Thursday, January 29, 2015

At Flashbak: They Stick Like Magic! A Gallery of Colorform Adventure Sets (1966 – 1980)

Now at Flashbak, a gallery of my Colorforms collection!

"Last week here on Flashbak, I remembered “Fotonovels” or “Photostories,” and tagged those publications as one way that kids of previous generations could remember the experience of their favorite movie or TV program in the pre-VCR age.

Today, I remember another popular item from the same time and having roughly the same purpose: the Colorform Adventure Set, or “Cartoon Kit” as it was sometimes known.  In broad terms, Colorforms sets consist of vinyl-sheet figures, ships, or objects, and a cardboard background upon which they can be set, and re-set.

Colorforms were first created in 1951, and in 1957 the company began to license popular entertainment characters such as Popeye for their sets.

In the year 2000, the Toy Industry of America named Colorforms one of the best toys of the 20th century, and in 2011, Time Magazine named them as one of the 100 best toys “ever.”

Colorforms often came with brochures or booklets demonstrating for kids “one of the many” scenes they could make with their new toy.  And parents were informed, likewise that “your child now joins millions of others in the same age group in a happy growing experience.”

For Colorforms, according the booklet, possess “rare educational value” helping your child with six important skills: “Finger dexterity,” “sense of spatial relationship,” “size matching,” “building ability,” “color sense” and “sense of neatness and order.”

When I grew up in the seventies, Colorforms proved a key and constant element of childhood, and today I want to feature pictures from my home collection, and some of my very favorite sets. 

Basically every sci-fi franchise you could think of in the 1970s and 1980s had Colorforms sets to accompany them, from Star Trek (1966 – 1969) and Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) to Planet of the Apes (1968) and Gremlins (1984). I had as many as I could get my hands on, and I’ve managed to keep several sets across the decades.

Here are five examples of the Colorforms adventure sets, circa 1966 – 1980..."

Cult-TV Review: The Man in the High Castle (2015)

(Here there be spoilers...proceed at your own risk.)

The Man in the High Castle (2015) is a new and impressive pilot from X-Files writer Frank Spotnitz and director Ridley Scott. It is being featured as part of Amazon's second annual pilot season.

The filmmakers have worked with great skill and artistry to adapt the Hugo Award-winning 1962 novel by Philip K. Dick to a visual format. Dick’s story has been termed an “alternate history” science fiction story, meaning it ponders what might happen had history gone differently.  

In this case, the Axis Power won World War II, and have since carved up America. Imperial Japan now controls the West Coast, and Nazi Germany controls the East Coast, with a “neutral zone” in the mid-west separating fiefdoms.  

The series is set in 1962, some dozen or so years after the end of the war.

The Man in the High Castle pilot focuses primarily on two characters, one living in Japanese San Francisco, the other in Nazi-run New York, as they make separate, unplanned pilgrimages to Canon City, in the Neutral Zone. 

Making the journey from the west is Julianna Crain (Alexa Davalos).  

Making it from the east is Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank). 

Independently of each other as well, each character carries notable contraband: a film reel titled “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy,” which showcases documentary footage of the West -- FDR, and Winston Churchill -- winning World War II for the Allies.  

Since this did not happen, apparently, in Joe and Julianna’s particular reality, that means that the world -- reality itself -- is false in some way not yet understood.

The pilot episode commences in terrifying fashion, as images of American sovereignty and power are overcome by the relentless march of the Axis Powers.  

Scored to a morose, creepy version of “Edelweiss,” from The Sound of Music (1959), the introductory montage is unforgettable.  The funereal tone makes viewers aware that they have entered a world without freedom and liberty, where the face of Lady Liberty has fallen under a shroud of darkness. It’s an effective and ominous note to start out on, and the opening montage is quite powerful.

From there, the narrative moves crisply and cleanly o introduce this “brave new world” of the 1960s.  Rock Hudson and June Allyson are still making movies for Hollywood, but America is not the same country any more. 

Joe Blake seeks to join the Resistance movement in New York, while Julianna sees her sister Trudy gunned down in cold blood by the Japanese regime for her role in the resistance. Both characters take up the same odyssey from opposite sides of the country, and by pilot’s end, meet one another.  

And, of course, there’s a final twist that will leave you gasping.

The pilot also contends with the specter of a new Cold War. 

Hitler is aged and dying in this alternate reality, and his would-be successors (Goebbels, Himmler, and Rommel) are scrambling for power. This means trouble for Japan, because many in the Nazi hierarchy believe that the U.S. should not have been partitioned. Instead, it should have been taken for Germany. Accordingly, nuclear weapons stand ready to bomb the Japanese island as well as San Francisco.  It’s possible that the world will plunge into an all-out war…again. 

Some characters in the drama believe that they can use the I-Ching, an ancient divination text, to determine what shape the future will take.

In the original novel by Dick, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was a book, not a film, but I liked this update and change because TV is a visual art-form, and the existence of a documentary film establishes better than words on a page would that the world featured in the series could be false, or perhaps, merely one world in a massive multi-verse. 

If a series should develop, the exact nature and origin of this book will no doubt be a major plot line.  How did get to this universe?  Is this universe real?  Is it a game?  A simulation?  A parallel reality? 

A clever and intelligent writer like Spotnitz can spin the narrative in any tricky direction, hinting at multiple possibilities, and keeping us on our toes for many seasons. Certainly, the pilot episode is well-crafted, particularly in its attention to small details.

For example, there’s one scene of utter horror that occurs while Joe is on the road. He stops his truck, and speaks to a police-man. 

Ash suddenly falls from the sky like snow. 

Joe is perplexed, and the policeman reports that a hospital is nearby. And Tuesday is the day of the week that said hospital burns cripples, the terminally ill, and other “drags on the state.” 

Blake is eating a sandwich when this revelation occurs. Watch him closely as he regards his meal. His unguarded response (or lack of one) is a clue about his character's nature. But this little throwaway moment captures the terror and inhumanity of the Axis Powers more powerfully than could a scene involving Nazi soldiers and large scale combat. We understand immediately how this America is different from ours.  

Here, death panels are really…and burning every Tuesday.

The Man in the High Castle introduces a number of good concepts that could well serve a long-term series, including the belief that “fate is fluid” and that “destiny is in the hands of man.”  It would be incredibly intriguing to see this idea play out, across a Japanese/Nazi Cold War, and across a dedicated resistance movement.  

Already, The Man in The High Castle is extraordinary, imaginative television, dominated by strong performances, crisp writing and surprisingly good production values. On that last front, there’s a shot of Nazi Time Square here that will make your jaw drop.  

Let's hope this one makes the cut.  I'm still in mourning over Amazon's treatment of The After. Let's hope it doesn't make the same mistake twice. The Man in the High Castle could very well be the Game of Thrones for the alternate reality sub-genre...if Amazon doesn't kill it in the cradle, that is.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Late Night Blogging: More Supermarionation Adverts

Coming Soon: The Fantastic Four (2015)

Fireball XL5 (1962 - 1963): "Flight to Danger"

In “Flight to Danger,” the second episode of Fireball XL5 (1962 – 1963), Astronaut 90 is working hard to get his “astronaut wings” so that he can become the best controller in World Space Patrol History.

Although nervous about his progress, Steve Zodiac shepherds Astronaut 90 through the training program.

First up: landing Fireball XL5 safely at Space City.  It’s not a pretty landing, but 90 succeeds in the mission and pilots the craft to safe touchdown.

Next, 90 must launch the XL-1 successfully in orbit to show he is capable of “directing space traffic” and again, he succeeds. 

However, the final stage of the astronaut training program involves the “psychological strain of being completely alone in space.”  To that end, 90 must fly a space capsule alone in space to demonstrate his “endurance” and “aptitude.”

Unfortunately, a freak malfunction causes 90’s atomic motor to become dislodged in flight, and the capsule is destroyed in a terrible explosion.

Zodiac, Venus and the Fireball XL5 crew go in search of 90 but find only debris.

But 90 survives, proving resourceful and earning those astronaut wings…

“Flight to Danger” is a solid, effectively-written and executed episode of Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series Fireball XL5. It is concerned primarily with character development, and one character’s progress through a training program.  

The character in training is Astronaut 90, and he is a young, insecure man that the audience (and Steve Zodiac) come to care for.  There’s no standard pulp stuff here about death rays or alien plots to invade Earth, only a narrative that reveals more about the world of Fireball XL5, particularly astronaut training.

The episode is strong in terms of how it treats other characters as well. Steve Zodiac shows confidence in Astronaut 90 and is a good mentor.  At one point, he even laments his presence in Space City Mission Control, noting that he’s “strictly an action guy,” not a push-button guy. 

Commander Zero also is handled well, coming off as a bit of an obsessive-compulsive who worries about every aspect of every mission. This is a good quality to have in a man in control of a vast space program, but his angst adds a sense of humanity to the character.

“Flight to Danger” also deals with real, nuts-and-bolts aspect of a space program, such as coping with feelings of isolation, loneliness and even claustrophobia in space.  This is one reason I have always enjoyed Anderson’s works.  Set in the near future, these productions typically remember that man is capable of great things, but also tethered to Earth (and his history) by his psychological foibles.  This is a contrast, somewhat, to the world envisioned by latter-day Star Trek, in comparison.

I also enjoyed a weird visual in this episode: sweating puppets! 

At a few junctures in “Flight to Danger,” we see that Zodiac and the others -- their nerves tingling -- are perspiring heavily. It’s a weird touch to see sweat glistening on wooden puppets, but another bow, in some weird way, to Gerry Anderson’s realistic approach to human crises.

Finally, this episode features Steve and Venus at her beach house enjoying a night “of musical relaxation.” 

I thought for certain that this was a metaphor for a more adult pastime, but sure enough the episode cuts to the Fireball crew enjoying music together in her house…

Fireball XL5 Jetmobile

Pop Art: Fireball XL5 (Little Golden Book Edition)

Fireball XL5 Space City Playset

Model Kit of the Week: Fireball XL5 (Kitmaster)