Thursday, June 16, 2005

Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion!


On Friday, July 1st, I'll be the special guest speaker at the Chesapeake Central Library's Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion!, a monthly double-feature of cinematic weirdness and obscurities. July's topic (and Episode 4 in the Fantasmo series): cult auteur Tobe Hooper!

The library will be unspooling two classics from this director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre: The Funhouse (1981) and Invaders from Mars (1986). I'll be doing a meet-and-greet (and selling some books) before the screening, at 7:00 pm and then doing an hour-long author talk starting at 7:30. My comments will cover the career and history of Tobe Hooper, and especially some details on these two classics from his career.

In my book, Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper (McFarland, 2003), I call The Funhouse "an accomplished film that captures the raw edge of early Hooper...as well as the new, more disciplined Hooper (exemplified by the pristine Salem's Lot.)"

And Invaders from Mars, I wrote, "accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, to recount a crazy adventure from the viewpoint of a slightly off-kilter, smart aleck, media-exposed kid. Hooper's camerawork is laudable, his pacing is good, and his tongue planted firmly in cheek. At times, when the picture involves the shadowy and unfriendly faces of whispering adults plotting secret matters, Invaders from Mars evokes the isolation and discontentment of childhood in a very tangible way."

So if you're in the neighborhood of the Chesapeake Central Library on Friday, July 1, 2005, stop by to catch this cult double-feature. You'll go home with shivers, I promise...

Making Lemonade: Or I Feel the Need, the Need for Speed...on the new Battlestar Galactica

God I really, really want to like this new show, the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica, developed by Ron Moore and currently airing in reruns on The Sci Fi Channel (before a second season starts soon).


I keep telling myself I shouldn't be an Old Fogey (even though I'm only 35) about this. I should not keep stating that the old show was better, more fun, more successful in terms of its characterizations, effects and production design. After all, the new show is winning critical accolades right and left. It's not just the second coming of Battlestar Galactica. It's the Second Coming for Science Fiction on TV, we're supposed to believe.


Well. Okay. I guess. I can almost swallow that Kool Aid. But then again, I am old enough to remember when people said that about...er... Manimal...


I wrote a book all about the underpinnings of the original Battlestar Galactica in 1997, which was published by McFarland in 1998, entitled An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica. You can buy it at Amazon.com. I argued there -- hopefully persuasively -- that the original Battlestar Galactica had its flaws, but that despite them, it was a unique and interesting series. And for a number of reasons, I claimed this was indeed so. The great expense of the original 1978 series (more than a million dollars per episode...) assured imaginative costumes, impressive sets, and the best and most convincing special effects yet developed for American television (Space:1999 was British...). On top of production values, enormously appealing actors like Dirk Benedict and Richard Hatch made the show more than the Star Wars rip-off the MSM wanted to make it out to be, and as the show developed over the weeks, it actually boasted something akin to a story arc. Finally, I also felt the original Battlestar Galactica had an interesting hawkish philosophy that differentiated it from Star Trek, and an interesting use of Christian and Greek/Roman mythology.


On the latter front, for instance, Battlestar Galactica made more than a token attempt to remind us that the lead characters were all from another planet, another solar system. The characters had names like Athena, Apollo, Lucifer, and Adama, and in the first episode, the survivors of the Twelve Colonies crossed a red-hued mine field that was the equivalent to the Red Sea. The characters said "yahren" instead of year. When they cursed, it was "frak" or "felgercarb." When they smoked a cigar it was a "fumarello." When they counted down time units, it was "centons" and "microns." Dogs were "daggits," and dollars were "cubits." It might have been ham-handed or silly at times, but this attempt at a legitimate Colonial language/lexicon granted the Battlestar Galactica world a veneer at least of otherworldly reality. We actually believed that these were "brothers of man," out in space; people like us, but not actually from Earth. We could suspend disbelief.


And for me, that's the thing that's almost wholly absent in the ripped-from-the-headlines, September 11th-style re-imagination. I was shocked to hear Starbuck quote the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun (1986) in one episode, noting a pilot cadet's "need for speed." I was disappointed to hear thoroughly earthbound references to "stogies" (instead of fumarellos) and "lemonade." I was disappointed that all the characters wear contemporary-style ties, business suits, and glasses, and that on occasion, are wont to exclaim "Jesus" rather than say "Oh Gods" (as they often do in later episodes). Whoa!


The feeling that these people are from another world (another friggin' galaxy maybe!) - and not models starring in Pier One commercials - is totally lost in this new Galactica. And for that reason, I keep wanting to scream at the screen --- you ain't from Earth! You haven't seen Top Gun! Come on, Ron Moore, you can do better than that! I saw Carnivale - it rocked!! And the work you did on DS9 and Next Gen -- friggin' brilliant stuff, dude!


And then I start get bitter, you see. And here's why: This new and (improved?) Battlestar Galactica was never designed to be faithful to the original. Never. Oh, the execs and the story editors say so, but they just aren't being honest, perhaps even with themselves. What is quite obvious from the TV episodes is that the writers want this show to be about us. Here. On Earth. In 2005. Dealing with Abu Ghraib. Dealing with Faith-Based Politics. Okay, that's cool - actually daring even - but it's not, repeat NOT true to the history and character of Battlestar Galactica. If truth be told, it's a helluva lot closer to Space: Above and Beyond(1995) than it is Battlestar Galactica. These new creators are simply using the title Battlestar Galactica as quick franchise identification. The name is a marketing tool, nothing more.


Consider all the changes to the franchise core. The Cylons are no longer robotic machines (okay, occasionally they are...) but rather Terminator-like human "sleepers" (like Al Qaeda! Get it?) "Apollo" is no longer a character's name, but a call-sign like Tom Cruise's "Maverick" (shit, what's this unhealthy obsession with Top Gun anyway?) Starbuck is no longer a man, but a woman. Boomer is no longer a black man, but an Asian woman, and Colonel Tigh is no longer a loyal, upstanding lieutenant to Adama, but a Dick Cheney-lookalike with a drinking problem and a whore for a wife. The Colonies look like Earth, down to hairstyles and costumes, not alien worlds. And that's just for starters! Considering these changes, I think Moore would have been better off to remake Space:Above and Beyond.


But here's the thing: besides you and me (and the other anorak sci-fi TV fans out there) how many people actually remember Space: Above and Beyond? It isn't really a usable title, you see? But Battlestar Galactica?! Gosh, it aired almost thirty years ago, and people still remember it today, even though it was on ABC for just one season (24 episodes; 17 stories). Sixty-five million people tuned into the original's premiere back in 1978. So, Battlestar Galactica has a magic ingredient: an exploitable name.


And that's just what the makers of this new show needed. They've exploited the name, a few of the key concepts, and then gone and done something completely about face. Is it good? Hell yeah, I do think the new show is good. But again...


It...is...not...Battlestar Galactica...

But frankly, I'm in a minority of one making this argument. Many original Battlestar Galactica fans thoroughly despise me because I dared (in my book) to speak my mind about the flakiness and bad storytelling of the original (and those dreadful space westerns with saloons, swinging doors, cowboy boots and horses...) So, given that my thoughts aren't always welcome in the Original Show camp, by all means, I should be comfortable with the new show, with its FTL jumps and deep story complexities, but I'm not. I'm on my own. I'm a man alone. The old fans don't like me, and I don't really think the new show comes from a place of honesty or faithfulness to the original.


On the new show, I do like the new Baltar. I like the civilian president too. Ive enjoyed Richard Hatch's two guest appearances. I appreciate how the program visually apes 24-style techniques with hand-held camerawork and shaky cams and the like. I think the stories are decent, and even at times quite compelling, especially as a reflection of the times we live in.


Yet the cynicism of this enterprise (or this battlestar...) depresses me through and through. Why so much sex and nudity every week? I like sex in drama, but it's so overused here as to be a joke. The skin-flashing and face-chewing in each installment is entertaining, but all too calculated. Star Trek did this with Seven of Nine, and now Battlestar Galactica is doing it with Number Six. Isn't it about time we outgrew this cliched presentation of women in science fiction television? Does Starbuck have to bed every guy (including Baltar and Zac) she meets? And do we have to see it? Is this really good storytelling, or has Battlestar Galactica merely succumbed to the trend in a lot of sci-fi TV and adopted soap opera-style storytelling? I wonder...


And lastly, to get one last thing off my chest. The hype. The bloody, frakking hype.


There's so much hype about how "popular" this new Battlestar Galactica supposedly is. Don't you believe it, buddy. The original drew 65 million viewers during its premiere. The ratings slipped, but the series was still drawing 20 and 30 million viewers regularly , even in repeats. A new episode of Sci-Fi's Battlestar Galactica if it's lucky, draws four or five million viewers, a fraction of the original series' pull.


So congratulations to the new team. They've taken a blockbuster property and successfully transformed it into a niche one. Is it successful on the Sci Fi Channel? Sure. Absolutely. But so was John Edwards show about Crossing Over for a while. So was Shanen Doherty's Scare Tactics. So were reruns of Strange World. But Galactica is not what it could have been, had it stayed true to its lineage and heritage.


Yet, I'm still watching. And I'm still hoping. There's a lot of good work in this new show, and interesting, developing storylines. But they better stop quoting Top Gun, these so-called aliens from the planet Caprica. Maybe they are receiving transmissions from the is-it-real-or-not planet Earth, but only ones somehow related to Scientologists...

Goodbye to Old Friends and Alien Fighters

I just heard yesterday that Ed Bishop and Michael Billington, stars of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 1969-1970 sci-fi series U.F.O. had died. And on top of that bad news, Lane Smith -- familiar to TV viewers for his role as Perry White on Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and Nathan Bates in V: The Series - - has passed away as well.

These are all terrible losses to the long-lived sci-fi TV genre and the acting industry as a whole, and I offer my deepest condolences to all their families. We'll miss these performers.

Throughout his distinguished career, Ed Bishop appeared in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Diamonds are Forever (1970) and Saturn 3 (1980), and performed a number of guest voices on the Star Trek animated series that aired in the early 1970s, but to me he will forever remain U.F.O.'s determined and grim Commander Ed Straker, head of S.H.A.D.O.

In his sleek nehru jackets and white punk haircut, Bishop cut a severe yet attractive figure. Unlike many heroes in science fiction television in those days (or in the 1980s, for that matter), Straker was a three-dimensional character, a man obsessed with a secret war against organ-plundering extra-terrestrials.

We witnessed the end of Straker's marriage in the episode "Confetti Check A-OK," saw him agonizingly choose duty over family in "A Question of Priorities" and detected his personal loneliness in "The Responsibility Seat." We saw shades of guilt in "The Long Sleep," his claustrophobia in "Sub Smash," and even Straker's physical resourcefulness in episodes such as "Timelash."

Bishop always played Straker with a sense of compassion, but without histrionics or other bells and whistles, and in the process gave the genre one of its finest, most underrated performances. Straker was a no-nonsense warrior, a man dedicated to his war against the aliens, but Bishop's humanity and the fine storytelling gave the Straker character an edge, an underside that was sad and just a bit pitiable. Bishop will be missed...and remembered.

As will Billington, who played test-pilot turned S.H.A.D.O. operative Paul Foster. Billington joined the series after it had begun its run, in the third, episode "Exposed," but very quickly became one of U.F.O.'s most valuable assets. This rugged actor brought overt physicality, sexual appeal, charisma and emotionality to the sometimes-slow-paced, intellectual series, and in the process became its undeniable action hero. Billington was often considered for the role of James Bond by the Broccoli's, and even appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me (as Barbara Bach's doomed Russian lover in the opening ski sequence...), but again, it is for U.F.O. that the genre will remember him best.

In a career stretching back to 1970, Lane Smith made an impression in both films (Red Dawn, My Cousin Vinny, The Mighty Ducks) and TV. He was the kind of actor who knew how to steal a scene, and how to demonstrate a character's layers without seeming showy. On the surface, he was folksy and down-home, but one always detected underneath that happy exterior a sharp intelligence and cunning sense of strategy.

In both of his genre roles, Smith put these talents to good use. As Nathan Bates, head of "Science Frontiers," on V, Smith played the ultimate power broker - a man who, because of his resources -- had both the Resistance and the Visitors by the balls. He used this power (a stockpile of the poisonous Red Dust) to make Los Angeles an open city, and also to ensure himself - always - a seat at the table during mediation. A ruthless corporate power junkie, Nathan Bates was an original. Lane Smith left the series after the first several episodes...and the series never recovered from his absence.

As Perry White, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet on the romantic Lois & Clark, Smith combined the country-boy wisdom of a good mentor with the hard-nosed authority of an old-fashioned newsroom runner. He could kiss ass or chew it, depending on the situation, and in many senses, his honest, humorous performance was one of the high-points of this Superman re-vamp.

All three of these talents made a mark in the entertainment I cherished as both a child and a young man, and it's sad to realize that we can look forward to no further performances from Ed Bishop, Michael Billington or Lane Smith. But their body of work exists, and will be cherished for years to come.

UFO, V: The Series
and the first season of Lois & Clark are all available on DVD right now, and I urge you to rent 'em or buy 'em, just to see how the pros fought aliens.