Monday, September 21, 2020

Burton Binge: Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

This nearly thirty-five year old comedy remains a deft and amusing collaboration between Tim Burton and Paul Reubens, a comedian who, in the early 1980s, created the character of Pee Wee Herman and saw that persona rise to national fame.  

If you're unfamiliar with Pee Wee Herman, he's essentially  a big-hearted but emotionally-stunted man-child dressed in a suit. Pee Wee is both charmingly innocent in nature and yet diabolically aggressive when he doesn't get his way.  

In other words, Pee Wee Herman is the Peter Pan Syndrome personified, or -- as Ralph Emerson described the mercurial child -- a "curly, dimpled lunatic."    

Although the Pee Wee Herman persona was originally aimed at adult audiences, the character increasingly became popular with children over the years, eventually starring in an Award-winning Saturday morning TV series, Pee Wee's Playhouse.   

Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure retains the character's spiky edges, and in doing so acknowledges the difficulties of the adult world at the same time that it reveals Pee Wee's essentially good -- with some lapses -- childish nature.

To one extent or another, all of Tim Burton's films involve quirky misfits or oddballs, and perhaps there is no protagonist in the canon more quirky, or more oddball than Pee Wee Herman.  He's desperately afraid of girls, holds down no job, and focuses all of his obsessive  love upon a single, perfect object or toy: his bicycle.  Pee Wee thrives in a bubble of self-indulgent childhood and play, and when he looks outside that bubble, gazes enviously at those who may appear "cooler" than he does.

In the course of Pee Wee's Big Adventure, Pee Wee meets hostility from the "real" (adult) world in the form of an escaped criminal, a biker gang, the jealous boyfriend of an acquaintance, and not least of all, Francis Buxton.  Francis is a rich, indulged man-child, a kind of dark reflection of Pee Wee.  In all cases, except for Francis -- who is truly incorrigible and thus irredeemable -- Pee Wee works his child's magic upon his enemies, transforming them into friends and supporters.

The inference is obvious: unless you're a monster (like Francis...) you just can't hate Pee Wee for long.  We also saw this quality in the character of Ed Wood last week.  Through his eternal optimism and enthusiasm, Burton's Wood successfully drew others into his orbit, into his world of movie-making.  Through his child-like kindness and friendship, Pee Wee often accomplishes the same feat here, permitting other characters to "follow" their dreams the very way that he does.  Whatever his failings in terms of fitting in, Pee Wee is indomitable, and people around him pick-up on that admirable quality.

So what audiences get here is, basically, a very funny commentary on childhood; or perhaps upon society's view of children.  What makes the film so unrelentingly funny, however is that Pee Wee is most definitely not all sunshine and roses, and, certainly, neither are kids in real life.  Like any child, Pee Wee can be abundantly vindictive, capricious, out-of-control, and even ego maniacal.  The film often attains the pinnacle of silliness when Pee Wee -- in pursuit of his perfect bike -- must call upon his juvenile "id" to attain his goal.

It has been widely suggested by critics that Pee Wee Herman is an acquired taste, or that one's "mileage" for the character may vary.   Yet to some extent, Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure thrives even beyond one's appreciation or approval for the central character because of the wild, visual flights of fancy evident here.  Even if Pee Wee fails to impress as a character or a comedic concept, his dazzling fantasy world of Rube Goldberg-esque inventions and colorful, strange misfits proves eminently memorable.  With Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure, you get just not Pee Wee himself to enjoy, but access to Pee Wee's world.  In the final analysis, it's a pretty wild and imaginative place to visit.

Specifically, Burton executes a number of  clever visual jokes that reveal the essence of the unusual lead character and his world view.  In other words, Burton finds way to express with the camera the inner workings of Pee Wee's childish but ultimately admirable psyche.  To some degree, this practice makes the inscrutable, juvenile Pee Wee more sympathetic and heroic.  

And, of course, that's the point.

"Life can be so unfair."

Pee Wee Herman (Paul Reubens) sets out on one lovely day to pick up a new horn for his beloved bike at Chuck's Bike-o-rama.  

Unfortunately, Herman's nasty nemesis, Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) hires someone to steal his  bike.  But when Herman goes on the radio to detail his campaign to get the stolen bike back, Buxton re-hires his underling to get rid of it so he won't get into trouble with his Dad.

After visiting a fortune teller, Herman learns that the missing bike may be "in the basement of the Alamo," and sets off for Texas.  Along the way, he meets an escaped criminal, a waitress who longs to see Paris, a ghost named "Large Marge," a hobo on a train and even a biker gang.  Through it all, Pee Wee admirably keeps his focus on his bike...and makes friends in the process.

Finally, when he learns that a famous child star, Kevin Morton (Jason Hervey) has possession of the bicycle, Pee Wee goes to Hollywood and sneaks onto the Warner Bros. lot to get it back.  Pee Wee recovers his stolen treasure, and after a lengthy chase, becomes a star in his own right.  

As it turns out, a studio exec at Warners think that Pee Wee's big adventure would make a hell of a movie, especially if it starred James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild...

"Everyone has a big "but"..."

Pee Wee Herman's Big Adventure
 works so well as a comedy because Tim Burton unabashedly forgoes any sense of realism, and instead allows the audience to feel (Heaven forbid...) what it would be like to live in Pee Wee's world for ninety minutes.

For instance, as Pee Wee learns of the criminal and shocking theft of his bike, the camera goes cockeyed, Danny Elfman's score turns portentous, and we get extreme close-ups of a sinister-appearing robot Clown.  The bike had been chained to that clown, but now the clown seems to mock Pee Wee with it's very presence.  It's an evil Leviathan, passing judgment; mocking him.

In almost the very next scene, Pee Wee grows despondent over his loss of the bike, and once again, we seem to peek directly into his fevered brain.  Suddenly, everybody (even a mime...) rides by on wheels, implicitly mocking Pee Wee's lack of conveyance.  This is a particularly funny scene, as Pee Wee can't look anywhere without being reminded of the amazing treasure he has lost.  And we absolutely know that bike is amazing, because Pee Wee is practically blinded by the bike's radiance on the first occasion it is depicted in the film.

Soon, Pee Wee's unhappiness turns him into something of a monster, a fact we see expressed visually during a sequence set in a rain-swept alley.  Pee Wee enters the scene first as a shadow, as a giant, hunched over monster.  This image reveals how (an unfair) loss has informed the character's view of the world.  Again and again, Burton's exaggerated use of mise-en-scene tells us something critical about the emotional context of Pee Wee's world and his thoughts.

The film's first scene, in fact, is a pretty terrific reflection of Pee Wee's universe and psyche.  It's a dream sequence in which Pee Wee envisions himself racing in the tour de France.  

As the movie and scene commence, Pee Wee -- on his beloved bike -- passes the other racers effortlessly.  At first, he does so with that trademark little giggle of his.  Then, as he increases speed and vanquishes all of his opponents, the giggle turns to a cackle of ego maniacal glee.  There's something driving and a little out-of-control about this desire to win the race, to be the best, and the escalating insanity of Pee Wee's laughter reveals that.

He wins the race, but as Pee Wee is about to be crowned victorious, his alarm clock rings, exposing the scene as a dream. Instead of ending abruptly, however, the dream continues to unfold, and the gathered attendees just sort of wander away and disperse, a moment which reveals how "deflating" an awakening from fantasy can be.  And indeed, Pee Wee's whole world is fantasy.  When he awakens from it -- as is the case with the bike theft -- it's devastating to him.  Without making Pee Wee's Big Adventure sound like deep social commentary, there's clearly something here about a child's first experience countenancing the world. Witness Pee Wee's disappointment upon learning that the Alamo doesn't actually have a basement.  Why don't they tell kids thing like that, he practically asks.

As I wrote above, Pee Wee's Big Adventure seems to work at its apex of humor when the character's dark side is allowed free rein.  Pee Wee tackles Francis in a pool, and nearly drowns the cad, for instance.  At another point, Pee Wee is debauched when other bicycle riders in the park perform riding tricks, and he can't match them. Suddenly, he sets about to do so.  And when he fails rather clumsily, he nonetheless triumphantly opines "I meant to do that."

The idea here is of a child's id unloosed in a man's body and it is the very thing that makes Pee Wee's Big Adventure so funny.  We all possess an inner child making demands on us, and yet we can't act on those demands or impulses if we wish to be taken seriously.  When confronted with a name-calling bully, we can't just say "I know you are, but what am I?"  No, we must act like adults, even when we are challenged and insulted. The funny thing about Pee Wee Herman is that he possesses no such restraints.  Perhaps, Pee Wee's persona, in some way, is based on wish-fulfilment.

Sometimes, the childish id we carry inside is just about being recognized; about being the center of attention.  With that idea in mind, witness the wondrous and very funny moment in which Pee Wee -- playing a hotel clerk in a movie of his life -- almost unconsciously inches his way to center screen, upstaging "stars" James Brolin and Morgan Fairchild.

Pee Wee is not making this attention-grabbing move out of malice.  Rather it's as if the gravity of his own unquenchable ego pulls him towards the camera, demanding he take center stage.  Aren't we all like that, some days?  

Perhaps most of all, Pee Wee's Big Adventure is a delight because of the whimsical world Burton creates for Pee Wee to inhabit.  Hollywood is littered with instances of successful comedians trying to make a go of it in the movie business and failing (think Tom Green, or Andrew Dice Clay).   In such instances, the comedians transplanted themselves to the silver screen, but did not provide a compelling world to alongside their popular "characters."  

In the case of Paul Reubens, the comedian was clever to collaborate with Burton, a man who could build a cinematic world from the ground up, and more that, assure that it would work in conjunction with Pee Wee's essential nature.   It's pretty clear Tim Burton "gets" Pee Wee, or at least understands the concept of being different from the rest of the world.  That act of sympathy -- as well as a sense of daring visual imagination -- underlines all of Pee Wee's Big Adventure and it is also the quality, that, in some circles, earn this movie the descriptor of "classic."

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Saturday Morning Flashback: The Ghost Busters: "The Maltese Monkey" (1975)

Just a few years after the highly-rated Night Stalker movies premiered to high ratings and one year after the Kolchak (1974-1975) TV series, Lou Scheimer’s Filmation created a kind of comedy variation on the premise for Saturday mornings.

The live-action series The Ghost Busters (1975) follows the unusual adventures of three down-on-their-luck paranormal investigators: Spenser (Larry Storch), Kong (Forest Tucker) and the gorilla, Tracy (played, or rather “trained” by Bob Burns.)

The series ran for fifteen episodes, and is most famous, today, because it landed in the pop-culture nearly a full-decade before the similarly-named blockbuster Ivan Reitman movie of 1984.  It should be remembered by all that this series spearheaded The Ghost Busters concept (which includes anti-ghost technology, a team of inept investigators, supernatural foes, and slapstick comedy) well-before the 1984 film also went there.

After 1984, the two versions of the material duked it out in Saturday morning cartons, one based on the 1970s Filmation program, the other one based on the popular movie.

In the original series, Spenser, Kong, and Tracy receive assignments, Mission: Impossible-style from self-destructing tapes, and then go after various monsters or legends, including the Mummy, the Frankenstein Monster, evil witches, and even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  

The first episode of the series is "The Maltese Monkey," A bizarre riff on the classic film noir, The Maltese Falcon (1941). 

The evil duo the Fatman (Johnny Brown) and The Rabbit (Billy Barty) use a crystal ball to conjure the ghost of notorious gangster, Big Al (Larry Storch). Only Big Al knows the secret location of the "thing," the valuable statue, The Maltese Monkey.

Spenser, Kong, and Tracy are ordered to apprehend the Fatman and the Rabbit, but are shocked to learn that Big Al and Spenser are dead ringers for one another, right down to a taste in fashion. 

At first, Kong plans to use Spenser's resemblance to Al to trick the evil duo, but Big Al pulls a fast one and gets Tracy and Kong to steal the Maltese Monkey with him.

Although its humor is incredibly juvenile, "The Maltese Monkey" is cartoonish on purpose, I would assess. In fact, it pulls -- in its freshman episode, no less -- a cartoon gage that kids could watch on Scooby Doo every week.

The joke involves a corridor with doors on both sides of the chamber, and people emerging and disappearing, alternately, on each side, in several doors; in defiance of physics.  It's an old, stupid joke, but it captures, almost perfectly, apparent ambition to be a live-action cartoon.

This is a show clearly designed for kids, and yet there are some fascinating things to consider here.

First, "The Maltese Monkey" features relatively well-shot split screens for various compositions, pitting Larry Storch against...Larry Storch. I wasn't expecting that degree of visual sophistication from such a cheap production. 

To the negative, however, the castle as depicted in the film appears to be a drawing or painting, and at one point during the aforementioned corridor chase, one can see the flimsy walls actually shake.

But, again focusing on the positive, Larry Storch goes for broke in both roles. He plays Spenser, and Big Al. But then he plays Big Al pretending to be Spenser, and Spenser pretending to be big Al.  As Big Al, he performs a flawless imitation of Marlon Brando from The Godfather (1972).  And as Spenser imitating Big Al, he pulls an equally perfect Jimmy Cagney. 

I confess to not being a very big fan of this Saturday morning series, and for finding the humor, for the most part, cringe inducing. One quality I do appreciate about this series is the "monsters for kids" aspect.  Children are fascinated by horror films and big screen monsters, and those obsessions are definitely here.  It's just that they are couched in the most ridiculous scripts and situations impossible, presumably to make sure the terror isn't merely tolerable, but toothless.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Breakaway 2020 - The Horror Mythology of Space:1999

"We're a long way from home, and we're going to have to start thinking differently if we're going to come to terms with space."

-Professor Victor Bergman, Space: 1999; "Matter of Life and Death."

One important quality that differentiates Space: 1999 (1975-1977) from virtually any other outer space adventure ever created, even after forty-five years, is its heavy accent on horror. Unlike Star Trek, wherein planets are joined peacefully across the ocean of space as part of a cosmic, political United Nations, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 presents the universe as a realm of incomprehensible and total, abject terror.

Because the heroes of Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) -- the 311 astronauts and scientists stationed on Moonbase Alpha -- are psychologically and technologically unprepared for their unexpected journey into deepest space (it's the result of an accident on the moon's surface...) even the most wonderful or harmless mechanisms of the cosmos appear frightening, foreboding and unknown to these inexperienced, contemporary travelers. It's a metaphor, perhaps, for the way our cave-men ancestors may have regarded thunder, fire, the sun or the moon -- as inexplicable, fearsome elements of existence.

Given this revolutionary and fascinating aspect of Space: 1999, I thought it might prove interesting today to make note of many of the horror myths, legends and concepts that Space: 1999 re-purposed during its two year, 48-episode run. Virtually all of these conceits, you will note, were given a technological sheen or update for the series, a polish well in keeping with an overarching theme that Science Digest's editor, Arielle Emmett termed "the downfall of 20th century technological man."

1. The Premature Burial: "Earthbound"
In the nineteenth century, one of the great human dreads involved being buried alive.

This fear was so widespread, in fact, that some people saw to it that they had emergency signalling devices installed in their coffins upon internment. Gothic author Edgar Allen Poe exploited this societal fear of being buried alive in The Fall of The House of Usher and his 1844 short story, The Premature Burial.

The horror trope of being buried alive has come to be associated with such concepts as claustrophobia (fear of being trapped in a coffin, in a confined space) and body paralysis, the inability to move or function within that confined space.  The primary setting of premature burial fears, of course, is the casket: the narrow, tight final resting place of the human form.   Modern films have also obsessed on the premature burial, namely Wes Craven's The Serpent and The Rainbow (1989) and The Vanishing (1993).

In Space:1999, an episode entitled "Earthbound" by Anthony Terpiloff culminated with a high-tech, futuristic variation on the premature burial conceit.  Earth's Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) becomes entombed in a suspended animation device aboard an alien spaceship for a 75-year journey to Earth.  A bully and an opportunist, Simmonds has resorted to extortion and black mail to get this coveted "slot" on Captain Zantor's (Christopher Lee) ship. He pays for his moral infraction, however, when -- just hours into the trip -- he awakens inside the transparent suspended animation chamber, the futuristic equivalent of a coffin.. 

Simmonds even has an emergency signalling device on his person, an Alphan communicator called a "commlock." He alerts Moonbase Alpha to his mortal plight, but the wandering moon is too far distant to come to his assistance. Simmonds is thus left behind -- alive and conscious -- in the claustrophobic container, without the possibility of help or rescue, a perfect metaphor for the terror inherent in the convention of the premature burial.

2. The Siren: "The Guardian of Piri"
Ancient Greek mythology gave the world the concept of Sirens: seductresses of the not-quite human variety who lured sailors to their isolated island with a tempting song, and then kept them trapped there for all eternity. The Sirens, uniquely, were temptresses of the mind or spirit, not the flesh, and boasted knowledge beyond the confines of linear time. Always depicted as females, the Sirens bore knowledge of both the past and future.

In Homer's epic poem, The Odyssey, sea captain and warrior Odysseus -- on his long journey home -- had himself physically strapped to the mast of his vessel so he could experience the Siren song for himself. Let's just say it drove him to distraction.

In Space: 1999's "The Guardian of Piri," written by Christopher Penfold, the wandering moon (also searching for "home,"much like Odysseus) falls under the tantalizing spell of "The Guardian" on an alien world.

The Guardian, like the mythical sirens of the Greeks, extends its purview beyond the linear progression of time. In fostering "perfection" in its captive wards it can actually freeze time, holding living life-forms in a permanent stasis. Space:1999's Odysseus surrogate, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), doesn't tie himself to the mast of Moonbase Alpha to resist the lure, but he is the only man on the installation able to resist the beguiling, female face of the Guardian, played by lovely Catherine Schell. Even Moonbase Alpha's oracle, Victor Bergman falls under the spell, describing, briefly, an "old man's fantasies." Finally, Computer itself is tempted by the Siren song and is "removed" to Piri.

3. The Midas Touch: "Force of Life"
In Greek mythology, there was also a man named King Midas of Phyrgia, a man who was gifted with the power to turn everything he touched to gold.

This frightful power soon became a curse, however, when his food and water turned to gold, and even his beloved daughter was transformed into a gold statue. In the end, King Midas returned his power to the Earth, by spreading into a running river. After doing so, Midas left behind his love of the material world and material wealth. He came to despise the gold he had once coveted.

Johnny Byrne's outstanding Space: 1999 episode "Force of Life" involves an Alphan technician, Anton Zoref (Ian McShane), who, because of an alien "gift," develops the terrifying ability to freeze objects and people on contact. The name Zoref is an anagram for FROZE, and Phyrgia even sounds a bit like Frigid. Likewise, when the tale climaxes, Zoref casts off his earthly life, becoming a power of pure energy. In his new form, Zoref, like Midas in a sense, leaves human concerns behind.

The Midas connection in "Force of Life" is perhaps more obscure than some of the other mythology in Space:1999 and story editor Johnny Byrne once described the episode as one in which a life-form "rises above human form." He told me. "The majesty of the creature (though unfortunate for Zoref) was that it was one step closer to attaining the next stage of existence."

4. The Midwich Cuckoos: "Alpha Child"
Our literary, cinematic and TV tradition is filled with examples of sinister, even demonic "changeling" children. John Wyndham's 1957 novel The Midwich Cuckoos (made as the 1960 film Village of the Damned) featured otherworldy but human-appearing children who pursued an evil alien agenda against mankind.

The 1950s also gave the world sociopath Rhoda Penmark, The Bad Seed of novelist William March: a child without the empathy and innocence we associate with children. By the disco-decade of the 1970s, we were introduced to the demonically possessed Regan in The Exorcist (1973) and little Damien, The Anti-Christ, in The Omen (1976).

Christopher Penfold's "Alpha Child" presents the tale of the first Alphan born in space, little Jackie Crawford, and the alien changeling (Jarak) who steals his place, possesses his body and accelerates his growth. This terrifying episode is dominated by unforgettable horrific imagery, including that of a child psychically torturing his mother, and a grown child trapped within the too-small confines of a baby incubator. That last visual is a sign of "horror" overcoming technology, an important idea in Space:1999.

5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: "The Full Circle" 

The dual, split-personality nature of the human being was observed and charted in Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. There, the crux of the story involved the separation of the "sinful" from "the moral" into two distinct beings, the savage Mr. Hyde and the civilized Dr. Jekyll.

Space:1999 also dramatizes a variation of this story, in Jesse Lasky Jr., and Pat Silver's "The Full Circle." Here, the Alphans explore a planet called Retha and soon encounter a tribe of primitive stone-age cavemen. Later, it is learned that the Alphans themselves were the cave-men, having passed through a strange, misty time-warp and regressed to a less-advanced state. This time-warp is beautifully realized as a kind of waterfall of mist in a primeval jungle.

Uniquely, this premise is explored in didactic terms: the Alphans have been separated not into sinful and moral versions of themselves like Jekyll/Hyde, but "primitive" and "technological" versions. And, ironically, it is the technological, modern model (personified by Alan Carter and Sandra Benes) who resort to physical violence.

At the end of the story, a bewildered Koenig notes that there no aliens on the planet to contend with...just flawed human nature. "Because we couldn't speak to each other, couldn't communicate, we misunderstood," Koenig notes. "Yet it was only us there..."

6. Faust: "End of Eternity"
As early as the 1500s, Germany presented the legend of a learned mortal, Johann Fausten, or Dr. Faust, who was willing to trade his immortal soul for knowledge beyond human ken. His partner-in -trade was no one less than Satan, the Devil.

A dissatisfied intellectual, Faust had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and understanding, and went into the devil's bargain with his eyes wide open. Again, it's important: he was a man of science, a doctor.

In Space: 1999's chilling "End of Eternity" by Johnny Byrne, the Alphans free a man called Balor (think Baal), from his own personal Hell: an inescapable asteroid prison cell. Balor,like Faust, is a scientist who has discovered the secret to eternal life; the spontaneous regeneration of human tissue. But, this alien devil with the secret of immortality demands a high price of the Alphans if they are to share in his information wealth: eternal submission to his sadistic, violent, Devilish ways. At least one Alphan, a grounded pilot named Baxter, makes a Faustian deal with this alien Lucifer. Koenig, however, refuses to cooperate and in a David & Goliath-like conclusion (that pre-dates Ridley Scott's Alien [1979]) sends Balor hurtling out an airlock. 

7. The Ghost: "The Troubled Spirit"

Space: 1999's Johnny Byrne here sought to "mix two things," and was stimulated by the idea of "combining horror and science fiction."

"The Troubled Spirit" is an out-and-out, up-front horror story, one involving a ghost that haunts the spirit of a living man, technician Dan Mateo. In fact, the ghost is Dan Mateo himself...a spirit from the future haunting his present, mortal self.

The Alphans, led by their oracle, Victor, must "exorcise" the murderous ghost, but in doing so, end up killing Dan Mateo and scarring him in the exact same fashion as his ghostly specter.

"The Troubled Spirit" also showcases one of the most lyrical, brilliantly-staged opening sequences in all of television history, as a supernatural "wind" blows through the high-tech, white-on-white halls of Moonbase Alpha. Another example of the supernatural or horrific over-powering the auspices of technology and science.

8. St. George vs. The Dragon: "Dragon's Domain"

Saint George was a Christian martyr who saved a king's daughter from being killed by a plague-bearing, giant dragon. George committed this act, however, only after a guarantee that the king's land would soon be converted to Christianity.

Christopher Penfold's outstanding Space: 1999 "Dragon's Domain" actually references the tale of St. George vs. The Dragon in its text.

Here, the paradigm has been updated: it's astronaut Tony Cellini (Gianno Giarko) versus a tentacled cyclops which haunts a spaceship graveyard. Tony is not able to slay this dragon (that act is left to Koenig, armed with a hatchet), and Tony never forces a conversion to Christianity.

However, Tony does aggressively push the Alphans, especially Helena Russell, to embrace, let's say, the philosophy of "extreme possibilities" and not cling to earthbound belief systems. "I want you all to throw out the criteria by which you judge what's real....You must believe!" He insists, when faced with disbelievers.

At the end of the story, Koenig, Victor and Helena flee the spaceship graveyard (and the dead monster), essentially converted to Cellini's way of thinking. They have witnessed the impossible with their own eyes: a mesmeric alien creature which does not register on their instruments, and which devours human life forms. Helena brings up the example of Saint George and the Dragon, and suggests that Tony and the Monster will be a part of the new Alphan society's long-term mythology.

9. The Picture of Dorian Gray: "The Exiles"
Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray involved a handsome young man, Dorian Gray, who was beautiful, immoral and also a criminal. While he undertook his reign of terror, Gray's portrait -- in secret -- became aged and horrible, reflecting his morality, his vanity, and his sins.

As for Gray, he himself showed no physical or biological signs of his perversions and presented the appearance of remaining forever young.

In the second season Space: 1999 episode, "The Exiles," Moonbase Alpha encounters two apparently benign alien teenagers, Cantar (Peter Duncan) and Zova (Stacy Dorning). In fact, these innocent-seeming (and physically beautiful) youngsters are alien insurrectionists. They are centuries-old, but protected by a physical membrane that prevent physical degeneration and aging. At story's end, Helena scratches Cantar's protective membrane, and, like Dorian Gray in Wilde's novel, the weight of the decades lands upon the vain villain in seconds: he super-ages and dies in horrible, gruesome fashion.

10. The Zombie: "All That Glisters "

Before George Romero's stellar re-interpretation of the Zombie mythology in Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies were often simply mindless human beings; laborers working at the behest of an evil master. They were, in essence, unthinking henchmen in the White Zombie (1932) sense.

 episode "All That Glisters" resurrects this older interpretation of the zombie on a distant planet inhabited by sentient, silicon life-forms. These alien rocks murder Security Chief (Tony Verdeschi) and then re-animate him as a zombie, essentially, to serve as their arms and legs. The horror-overtones of this episode are also quite dramatic. Director Ray Austin deploys some tight-framing, dark-lighting and claustrophobic settings to express the horror of the situation.

Other episodes of Space: 1999 also dealt explicitly in horror tropes. "Mission of the Darians" concerned the taboo of cannibalism (a concept we see in literature such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). "Brian the Brain" was a Frankenstein story, with a renegade, technological monster (a murderous robot) murdering his creator/father, Captain Michael (Bernard Cribbins).

"Seed of Destruction" was a variation of H.P. Lovecraft's "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward" only with Koenig confronting an alien doppelganger, rather than a wizardly ancestor of identical physical characteristics. "Death's Other Dominion also involved scientific hubris and super-aging in its unforgettable climax, and "The Testament of Arkadia" highlighted a valley of death - a necropolis of sorts -- on an alien world, as well as ghostly force influencing the Alphans.

Of course, a relevant question is this: why create a technology-based, outer space series utilizing so many instances of horror in mythology, literature and even the movies. The answer lies in Penfold's and Byrne's unique concept of the series. 

Specifically, Johnny Byrne once informed me that Space: 1999 "is a modern day (near future) origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space: 1999 took place in real time, not pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction, and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the series, and nobody seems to understand and accept that. In Space: 1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."

Now imagine that culture established, some two hundred years after the events of Space: 1999. The stories those "future" citizens might tell would involve terrifying tales of their founding: of the premature burial, of the encounter with sirens, of St. George and the Dragon, and so forth.

It is this mythic (and horrific) perspective, truly, which makes Space:1999 so unique a science fiction drama. The series repeatedly pinpoints high-tech corollaries for the ideas that have scared us throughout human history and then takes its characters on a mythic journey through that macabre realm of the unknown. Thrillingly, the series also includes amazing guest performances by horror icons including Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, and Richard Johnson

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Breakaway 2020: Space:1999 - "The Metamorph"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To many, she became a role model.

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

"I never thought of Maya as a role model," Ms. Schell told me during our 1994 interview, "perhaps because in my life I have never been held back from doing something just because I am a woman. I'm thrilled that she is seen by many as I role model, but I didn't intend it that way. Perhaps because Maya was an alien, she was allowed to do more than 'human' women were at the time." 
Whatever the reasons for Maya’s full integration into the action, I remain grateful for it. I miss Barry Morse’s Victor and Prentis Hancock’s Paul Morrow in Space:1999 Year Two, but Maya’s presence adds so much to the season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does this shift mean, in terms of storytelling? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What makes it so good?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Breakaway 2020: Space:1999 - "Another Time, Another Place"

“This is the Earth.  But not the world we knew…Apart from us, it’s empty now.  A civilization once flourished here…another Atlantis, perhaps.”

-Victor Bergman describes a mysterious alternate Earth in Johnny Byrne’s “Another Time, Another Place.”

The Earth’s moon, in a region of distant space, passes through a strange, inexplicable phenomenon.  The moon’s velocity increases as the Alphans experience dizziness, shock and double-vision.  Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) gazes out of a window in Main Mission, and sees -- for a fraction of a second -- another moon, a duplicate, moving off into space.

Moonbase Alpha attempts to recover from this freak incident, but can’t. One Alphan technician, Regina Kesslan (Judy Geeson) begins acting strangely.  She exhibits signs of sun-burn, and seems to be living a past or future life in the present, one in which her husband, Alan Carter (Nick Tate) and Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) have died in an Eagle crash.

And then the news arrives that the moon has traveled into a new solar system, and is approaching…Earth. 

In fact, the moon will soon slip into the very orbit it left on September 13, 1999.  Hoping to learn if it is possible to settle on this strange Earth -- which seems almost devoid of all life -- Koenig, Russell and Carter encounters a group of Alphan colonists and realize that, in some strange way, the Moon has caught up with itself…or another version of itself…

But time is running out, for now there are two moons in the night sky…

For many humans, there is no more vexing problem to ponder, perhaps, than the one that goes: “What if I had just chosen to take the other path…” 

In ways poignant and profound, “Another Time, Another Place” explores this notion of paths untaken. The episode introduces the Alphans to a life that is simultaneously theirs and not theirs, one in which love has been acknowledged, and new destinies forged.  But it is also a world of death and despair, being both bleak and lonely.

Specifically, the Alphans encounter a version of themselves five years into the future... one that has settled on an inhospitable Earth.  Commander Koenig and Alan are dead, and Helena Russell is still in mourning over John’s passing.  In fact, part of the reason this episode remain haunting to this day involves Barbara Bain and her performance as the other Russell.  So often in cult-tv history we get “mirror” or opposite versions of characters, but Bain presents in “Another Time, Another Place” an older, sadder version of the character we all know.  One who has found love with Commander Koenig, and then lost it…just as she lost her first husband, Lee.  Now, she toils to keep the community alive, as John would no doubt want, but she’s lost, alone, and unhappy.

I had the great fortune to discuss the origin of the moody “Another Time, Another Place” with Space:1999 author and story editor Johnny Byrne (1935 – 2008) when I conducted a wide-ranging interview with him over a decade ago.  “The idea of a doppelganger is something that is prevalent in my culture,” he informed me at the time.

“Growing up in Ireland, I didn’t have radio or television, so everything was imagination and history, and super[natural] history if you will.  It wasn’t that we weren’t smart or educated -- I knew by heart everything Shakespeare had written by the age of 11.  But to all of us, there was the real world and the other world.”

And the Alphans in “Another Time, Another Place” interface with a version of Ireland’s “other world,” but one relocated to the distant regions of outer space. 

“Well, the Irish believe there’s a very thin dividing line between fantasy and reality.  In all Irish mythology there is an engagement with the other world, and people who come from that environment should have no trouble comprehending the kind of story I was writing for Space: 1999. It was the idea of leaving yourself, of discovering an alternative version of yourself.”

Specifically, Byrne based the space phenomenon which “doubled” the Alphans (and created doppelgangers) on an element of his everyday life. 

“One hundred yards up the road from the house where I grew up was this little church with a fantastic reputation.  We heard that if you walked around the church sun-wise [clockwise] three times, you’d meet yourself coming out.  That kind of legend was the core of “Another Time, Another Place.”  Our mythology is filled with situations in which a person stumbles into a mist and then emerges three hundred years later, or some such thing.  So I constructed a story around the experience of my upbringing.”

“Another Time, Another Place” goes further than that description suggests, however.  Commander Koenig must reckon with his corpse, with the possibility of a future in which he both marries Helena Russell, and then, because of an accident, loses her.  The idea of coming face to face with yourself is one (terrifying…) thing, but the notion of going into the future and countenancing your corpse is of an entirely more bracing degree.

In fact, the specter of ever-present death hangs over this episode in a profound and disturbing fashion.  When Regina Kesslan is unable to reconcile the two universes that she inhabits, for instance the episode features a grim-reaper type-visage: a skull in a cloak. 

By the same token, Koenig and Carter visit a “dead” version of Moonbase Alpha, one gutted and salvaged for parts by the desperate Alphan colonists.

Even the Earth we see here seems haunted by the angel of death.  Man may have existed here, or never have existed at all.  But the trees appear to be dead and devoid of leaves, the soil is rust-brown, and night always seems to be falling.

Doppelgangers and Death beckon...

Another image of death, personal to Regina.

More Images of Doubles and Death.
A dead, twilight Earth.

It’s as if by splitting into two parts, the Alphans have entered a kind of twilight real, a place of half-life.  Thus the final, symbolic image of the episode -- Helena Russell clutching a groups flowers from the alternate Earth -- suggests two things simultaneously.  The first is a kind of spring or re-birth: the flowers continue to live because the Alphans -- and the universe itself -- are made whole once more. 

Or, contrarily, the survival and thriving of these flowers could suggest visually that in some unknown way, the other Alphan community and its world also survived intact, though forever closed off from our consensus reality.  This notion harks back to Victor’s comment in the episode that there is an order to the universe, and ultimately the Alphans belong where they belong.  The universe skips a track in this episode, and then restores itself, to state the matter bluntly.

I’ve always considered “Another Time, Another Place” a crucial piece in the Space:1999 Year One story arc, which Johnny Byrne confirmed was on his mind, even if, at times, he wasn’t always conscious of how it was working: “There was something deeply subconscious working all the time and none of us were aware of it,” he told me.  “And it only happened to those of us who were there all the time, because the writing of the individual scripts was only a step in the whole process.  We were in the planning of the episodes, we were seeing the dailies day-by-day, we were working ahead and looking at new stories.  We were at starship control, we were looking for those unidentified little blips – which were the scripts keying into something special.”

In terms of the story arc, we know that in series lore, the Alphans bring life to the planet of Arkadia in the final episode of the season (“Testament of Arkadia”), just as the Arkadians once brought life to Earth, and are therefore responsible for the dawn of man there. 

What if the planet Earth encountered in “Another Time, Another Place” is one in which this kind of symbiosis never existed?  In which the Arkadians did not come to seed our world, and so life didn’t develop?

That’s just one possibility.  Another is that this is our Earth, only far into the future, when the memory of mankind is just that, a memory…like how we today think of Atlantis.  In whatever way one chooses to interpret the multi-faceted ambiguities of this episode, “Another Time, Another Place” remains one of the most haunting installments of Space: 1999.

Burton Binge: Pee Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

This nearly thirty-five year old comedy remains a deft and amusing collaboration between Tim Burton and Paul Reubens, a comedian who, in the...