Tuesday, July 16, 2019

UFO: "Kill Straker!"

A lunar module with Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) and an astronaut named Craig (David Sumner) aboard experiences something strange upon re-entry. A weird alien light and vocal message orders them to "Kill Straker!"

Upon return to Moonbase, Craig attempts to kill Straker while he sleeps, and then destroy the entire installation. Fortunately he is stopped in time.  

Meanwhile, Foster is insubordinate to Straker, and even sides with General Henderson against him on a matter of SHADO appropriations.

Then, Foster attempts to murder Straker. Fortunately, it is realized that Foster is acting upon a "deep subliminal impulse" in his "subconscious."  The alien programming is countered, but Foster could be relieved of his duties because he will never again be fully trusted. 

Straker engineers a plan to prove that Foster is back to himself, however.

"Kill Straker!" does not hold up as one of the better episodes of UFO, in part because it is obvious to anyone who has watched the series even casually that Foster is not himself. Since it is obvious to viewers that something is grievously wrong with Foster, the same fact should be obvious to Straker, Alec, Ellis, and the others who work closely with him on a day-to-day basis.

Foster is insubordinate, rude, aggressive and mean-spirited towards Straker, and this is a total turnaround from what is seen in other episodes. Straker went to great lengths to defend Foster from charges of treason, for example, in the episode "Court Martial." There is just no way that Foster would suddenly turn on the commander unless he had been compromised. It makes no sense, given what we know of the characters. It seems to me that "alien brainwashing" should be on the table as an explanation immediately, especially given the acts of Paul's co-pilot, Craig.

Bottom line: It takes much too long for Straker and the others to realize the truth about Foster in "Kill Straker!" and that fact means that the episode doesn't quite hold up.

Not that there aren't some fine moments here and there. The confrontation in Moonbase control between Straker and Foster is powerful. It is Foster's "superior physique" vs. Straker's "superior will-power" in a control room where the atmosphere is slowly bleeding away.

The climax, with Straker attempting to kill Foster (to see if Foster will reciprocate the murderous behavior) is also pretty powerful. Straker attempts to goad Foster into striking back, but a terrified Foster doesn't take the bait. This character moment, unlike many in the episode, seems true to the characters. Straker doesn't resort to half-measures when he needs to prove that Foster is still a man he can trust.

It strikes me, while watching "Kill Straker!" that UFO predicted, in many ways, the post-9/11 paranoia of American culture. In virtually every episode of this short-lived series ("The Man Who Came Back," "The Psychobombs," "Kill Straker," "The Cat with 10 Lives," etc.), a "normal" and trusted person is activated as a sleeper agent for the aliens. 

It's a virtual blueprint for asymmetric warfare in the 21st century. All due credit should be given for a forward-looking series, and yet, by the same token, the same old plot has grown tiresome after nearly a whole season of look-a-like plot elements.

Next week: "E.S.P."

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Thirty Years Ago Today: Licence to Kill (1989)

The sixteenth James Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989) debuted in a brutal summer-time season, a span that scuttled not only Agent 007, but the starship Enterprise (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) too.  The big films of the 1989 summer season were Tim Burton’s Batman, and another action sequel, Lethal Weapon 2, from director Richard Donner.

I’m not exactly certain why it’s the case, but arriving in this particular summer -- along with these specific films -- the long-lived and durable James Bond apparently felt a bit old hat and long-in-the-tooth to some critics and viewers. 

Yet close examination reveals that this perception has nothing to do with the film itself, a venture which presents a forward-looking and new direction for the cinematic exploits of Agent 007. 

In short, the James Bond who appears in Licence to Kill is more serious, violent, human and “real” than in any franchise film yet made, even during the Golden Age of Sean Connery.

Additionally, the film pits Bond (Timothy Dalton) not against a megalomaniacal (but fantasy…) mad-man attempting to dominate the world, but against an enterprising if brutal (reality-based) Colombian style drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  

Licence to Kill further eschews established Bond tradition by making this “mission” an unofficial one, a personal vendetta.  Bond is bloodied and battered in the film too, not the unflappable, unruffled fellow in the immaculate white dinner jacket and black tie.

In other words, Licence to Kill actually takes plenty of creative chances with its approach, style, and story-line.  It's  an ambitious, era-changing, tradition-shattering type film.

And yet, Licence to Kill was not reviewed in that fashion by many mainstream movie critics.

Writing for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss noted: “In Licence to Kill, the bad guys' hideaway blows up real good too. And there are some great truck stunts. A pity nobody -- not writers Michael G. Wilson, and Richard Maibaum nor director John Glen -- thought to give the humans anything very clever to do. The Bond women are pallid mannequins, and so is the misused Dalton -- a moving target in a Savile Row suit. For every plausible reason, he looks as bored in his second Bond film as Sean Connery did in his sixth.”

This response is baffling to me, since Dalton shows rage, grief, and remorse in this film, a full-range of emotions almost never before expressed by James Bond, at least not all in a single film. And Carey Lowell’s competent, resourceful, funny Pam Bouvier is a pallid mannequin?   Wow…

At The New York Times, Caryn James’ review also indicated that the film represented a familiar, tired story:  “Though ''Licence to Kill'' is his second appearance as 007, Mr. Dalton is still the new James Bond, and the only element in the 27-year-old series that can offer a hint of surprise.”

Clearly, this observation isn’t even remotely true, given the serious, bloody approach to the material, as well as the nature of Bond’s mission, off her majesty’s secret service, and operating alone.  Those seeking a “hint of surprise” would surely find it here: Bond bloodied and angry, not dapper and detached, battling a ripped-from-the-headlines opponent without his trademark license to kill.  Right?

Talked-down by a false media narrative, Licence to Kill disappeared from theaters quickly, the Timothy Dalton 007 era came to an unhappy end, and James Bond was missing from movie theaters until 1995’s Goldeneye starring Pierce Brosnan.  That film -- though admirable -- promptly re-asserted the franchise’s spectacular fantasy elements, kept Bond on the MI6 payroll, and made certain to feature plenty of humor.

But a funny thing happened.   Over the long years since 1989, both Timothy Dalton’s performances as Bond and a general appreciation for Licence to Kill began to grow…radically.   

More than that, however, Licence to Kill is the (mostly) unacknowledged prototype of the mega-popular Daniel Craig era of Bond (Casino Royale [2006], Quantum of Solace [2008], and the upcoming Skyfall [2012]). 

Like Dalton before him, Craig plays an edgier, broodier, more determined (and perhaps self-destructive), human version of James Bond.  And, he’s certainly been seen to go rogue on more than one occasion, also like the Dalton incarnation here.

Derided in its time and lost for a decade, Licence to Kill and Timothy Dalton are now -- very much so -- the fathers of our 21st Century Bond.  

Other than these notes of historical interest, however, Licence to Kill remains one of the best films of the whole Bond cycle because it not only offers the Bond-ian requisites -- spectacular action, beautiful women, and great villains -- but because the film actually boasts a coherent organizing principle, a leitmotif about the meaning and nature of  loyalty.  This well-dramatized concept is what makes Licence to a Kill not just a great Bond film, but a great action film outside the series.  The movie hangs together in a way some Bond films simply do not, and relies on human characters and flaws, not merely spectacle.

“In my business you prepare for the unexpected.”

In Licence to Kill, James Bond and his long-time friend in the C.I.A., Felix Leiter (David Hedison) capture the vicious drug-lord Sanchez in the Florida Keys. After they do so, best man Bond attends Felix’s wedding to beautiful Della (Priscilla Barnes).

An unscrupulous, avaricious prosecutor, Killifer (Evereett McGill) helps Sanchez escape from custody in exchange for a two-million dollar bribe. The escaped drug-dealer then sends his goon, Dario (Benecio Del Toro) to kill Della and bring Felix to him.  At a waterfront warehouse belonging to an affiliate named Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Sanchez feeds Leiter to the sharks.  He leaves a note with the badly injured agent: “He disagreed with something that ate him.”

Bond discovers Della dead and Leiter gravely-wounded, and swears vengeance.  He teams up with a tough pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) to infiltrate Sanchez’s operation in Isthmus City, “south of the border.”

In pursuing this task, however, Bond resigns from Her Majesty’s secret service and becomes, officially, a rogue agent.  This designation hardly stops him, however, and after Bond ingratiates himself with Sanchez’s organization, he begins to use Sanchez’s obsession with loyalty to destroy him.

“Don’t you want to know why?”

Licence to Kill gains much of its narrative and thematic momentum by exploiting two elements of the popular Zeitgeist, circa 1989.  

The first is the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia.  Pretty clearly, Franz Sanchez is a figure meant to represent Escobar, a filthy rich cocaine dealer who often operated with impunity and compared himself, on one occasion to God (because he could order someone dead…and they would die that day.)

The second inspiration, oddly enough, is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), a commentary on the “greed is good” aesthetic prevalent on Wall Street at the time, and perhaps today too.  If you combine these two elements, what you see in Franz Sanchez is a man who believes money is God, and that so long as he is rich he can buy politicians, lovers, connections, and the world itself.   He can even -- he believes -- buy loyalty.

Another character, Killifer, also believes “greed is good” when he sells out a good man (Leiter) for personal wealth, a two million dollar bribe he calls a “chunk of dough.”  There’s even a critique and comparison here – especially in the person of Truman Lodge – between wealthy businessmen and drug dealers.  One type doesn’t necessarily seem more unscrupulous than the other in amassing a fortune…one (the drug dealer) just accumulates cash and dispatches enemies...more directly.  But both worlds are cutthroat and play for keeps.

As we quickly detect, Sanchez’s only real loyalty is to accumulating more cash, and yet throughout the film he demands absolute personal loyalty from his ring of associates.  He has made a mantra of loyalty.  “Everyone in my business is 100% loyal,” he boasts.

Few other Bond films surround their villains with such a well-delineated circle of retainers as Licence to Kill does here. There’s Truman Lodge (Anthony Starke), the accountant, a Wall-Street type obsessed with flow-charts and data points, and who sees gigantic dollar signs in every coke deal.  There’s body-guard Heller (Don Stroud), a soldier who has some inkling of what kind of monster Sanchez really is.  And then there’s Milton Krest, an associate who wants to remain under the radar, doesn’t like Sanchez’s “showiness” and who is incredibly cautious.   Widen the circle a bit and there’s also the killer Dario, and Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton), a carnival barker/showman who lets himself be used as a “cover” for Sanchez’s drug-smuggling operation.

The reason that this circle gets more attention than in the average James Bond film is that Bond seizes an opportunity to exploit Sanchez’s character flaw, his obsession with personal loyalty.  Playing Iago to Sanchez’s Othello, Bond drop hints to Sanchez that his people are working against him.  And because Sanchez doesn’t really understand loyalty (and the fact that it is a two-way street, essentially), he believes the lies.  He thinks loyalty is only bottom-up, not top-down.  And because he is not loyal to those around him, it is easy for Sanchez to believe the worst of them.

Bond’s campaign of psychological warfare is what really differentiates this Bond installment from others.  In many Bond films, Agent 007 out-maneuvers his enemies in a variety of ways, but rarely does he utilize the villain’s psychological foible against him as the primary weapon.  Think how few of Bond's "enemies" he himself must kill here.  Sanchez offs Heller, Krest and Lodge himself.  Bond doesn't have to lift a finger. The only "gadget" at Bond's disposal are his words...carefully-selected, carefully-spoken words targeted right at Sanchez's weakest spot.

Licence to Kill's final, fiery moment of conflict even reflect this idea.  Sanchez, awash in gasoline, pauses before he kills Bond...machete still in hand.  Bond asks “don’t you want to know why?”  He means: don’t you care why I betrayed you?  Why I was disloyal?  Sanchez can’t resist knowing the answer to this burning question, and so Bond uses the moment to kill him, to literally burn him up with lighter.  That lighter (Leiter?) is a symbol of Bond's mission, and loyalty to his friend, Felix.  Bond trumps Sanchez's disloyalty with his own sense of authentic loyalty, then.  Friendship beats money, roughly-speaking.

Krest: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Heller: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Lodge: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Don't you want to know why?

Bond thoroughly manipulates Sanchez by exploiting his fears of disloyalty, but, uniquely, the film also appears to make some commentary about Bond’s sense of loyalty.  His loyalty to a friend -- to Felix Leiter -- goes beyond all reason, and becomes a consuming, driving, relentless obsession.  Bond’s perceptions about this mission become so out of whack that he scuttles two legitimate investigations of Sanchez, one being conducted by Hong Kong, another by Pam Bouvier, herself.  Bond is not able to step back and “trust” the system, to get Sanchez.  His ego gets in the way.  Like Sanchez, he possesses a flaw.  His emotions (and loyalty) have not allowed him to see the bigger picture.

I suggest this is wholly understandable given the trauma Bond experiences.  When he sees Della dead -- in her wedding dress, no less -- he no doubt remembers the death of his beloved Tracy on their wedding night.   All the buried memories and pain come back, and it is clear that Bond transforms Sanchez into the Blofeld of his memory.  Making Sanchez pay for Della’s death is Bond’s way, also, of making Blofeld pay…again.

But on the issue of trust, Bond learns some lessons from his friends. At great personal and professional risk, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) travels to Isthmus City to assist the rogue agent.  Moneypenny goes against orders to help him, and to help get Q there.  And even though Bond has not been romantically “faithful” to her (by bedding Lupe Lamora [Talisa Soto]...), Pam is an unswerving ally and friend to Bond.  They all support him, and yet they also have a concern for him; a concern that he has lost his sense of perspective.

Late in the film, Bond rights himself -- after nearly killing Pam in a fit of rage -- and becomes aware that his barometer of trust is off.  But the upshot of all this behavior is plain.  Licence to Kill is one of the few Bond films, pre-Casino Royale, that involves a character arc for its lead character.  Bond grows and develops in this film, and he isn’t portrayed as the suave superman, but rather a very flawed and tragic character, whose own psychological foible -- rage – gets the better of him.

Another way to put this is that you get in Licence to Kill absolutely everything you want and expect from the Bond movie experience, and then much more.  This is a movie that better helps you to understand who James Bond is as a person, and it’s difficult to say how that conclusion would be true of a film (that I enjoy) like Octopussy (1983), or A View to A Kill (1985), for example.  There's a brand of intimacy to this film that some of the other Bonds lack.  What gives Bond his licence to kill?  Is it his government's backing?  Or is it his desire to right the scales of justice?

In terms of action, Licence to Kill is pretty terrific, particularly in the thrilling, sustained, climactic set-piece involving Sanchez’s gasoline tankers and a rural highway.  The scene builds and builds, and features jaw-dropping stunts, including a dazzling moment in which a careening truck (on fire) tumbles through the air, above a plane in flight.  Roger Ebert writes well about this great final sequence:

“There were moments when I was straining to spot the trickery, as a big semi-rig spun along tilted to one side, to miss a missile aimed by the bad guys.  But the stunts all looked convincing, and the effects of the closing sequence is exhilarating.”

Beyond the stunts, Timothy Dalton absolutely excels as Bond in this film.  He’s called upon to undergo a series of personal crises here, and gives the audience a fully human Bond who pushes himself to the limits of human endurance, both in terms of injury (as in the finale) and in terms of control over his emotions.  Some people worried that this Dalton Bond was “too sensitive,” but his is -- pretty clearly -- the Bond of the Ian Fleming books.  He smokes too much, drinks too much, and when he lets himself feel his emotions, he’s absolutely off the rails.

A Bond who remembers.

A Bond who grieves.

A Bond who makes mistakes.

A Bond who bleeds.

In some sense, an appreciation of Licence to Kill must finally come down to the qualities an audience desires from a Bond picture.  Does it want to see a spectacular film in which a man of impeccable style, instincts and agility defeats evil with a wink and a joke?  Or a film in which it detects the roiling, conflicted emotions driving a human being to achieve extraordinary things in the face of unbelievable adversity?  

I would argue that Licence to Kill is a superlative example of the second paradigm, and that, additionally, Licence to Kill has become the prototype for 21st century Bond, a film series which champions the very same virtues.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Plot to Kill a City" (October 11, and October 18, 1979)

Buck Rogers vs. The Legion of Death.
This exciting Buck Rogers two-parter aired on October 11 and October 18, 1979, and was written by the talented Alan Brennert.  Dick Lowry directs.

"The Plot to Kill a City's story opens in media res, with Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) on a mission to take out and replace a legendary criminal named Raphael Argus.  Argus, you see, is about to be initiated as a member of "The Legion of Death," a terrorist group planning to deliver "final retribution" on New Chicago (a city of 10 million people...) for the death of one of  its comrades: Deneva.

Because Buck hails from the 20th century, there's no record of his existence anywhere in the data-heavy, computerized 25th Century, and so Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) at the Earth Defense Directorate sends Buck to infiltrate the Legion and learn its secret plan. Since the Legion of Death members rarely gather -- and don't know each other by sight -- this seems a perfect plan.

Not so fast, however, as Buck is soon pitted against a team of James Bond-worthy villains on the planet Aldebaron, a haven for criminals. 

A soldier villain? Varek (Anthony James)
Leading the Legion of Death is a brilliant scientist from Rigel IV, Selon Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). He is a genius, and, not un-importantly, a psychopath. He's the mastermind and formidable "general" villain of the organization.  Kellogg is cruel and merciless, willing to visit death upon innocent millions for a personal slight. 

If you've watched Batman, you may recall that Gorshin is expert at portraying exaggerated, larger-than-life villainy, but his Kellogg is a different breed from the Riddler all-together: a deadly serious, deadly somber threat; a real (and utterly horrible...) person. Gorshin nicely underplays the part, with just a few occasional bursts into rage, which makes those moments all the more effective.

At Kellogg's side stand several incredibly powerful and memorable "soldier" villains and minions.  Their numbers include Quince (John Quade), an assassin from a heavy gravity planet, Cygnus 3, armed with telekinetic powers, Sherese (Nancy DeCarl), an empath who picks up "vibrations" and who is "pathologically suspicious," and Markos, a martial arts expert who has "partially severed" his nerve endings to reduce his ability to feel pain (and yes, we saw a villain much like Markos in The World is Not Enough [1999]). 

Finally, there's the hulking Varek (Anthony James), a masked mutant and Kellogg's personal bodyguard.  He boasts the ability to "alter his molecular density."   In other words, Varek can walk through walls. His power comes at a great price, however, as the viewer learns over the course of this impressive two-part story.

During the course of the story's two-parts, Buck must infiltrate the Legion and stay ahead of these powerful villains. This task is made more difficult by his entanglement with a betrayer named Barney (James Sloyan), after the comic strip's "Black Barney."  Buck must also evade galactic police, who believe he really is the notorious Raphael Argus.

As Buck soon learns, the Legion of Death plans to destroy a matter/anti-matter power generator outside of New Chicago. The Legion forces an employee at the power station to help them evade security by threatening the lives of his children. 

"Show me a family man who can afford to be a hero..." Kellogg quips.

With time running out, Buck finds an unexpected ally in Varek...

The space port on Aldebaron (later re-used in ST: TNG: "Coming of Age").
It seems to me that --  especially in the case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- one must judge the quality or worth of the series' installments within the boundaries of its action-oriented format and particular historical context. 

In this case, the Glen Larson TV series was broadcast post-Star Wars.   That says a lot.

That historical context means audiences must expect a cute robot (Twiki), plenty of flashy laser beam fire, space dogfights, and a heightened sense of romantic action/adventure.  

In broad terms, the series format basically makes Buck and Wilma futuristic "secret agents" working for Dr. Huer's Directorate, putting cosmic bad guys out of business while acting "undercover."  Not particularly deep; but the stories are often immensely engaging, and almost universally entertaining.

Many weeks, it's James Bond in space, all right, and as is the case with the best Bond films, the best Buck Rogers episodes are often those which feature the most interesting villains

"The Plot to Kill a City" serves up a literal "legion" of such nemeses, plus an appealing Bond girl (Buck girl?)  in Markie Post's cute-as-a-button Joella Cameron.  The threat is also grave enough to hold the attention: the destruction of New Chicago and 10 million people at the hands of the terrorist villains.

If you choose to look at Huer as "M" or "Q" while he gives Buck his gadgets of the week (black light bombs...) the comparison to the Bond franchise is complete.

Within the parameters established above -- Buck as Bondian secret agent, bracing space adventure -- the truly rewarding Buck Rogers episodes remain those that  are able -- through clever writing and execution -- to often find a sort of unexpected "sweet spot" in this superficial Bond formula:  a spot where story and character ingredients work on a deeper-than-surface level. 

Markie Post is a futuristic Bond Girl.
Where was that sweet spot located?  Well, it often became apparent when Buck's humanity and fish-out-of-water predicament played an important role in the narrative, and when good, solid science fiction concepts ably supported the front-and-center action. 

Even better, it occurred when those solid science fiction concepts were ones that had something relevant and important to say about American life during the late 1970's or early 1980's.

With the "The Plot to Kill a City,"  you can put checks in all those boxes.  

Make no mistake, Buck Rogers is not Star Trek, which by and large remains a meditative vehicle on human morality, but this  comparison doesn't mean Buck couldn't tell meaningful, dimensional tales, either.  

Most importantly, the superficial good guys vs. bad guys nature of the "Plot to Kill a City" is supported ably by a surprising, welcome and very human character subplot.  In this case, Varek -- the masked body guard -- originates from a planet that survived a "winnable" nuclear war, only to face a future of terrible genetic deformity. Varek hides his misshapen face behind a golden mask so as not to reveal his hideous visage.

Late in the first segment, Varek tells Buck Rogers that he deserves to be Kellogg's servant, a slave essentially. 

"I deserve no better," he declares with self-loathing.  "My people were a proud race...too proud.  It wasn't enough that we had tamed our planet, built a great culture, reached out into space.  We had to have other worlds too.  We abused our freedom, and we lost it, and deservedly so."

Later, when Varek realizes that Kellogg plans to visit a similar apocalypse upon Earth's innocent children, he gets over his self-pity and hatred and actively joins Buck's cause.  "You can't imagine life on my planet," he explains. "Children afraid to look at their own reflections.  Children with the touch of death."

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In the end, Varek saves the day by facing his own death.  Eyes wide open, he walks straight into a radioactive anti-matter chamber to stabilize the reactor. He must work to reinforce the magnetic bottles holding the deadly substance. 

Inside, Varek re-aligns the power system, and saves the generator...and all of New Chicago in the process.

And yes, this heroic incident -- with a character bravely and knowingly facing extinction before the eyes of his comrades in a sealed compartment -- oddly foreshadows the specifics of Spock's death in the engine room in The Wrath of Khan.

More to the point, however, Valek is no ordinary "guest star of the week," but rather a character who is well-developed, and undergoes an arc of learning and development during the story.  He changes sides not on a writer's whim, not because the story demands it, but based on his difficult life experience, and that idea comes through pretty powerfully without being overtly preachy.

Also, it's important to recall that America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in late 1979, when this episode aired.  The specter of nuclear annihilation was always present -- every day -- like a shroud, hanging over all of us. This episode of Buck Rogers expresses the terrible horror of nuclear Armageddon, with children paying the consequences for an "international" disagreement over political ideology. Even more so, it suggests that those who use such weapons to conquer others deserve themselves to be subjugated and enslaved. Not a tame statement in the year leading up to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics.

Again, this "apocalypse mentality," this expression of fear around a nuclear war, lends a commendable gravity to this episode that not all Buck Rogers episodes abundantly possess. Although the Earth itself is a victim of nuclear holocaust in the series, the writers of the program never returned Buck to Anarchia to face the savagery of his time period, and the ideological passions that led to such global horror.  

Commendably, "The Plot to Kill a City" gets at the idea in a different way, and in a way that resonates well.  Other episodes of the series would certainly try to do the same --"Olympiad" was about a defector from an oppressive planetary regime -- but none truly got to the stark horror of nuclear brinkmanship in the way that "The Plot to Kill a City" does.

Kellogg's scorpion fighter..
When I discuss solid science fiction concepts in terms of this two-part episode, I'm talking specifically about the way the episode creates deadly and unique "assassins" out of other-worldly environments. 

It imagines a world of heavy gravity (Cygnus ) where the inhabitants develop the power of their minds (telekinesis) so as to control their environs.  It imagines Varek's world of nuclear apocalypse; a world that took a dark path which, fortunately, our Earth has not. It features an "empath" as a deadly conspirator and interrogator, and much more. It imagines a warrior who surgically alters his very body to curtail a weakness (Markos). We also get sexy on-board computers, alien saloons, and space police, and James Sloyan's great, amoral Barney.

With the exception of Varek and his milieu, these concepts are not explored in great depth, merely touched upon, but then again we must return to the concept of Buck Rogers as an action series.  The natures and backgrounds of Quince, Sherese, Markos and the others are imaginative and believable enough to make the story fly (and to suggest a larger world), and that's what's important. This is a story that could only have been written by someone who spent their youth reading science fiction stories and grew live and breathe those concepts.

I still remember watching this compelling two-parter when I was nine years old, and being absolutely glued to the television as those terrible words -- "To Be Continued" -- popped up.  There was the feeling then that Buck Rogers -- for all its swashbuckling fun -- was hitting on all creative thrusters too.

"A Plot to Kill a City" serves up a number of great villains, and one tragic character too.  Because it consists of two parts and has roughly ninety minutes to tell its tale, the story is fast-paced but also takes the time to get the small touches right.  

For all of the series' sense of fun and humor, there was always the impression here that the danger presented by Kellogg was real and grave, and that matters of great consequence were occurring. 

Simply put, this is one of the best "Bucks."  The series would never be better, in my opinion.

Next week: "Return of the Fighting 69th."

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Memory Bank: Cosmic Clipper (SnapFix; 1981)

In April of 1981, the American space shuttle Columbia first took (glorious) flight, and model and toy makers anticipated another "space toy" boom.  

Airfix got into the act with the release of a second "composite" spaceship model kit like Starcruiser One (1979), but this time without the imprimatur of Gerry Anderson.

The Cosmic Clipper -- much like its Airfix predecessor -- is actually several ships at once, though three instead of four, like Starcruiser One. T

he model kit came in 55 pieces, was a "snap fix" toy, and consisted of a large command ship, an attack interceptor, and a shuttle.  The command section had small transparent domes at the fore, and the shuttle looked like a mini-Concorde, perched on the rear.

The Cosmic Clipper was re-released in 1982 and 1983, and it was one of my favorite models from my childhood.  I love how the design seems to a blend of so many different 1960s-1970s influences.  

There are Enterprise-like nacelles here, a Cygnus-type body, and an overall Space:1999 utilitarian feel, though the pointy-nosed fighter feels very much like a ship from Star Wars (or, perhaps, Battle Beyond the Stars.)

Looking back at the kit and my memories of it, I remember that the nacelles were easily removed, and handily re-positioned across the command craft. They could stand out at the sides, or be attached from above, which gave the Clipper a very different look.  You could even stand them at a diagonal position, and have the craft look something like a Starfleet freighter.

While writing this Memory Bank post I found a print ad on the web for the Cosmic Clipper, posted by the vintage toy advertiser, in which it is stated that Airfix "builds excitement."  

That was certainly the case for me, as an eleven year old, endlessly fascinated by space ship toys and models that were not from any particular franchise.  With an original design in hand, it was up to me to decide what kind of universe the ship would fly in, and what characters would take the helm.

I've had a lot of luck over the years getting old kit from my childhood on E-Bay, but I've never managed to get my hands back on a Cosmic Clipper!

One of these days...

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

UFO: "The Man Who Came Back"

In "The Man Who Came Back," A long-serving SHADO astronaut, Craig Collins (Darren Nesbitt) is presumed dead in his space capsule after a fire develops. Meanwhile, S.I.D. (Space Intruder Detector) is attacked by UFOs, and badly damaged.

Eight weeks later, however, Collins is mysteriously discovered alive and well, and returns to work. He is needed to help repair S.I.D. since he and Straker (Ed Bishop) were the astronauts who put the satellite in orbit in the first place, years earlier.

Collins, however, becomes the target of suspicion when he begins to act strangely. He is widely jealous of Paul Foster (Michael Billington), who has taken up with Colonel Lake (Wanda Ventham) in his absence. 

He also is competitive with his brilliant mission commander, Grey (Gary Raymond). When Foster is injured working out with Collins, and Grey is nearly murdered when the air gauge in his moon base quarters malfunction, Straker becomes Collins' partner on the S.I.D. mission. Grey warns Straker not to go, but Straker is reluctant to believe that one of his "closest friends" could be an alien-controlled assassin.

Unfortunately, Collins is indeed under alien control. As Grey suspected, the aliens have "burned out the personality centers" of the astronaut's "brain" and are controlling him via radio waves. Collins attacks Straker during a space walk to S.I.D. but Straker manages to rip out his air hose, and kill the astronaut in time.

"The Man Who Came Back" is a tense and successful episode of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO. The episode's value is lifted primarily via the delightful performance of Darren Nesbitt as Craig Collins. Nesbitt makes Collins an easy-to-hate yet charismatic character, one who routinely shows disrespect to friends, associates, and lovers alike. 

However, this trademark disdain just seems to be his personality, not "alien control," so there is some doubt about whether he is a actually an alien "sleeper agent" waiting to be activated, at least for much of the hour. (Until we see him willfully sabotage Grey's air supply, anyway).  The scene in which he "accidentally" injures Paul with a heavy bar bell is also a terrific moment.

The most intriguing aspect of " The Man Who Came Back," however, is not the familiar human-subverted-by-aliens plot-line, but rather the depiction of romantic (or just plain sexual?) relationships in SHADO. 

Here, Collins is upset to learn that Colonel Lake has moved past her relationship with him to one with Paul Foster.  

So, everyone just seems to be fucking...everyone.  And mostly without judgment or scorn. It is just taken as fact that (at least on Moonbase), the crew people pass the time by having sex with one another.  It's 1960's free love or promiscuity, updated for the "futuristic" timeline of the series' 1980's setting. 

Unless I am mistaken, no romantic relationship between Foster and Lake has been featured in other episodes, yet here they are depicted as lovers. 

I don't object. 

It's just weird the way the characters go in and out of relationships, and those relationships are not referred to ever again in the series. I suppose in this "future" human-kind has gotten over hang-ups such as jealousy, or a devotion to monogamy.

In terms of draw-backs, this episode doesn't do much for Straker's reputation as a strong commanding officer. He rationalizes convincing evidence away, regarding his "friend," Collins, and puts his life (and therefore the success of the SID mission) in danger, by his refusal to listen to Grey.  

Straker is often portrayed in the series as a near emotionless machine, one with a clockwork mind and ruthless logic. It is difficult to believe he would let himself get into the life-and-death struggle in space that we see depicted in this episode's climax, without a back-up plan. Like "Close Up," this episode actually makes Straker look a bit foolish.

Finally, this episode features some stock footage of the rocket launch from the 1969 Anderson live-action science fiction film, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. "The Man Who Came Back" also features a dazzling opening sequence, an alien assault on S.I.D. that sends the satellite spinning out of its orbit.  Even today, these effects hold up very well.

Next week: "Kill Straker!"

UFO: "Kill Straker!"

A lunar module with Colonel Foster (Michael Billington) and an astronaut named Craig (David Sumner) aboard experiences something strang...