Monday, February 17, 2020

Buck Rogers: "The Golden Man"

In "The Golden Man," the Searcher explores the Alpha Centauri asteroid field, even as a powerful magnetic storm approaches. A life pod automatic distress signal is intercepted by Wilma (Erin Gray), and the Searcher brings a hibernation tube aboard.

Inside the tube is Velis (David Hollander), a golden-skinned alien who appears to be a child.  When awakened, he expresses concern that another of his kind, Relcos, is still missing. Before the Searcher can investigate further, the ship runs aground on an asteroid and becomes lodged there.  

Also, a beam from the control room's ceiling falls on Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) during the accident. It cannot be moved until Velis changes the molecular structure of the ceiling beam, rendering it lighter. He reports that his people are capable of "subatomic oscillation," and that Relcos may be able to lighten the molecular weight of the Searcher, and free it from the asteroid.

Buck (Gil Gerard) and Velis head to the planet Iris 7, where Relcos' distress call has been detected.  They find it is a penal planet, and that the criminals living there covet the golden man, Relcos, for his ability to make them rich. After Buck and Velis are kidnapped, Hawk (Thom Christopher) goes in search of them, and masquerades as an interplanetary inspector general to rescue them.

Buck, Velis and Hawk manage to rescue Relcos and return to the Searcher, just as the magnetic storm threatens the ship.  As Relcos tries to change the Searcher's weight, Buck starts to realize that Relcos, who appears to be an adult, is actually a child, while Velis, appearing to be a child, is actually the boy's father.

Let me just say this to start: I strongly dislike this episode.  I'm sorry, I realize that isn't a very professional comment to make.  However, I still remember watching "The Golden Man" in 1981, and hating it, even as an eleven year old.  I didn't write a review of the episode last week, actually, because I didn't want to watch it again. How's that for avoiding?

Anyway, I buckled down, watched "The Golden Man" this weekend, for the first time in nearly forty years, and despised it every bit as much as I did all those years ago.  There may be worse episodes of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981), but this one still has to be near the absolute bottom of the catalog.

Why do I react so strongly, and in such a negative fashion, to this episode?  There are multiple reasons, but all of them have to do with the utter absurdity of the story, and, by implication, the contempt the writers and producers must have felt for fans of the series to foist it upon them.

First, it is wonderful that the Searcher rescues young Velis. But the hibernation pod is brought aboard, and not held for decontamination. With no examination of the device, Buck just opens it.  Again, he does so without even consulting a physician, or an engineer for that matter.  The Searcher just pulls the tube in on a tractor beam, and Buck opens it. At this point, he doesn't even know if the gold alien possesses the same needs so far as an atmosphere that humans do.  What if Velis were a plague carrier? What if exposure to humans was lethal to him? Or vice versa?

 In the scene after this, Buck actually asks Doctor Goodfellow if Velis is made of real gold.


So, basically, Buck is portrayed here as an idiot. First he opens an alien hibernation tube without the simplest or most basic of precautions or expert back-up, and then he asks if a humanoid is actually made of gold.  

Then, just when the episode can't get any more dimwitted, the Searcher suddenly runs aground on an asteroid.  I mean, the ship just piles into a huge space rock.  Who is driving the ship?  How could this happen?  Earlier in the episode, Admiral Asimov orders the viewer closed, but presumably the ship can still be steered by scanner or computer, right? Aren't there some safeguards in place to prevent a vessel of this size and complexity from just plowing into an asteroid, head first?  

Probably these are the same safeguards to use when opening an alien hibernation tube, meaning they are non-existent.

Once on the planet, Relcos is captured and held in a wagon and cage.  The scene in which he is mobbed by denizens of the penal colony is clearly and crisply shot. We see Relcos cowering in the cage, transforming the molecular make-up of several items, including a ladle, and the cage bars.  But for some reason, seeing is not enough.  There is an ADR voice-over narration explaining everything he does, in extreme detail.  "He turned that ladle to pure silver! He's turned the bars to glass!"  This bizarre play-by-play goes on and on throughout the scene and is absolutely inexplicable. The images carry the scene just fine without the narration.

Then, there's the final twist in the tail that reveals Relcos, a fully-grown adult male, is actually a child.  And Relcos, physically about a 12-year old, is a parent.  The aliens, who hail from Vella 5, age in "reverse."  This means that Relcos is actually a 5-year old child.  No wonder Relcos' mother is never seen in the episode. She's likely in a hospital. Imagine what these golden women must go through, having the physical dimensions of children, but giving birth to full-grown adults. All joking aside, it seems a physical impossibility. This touch is meant to be a clever "sci-fi" plot twist, but upon any consideration is revealed to be ridiculous.

There are other issues with the episode too.  Why are the people of the penal colony obsessed with getting their hands on jewels and fine metals?  From what we see, the colony is incredibly small - the size of a Colonial town, perhaps. Jewels and such baubles would only be worth something in a functioning economy with different classes, including a wealthy class, and a professional class.  In other words, someone needs to buy those jewels, or trade for them.  Based on the poor, uneducated colonists depicted in "The Golden Man," there would be no one to buy those jewels, or to sell them, even though the mob leader offers to pay with "Gold Solaris" the location of the Golden Man.

And what are we to make of this penal colony and its presence anyway? The leaders of the colony realize Hawk is not an inspector general because he is not aware of the ship that crashed there, which the colonists are repurposing for escape.  According to the criminals, the authorities know about the crash.  Okay, so the intergalactic authorities are in the loop, even if they haven't acted to retrieve the ship.  If that's the case, how come Crichton, Goodfellow and the Searcher databanks don't have any knowledge of the people of Iris 7, or the planet's designation as a penal colony?  The authorities all know the planet is there, that it houses criminals, and that a she crashed.  But no one on Searcher knows any of these things.  "The Golden Man" just can't be bothered to keep its facts straight, apparently.

I may be biased. I admit it. As noted above, I found this episode terrible the first time I saw it, and revisiting it in 2020 did not change my mind. By 1981, and by the time I was eleven, I expected a top-of-the-line science fiction TV series such as this one not to talk down to me, and to tell stimulating, intelligent, internally-consistent stories.

"The Golden Man" fails to deliver anything that doesn't feel like an insult to the intelligence.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Memory Bank: The Hindenburg (1975) "Hindelry Keepsake Medallions"

Now here is a weird film collectible from the disco decade.  In 1975, Universal Studios -- at the height of the disaster film craze that gave rise to The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and others -- released The Hindenburg. The film was directed by Robert Wise and starred George C. Scott.

The movie recreated the time-period leading up to the 1937 disaster, and, at first blush, wouldn't seem the ideal movie candidate for merchandising efforts.

Yet, the ironically named "Good Time Jewelry, Ltd.," out of Rochelle Park was licensed by Universal to create a series of "Hindelry keepsake medallions" based on the film and the tragic historical events it depicted.  

On the card for the Hindenburg medallion, it was written: "the sensation of a lifetime that turned into one of the century's most remembered incidents." Weirder yet is the transposition of the art with the company's name. There are images of people running in terror from the exploding dirigible, while underneath them is the name "Good Time."

Apparently -- and I would love to see this -- there was also "Jawelry" released by the same company, based on Universal's Jaws, from the same year.

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Cult-TV Flashback: Mission: Impossible: "Encore"

"Encore" is one of the most audacious installments of the entire seven season run of Mission:Impossible (1966-1973). At times, the premise of this sixth season episode beggars beliefs, but at other times, the execution is so convincing that the audience buys the whole thing.

In "Encore," William Shatner guest stars as a gangster named Kroll who, nearly forty years earlier, committed the murder of a rival mobster, Danny Ryan. Kroll hid the body, and weapon used to kill him, but nobody knows where.  Accordingly, to this day, no one has been able to pin the murder on the powerful Kroll, or his partner, Stevens.  Worse, to maintain their "innocence," Kroll and Stevens have been murdering all the witnesses to the crimes, arranging accidents for them. Their latest victim is a little old lady in a hospital.  Kroll and Stevens blow up her room in the hospital to keep her from talking.

Enter the IMF. 

Jim Phelps (Peter Graves) hatches a plan to turn back the clock. Using a potent combination of make-up, medicine, and a studio lot, the IMF endeavors to make Kroll believe it is 1937 again, and have Kroll relive the crime -- the murder of Ryan -- that they wish to solve, and nab him for.  They hope, in the exact recreation on the lot of his home in Long Island, Kroll will make sure history happens twice, and show them where he intends to hide Ryan's body, and the gun,

In previous (and later) episodes of this stellar series, the IMF has tricked "marks" into believing they have been in comas, encountered ghosts, been cured of diseases, stranded on a desert island and other wild outcomes, in order to glean important information from them. In "Encore," however, the IMF must perfectly recreate an era half-a-century gone. If one detail is wrong, the plan fails.  If one example of modernity is seen, the mission fails. If Kroll makes it off the studio lot, the plan fails.

More than any of that, even, the team must convince an old man that he is young again, both in appearance and stamina. It's a tall order. They are asking not only his mind to sabotage his sense of reality, but his body to do the same.

Doug (Sam Elliott), in his final appearance on the seires uses medicine to temporarily stop the pain in Kroll's aged, bum knee, and provides him a latex mask of youth that will last, precisely, six hours.  

All the details must be perfect in the studio lot version of 1937, and at one point Jim Phelps sees an "extra" wearing 1970's style sun-glasses and rips them off his face abruptly.

Adding tension to "Encore," Kroll's partner, Stevens, is aware that he has been kidnapped, and on the look-out for him. So the IMF team must get Kroll to reveal the location of the body, and they have two deadlines. First is the six hour make-up duration. The second is the circling Stevens, getting ever closer to the movie lot.

A few things make this audacious episode work, and, finally, feel believable. The first is William Shatner's brilliant performance as Kroll. He doesn't let the gangster fall for the trick at first.  That would make him seem gullible, and an easy mark. Instead, as the IMF team walks the mobster through a series of "clues" that make 1937 seem real, Kroll relents, but a little at a time.  A great moment occurs mid-way through the story when Kroll hears a plane flying by overhead, from his apartment.  He looks up from his window, and sees a plane above.  Amazingly, it is a plane appropriate to the 1930's era.  In other words, it is not a flaw in the plane, it is part of the plan! Phelps has thought of everything, including stopping flyovers of modern planes, and providing for the flyover by the older plane.  This meticulous detail, one can see on Shatner's face, is the thing that sells the idea of Kroll time traveling back to 1937.  Who would possibly go the trouble of having an era-accurate plane fly overhead, apparently at random?

Only Jim Phelps, who apparently has a huge budget to run his intelligence ops, given what he pulls off in "Encore."  Think about it. There's the plane flyover. There are dozens of extras. There are 1930's era cars. There's the complete make-over of two city blocks on the studio lot. There are the perfectly timed tape recordings of 1937 baseball games for the radio, and more.

But it is the denouement of "Encore," perhaps, which makes the episode so memorable in this M:I canon.  Jim, Barney, Willy and Casey get the information they need, and evacuate the studio lot, along with the extras who have been cast as 1930's denizens. After fingering the spot where he hid the body, Kroll walks out into a deserted metropolitan street. In minutes it has gone from bustling metropolis to ghost town. This is revealed in a stunning pull-back.

Kroll begins to realize what happens, and starts running, to escape the lot. As he runs, the medicine Doug gave him wears off, and he starts to limp, hobbled again by old age.  Then, the make-up on his face begins to melt, and he is fully restored to old age, and to the present  At just that moment, Kroll's partner, Stevens, finds him, and both men realize, without saying a word, the "impossibility" of the trap that has snared them.  It's one of the most colorful and satisfying conclusions in the sixth season of Mission:Impossible.

"Encore" is a controversial episode of this series, because for some, it is really about mission or format creep near the end of the series' long run.  They see the episode as an example of the series running out of good ideas.  Most stories in the canon, after all, are grounded far more clearly in reality. The plots are usually based on playing the mark's assumptions against him  or herself, and therefore psychological in nature.  

By contrast, the plan in "Encore" is big, bold, brassy and wild.  But the 1930's details, and the great (and largely forgotten) Shatner performance make this "mission" an unforgettable hour.  I would argue this episode isn't representative of mission creep, rather some kind of go-for-broke example of creative inspiration.

Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Buck Rogers: "Mark of the Saurian"

Just as an armistice has been declared between the Directorate and the Saurian Empire, a group of Saurian nationals masquerade in human form, as Ambassador Cabot (Linden Chiles) and his party.

Cabot and his team board the Searcher, and plot to take the exploratory ship into the “restricted zone” near the Delta Quadrant Defense Station.  The Saurian plan is to secretly seize control of that station, a weapon so powerful it caused their people to seek peace.

Buck (Gil Gerard), suffering from “Cygnus Fever,” is able to detect the Ambassador and his party as they really are: alien infiltrators.  

Although Wilma (Erin Gray) believes Buck’s story, the Searcher crew fears that Rogers is delusional, and even dangerous. They try to keep him in bed, and sedated, while the Saurians seek to stop him.

Meanwhile, Buck attempts to convince his friends that the Saurians are playing the crew for fools…

“Mark of the Saurian” is a solid episode of the second season Buck Rogers (1979-1981) format. Alas, the story also appears regurgitated, almost note for note, from another popular sci-fi series of the disco decade: Space: 1999 (1975-1977).

Fans of that series will certainly remember a Year Two story and two-part episode, called “The Bringers of Wonder.”  There, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) is injured during an eagle crash, and consigned to Medical Center. While there, he undergoes a head-injury treatment that alters his brainwaves.

At the same time, a ship apparently from Earth, a super swift, nears Moonbase Alpha.  It is manned entirely by friends of the Alphans, including Dr. Shaw, Helena Russell’s (Barbara Bain) mentor.  

But when Koenig awakens, he doesn’t see human friends from Earth, he sees “monsters from another dimension” who are operating by their own malevolent agenda (a plot to detonate the nuclear waste domes on the moon).

Koenig attempts to convince his friends that he is not delusional or hallucinating, but they fear his injury is affecting his mind. He is out of his head, so-to-speak.

The points of similarity between the two stories are suspiciously numerous.

In both cases, we have the protagonist or hero of the show dealing with an injury/sickness. Koenig has a brain injury. Buck suffers from Cygnus Fever.  This is important, because this “condition” is the excuse by which his subordinates fail to heed his warning about enemy infiltrators.

In both cases, one of the key alien infiltrators is a doctor or physician, an individual with access to the sick bay/Medical Center, and so can therefore attempt to harm the sick protagonist.  It was Dr. Shaw in “Bringers of Wonder,” and Dr. Moray in “Mark of the Saurian” who commit this act.  They both seek to stop the one person who can see the invaders as they really are.

In both cases, a man whose word is absolutely dependable is easily questioned because of the prior incident (brain injury/Cygnus fever), leaving that man to have to act alone, without the support of his friends.

In both cases, the aliens with the secret agenda (to detonate the domes; or take over the Delta Quadrant Defense Station) are only outed when the protagonist manipulates an instrument in the control room to alter the conditions of that room and make the aliens visible to shocked co-workers.

In “Bringers of Wonder,” Koenig uses sonic manipulation in Command Center to allow the Alphans to see the “earthlings” as he sees slimy aliens. 

In “Mark of the Saurian,” Buck adjusts the thermostat on the Searcher’s bridge, making it cold.  The Saurians -- who are cold-blooded -- collapse, and when unconscious, appear in their true, reptilian form.

In sci-fi TV, many stories are influenced by older stories.  Many series offer variations on a theme, or on a trope (like “the silicon based life form,” or the “fight to the death.”)  But “Mark of the Saurian” isn’t a variation on a theme so much as it is a straight-up regurgitation of “Bringers of Wonder.”  It is a point-by-point repeat.

That fact established, it’s not a bad episode in the scheme of things. Buck, feeling alone, discovers the two people he can truly count on in a crisis: Wilma and Hawk (Thom Christopher), and the episode helps us glean a sense of those friendships. 

On the other hand, some questions are indeed left unanswered.  

How do the Saurians trick Twiki and Crichton into seeing them as human beings? They are robots, after all, not susceptible to a disguise device that depends, apparently, on "body chemistry."

And since when has the Directorate been at war with the Saurians?  And if the Saurians broke the armistice, does that mean the war with the Saurians will resume?

Finally, why is Buck so mean and insulting to his doctor in this episode?  He is the worst patient, ever!

Despite such questions, I enjoy some of the call-backs to Season One in "Mark of the Saurian." These include the re-use of the space station miniature from “Space Vampire,” and the re-use of the Directorate dress uniforms, seen as far back as “Awakening.” Also, the Directorate gets a specific name-check.  

If only we heard a mention of Dr. Huer.

Fans of 1970s electronic toys will also note that Lakeside’s Computer Perfection makes an extended cameo as a view screen control panel in Searcher’s sick bay.  The unmistakable blue and white toy is seen several times at Buck’s bedside, and there are two close-ups of the game’s controls (under a blue hood).

Finally, one might wonder how I can enumerate all the similarities here to Space:1999 and yet still assess this Buck Rogers episode as one of the better second season shows.  

The answer is simple.  By comparison to efforts like “The Golden Man” or “Shgoratchx!"even a retread like “Mark of the Saurians” is a welcome relief.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Prison