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 them...as 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.

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 t...