisters” come down to, essentially, the horror touches, and the accumulation of their impact. The dark laboratory is a haunted house setting, and quite claustrophobic, thus generating anxiety. And the rocks make zombies of the living, turning them into trudging, mindless automatons, in keeping with the series’ overall horror qualities.

I can see how the episode’s other factors are less than successful. Certainly, the silicon life form has been featured before, and in better shows, such as Trek’s “The Devil in the Dark,” but in fairness, “All that Glisters” also appears to be the influential basis of the ST:TNG episode “Home Soil.”

Finally, I do think it is nice, after all the horror on display in “All that Glisters,” that the Alphans show their humanity and help the rocks to survive.  

Not so much because I want Space: 1999 to emulate Star Trek’s universe of brotherhood and optimism among alien species, but because it’s a different type ending for the series, and therefore it feels fresh.  If the Alphans can help the rocks, it seems natural that they would do so.

Breakaway 2018: "The AB Chrysalis"

1296 Days after Leaving Earth Orbit

For two weeks, Earth’s errant moon has been approaching a series of cosmic explosions. The detonation recurs every twelve hours, and each time, Alpha is damaged more heavily. The next detonation will destroy the base completely.

The source of the explosions -- a planetary system ahead -- is discovered by Maya (Catherine Schell), and Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) launches a team to investigate.

The first world approached in that system is a small moon, where a series of mechanical stations exist. These stations are the energy-gathering devices for the recurring, man-made explosions. 

Koenig and Alan Carter (Nick Tate) speak with Voice Probe 248, an automaton who informs the Alphans that his makers -- who have not yet been “born” -- live in an inhospitable atmosphere of poisonous chlorine gas.  The explosions occur to protect the race during its chrysalis stage.

Koenig begs for an audience, and is told that “The Guardian,” the last of the race's current iteration, is currently outside the chrysalis stage, and still conscious on the planet.

Koenig and his team travel there, only to learn that the Guardian is senile, and unable to respond to their request to stop the next explosion. Carter accidentally breaks the atmospheric seal/glass on the Guardian’s chamber, threatening the alien’s life, and weakening their case for mercy.

Two of the life-forms -- A (Ina Skriver) and B (Sarah Douglas) -- emerge from chrysalis form, and Koenig must convince them to stop the next detonation, lest Alpha be reduced to rubble.

“The AB Chrysalis” is a weird and a wonderful episode of Space: 1999 (1975-1977), and one that demonstrates the possibilities of the Year Two format. The episode is colorful, suspenseful, and highly-imaginative.

Not only does Alpha encounter a race of immortal, chlorine “perfection seekers,” but also the architecture of their alien culture.  In this case, that includes their defensive system: a ring of high-tech mechanical stations that build up energy, and radiate explosions into space; a kind of galactic “keep away” measure.  

More impressively, the episode reveals the alien “Voice Probes,” a series of spherical machines that travel from interior system to interior system, “jumping” on to transparent rods or poles, to perform different functions.  

It is true that these probes are bouncing balls, filmed in reverse, with footage shown in slow-motion, but the concept is so creative and different from anything else in the sci-fi TV Valhalla that one cannot help but be impressed. When coupled with weird sound-effects, the depiction of the alien culture is remarkable.

In some commendable manner, the episode also closely recalls the more desperate Alphans of the first season of Space: 1999.  

Faced with imminent annihilation, Commander Koenig recognizes “desperation” as his motive, and tries everything -- including a futile show of force (with an Eagle laser) -- to save his people.  

Later, when he realizes he has no cards left to play, Koenig voices his frustration with the aliens, but in an act of defiance and pure humanity, comes to see that “hope is better than despair,” and loyalty (to his people; and they to him) is "better than logic."  It’s a great statement of philosophy, but more than that, a fine example of Koenig’s learning during the episode.  He acts rashly and violently, out of fear, until he realizes, perhaps, that if he and his people are to die, they must do so with their key human qualities -- hope and loyalty -- intact.

When Space: 1999 aired, it was often accused of being the pessimistic yang to Star Trek’s optimistic yin, and it is certainly clear why that was the case. 

But episodes such as “The AB Chrysalis” feature their own unique brand of optimism. That optimism states, simply, that man can find his best -- and be his best -- even in the face of seemingly hopeless odds.  

The Alphans possess no rule-book of principles, no fleet infrastructure, no real resources to fall back. Instead, they must rely on themselves, and each other.  Nowhere in Year Two, one might argue, is that bond more apparent than in this particular installment.

There’s a wonderful moment, here, for example, near the end of the episode, when Koenig must tell Helena he has failed to stop the next detonation. And worse than failing, his Eagle does not even have enough fuel to carry him home to her; so they can die together.  The characters must say their goodbyes, essentially, over Facetime, to use modern lingo.  The characters say very little, but their expressions convey everything. It's a very human moment in a show that was accused of not having enough humanity.

“The AB Chrysalis” succeeds, too, by creating, throughout its hour, all these mini-action sequences or climaxes. 

Maya must transform into a chlorine breather to save Alan from dying of the poison. Alan must pilot the Eagle straight up -- through the equivalent of a rock shaft -- with very little maneuvering room. And Koenig interacts with devices and people that are alien beyond immediate recognition or understanding. 

The story hops from dramatic moment to dramatic moment with aplomb, and shows how an action format, handled well, could have been applied successfully to the series overall.

Not all stories in Year Two manage such a dynamic, successful mix, but “The AB Chrysalis” is smart, imaginative and emotionally engaging, as well as being splendidly-realized, action-packed, and highly creative.  

For my money, it’s one of the very best installments of the series’ second sortie.

Zienia Merton (1945 - 2018)

Zienia Merton (1945 - 2018)

Breakaway 2018: "The Metamorph"

'In “The Metamorph,” Moonbase Alpha emerges from its second encounter with a space warp, six light years from its previous position. The lunar facility’s life support system needs repair, and requires the ore known as Titanium.

Titanium is pinpointed on the volcanic surface of a nearby planet, but an Eagle reconnaissance flight ends in terror when the ship is abducted by a strange green light.  Soon, Alpha is contacted by an alien from the planet, Mentor (Brian Blessed), who claims that the pilots are safe in his custody.

Mentor and Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) arrange an orbital rendezvous, but the plan is further treachery from Mentor.  He captures Koenig’s eagle and drags it down to the planet, called Psychon. 

There, in a subterranean city, Mentor lives with his daughter, Maya (Catherine Schell) whom he has taught the “priceless art of molecular transformation,” and operates a biological computer called Psyche which he hopes to use to restore the planet surface to its former tranquil self.

To do so, however, he must feed Psyche living minds.

The Alphans provide him a ready supply, though Koenig refuses to cooperate. Koenig hopes to convince Maya -- who doesn’t know of Psyche’s brain draining power -- that he needs her help.  But to do so, she must turn on her own father.

The first episode of Space: 1999 Year Two is colorful and bold, crisp and exciting. It also introduces a great regular character to the series: Maya of Psychon, played by Catherine Schell. 

I won’t mince words about Maya or her presence on the series.  I love her. 

I believe Maya is a great character, in part because she is allowed to be emotional as well as competent and brilliant.  After Mr. Spock, all resident aliens had to be stoic, it seems, but not Maya.  She was more like an imp, a good-humored, playful, highly emotional alien.

Like all her people, Maya is incredibly intelligent, with a mind that can run circles around the most high-powered computer. As a Psychon, she is, we are told in "Seed of Destruction," "hyper sensitive to all forms of living matter." Maya is also a pacifist, deploring the violence of the planet Earth when told of it in "Rules of Luton.”

"You mean, people killed people, just because they were different. That's disgusting!"

But Maya is also one tough cookie. She regularly transforms into frightening outer space creatures to stop the monster of the week in episodes such as "The Beta Cloud" and "The Bringers of Wonder." She stands up to the Commander when she believes he is wrong ("Seed of Destruction" again), and is just as comfortable flying an Eagle or running the science station in Command Center as she is in a party dress (“One Moment of Humanity.”)  

In just one season on Space: 1999, Maya did things that the other females in cult-TV history have regularly been denied the opportunity to do.  She piloted spaceships, engaged in fisticuffs, provided the analytical answer to the scientific challenge of the day, and also served as the mouth-piece for the “social gadfly” commentary about the human race. 

To many, she became a role model.

Consider, by 1991 and Star Trek: The Next Generation’s fourth season (and episodes such as “Q-Pid”) – and long after 1999 was canceled -- women characters were still locked in caretaker roles (Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi), and still knocking enemies out by smashing crockery over their heads. Unlike Maya, they rarely piloted space craft, or engaged the enemy in hand-to-hand combat.  Data got the science talk, and Data and Worf were the outsider commenters, leaving Troi to “sense” danger, and Crusher to mend broken bones.

"I never thought of Maya as a role model," Ms. Schell told me during our 1994 interview, "perhaps because in my life I have never been held back from doing something just because I am a woman. I'm thrilled that she is seen by many as I role model, but I didn't intend it that way. Perhaps because Maya was an alien, she was allowed to do more than 'human' women were at the time." 

Whatever the reasons for Maya’s full integration into the action, I remain grateful for it. I miss Barry Morse’s Victor and Prentis Hancock’s Paul Morrow in Space:1999 Year Two, but Maya’s presence adds so much to the season.

And as all fans of the series realize, there are some big differences visually, character-wise, and conceptually between Year One and Year Two.  Year One is awe-inspiring, scary and often wondrous.  By comparison, Year Two tends to be colorful, and action-packed, with more humor. Year One is lugubrious and ponderous, in a remarkable way.  Year Two is fast-paced and giddy.

I know fans divide on the issue of “which year is better.”  I prefer Year One, but I also enjoy Year Two, and feel that Maya, in particular, is a great addition to the series, in large part because of Catherine Schell’s portrayal.

And of all the Year Two style episodes - big on action, movement, and color – “The Metamorph” may just be the best.  It is big, brash, exciting, and pacey…all good qualities for a season premiere, no doubt.

Writer Johnny Byrne once told me, in an interview, how the change in formats occurred:

“During the interregnum between seasons, I wrote for Gerry Anderson.  I kept busy, but people involved with the production of Space: 1999 were very twitchy.  Everybody knew that the new producer, Freddie [Frieberger], was coming.  He sent over a tape of comments about the series, and after hearing his remarks, I understood a second season would be a whole new ball game.  I had been told I would be the story editor for the second year, but it was just a verbal agreement, and I understood it was no longer going to happen. I would continue to write episodes, but it was a very different situation.”

The shift in formats boils down to, at least in creative terms, the fact the Alphans become much more aggressive and in control over their destiny in Year Two.  This shift is apparent in “The Metamorph” from the fact that the base now has laser cannons positioned around its lunar perimeter, the equivalent of phaser banks.

Similarly, the Alphans have developed “Directive 4,” a coded order which means that a dangerous planet (in this case, Psychon) is to be destroyed.  In Year One, Alpha did possess nuclear charges and space mines (which it utilized in stories such as “Space Brain” and “Collision Course”) but the Alphans did not have the potential for Death Star-level destruction.

What does this shift mean, in terms of storytelling? 

Well, in Year Two the Alphans operate not from a place of not-knowing about outer space, but from a position of being able to defend themselves, and hold their own against all comers.  One can argue for the dramatic validity of such a change, and indeed, in some senses it is logical.  The Alphans would be more prepared and defensive over time, given the nature of their odyssey.  But by the same token, these changes are not explained in “The Metamorph,” or phased in “in universe.  Year Two begins, and everything just seems different. 

That jarring change may actually be the reason so many fans have difficulty with Year Two as opposed to Year One. It’s not that the changes are wrong-headed, so much, as they are aren’t accounted for gradually, or in terms of the characters’ actual experiences or history. 

“It comes down to this,” Byrne told me. “The things that people to do prevent disaster are invariably what lead them to disaster.  That’s the essence of Greek tragedy.  We’ve all heard that man proposes and God disposes.  That’s the theme of many Year One stories. That was lost to some extent in Year Two, although I know we both think it was also a valuable season.”

Byrne also pinpointed for me another concern, one much more having to do with a production crunch than any shift in concept.  “The problem was that in Year Two our scripts were no longer consecutive, feeding into each other naturally, one after the next. Instead, there was broad commissioning of about twenty at once, and I think that led to a feeling of reduced momentum.  But without Freddie, there would not have been an additional season of Space: 1999.  I think I need to be clear about that.  It was valuable to have those twenty-four additional shows, even if I would have preferred a different direction.”

I agree with Byrne completely on this subject.  I am grateful to have Space:1999 Year Two and feel that many episodes, especially those at the start (“The Metamorph,” “The Exiles,” “Journey to Where”) and at the finish  (“The Séance Spectre,” “The Immunity Syndrome,” and “The Dorcons”) were good shows. 

“The Metamorph” remains tops in the revised format, though, and I remember watching it with Johnny at the Main Mission Convention in New York in 2000.  We saw there, much in terms of  both virtue and potential.

“I wrote the premiere episode, “The Metamorph,” and it introduced the character of Maya, the shape-shifter played by Catherine Schell,” he told me in our interview.  “She wasn’t in my original script, which was called “The Biological Soul” and then “The Biological Computer.”  But I saw the episode just recently in New York, and it looked absolutely wonderful.  It was fast-paced, smart, interesting and I liked what was left of my main character, Mentor…that idea of flawed genius.

Byrne tallied up so many good points there. Indeed “The Metamorph” moves with such confidence and purpose, that watching it, one feels like the series revamp could have been a remarkable thing.  The same atmosphere carries over to “The Exiles,” in my opinion.  After that, however, the feeling of quality starts to slip, and the production rush takes over, producing some slipshod episodes.  It’s not that the writing in particular gets worse in Year Two, it’s that there’s the feeling that corners are being cut, and the series creator are constantly battling not to fall behind, instead of battling to produce great new stories in this format, of which “The Metamorph” is absolutely one.

What makes it so good?  

For one thing, the Alphans reach out in "The Metamorph." 

Despite the fact that they have been betrayed and disappointed by aliens in the past, Koenig reaches to Maya, and makes a friend in the process.  

And Maya, to her credit, realizes in "The Metamorph" that there are some virtues greater, even, than family.  When she discovers the truth of Mentor's sadism and evil, she doesn't rally loyally (and mindlessly) to her father.  Instead, she attempts to redress a wrong he has committed.  It's not an easy choice for her, yet Maya does what is right, not what is easy.  This makes her a hero.

The episode's closing scene in the Eagle, with Koenig telling Maya that "we are all aliens, until we get to know each other," is an indicator that the Alphans are still human, still willing to extend a hand of friendship. Koenig and Helena want to help Maya, despite the fact that Mentor has been their enemy.  They don't let her former allegiance color their perception of her, and on the contrary, realize how much she has given up for them.

The episode also works in terms of Koenig's character, showcasing the isolation of his position.  He is forced to make a terrible choice in "The Metamorph:" give up his people on Psychon, or watch Alpha be obliterated.  

He attempts to turn the tables on Mentor, but for a time, his people, including Carter (Nick Tate) believe he is a coward.  He silently carries that shame, rather than expose his plan to stop Mentor.

"The Metamorph" is also very exciting, from the sequence with Koenig's eagle experiencing terrible G-forces in flight, to the final confrontation in which Maya goes crazy, transforming from animal to another animal in a desperate bid to save her father from a fire.  

Most importantly, "The Metamorph" sets the stage for Maya's place on Alpha.  She begins the episode asking her father, Mentor, if she would make a good Alphan.  She ends the story with Koenig and Helena re-assuring her that there's a place for her there.

Although fans will always have their preferences regarding Year One and Year Two, I would nonetheless declare that Maya and Catherine Schell helped to make Space:1999 Year Two exciting and memorable,  "The Metamorph" is an example of a success story in Year Two, and a demonstration of the revised format's potential.