Saturday, July 16, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback; ROM, Spaceknight (Issue # 7)

When people talk about their favorite comic-books from childhood, they probably think about titles like Spider-Man, The X-Men, The Hulk, Superman, or Batman. But as a child of Star Wars and the 1970s, I had another favorite from that bygone era of disco: Marvel's ROM, Spaceknight.

For those who don't remember ROM, he was once a normal human denizen of Galador, but then came the Dire Wraiths, a race of malevolent invaders bent on taking his world. Many young patriots from Galador volunteered to fight the Wraith, but they did so "neurosurgically" grafted into machine suits...as Cyborgs. The battle for Galador was won, but Rom the Spaceknight ultiimately ended up on Earth, the Dire Wraiths' "mightiest stronghold," according to the legend.

The comic-book series followed Rom's adventures on Earth, in West Virginia, as - armed with a weapon called a "neutralizer" - he battled the Dire Wraiths (who looked human, like David Vincent's Invaders on the series of the same name) and their minions, including the Dogs of the Dark Nebula. Rom's friends were a secretary named Brandy, who had feelings for him, and her jealous but helpful boyfriend Steve, an auto mechanic.

ROM was actually based on a popular toy/action-figure of the day (from Parker Brothers), but as it had with another comic-book series, The Micronauts, Marvel really created an interesting universe surrounding the merchandise. The Dire Wraiths were inventions, as were the other enemies Rom fought. You didn't need to have a toy Rom to like the book, but it helped...

This Saturday morning flashback involves ROM issue # 7 (from June, 1980), featuring art by Sal Buscema and story by Bill Mantlo. Rom has just survived (barely...) a battle with a renegade spaceknight called Firefall. An electric shock received when battling dogs of the black nebula has rendered our favorite spaceknight catatonic. A policeman named Artie Packer, Steve and Brandy attempt to revive Rom, hoping he can recover. Meanwhile, a Dire Wraith scientist named Rachel Sweet and a Wraith Elder summon another foe to dispatch Rom and his allies: Thornoids. These are fast-growing purplish plants (with thorns, as you might guess...) that fall to Earth in acid rain, immediately take root, and attack. Rom comes out his coma just in time to stop the Thornoids, though there is a casualty in the battle. Rom finally defeats the Thornoids by lowering the temperature of his suit, and thereby freezing and cracking the now-brittle stalks of the Thornoids.

I like this issue in particular, because it reveals facets of Rom's companions, Steve and Brandy. Brandy has feelings for the alien in the suit, and Steve doesn't like that. Nonetheless, he helps Rom in his time of need. I like also that deaths are involved here. The war against the Dire Wraiths isn't easy or painless. ROM was a fun, great book that forecasted elements of the RoboCop film series and even the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation. This issue, with chapter-headings like "As I Lay Dying," "Alien Seed," and "Greater Love Hath No Man," is a prime example.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback: Star Trek's "This Side of Paradise"

This week, I want to highlight my all-time favorite episode of Star Trek (The Original Series), the first season entry entitled "This Side of Paradise," directed by Ralph Senensky and written by D.C. Fontana (from a story by Fontana and Nathan Butler).

Set on Stardate 3417.3, this 25th episode of Star Trek (which first aired March 2, 1967) saw the U.S.S. Enterprise arrive at planet Omicron Ceti III. The crew expected to find the colonists assigned there dead, due to exposure to poisonous Berthold Rays, but instead, everyone on the planet appeared healthy, happy and content. The rub, of course, was that alien plants - spores - were keeping the human colonists alive. But the spores were strange symbionts which had also taken away the colonists' will to work, to produce, to do anything but experience bliss. An idyllic existence or a trap, an inhuman nightmare?

As Captain Kirk puzzled this mystery out, Spock encountered an old flame, Leila Kalomi (played by the lovely Jill Ireland). On Earth - hell - even in public, Spock could never acknowledge that he loved this young woman, but once infected by the Omicron spores, Mr. Spock could finally do just that. He could go all emotional, even engage in...ahem...sex. He could finally be happy. Unfortunately, when the deleterious spores were transported aboard the Enterprise, they caused a suddenly euphoric crew to mutiny, leaving stubborn Captain Kirk all alone on his ship, determined to remove the influence of the spores once and for all...

"This Side of Paradise" came about late in the first season, after the series original story editor, John D.F. Black had departed. So had the series' second story editor, Steven Carabatsos. Gene Roddenberry approached D.C. Fontana about Nathan Butler's story, and told her that he wanted a major re-write on it, and that if she could do it on time and to his satisfaction, he would promote her to story editor. She did the job. And how.

Originally, the story had involved George Takei's character, Mr. Sulu, and was called "the Way of the Spores. Dorothy Fontana, whom I interviewed in 2001, told me how she changed the episode: "I read the script and Gene wanted to know my opinion about it. I thought about it and realized that there were a couple of things that weren't working. The love story really had to be about Spock because the situation of the spores offered an opportunity for us to get to his emotions. And as a result of the character switch, the love story just worked."

"The other thing was the technical part of the show," Fontana recounted to me. "How do the spores infect the people? In the original story, you had to go into a cave where the spores were, to be compromised. The answer to that problem was, simply, don't go into the cave! But if the spores were ubiquitous, if they were all over the planet in this flower form, you couldn't escape them. They were going to get you one way or another."

As anyone who has seen this episode (and who hasn't?) can attest. The coda on the bridge is one of the most emotional and touching of the entire Star Trek canon. Spock admits he has never before been happy. If you don't get a lump in your throat over that line (and Nimoy's brilliant delivery...) you really are a Vulcan with green ice-water in your veins.

"The spores gave us an opportunity to see the softer side," Fontana considers, "to find out about the emotions Spock could have."

In the process of this exploration, Star Trek got one of its most memorable episodes. There are so many wonderful scenes in this show, apart from the coda. One of the most memorable involves Kirk's knock-down drag-out fight with Spock in the transporter room, wherein he attempts to goad his first officer by insulting his lineage and saying "You have the gall...to make love...to...that girl!" What classic Shatner-ian delivery! And what character fireworks.

Another great moment in the coda is Kirk's reflections on Omicron Ceti III. "Maybe we weren't meant for paradise," he suggests, and this is a line that resonates all the way through the Star Trek franchise. As late as Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Spock seems to be thinking about this. He hangs a painting in his quarters - the expulsion from Paradise. A reminder to him, at that point, that all things must end.

There are a number of wonderful Star Trek episodes worthy of remembrance for my new blog series Cult TV Friday Flashback. Among them, "The Trouble with Tribbles," "Amok Time," and "City on the Edge of Forever," but I wanted to start with my favorite Trek, and one which I think is grossly underrated, perhaps because it doesn't feature Klingons, Romulans, Gorns, time travel or tribbles. No episode of Star Trek better captures the feelings of the series' dramatis personae than this one. And few are as heartfelt or as dramatic as "This Side of Paradise."

Stuff from San Diego Comic-Con

Here's an early Friday morning wrap-up of a couple of news-type stories out of San Diego's big Comic-Con. Both articles are of interest to genre geeks, the first about the perceived problems in the Star Trek franchise (and the article mentions the new Battlestar Galactica by way of comparison). Here it is, direct from The Disembodied Brain: Trek's Problem: It wasn't Enough Like Galactica.

The second article looks at the plethora (or should I say glut?) of superhero movies coming out of Hollywood right now. Check out CNN's Who's the next great film superhero?

Personally, I'm a big Captain America fan, and think a film could be done well. Iron Man too. Then again, I'm not thrilled with how Doom looks in the Fantastic Four, so I'm not sure Iron Man's costume wouldn't look pretty lame.

On the other hand, I am delighted that Joss Whedon is working on Wonder Woman. He's got creds in this genre with Buffy the Vampire the Slayer -- perhaps the best superhero TV series of all time. He can make one hell of a movie.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Geek Convergence

I've just been e-mailing with pop culture observer (and folk musician...) John Voorhees over at Soundacious, where he's posted an interesting theory on Geeks that fits right in with the Geek Conversation I had with the Flick Filosopher yesterday at Geek Philosophy. Yikes, is that a sentence or what?

Anyway, John has assembled a sort of Geek Movie Paradigm (in other words, the necessary ingredients of a Geek Movie success). Among his components are: A formerly fallen-franchise, now in disrepair but still beloved, a grown-up fan-boy-style director, a critically acclaimed actor (but not someone too famous, like say Tom Cruise), and a new focus on dramatic elements of the franchise, rather than the traditional fantasy aspects. I think he's got a pretty good point, and the blog is a valuable addition to the Geek Debate.

He's already mentioned in the post how it applies to Batman, Battlestar, and Doctor Who, and I thought immediately of Sam Raimi's Spider-man.

But I'll tell you something - Star Trek (one of my all time favorite franchises...) needs a face lift. We can't keep having replicative fading like Enterprise. Imagine Sam Raimi or Christopher Nolan on that project? Paramount, are you listening? Not likely, given my current traffic, but it's still a good idea...

Toy Flashback Thursday

Ah, a state-of-the-art toy, circa 1978. It's 2-XL (from Mego Corp.), the talking robot that will (according to the box):

*tell jokes
*Ask you True-False Questions.
*Ask you Multiple Choice Questions.
*Tell you if you're right or wrong.
*Give you more information on many different subjects.
*Play games with you and your friends.
*Play standard 8-track cartridges as well as 2-XL cartridges.

Wow, does anyone remember owning this? I found it at a flea market (Sweet Union) here in Monroe, North Carolina, still in its box (with a working power pack!) for $2.00. I probably overpaid..

Just think, from 2-XL to the PSP in less than thirty years. The great thing is, mine still has one of the 8-tracks (and it still plays!) I do think it's strange, however, that the machine is purportedly capable of telling "if you're right or wrong." Wow! Everyone in government and big business should have one of these little buddies...

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Conversations with Geeks

Just wanted to draw everybody's attention to Geek Philosophy again, this time my conversation with Geek Goddess MaryAnn Johanson. Her blog about Gen X, Geeks and pop culture is a current obsession with me, and I was honored that she selected me for the first in a series of "Conversations with Geeks."

We had a great time gabbing about our deep, dark geek secrets and other goodies on the subject. I highly recommend the blog, not just because I'm featured (as are photos from toy-filled office!!) but because I think MaryAnn is doing great things on Geek Culture. She is fast-becoming the Geek Guru to a Net-savvy generation of admirers who were first attracted to her incisive, whip-smart, so-sharp-it-stings movie reviews at Flick Filosopher and are now enjoying her delightful and funny musings on everything from the Geek/Dork/Nerd Paradigm to Friday Cat-Blogging.

I have the feeling that Conversations with Geeks - like the rest of Geek Philosophy - will soon be must-read material for the Geek Inclined.

The House Where Evil Dwells

No, I'm not writing about the White House and its current occupant.

Instead, I'm talking about a film I screened last night for my current project, which requires that I watch lots and lots of horror movies made during the 1980s. The film I'm talking about is Kevin Connor's The House Where Evil Dwells (1982), which focuses on a nice middle-class American couple (Edward Albert and Straw Dogs' Susan George), who happen to move into a haunted house in Kyoto, Japan. They found the house courtesy of their friend and business associate Alex Curtis (Doug McClure), and now Ted and Laura Fletcher (and their daughter Amy) think all their problems are solved. Only problem is this: Three ghosts "live" there already, and are hellbent on re-creating the love-triangle that resulted in their brutal triple murder/suicide back in 1840.

In essence, this movie has the same plot as a 1980 low-budget effort starring John Saxon entitled Beyond Evil. In both films, blissfully ignorant Americans move to a strange land without understanding the culture and are subsequently haunted by local spirits. It takes local knowledge (in the form of a zen monk in The House Where Evil Dwells and a doctor in Beyond Evil) to help the tormented Americans understand how they have trespassed in things they don't understand. Sometimes that help comes to late, but that's a lot like life, isn't it?

What I enjoyed about The House Where Evil Dwells is that its director, Kevin Connor (Motel Hell, The Land That Time Forgot, At the Earth's Core, Space:1999, From Beyond the Grave) takes no prisoners in his approach to the material. The film opens with a nasty decapitation, features several soft-core quality sex scenes featuring the lovely Ms. George, and then climaxes with lots and lots of blood and a totally unhappy ending. But in between the opening and closing bookend decapitations, Connor includes the best sequence: a scene in which helpless little Amy and her babysitter are mysteriously overrun by skittering crabs as they sleep. These (huge!) crabs crawl all over the sleeping girls, their mattresses and bed sheets, and then chase poor Amy up a tree. The special effects are rudimentary (though good for 1982...) but there's something intense and terribly disturbing about this scene. It absolutely works in a skin-crawling kind of way. I also love the look and texture of Connor's film, which was shot by Jacques Haitkin, the great cinematographer who also lensed Wes Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street in 1984. This may be exploitation filmmaking, but gosh darn it, it's quality exploitation filmmaking.

The House Where Evil Dwells makes for an interesting B movie, and how long has it been since we've had one of those? I've always admired Motel Hell as a gonzo cult classic, and I had the opportunity to discuss it with Mr. Connor at Main Mission 2000, a Space:1999 convention held in Manhattan a few years back. The House Where Evil Dwells isn't quite as good as Motel Hell, in part because it lacks that's film's sense of campy humor, but I found the film watchable and entertaining, and even kind of tragic.

The core idea of the story (based on a novel by James Hardiman) is that the three ghosts are doomed karmically, to relive their past crimes again and again, but taking new prisoners along the way. Funny how personal vendettas often take just such turns. I also like the idea of strangers in a strange land, in this case Japan. "Demons and ghosts are not confined to your Christian world," warns the helpful monk near the film's climax, and that's a lesson that the film's doomed characters just don't seem to learn.

Anyway,this is a worth a look, especially within the context of director Connor's impressive (but mostly unexplored...) career in horror. Some energetic fan boy somewhere needs to do a retrospective on this guy. His films never fail to be unique, energetic and visually enthralling, even if slightly cheesy.

FantaSci


On Saturday, July 23, 2005, I'll be spending a glorious and exciting day in Chesapeake, Virginia at the annual fantasy and science fiction convention called FantaSci. I'll be presenting one of my favorite seminars there from 12:45 pm to 2:15 pm: SPACE:1970s - SF TV in the Disco Decade!

During this talk, I'll focus especially on the much-maligned, but intensely cinematic and fascinating series Space:1999 (1975-1977), the subject of the first book I ever wrote, way back in 1997, Exploring Space:1999: An Episode Guide and Complete History of the Mid-1970s Science Fiction Television Series (reprint edition: 2005, McFarland, $24.95).


This snippet is from the book's introduction:

"...the first 24 episodes of Space:1999 featured a richly-visualized world where space was a terrifying, confusing and spectacular mystery. Each story explored the unknown and portrayed the Alphan space voyage as a journey into wonder, awe and horror. Unlike the futuristic superheroes of Star Trek, the travelers on Moonbase Alpha were recognizably human and contemporary. They were unprepared both technologically and psychologically for a long voyage into deep space, and as a result their emotions, fears and attitudes often caused more harm than the aliens or space phenomena they encountered.

While Star Trek treated all problems as soluble and offered enjoyable stories laced with light social commentary, Space:1999 episodes were often downright grim. The series was obsessed with mankind's failings and dark questions of existence. As performed by series leads Landau and Bain, the main Alphan characters were tightly-focused and hyper-intense. There was just no time for these men and women to engage in the saucy banter that had won over so many viewers to Star Trek. In many ways, Space:1999 was much more a child of Joseph Stefano's The Outer Limits (1961-62) or Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone (1959-64) than of Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. Replete with effectively dark photography, stylish feature-film techniques, gothic story lines and a Wagnerian musical score Space:1999 presented the dark side of space adventure..."

So if you want to learn more about this amazing and oft-neglected TV series, as well as other 1970s initiatives including UFO, The Fantastic Journey, Logan's Run, The Starlost, Battlestar Galactica, Planet of the Apes and Land of the Lost, and you happen to be in town on Saturday the 23rd, stop by to visit! Also, visit my Retro TV Files for a look at many of these shows.

I'll be joined at FantaSci by a bevy of interesting guests including authors Pamela Kinney, Elizabeth Massie, David Niall Wilson, Patricia Lee Macomber, Stephen Mark Rainey, Elizabeth Blue, Tony Ruggerio, Richard C. White, Joseph Maddrey, Christopher Curry, and Marshall Thomas, as well as animator Elizabeth Pascieczny, modelmaker David Merriman, Dr. Madblood's Craig T. Adams and Debra Burrell, Saving Star Wars director Gary Wood, Tidewater Alliance's Rick Baer and Odessa Steps Magazine's Mark Coale. Some of us will be doing a panel in the afternoon called "Gone but not forgotten," which looks at great sci-fi TV shows and movies of yesteryear.

I'm really looking forward to this con, and plan to have a table where I will be selling some of my horror videotapes, as well as copies of Exploring Space:1999 and other books (Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, etc.)

Superhero Event in Williamsburg, Virginia

On Thursday, July 21, 2005, I'll be at the Williamsburg Public Library (515 Scotland Street, Williamsburg, Virginia, 23185) at 7:00 pm to present an hour-long talk on the history of superheroes in films and television, the subject of my book, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television. Before and after the show, I'll be selling copies of that book, as well as others, so if you're in Virginia, stop by to see the show.

Here's a taste of what I'll be discussing (from page 26 of my book):
"Looking at the history of superheroes in broad strokes, it is interesting to note the overall shape of their evolution. Superheroes went from being iconic, ideal-bearing national heroes (the 1940s and 1950s) to clowns (the 1960s). Then they became reflections of a simpler age (1970s), at least until morphing into dark, angst-ridden, revenge hungry vigilantes (the 1980s). Next, they transformed into demon-baiting women (1990s) before becoming ultra-realistic, almost inconspicuous "regular joes" (with the advent of Unbreakable, Smallville, Spider-Man) and other 21st century productions)."

Basically, I'll be discussing how each age of the twentieth century (and now the 21st) gets the superheroes it deserves, the ones reflecting the prevailing Zeitgeist. Examples include the 1960s Adam West Batman, Tim Burton's variation on the material in 1989, the 1970s Richard Donner Superman, TV's The Incredible Hulk, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and many more.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Cat Nap Tuesday


Over at my favorite blog,
Geek Philosophy, MaryAnn posts Cat-Blogging Fridays, devoted to her (beautiful...) feline friends. Friday cat-blogging is something of a tradition on many blogs, I understand, and I only steal from the best, so... today I'm presenting Cat Nap Tuesday.

That's my beautiful Lila, sound asleep on my A940 All-in-One Dell Printer. She's sawing logs while I sit two feet away, working on movie and TV books (one for McFarland and one for Applause). Enjoy. She's a sweetie, isn't she?