Tuesday, May 21, 2019

UFO: "The Cat with Ten Lives"

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," three UFOs approach the moon, but retreat once interceptors approach. Three more UFOs appear in short order, and the first three are pinpointed as decoys. Moonbase survives an attack with only ground tanks as defense.

Meanwhile, an interceptor pilot, James Regan (Alexis Kanner) returns to Earth and visits with his wife, Jean (Geraldine Moffatt). After an evening playing at a seance with friends, the couple returns home, and on the way, encounter a cat in the road. After rescuing it, the Regans are abducted by aliens.  Jean is taken, but James and the cat are returned, apparently unharmed.

At SHADO, Dr. Jackson (Vladek Sheybal) has developed a new theory about the aliens. An autopsy of a recovered alien pilot reveals that it has a fully human brain. In other words, the aliens don't merely harvest human parts, they seem to be incorporeal, possessing humans and other life forms.

This means that the cat is controlling Regan. He returns to the moon, unaware that he is being controlled, and set-up to to launch a kamikaze style attack on the base.  At the last minute, however, the controlling cat is stopped, and Regan comes to his senses. He crashes his interceptor (and is killed), but moonbase survives...

"The Cat with Ten Lives" is a terrific episode of UFO for two reasons, primarily. In the first case, the episode finally provides some additional information about the aliens, and their mysterious nature.  And in the second case, the episode is one of the most stylishly presented, in terms of mise-en-scene. The episode is gloriously filmed.

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," SHADO learns that the mysterious alien invaders are "not humanoid at all," and that they "just use our bodies," and our altered brains, by removing emotion and creativity from the human equation.  Dr. Jackson likens the aliens to "living computers" and the idea is that beings on Earth -- humans, felines, or otherwise -- can be lobotomized, essentially, to serve as receptacles or containers for alien life forms.  The question the episode does not answer is, simply, why do non-corporeal aliens desire to be corporeal, to take our bodies? It would have been fascinating to learn that the answer to that question. This is another reason I wish the series had gone on for several more seasons. There was still so much about the aliens to explore.

Beyond the idea of non-corporeal aliens taking our form and walking among us, "The Cat with Ten Lives" is beautifully filmed. And by that, I don't just mean it is pretty. Rather, the choice of camera angle augments and reflects the content of the story-line.

For instance, during the Ouija seance/game at the Thompsons' house, the camera adopts an overhead shot that reveals the group's vulnerability, as well as the lay-out of the board. As the danger increases, the camera begins to rotate and spin, until Regan is upside down in the frame, a  visual suggestion that his jeopardy is the greatest. He is vulnerable to alien control, and this shot establishes that fact in a way we visually understand.

The episode's alien abduction scene is also incredibly effective. There are P.O.V. shots here of the alien boots, as we watch -- from Regan's, perspective -- as he is dragged from his car, lifted by the aliens, and carried across the threshold of their landed ship. We have heard so many tales of alien abduction since this series aired in 1970, but one has to wonder if this evocative scene -- involving an abductee at night, alone on a forest road, taken by aliens -- informed some beliefs/stories on the subject over the decades. It's a textbook "alien abduction" scene, and one of the first in television history. 

There are questions to be raised, of course, about this episode's narrative. 

First, it takes an awfully long time for anyone to suspect that the cat is dangerous. Yet we have never before seen a cat in SHADO HQ. Its appearance there should have raised some alarms for Straker and the others, sooner.  

Secondly, Straker makes an unequivocally bad call in this episode. He puts a man who has just lost his wife to alien abduction in the driver's seat of an Interceptor (escorting the all-important Venus Probe). Why on Earth would he do that? The pilot, Regan, is traumatized, and clearly not fit for duty.  Sadly, Straker has no good reason for this bad call, save for contrivances of the plot. Usually, the writing isn't this obvious.

Finally, though the special effects are gorgeously vetted, the episode's climactic sequence, with Regan dying to save SHADO, seems reminiscent of earlier episodes, such as "Flight Path." Basically, a compromised SHADO officer/astronaut, proves loyal in the end, and pays for his past betrayal with his life. And everything ends with an explosion on the moon.

Next week: "Destruction."

Sunday, May 19, 2019

20 Years Ago Today: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

The Phantom Menace (1999) is the Star Wars film that many fans -- and certainly those writing on the Internet -- love to hate. (At least that is, before The Last Jedi came out in 2017).

The reasons for that hate are right there on the film’s surface. Many of these critics and fans don’t like the humor or wacky hijinks of Jar Jar Binks, for instance.

They might also complain about the mundane nature of the film’s overarching conflict (a “dispute” about taxing trade routes), and many also dislike the performance of sunny-faced Jake Lloyd as a pre-pubescent Anakin Skywalker.

Then again, there’s another complaint written about and spoken of frequently. Many fans and critics simply dislike what they feel is the over-green-screened, CGI look of this first in the prequel trilogy.

I can sympathize and fully get behind some of those arguments. Some aspects of the movie don’t come off as successfully as I would have preferred.

And yet, across the years I have grown to appreciate The Phantom Menace more than I once did. To quote a Skywalker, I believe there is still good in it. 

Why have I moved to this stance so fully over the last fifteen years, when my initial gut response was, admittedly, grievous disappointment?

Perhaps because the hostility towards the film (and indeed, its creator) has been so harsh, I have been motivated to go back and really examine the film, and my feelings about it.

My work as a critic, here on the blog or in books, is not to mirror conventional wisdom. It is not to glom on to popular opinion.  It is not to make snarky comments that seek to mock an artist’s attempt to share his or her vision with the world. It is, only, to study a film and determine if an intellectual case for its artistry can be forged. 

A decade-and-a-half after its release, I believe I can make a case for the artistic coherence (and indeed, beauty, in spots) of The Phantom Menace.

First, the entire film -- rather unlike the other Star Wars entries -- features a remarkable, under-the-surface leitmotif that pulls all of the disparate aspects of the narrative together. 

What is that leitmotif?

Symbiont circles. 

Virtually every key relationship is defined in the film by the concept of symbiont circles. For the purposes of the saga, the idea of a symbiont circle is that people -- and their fates -- are connected. Those connections aren’t always seen. Sometimes they are merely hinted at. Sometimes they are detected, but unclear. But they are present nonetheless.

The film’s discussion of symbiont circles allows George Lucas to go beyond the “Light Side” and “Dark Side” dichotomy of the original trilogy, and tread into more nuanced, gray material. For instance, the symbiont circle leitmotif reveals that the Jedi are not paragons of virtue, but arrogant, and occasionally haughty individuals.

This is an appropriate development for an artist returning to his work a generation later; looking to deepen and broaden it in ways that are commensurate with his experience.

Beyond that leitmotif of symbiont circles, The Phantom Menace succeeds on a visual basis. The film’s art direction and production design convey the underlying elements of the narrative, which clearly concerns the rise of fascism and fall of a free, enlightened society. 

Every film critic has as his or her shtick I suppose you could conclude; a benchmark by which to rate a movie a success or failure. As regular readers here are aware, I approach films by looking for the ways that visuals do or do not reflect/augment the thematic content.  If a film can match visualization with theme, I count it artistically sound. If a movie can better make its point with its pictures than its words, it has succeeded in using the art form to its fullest.

On that basis, I find The Phantom Menace flawed, and yet, finally, artistically sound.

“There’s always a bigger fish.”

I have never quite understood why so many fans harp on the fact that -- on the surface -- The Phantom Menace is about a minor dispute over taxation.

That mundane “challenge” for the Republic is, of course, a stalking horse, for the film’s titular “Phantom Menace,” a puppet master called Darth Sidious who is utilizes the appearance of “business as usual” -- the routine, the bureaucratic, the corrupt -- to achieve something truly radical. That’s actually what a “Phantom Menace” is: something that isn’t obvious; but rather amorphous…at least at first.  Obi Wan begins to sense this truth when he opens himself up to the Force. He senses something “elusive.” 

And that “elusive” threat brings me to the film’s central notion of symbiont circles. If there’s always a “bigger fish,” as Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) informs us early in the film, then the tax dispute is definitively and intentionally “the small fish,” the concrete menace, the challenge that appears before the Jedi’s eyes, but doesn’t reveal the whole truth. Obi Wan, in his comment on something “elusive” almost detects that “bigger fish,” it seems.

Here, a mystery figure is manipulating seemingly mundane disputes between Republic members to achieve a radical or revolutionary end. This Dark Lord of the Sith realizes precisely how the pieces of the Republic interact with one another. He is cognizant of that symbiotic circle, you might conclude. He realizes how he can make one piece of it act in a certain way (an illegal blockade by the Trade Federation), and how another member will respond to that action (Naboo’s resistance).  

His end goal, as is abundantly clear by film’s end, is to create a desire in the Republic for a regime change; to unseat Chancellor Valorum. So Palpatine/Sidious manipulates the symbiotic nature of Republic trade and economic relationships, for lack of a better term, to create war between members, weaken leadership, and see himself installed as chancellor.

There is actually very little talk of taxes or trade routes in the film, though you wouldn’t know that from the Internet criticism leveled at it. What we see mostly is an illegal orbital blockade of Naboo, and attempts to penetrate or end that blockade. That situation, rather than being staid, provides for plenty of action.

The same idea of symbiont circles plays out on Naboo’s surface. Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) warns Boss Nass, leader of the Gungans, that what occurs  to the humanoids of the planet -- invasion, namely -- will also happen to the Gungans.  

Why?  They share the same planet; the same reality.  They are linked.

Amidala recognizes this symbiont circle herself, in the film’s conclusion. Her successful battle tactic is predicated on the idea of the Gungans and humanoids joining forces to stop the invasion.They work together, in symbiosis, rather than failing to recognize their connection to one another.

And Padme is quite a leader too. She recognizes she doesn’t “rule” her people. She is one with them, part of another symbiont circle. “I will sign no treaty,” she declares. “My fate will be the same as my people’s.”

Just as the Gungans will share the same fate as her people.

It’s all connected.

The small fish/big fish comparison fits in quietly elegantly with the idea of the symbiont circle. We all live in inter-connected environments, wherein our actions impact others. 

Take for example Anakin, a slave on Tatooine. The Republic has explicitly outlawed slavery and yet, again, facts are facts: Anakin is a slave on Tatooine.  Qui Gon reports, almost as an aside that he hasn’t come to Tatooine to free the slaves. The Republic/Jedi are therefore -- quite unlike Padme or even Jar Jar -- unable to detect the symbiont circle of which they are a part. 

And the cost of their failure to honor the dignity and basic human rights of Anakin and his mother is their own eventual destruction. Anakin ultimately destroys them and what they stand for. Significantly, even slaves like Anakin and Shmi, who live by the edict that the biggest problem in the universe is that “people don’t help each other,” see how it is right to help others.  For some reason -- either corruption, bureaucracy, avarice, or arrogance -- the Jedi nor the Republic Council can see this truth. They love in opulent, literal ivory towers.

Instead of actually helping those who need them, the Jedi don’t show anything but contempt and arrogance towards some of those with whom they share the universe.  “Why do I get the feeling that we’ve picked up another pathetic life form?” Obi Wan asks at one point. That is precisely the wrong perspective for someone who lectures others on the idea of being aware of and valuing inter-connection.

The question: what does this idea of symbiont circles buy George Lucas and Star Wars?

Quite simply, it reveals that the Republic and its defenders have fallen from their high moral ideals, and are vulnerable to the Sith because of it.  The Jedi are arrogant, and can’t see “the bigger” fish operating behind the scenes because of their inadequate sight. The Republic, likewise, is so bureaucratic and caught up in red tape that its leaders cannot free slaves, help an imperiled senate member (Naboo) or even get out of congressional gridlock.

We know from the Original Trilogy that the Republic must fall and give rise to the Empire.  The Phantom Menace makes a kind of double or mirror case regarding that fall. Darth Sidious is aware of symbiont circles and manipulates them to his ends, destroying the Republic. His mirror reflection -- the Jedi and the Republic -- are not tending to their symbiont circles and have therefore failed not just institutionally, but morally.

So Lucas has shown us, with his concept of symbiont circles, how and why a free society falls…when it loses touch with its own plainly stated and voiced values. Obi Wan and Qui Gon are both quick to talk about inter-connection with the Gungans, but the Gungans (raising their “grand army,”), Padme, and Anakin who actually tend to those relationships. While the Jedi Council holds back because the Jedi can’t fight a war for Naboo, Padme, Anakin and Jar-Jar actually fight that war.

This is where Lucas has broadened and deepened his myth since the 1970s and 1980s. Listening to Obi Wan Kenobi talk to Luke in Star Wars, one might conclude that the “good” Jedi were defeated by the “evil” Emperor and his sidekick Darth Vader. What The Phantom Menace reveals is that the story is not that simple. 

The Jedi and the Republic played roles in their own downfall. The Dark Side was there, ready to exploit those faults but, but those faults existed. The Golden Age was not so golden after all.

 “Your focus determines your future.”

The Phantom Menace is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it is actually a film about life here on Earth in the early twentieth century, particularly the so-called “Inter-Bellum” or “Inter-War” period between 1918 and 1939.

This was a gilded age of Art-Deco-styled architecture and design, and apparent peace and prosperity in America. Yet if you remember from history what came next, economic ruin was on the horizon, racism still thrived, and the “phantom menace” of Fascism and tyranny lurked in the shadows.  

Through carefully-crafted, beautifully-rendered imagery, The Phantom Menace recreates this very Inter-Bellum age, but on other planets, and in another time.  

We’re all familiar with the lived-in look of Star Wars (1977) where the universe is kind of…junked.  But by important contrast, The Phantom Menace is set at the apex or zenith of the Galactic Republic, an epoch of riches and wonders, a span when even the finned, chrome spaceships reflect the glory of an advanced civilization at its pinnacle.  

And yet, of course, as the discussion of symbiont circles reveals, it is not a perfect Republic, is it?  Slavery still thrives in far corners of the galaxy, and even the noble Jedi Knights turn a blind eye towards this corrupt institution. And on the rise is wily Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a man who will deceive the unsuspected advanced society to achieve a completely despotic, totalitarian state.

In short, The Phantom Menace’s story is a perfect metaphor for the lead-up to World War II and the global fight against fascism in Europe. Accordingly, the rich imagery in the film explicitly recalls this battle of civilizations. Consider just for a moment the scenes set on the planet Naboo, a kind of quasi-European state in another solar system.

At least twice in the film, we spy a building in the capital city of Naboo that resembles the Arc De Triomphe (or Arc of Triumph) in France. 

In 1940, Nazi troops invaded Paris, and marched the pavement of the Champs-Elysees as a sign of strength and domination. In 1944, the Allies liberated the nation from Hitler’s troops, and on this occasion there was a parade of victory and freedom at the Arc de Triomphe.

The Phantom Menace features two similar moments at an Arc-like structure, once at the commencement of the Droid Army/Trade Federation occupation and then again after their expulsion, during a celebration or parade. If you gaze closely at the imagery, it’s impossible to deny the significance of these visual allusions or comparisons.

If Naboo represents a foreign nation endangered by the outer space equivalent of an Axis power, then Coruscant clearly represents New York City of the same age...a popping hub of culture, diversity, and freedom.  
 As you may recall, Coruscant is a planet-wide metropolis, a city beyond all others. This urban city-scape stretches to the horizon, and nearly right to the cusp of space itself.  In appearance and style, Coruscant conforms perfectly to the Italian architectural style of “Futurism” popular during the 1930s. 

In fact, the Futuristic aesthetic -- an always-growing city upon a city upon a city – was in some corners considered a coded critique of Fascism, and that’s an idea visually reflected by the depiction of the Republic’s capital.

And yet, by the same token, Futurism is seen as stylistically compatible with Art Deco, a school of design often considered “purely decorative." It therefore represents the art of a people very satisfied with the social status quo.  The form is important for itself (for aesthetics), not for the social message behind it. This description not only describes Coruscant aptly, but her satisfied people. They don’t perceive the “phantom menace” in their midst, nor the threat to their very liberty. They're too busy enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.

So this is Lucas’s selected thematic terrain: a metaphor in a galaxy far, far away comparing the last epoch of the Republic to the Inter-Bellum period on Earth. In Star Wars, in 1977, Lucas used visual movie allusions (war films and Kurasawa’s canon, with some Flash Gordon thrown in for good measure) to create a pastiche. Twenty-two years later, Lucas is still using allusions, but historical ones, and ones from schools of art.  His approach, again, is more developed, more nuanced.

But then Lucas stretches his comparisons even a step further in The Phantom Menace and connects that period in Earth history and in the Star Wars universe to the period in which the film was actually made, the 1990s

The Phantom Menace was released at the end of the Roaring Nineties, a period of genuine peace and prosperity in the U.S., and a time – we now know – before the gathering storm of the War on Terror. 

Lucas was downright prophetic in describing how American politics would soon change to face a grave and gathering threat. In Lucas's vision, Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) -- a name which features the same number of letters as Clinton -- would see his leadership and plans for governance stamped out by pervasive accusations of “scandal” from his political enemies and the enemies of progress.

Accordingly, Valorum is impeached by the bureaucratic Senate when a vote of no-confidence is held. That's what happened to Clinton too. We were all focused intently on his scandals, and the very public investigation of those scandals while overseas, terror grew in secret...

And, of course -- as I’ve written before -- one important though subordinate villain's name in this film is Nute Gunray.  Nute = Newt (Gingrich), the leader of the Republican opposition during Clinton’s Presidency.  And Gunray = Ray Gun = Reagan.  So a villain here is Newt Reagan, essentially. 

You needn't agree with Lucas’s viewpoint or political slant to acknowledge that such an undercurrent is present in The Phantom Menace.  And I'm not arguing that Lucas is either right or wrong in his statement, either.

 I'm merely noting the existence of the pointed social critique.  

As further evidence in support of this sub-text, I would note that the social commentary in Phantom Menace as I've spelled it out in this essay is consistent with Anakin’s 2005 Bush-esque declaration in Revenge of the Sith that “Either you’re with me, or you’re my enemy.” 

These data points suggest that Lucas understands the sweep of history.That empires age, become corrupt, and are challenged. That periods of peace and prosperity do not go on eternally, unchallenged.

Regarding the film's other lush visuals, The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates.  But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. 

Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment (a call-back to his Star Wars approach). And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature, and involve slavery, or more aptly, a former slave who rises to a place of remarkable power.

As I noted in my introduction, an important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with pictures. And yet surprisingly few films these days effectively manage this (necessary) feat; to truly deploy visuals in a manner that makes pictures convey thematic meaning. 

The Phantom Menace succeeds admirably in this particular aspect of its tapestry. The images convey important thematic information about the film’s narrative, and how we should interpret that narrative. In other words, the visuals reinforce the comparison the director wants to make, the point he wishes to transmit.

At the very least, I believe that George Lucas embarked on a complex and ambitious visual aesthetic in this first prequel.  He makes the images of his fictional world connect to a time of apparent peace and prosperity (but phantom danger) in our past, and then makes modern audiences understand that we were at a similar juncture in the 1990s.  Were our eyes open to the "Phantom Menace" back then, or were we turned inward, mired in accusations of scandal and corruption?  

If you consider the decade 2001 - 2010, I think you'll have your answer.

Here’s another apparent ding against the film. Many character designs, voices, and characteristics in The Phantom Menace appear, in fact, based on racist stereotypes that existed and flourished in the Inter-War period. 

Watto the money-grubbing Toydarian with his hook-nose appears to be an amalgamation of the offensive “money mad” Jewish stereotype of the Inter-Bellum period.

The Trade Federation representatives like the Viceroy speak pigeon English and have – literally – slants in their eyes.  They thus serve as the embodiment of negative stereotypes about the Japanese. 

And finally, the much hated Jar-Jar Binks with his Stepin Fetchit, “Feet-Don’t-Fail-Me-Now” routine is alarmingly representative of the prevailing caricatures of black men in the media of the same, between-wars age. 

While it’s true that these characters hark back explicitly to that specific period on Earth and thus sub-textually remind viewers of that time, that historical allusion may not validate their inclusion in the film.

What could?

Well, I would very much prefer to believe that Lucas’s depiction of such “ethnic” characters in The Phantom Menace points out, again, that The Galactic Republic is not really the Utopian paradise of equality that many believe it is. 

Not only is slavery present in some corners, but certain “pathetic” life forms (to quote Obi-Wan directly) are looked down upon, explicitly…even by the Jedi. 

So we’re right back to the symbiont circle, aren’t we?  Gazing at the Trade Federation as literal “slant eyes” or writing off Jar-Jar because of his apparent dopey-ness.  Trying to run a Jedi-Mind trick on the money-grubbing Watto. The message here may very well be that prejudice is inside all of us, and it blinds us to the inter-connection of our environment, to the symbiont circle.  Jar-Jar, at least in terms of the action, pretty much saves the day, doesn’t he?  And so does a slave.  Those beings who appear to be silly stereotypes, both to us and the Jedi, turn out to have unrecognized value.

Perhaps the Republic falls because there’s that level of hypocrisy and arrogance there, a looking down its collective nose at species like Gungans or Toydarians.  All the Republic and Jedi see, essentially, is the equivalent of “skin color,” not the true value of these individuals and their people. Pathetic life-forms?  What kind of hero would use such words to describe another being?

So is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the film I hoped it would be, on the eve of its release?  

Not exactly. 

The film is poorly paced, and Jar-Jar's biggest problem is not that he's an annoying boob, but rather that the CGI artists who created him feel, for some reason, that they must show off, making him catapult and dive like a cartoon superhero when he should move a lot more...subtly.  

Were he bound more directly to forces such as gravity, he might have seemed more acceptable.  I should note, in fairness, that my reservations about Jar-Jar are generational.  They are shared by the OT’ers.  I conducted an informal poll in my carpool last week, before writing this review, about Jar-Jar.  With nine years old, he came in as the third best Star Wars character ever. Number one was R2-D2, number 2 was Yoda, number 3 was Jar-Jar, number 4 was Chewbacca, and number 5 was General Grievous. Han Solo didn’t place with the nine year old set, even in the top ten.

Who are 46 year olds -- who found Star Wars at age 7 or so -- to argue with a nine year old that his impression of Star Wars is the wrong one?  Isn't one joy of Star Wars supposed to be that it sparks the imagination of children. It looks like with Jar-Jar, George Lucas accomplished that for the second generation, even if the first generation holds its nose.  

On the other hand, as my review of Return of the Jedi pointed out, the franchise's overt appeal to childhood set legitimately started there, with all the burping aliens and Ewoks. That's a bit of a shift from Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but not one you can blame The Phantom Menace for instigating.  At this point, it's a fait accompli. Selling toys and bringing in the kids is a marketing strategy.

On the plus side, I'd argue that the final light saber duel against Darth Maul is the greatest and most impressive such battle in the franchise, and that Liam Neeson projects enormous dignity and grace throughout the film as Qui-Gon Jinn. Overall, I'd say he's the most likable Jedi Knight in the saga (so far).

But that is all just icing on the cake.  In The Phantom Menace, George Lucas made a film about a galaxy far, far away, but that galaxy was succumbing to the same hatreds and fears that we saw early in the 20th century (and which rear their ugly heads again, even now, in political discourse). The film’s visuals tell us that fact, and even the nature of the aliens remind us of why it is valuable not to speak in Nativist, arrogant, racist terms. To do so is not honoring the connections we share in our symbiotic circle. To do so is to betray the force.

Obviously, I can change no hater’s mind.

At this juncture, I don’t care to try, and I don’t feel I need to. So I will close with this thought: “your focus determines your future.”

If you focus on the 1919-1939 Inter-Bellum type visuals of The Phantom Menace, and keep your eye on the leitmotif about symbiont circles, the future reputation of this film need not be consumed by hate. 

Because we know hate leads to the Dark Side, right?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

UFO: "Mindbender"

By its very nature, science fiction television is a milieu for diligently exploring other realities.

Those "other" realities could include a starship exploring alien worlds in the 23rd century, or a mysterious island in the Pacific, where plane crash survivors toil.

Yet, over the years, some notable installments of science fiction TV series have also occasionally crossed paths with our kitchen-sink reality, right here. 

In this type of story, the fourth wall gets shattered...and shattered good.  

The imaginary world of the characters suddenly overlaps with the real world of the filmmaker or the writer. These mind-blowing tales thus ask (and demand...) that the regular audience suddenly view the familiar "universe" or canon of a sci-fi series in a different and often challenging way.  In other words, viewers are asked to recognize the artifice of storytelling, or even of movie-making.

One of the earliest examples of this genre trope came in 1960, in the first season of Rod Serling's anthology, The Twilight Zone

In the episode "A World of Difference" a business executive, Arthur Curtis (Howard Duff) discovers he's not really in his office taking business calls...he's on a movie set. He's an actor playing a part. Reality has shifted like sand beneath his feet. His memories of a wife -- of a life itself -- are nothing more than manifestations of a writer's imagination; of a script.

Rod Serling returned to the same theme in Night Gallery, in November of 1971.  In "Midnight Never Ends," a hitchhiking soldier comes to realize he's just a character trapped in a bad, in-progress story; just a cog in the inner workings of a writer's machine.  He can even hear -- from somewhere high up above -- the keys of a typewriter pounding away.

In 1998, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine featured a variation on this tale. Captain Benjamin Sisko (Avery Brooks) in "Far Beyond the Stars" hallucinates that he's a pulp science fiction author in 1950s America.

As a man named Benny, he writes a science fiction saga about a futuristic space station...and an African-American captain. All those people around him think the story is great, but worry that America isn't ready yet to believe in or accept a black star ship captain. 

So the question becomes: is Sisko that future captain, living in the 24th century?  Or is he but a frustrated, delusional writer of the Eisenhower decade...imagining a better tomorrow?

Astronaut Conroy discovers a strange moon rock in "Mindbender"
One of the most stylish examples of this self-reflexive story -- a story which finds characters in the drama becoming active participants not in a narrative, but in the "creation" of the drama -- is "Mindbender," from Gerry Anderson's UFO.  

This segment originally  aired on CBS in 1971, and was written by Tony Barwick.   

"Mindbender" arrived near the end of the 26-hour long episode series catalog, during a spell in which the writers, actors, and directors were functioning on all thrusters, consistently delivering dazzling science-fiction concepts in conjunction with cutting edge, expressive film techniques  In terms of narratives, late-era UFO episodes deal  persuasively with the drug/hippie culture ("The Long Sleep"), and even bend and freeze time itself ("Timelash").

In the imaginatively-conceived "Mindbender," an attacking UFO explodes over the lunar surface, just four miles from S.H.A.D.O.'s moon base.   Straker and Foster travel to the moon to investigate.

Leone meets Kubrick, Gerry Anderson-style.
Astronaut Andy Conroy, an amateur author of Westerns, recovers a strange translucent rock from the spaceship wreckage, and very soon loses his grip on reality. 

Specifically, Conroy begins to envision his comrades on Moon Base, including Nina Barry (Dolores Mantez) as dangerous, gun-toting Mexican bandits straight out of a Sergio Leone spaghetti western.

Commendably, Conroy's western-style hallucination is visualized by episode director Ken Turner as a deliberate tribute to the famous "Man with No Name" films of Leone and Clint Eastwood. 

The musical score lovingly evokes Ennio Morricone's famous work...almost down to a note.  And stylistically and physically the episode apes efforts such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965). For instance, Turner repeatedly cuts to extreme close-ups of Conroy's steely eyes, a staple of these great 1960s westerns. 

Gunfight at the Moon Base Corral
Additional shots feature grungy, grinning  bandits with bad teeth and other highly-unpleasant physical characteristics.  In other words, these phantasm individuals are purposefully exaggerated in the familiar spaghetti western mode too. 

The episode likewise deploys fish-eye lenses at points, and utilizes slow-motion photography for explosive shoot-out moments. 

Over a period of minutes, then, sterile, high-tech Moon base is transformed entirely (at least from Conroy's perspective...) into an outlaw Mexican town, and a gunfight ensues

I might add, this sort of anachronistic visualization is the last thing you would expect in the gadgetry-heavy, artificial future world of UFO.  It's a jarring conjunction of primitive and futuristic, and is appropriately "strange" and hallucinatory, well in keeping with the episode's narrative.

The aliens are here...
...or are they?
After Conroy's death on Moon base, the offending moon rock gets transferred to S.H.A.D.O. headquarters on Earth, located  under the movie studio. 

There, Captain James, another veteran astronaut, is exposed and also quickly goes insane.  He "sees" all of his co-workers as uniformed aliens and, like Conroy before him, goes on a paranoid shooting spree.  He abducts Colonel Lake, attempts to kill Straker, and is eventually subdued.

But the mystery deepens.  What is going on?

Soon, Straker learns the answer for himself. In his office, he comes in contact with the offending alien rock.

During an intense argument with bureaucratic, dollar-pinching General Henderson (Grant Taylor) Straker begins to lose his steely composure and grip on sanity.  "Let's get back to realities," Henderson argues, yelling at Straker.

And then -- just as his temper boils over -- Straker hears a voice (from somewhere off-screen...) yell "Cut" and "Print." 

Suddenly, a film crew descends upon him and begins calling him Howard Byrne...the name of an actor on the movie studio where Straker works.

Straker wanders out of his office...only to see that it is a TV show set surrounded by lights, cameras and other filmmaking paraphernalia. 

Confused, he heads out to the studio grounds and actually runs smack into his stand-in (Stuart Damon), who is even wearing a white wig, mimicking his distinctive hair-style. Soon, the confused Straker is ordered to report to Theater 7, where the rushes of his "show" are about to begin.

Straker obediently sits down in an auditorium and the footage commences.  He watches as footage from the pilot episode of the series, "Identified," plays on the screen before him.  After this sequence, Straker watches in torturous paralysis the death of his young son, Johnny...all material from another previous episode, "A Question of Priorities."

Face to face with a stand-in.
Paul Foster then sits down next to Straker, calling himself "Mike" (Michael Billington), and notes that this traumatic material will "make a great episode." 

An emotionally-affected Straker,  forced again to countenance his myriad personal failures (a recurring theme of the series in episodes such as "Confetti Check A-OK" and "A Question of Priorities"), objects. 

"That's my life!  That's my son!"

After seeing his son struck by a car, and his wife, Mary, tell him that she never wants to see him, Straker begins to really lose it (an outburst which "Mike" compliments as "method acting." )

But soon, the ever-rational, ever-resilient Straker realizes that he has been adversely affected by an alien "booby trap," one "aimed at the mind."  He understands that to get back to his world, his reality,  he must focus.  General Henderson has already informed him that he has a "monkey on his back," called "dedication."  Now he must tap into that dedication.

Isolation and alienation in the auditorium.
Straker returns to HQ to "play" the scene with General Henderson over again.  After a rapid, highly cinematic pull-back away from Straker depicting our protagonist as but one of many working actors on the studio lot, we get back to "realities," as Henderson puts it. 

With dedication and concentration, Straker recites his "dialogue."  He gets back in "the moment."

The longer he goes on, the more that Straker's reality reasserts itself.  The film crew transforms before our eyes -- in almost iconic composition -- into the courageous  men and women of S.H.A.D.O.  The walls re-form -- the fourth wall re-established -- and Straker is home, at last.

I admire how "Mindbender" works so well on two levels.  

On one level is the literal narrative: the story of an alien "booby trap" confusing the minds of S.H.A.D.O.'s best and brightest.  

On another, more metaphorical level, the subject here is film itself; how sometimes we replay events in our lives as if they're old movies.  We see this in Conroy's subplot, as he imagines himself a cowboy.  And we see it -- tragically -- with Straker, as he is forced to relive all his personal pain on the silver screen.

Straker strenuously objects to the idea that movie makers would steal his life and his memories and "put them up on the screen" for the entertainment of others...but that's what the art-form always does.  It takes from real life...and not always in a pleasant way 

Tragedy, regret, pathos...they all make a "great episode," don't they?

"This will make a great episode..."
"Mindbender" also gets at the fragility of the whole process of filmmaking, of the whole illusion, in some clever way.  Every week, we tune into a show like Star Trek or UFO and willfully suspend our disbelief. 

We know we are watching actors and special effects, a filmed entertainment with a pre-determined outcome and an emotion-provoking musical track. 

And yet with our whole minds (and our whole hearts...) we dupe ourselves into believing, after a fashion, that what we are seeing is "real;" that these characters truly "exist." 

UFO playfully blows the lid off that carefully constructed folie-en-famille, revealing to the audience not pilot Paul Foster, but actor Mike Billington; pulling back on high-angle shots of Moon base, Skydiver, and Straker's office and deliberately showing us that these environs are all carefully-constructed sets...merely artifice.

This is a high-wire act, be certain. The curtain is pulled back and the truth revealed, but in a science fiction series like UFO, there's no guarantee that once revealed, the magic can be restored.  Yet it is, most definitively, restored, by "Mindbender's" conclusion.  

As viewers, we greet Straker's escape from our reality back to his world as a huge relief.  We breathe easy again.   He escapes into fantasy, in one sense, as perhaps we might like to do.  The walls of suspension of disbelief are, again, erected...and we sneak back in, along with Straker.  We're back in the drama, back in the shared delusion or dream.

"Mindbender" plays beautifully with form and anticipates our every reaction.  The magician reveals -- at least briefly -- his hand, and then it's back to fashioning the magic again. And in shows like "A World of Difference," "Midnight Never Ends," "Far Beyond the Stars" and "Mindbender," the artist not only tells us a story; he invites us inside the process to take a nuts-and-bolts look at how that story gets delivered to us; at the ways the artistic mind conjures up the illusions of another world, another reality.

This kind of story can be done and has been done many times as a self-referential joke...a lark.  But sometimes -- when it is vetted so brilliantly (as is the case on UFO) -- this long-standing genre convention makes us ask important questions about what is real life and what is fantasy. 

More than that, it asks us to consider, perhaps, the reasons that we flock so readily and easily to the fantasy.

UFO: "The Cat with Ten Lives"

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," three UFOs approach the moon, but retreat once interceptors approach. Three more UFOs appear i...