Thursday, July 20, 2017

Planet of the Apes TV Series Cult-TV Blogging: "The Liberator"

In “The Liberator,” the fugitives come across a village of enslaved humans who, every so often, must provide to the ape prefect workers in a dangerous mine. 

Unfortunately, the humans selected by the apes die in short-order, apparently because of contamination to some toxic gas or substance.

The fugitives -- Galen (Roddy McDowall), Alan (Ron Harper) and Pete (James Naughton) -- get captured by the villagers, and are to be offered up to the apes as fodder for the mines. 

They learn, however, that the toxicity is a result of toxic gas canisters from the twentieth century, stored in a temple.  The leader of the human village, Brun (John Ireland) plans to make gas bombs to kill the apes, and free his people.

The fugitives must dissuade him from this genocidal plan, as it could kill everyone -- human and ape -- in the vicinity.

“The Liberator” is a bit of a change of pace for Planet of the Apes (1974), the short-lived CBS series. In this installment, the devastating, high-tech weaponry of the 20th century is resurrected to be a tool of mass destruction in the distant future, and Alan and Burke must contend with mankind’s history and legacy.

This is the kind of story I had hoped to see more of on the series. Virdon and Burke must stop a fellow human, Brun, from his murderous plan, even though this rebel leader possesses valid reasons for hating apes. In particular, Brun has seen his people enslaved by them.  Not just enslaved, actually. He has seen his people die from that enslavement.

Our protagonists face a difficult choice here, forced to consider what the “greater good” really is.  Since they are people of the 20th century, they are, in a sense, responsible for the existence of the nerve gas weaponry, and this fact makes the human insurrection (and plans) their problem.

I also enjoy the subplot here involving the treatment of the devices of the 20th century. The weapons, and the gas mask which protects people from the deadly gas, are all perceived by this futuristic “Dark Age” society as supernatural relics of the Gods. The astronauts understand that “mumbo jumbo doesn’t kill men,” but to the apes and humans of the era, this is a realization they are not able to make.  Brun figures out the truth, but doesn’t tell his people. Instead, he creates a cult or religion, to make them fear and obey him.

“The Liberator” -- even down to its title -- also suggests a core conflict of all those societies in which some denizens possess more freedom than others. The human leader sees himself as a liberator of his people, but we would, today, classify anyone who kills an innocent population as a terrorist. The difference between liberator and terrorist is a difference of viewpoint. The oppressed see a liberator. Those in power see a criminal, a murderer.

I enjoy the fact that our heroic triumvirate is landed smack down in the middle of this difficult scenario, and forced to act for the good of all. Again, the fact that the toxic nerve gas is a product of their time makes Burke and Virdon feel a vested interest in the outcome.

Next week, the final episode of Planet of the Apes: “Up Above the World So High.”

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Star Trek 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Whom Gods Destroy" (January 3, 1969)

Stardate 5718.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise proceeds to Elba II, the site of an advanced Federation facility housing the last few criminally-insane individuals in the known-galaxy.

The starship arrives bearing a small amount of a newly developed cure for insanity to administer to the inmates there.

After Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) beam down to give the cure to Governor Corey (Keye Luke), they find that the most dangerous inmate incarcerated on Elba II, former starship captain Garth of Izar (Steve Inhat), has taken over the asylum. 

With the insane Marta (Yvonne Craig) at his side, Garth -- the once-great hero of Axanar -- has developed a deadly explosive, and plans to wreak revenge upon the universe for his defeat and capture.

Because Garth has learned to shape-shift from the natives of Antos IV, there is a real chance he can take over the Enterprise, posing as Captain Kirk, and bring terror to the universe.  

Fortunately, he needs the correct code phrase to beam back to the ship through the facility force field, and his inability to provide it raises Scotty’s (James Doohan) suspicions about his identity.

Meanwhile, Garth alternately threatens and attempts to persuade Kirk and Spock to join his mad cause.

Perhaps a good rule of thumb regarding Star Trek (1966-1969) is this: rigorously avoid any episode that occurs at an insane asylum of the 23rd century.

The first season entry, “Dagger of the Mind,” is an unsatisfactory episode in large part because there is no motive for the director of the Tantalus Colony, Dr. Adams, to be cruelly and sadistically experimenting on the inmates (or Captain Kirk, for that matter.) 

“Whom Gods Destroy” is an equally unsatisfactory episode, if for no other reason than it seems to exist in a “cartoon” world that doesn’t bear much scrutiny.

What do I mean by that?

Well, Star Trek endures, I believe, for a few reasons.

Not only are the individual episodes routinely clever, intelligent, and amusing, but overall, they paint a largely consistent vision of a future world. 

“Whom Gods Destroy,” by contrast, is like a blind alley of cartoon ideas. Ideas are raised, and then die in this episode, never to be revisited.

For instance, Garth is not just a sick man, but a super-villain. He can shape shift into anyone (along with their clothing…) and he also -- while criminally-insane, no less -- has developed a super explosive that threatens whole planets. 

Quite a guy, right?

But his powerful explosive is never heard of again, in any other episode or movie. For that matter, neither is the cure to insanity.  And the third season of Star Trek, following this episode, suggests that at least two individuals would likely benefit greatly from such a cure: “The Way to Eden’s” Dr. Sevrin, and “Turnabout Intruder’s” Janet Lester. 

Instead, the cure for insanity just sort of goes into a creative hole, never to be heard of, or mentioned, again.

I understand that many fans find Garth of Izar and his background a fascinating addition to the universe. I “reach” (to quote “The Way to Eden”). This information is intriguing, and I also love and admire the scene in which Captain Kirk says that Spock is his brother, and Spock -- beautifully –-- affirms his words.

Overall, “Whom Gods Destroy” provides background on the Federation, pre-Kirk, on starship captains, and the historical mission which brought galactic peace, at Axanar. All that information is indeed valuable, but it’s sort of ancillary, or extraneous to the narrative at hand, which concerns defeating Garth and his super weapon in the present.

Why else is “Whom Gods Destroy” less than satisfactory, overall?

For the purpose of this episode -- and this episode alone -- Kirk has developed with his crew a code phrase protocol to prevent intruders from beaming up to the ship.

Convenient timing, no? 

But even leaving that issue aside, his plan is effective. A code pass phrase works successfully to prevent Garth from accessing the ship. Given that the “test” is successful, why doesn’t the Enterprise ever use a code pass phrase again, throughout the remainder of the five year journey?

Instead, “Queen’s to Queen’s Level One” is a one-off, something that exists in this episode to stop Garth, and then is never used again, even though -- like the cure for the criminally insane -- it would be useful, actually, in other stories.

One minor tweak could have eliminated this problem. Kirk’s log entry at the beginning of the episode could note that the code phrase protocol is invoked only when dealing with penal or rehabilitation colonies. This would explain why the Enterprise does not use it again for the remaining episodes of the season.

Leonard Nimoy went on record, as well, to complain about Spock’s strategy in the climax of the episode, to determine which Kirk is the “real” one. His solution, paraphrased, is to let himself get incapacitated, so that Kirk and Garth could fight it out, and Garth would win (because of Kirk’s depleted condition).

Spock seems a much more resourceful character than that.  I am not nearly as logical a person, and I don’t possess his Vulcan discipline or Starfleet training, but here’s what I would do.  I would set my phaser to wide field, and stun both men, simultaneously. Then, I would beam down a security team, and a medical team too, to make the determination of identities 

But then, of course, we wouldn’t have the Kirk vs. Kirk fight sequence, which is the raison d’etre of this episode, right?

I mentioned this episode being cartoon-like, and I ascribe that quality to the performances. We don’t see a realistic interpretation of insanity in this episode -- by any actor -- just over-the-top theatrics and shouting.  It’s all ACTING to the nth degree, when a little more discipline, a little more nuance might be called for. I’m a big fan of both Steve Inhat, who was brilliant in the best ever Mission: Impossible episode, “The Mind of Stefan Miklos,” and Yvonne Craig too.  But their performances here are loud, twitchy and distracting. Shatner’s childish rendition of Garth having a temper tantrum isn’t exactly nuanced either.

DeForest Kelley, James Doohan and George Takei aren’t well served by the episode screenplay, either. They are required, basically, to perform in repetitive scenes on the bridge featuring McCoy grumbling, as the crew worries what to do. It’s filler, all the way.

I don’t consider “Whom Gods Destroy” an out-and-out bad episode of Star Trek.  In that category I place “And the Children Shall Lead,” and “Plato’s Stepchildren,” definitely.  But “Whom Gods Destroy” is one of those strangely entertaining/disposable episodes that makes me grind my teeth with agitation at the plot contrivances and general silliness of the enterprise. 

It’s an entertaining cartoon hour, and the problem with that is -- as we’ve seen -- that Star Trek is usually so much more than that.

Next week: “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield.”

Thirty Years Ago: RoboCop (1987)

In addition to being a brilliantly-crafted action and sci-fi movie, the 1987 Paul Verhoeven film RoboCop has also proven itself a forward-looking and trenchant satire of (some) American values in the late 20th and early 21st century.

The film's use of humor and exaggeration to ridicule contemporary politics is not uncontroversial, either.

To wit, RoboCop is set in a future in which Big Business has finally had its way with the rest of us.

The police force has been privatized. 

A corporate media announces to the world the news that its overlords want disseminated, true or not. 

And raiders in the board room are just as dangerous -- and criminal -- as the thugs prowling the streets by night.  

On the last front, the film makes a clever association. Robocop very explicitly connects two forms of “crook” or criminal.  Both an OCP executive Dick Jones (Ronnie Cox) and drug-dealing, gun-toting murderer Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) recite an identical line of dialogue in the film, thus forging an indelible link between them.

That line?

Good business is where you find it.”

RoboCop thus asks a significant question about the direction of our country, which was then in the grip of an economic revolution: What gets lost in a society when the accumulation of wealth becomes the ultimate moral value? 

The answer?

Human life becomes cheap, and everything in society is about selling a product, and about making money.

Verhoeven creates an intriguing and effective tension in the film in order to effectively deliver his satirical points. Now-and-again, he cuts to funny TV commercials that are emblematic of the film’s corporate culture and media, and to TV programs that reveal how the masses are distracted by bread and circuses.

One of those programs involves a well-dressed white man surrounded by beautiful, scantily-clad models quipping “I’d buy that for a dollar!”

The insipid joke is itself an indictment of the culture. Everything and everyone is but a product, or for sale. 

Everyone has his or her price.

Verhoeven next contrasts these moments of high but illuminative comedy with RoboCop’s serious attempts to regain his human identity…to reconnect with the qualities that made him Alex Murphy, a loving family man and a dedicated police officer.

In other words, what RoboCop truly concerns is a machine trying to be a human being in a culture that is inhumane, and unbelievably violent. 

The film’s violence has often been criticized by moral watch-guards as somehow being over-the-top or representative of bad taste…and yet I would argue it is entirely appropriate to the film and its thesis. 

In RoboCop’s world, human life is disposable -- bought and sold for a dollar -- and so the film's violence is extreme enough (and oddly, funny enough too…) to make that point.  

Life is cheap, baby! (Unless you're rich and powerful...).

“He doesn’t have a name. He has a program. He’s a product.”

In advance of a major initiative to re-boot Detroit as ultra-modern Delta City, OCP (Omni Consumer Products) prepares to unroll its new product line: an urban pacification system called ED-209, created by Senior V.P. Richard Jones (Cox).

But when the droid fails, killing a corporate employee in cold blood, a back-up plan is required. An up-and-comer at OCP named Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer), proposes to the CEO (Dan O’Herlihy) his own law enforcement system: RoboCop. 

But for it to work, the plan needs a good “human” candidate…a cop with a sense of duty.

When family man and cop, Alex Murphy (Peter Weller) is murdered by Clarence Boddicker (Smith) and his gang, he becomes that perfect candidate. He is rebooted as the mind of RoboCop, a cyborg police officer possessing at least some of Murphy’s instincts and memories.

Murphy and his partner, Lewis (Nancy Allen) attempt to bring Boddicker to justice, but eventually learn of his criminal connection to Dick Jones. Both are attempting to make a financial killing on the construction of Delta City.

As RoboCop,Murphy attempts to confront Jones and arrest him, but learns that he boass a secret directive that marks him not as a man, but as the property of OCP…

“There’s no better way to steal money than free enterprise.”

RoboCop was crafted in the mid-1980s and it's important that we understand that history, that context, as we consider the film’s satire.

During that span, many big American cities were suffering. Crime was on the rise due to the crack cocaine epidemic. The crime rate peaked in the early 1990s.

And government wasn’t helping much to alleviate the suffering. Here are some statistics to back that up assertion: First, the budget for the Department of Housing and Urban Development was cut from 32.2 billion dollars in 1981 to 7.5 billion in 1987-1988, meaning that government aid was less available for the indigent.

Secondly, the number of Americans living beneath the Federal poverty line rose from 24.5 million to over 32 million in the late eighties.

Additionally, more than two million American citizens were homeless by the latter part of the decade.

While the poor grew poorer, the rich grew richer, and often unethically so. Lest we forget, this was the era of Ivan Boesky, and Michael Milken, businessmen who stole millions of dollars through an unethical business practice: insider trading. In movies, these figures were synthesized as Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), a corporate raider who believed that “greed is good.”

Meanwhile, the same politicians who cut budgets for social help programs in the 1980s cravenly exploited the average citizen's fear of increased violent crime to win high office, notably with the highly divisive (and highly-effective) Willie Horton TV advertisement in Campaign '88, which made note of a criminal African-American convict robbing, raping and killing a white woman during a prison furlough. First these candidates made life harder for the poor, and then they ran as "tough on crime" candidates, and imposed stiff sentences for first time drug offenders.

In 1986, Hollywood responded to the prevailing Zeitgeist of rising crime, and increased fear about it. A new kind of superhero film gazed closely at all these societal ills. The result was not only a blockbuster action film, but the creation of a popular character that has not yet disappeared from the pop culture terrain, appearing across the decades in films, TV series, cartoons, comic books, and even in a 2014 reboot.

RoboCop was shot in thirteen weeks in the late summer of 1986 on a budget of just ten million dollars, and Verhoeven was reportedly attracted to the material because of its comic-book type of "origin story" as well as the comedic atmosphere and content. The thrust of the satire involved poking fun at American culture and politics, and the course both seemed to be taking during the eighties. 

Indeed, RoboCop accurately and comedically predicted two important facets of our contemporary American life: the corporatization of American culture and the coarsening of the mainstream media.

In terms of its commentary on corporations, RoboCop depicts a company, OCP (Omni Consumer Products) strutting over the whole of Detroit. It has “bought” and privatized the police force, and now its vice-president hopes to introduce military grade equipment for “urban pacification” of the streets. 

This equipment, specifically, involves a giant droid called ED-209.  The only problem is that ED-209 has been already bought and sold...and yet it doesn’t work at all.  As Dick Jones points out.  “Who cares if it works or not?” because he’s already got a contract for it.  The idea underlining all this is that unregulated business, committed to laissez-faire principles, can’t and won't effectively police itself.

The same point is hammered home with the creation of RoboCop. OCP scientists program a police officer -- a cyborg sentry who should protect and serve -- with a secret or classified directive.  The meat of this directive is that RoboCop will shut-down if he attempts to arrest a high-ranking officer in the company.

In other words, OCP has “privatized” RoboCop so that the members of the OCP board are above the law. He can police others, but not them. “We can’t very well have our product turning against us, can we?” Jones asks.

Meanwhile, Jones is secretly allied with a street criminal Clarence Boddicker, with the goal of turning the “gentrified” Detroit, Delta City, into a drug-riddled hellhole.  And the reason? Again, profit. It’s all for money.  Human suffering isn't even in the picture for these men.

What may be most disturbing about Dick Jones’s behavior in RoboCop is not his sense of entitlement because he is rich and powerful, but his absolute disregard for the life of other human beings. A man is killed in the board room demonstration of ED-209, and Jones says, simply, that it is “just a glitch” that caused this (bloody death). 

Later, he murders his rival, Bob (Ferrer), because Bob dared to attempt to be successful himself, at Dick’s expense. 

And finally, Jones sees himself as above the law, reprogramming a police officer (RoboCop), and announcing that he is (“practically”) an extension of the U.S. military.

Pretty clearly then, RoboCop deliberately paints an unflattering picture of big business. Dick Jones and Clarence Boddicker are defined in the film as two sides of the same coin: men who know how to “open new markets” and exploit the free enterprise system, no matter who gets hurt.

Sadly, such men as Dick Jones are considered heroes in the universe of RoboCop and one of the more wicked jokes in the film involves “Lee Iococca Elementary High School,” a name which represents the elevation of a businessman (and one who was bailed out by the U.S. taxpayer, to boot…) to the role of national hero and role model.

RoboCop doesn’t go any easier on the corporate media, or television programming. The heavily made-up, perfectly-coiffed glib newscasters of “Media Break” report, without irony, about the “Star Wars Orbiting Peace Platform” as the film starts.

The conjunction of the words “wars” and “peace” in one title goes unremarked upon. And really, how could it be missed? Quite simply, these aren't journalists, but news readers, reciting talking points to support the agenda of their employers.

In terms of the TV commercials featured in RoboCop, many are quite funny, and yet they deliver the same point about the blasé inhumanity of the culture that the film's violence does.

One advert concerns a family electronic game glorifying nuclear war (based on Milton Bradley's Battleship), called Nuke'Em!  

The game’s motto: “Get them before they get you!” 


As you can see in the commercial, every foreign policy challenge is met with the threat of absolute over-kill, a tribute to the blood-thirstiness of the populace, and an example, as noted above, of this future’s society’s inhumanity.

Why a game called Nuke’Em in 1987?  Well, again, one must consider context. The film was made in a time in which President Reagan had made a cavalier joke about outlawing "Russia forever" and even threatened that "we begin bombing in five minutes." (August 11, 1984). He also made the erroneous claim in a presidential debate with Walter Mondale that nuclear missiles fired from a submarine could be recalled after launch. So the idea here of a future America where nuclear bombardment was part of the accepted military landscape didn't seem terribly far-fetched.

Even America's endless propensity to drive gas-guzzling, gigantic automobiles (when we know better) is satirized in the prescient RoboCop. Commercials depicted in RoboCop advertise a new vehicle, the 6000 SUX. The 6000 SUX offers a whopping eighteen miles to the gallon, meaning it literally "sucks” gas.  

My car, today, in 2015, gets exactly eighteen miles to the gallon.

RoboCop also accurately predicts our nation’s relentless push towards the privatization of municipal and government programs, the wholesale dismantling of the social safety net. Particularly, much of RoboCop involves OCP's funding and running of the Detroit Police Department "as a business" - designed to make money and worried, therefore, only about the bottom line. Is the company in the red? Or is it in the black?  

Of course, the police force should protect and serve the community, not serve the financial interest of a particular corporate interest. Instead, we see with ED-209, how business, police, and military interests all combine to create a fearsome face for law enforcement.  

And again, RoboCop must be considered prescient for making this point. Today, many localities literally have war machines patrolling the streets.

OCP’s irresponsibility towards the police and the protection of the community is contrasted, strongly, by the value system of the police officers actually depicted in the film. A sergeant, at one point, makes an important point when the idea of a strike is broached, noting that they are all police, not “plumbers.”  He feels a responsibility to the community, a sense that is wholly alien to OCP.

Contrasted with this cruel, heartless, money-obsessed society is the human and personal journey of Alex Murphy. He is transformed from a person into a product by OCP, but still possesses the feelings and memories of a person. 

Murphy’s triumph is that he manages to hold onto his humanity through everything (even death), and acts in accordance with his three good and moral directives: serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law. 

And at film’s end, he reveals his victory aloud, suggesting that he should be referred to by his human name, Murphy, and not by his product name, RoboCop.

At least in this case, humanity has beaten the corporate culture. The "heart" of RoboCop rests in Weller's performance, and in the character's development.  He re-discovers his humanity after losing it, and ekes out a victory over OCP, at least temporarily.

RoboCop is a splendidly shot, acted, and designed film. Critic Michael Wilmington noted in his review that RoboCop has been "assembled with ferocious, gleeful expertise, crammed with human cynicism and jolts of energy. In many ways it's the best action movie of the year."

In New Statesman, Judith Williamson praised the film because the "pace is zippy, the script is witty and the political satire is acute."

The film tells an exciting human story, but this is one cinematic effort in which audiences truly can’t separate the satirical message from the narrative details or content. The monster in RoboCop inescapably, is one of man’s own making. 

Intriguingly, the Frankenstein Monster depicted here is not RoboCop, a half-man, half-machine individual, but rather OCP, an organization that has been given legal permission to loot the culture, and determine its direction and health.  

As I’ve written before, science fiction films can lean left or right, and get their points across effectively. I’ve reviewed films positively that espouse each world view if they do so consistently and with wisdom. RoboCop absolutely leans left, and worries about what could happen to a decent, moral culture that allows a money-making organization to become more important than the community itself.

Today, we seldom get movies with such sharp -- nay scorching -- social criticism embedded in their cinematic DNA. Why? Because the same corporations that lobby our politicians for favors also control the news media and entertainment conglomerates.

So in many ways, we're living in an iteration of RoboCop's world, getting the movies that big business want us to see, or thinks we would like.

And that, quite simply, SUX.

Movie Trailer: RoboCop (1987)