Thursday, July 21, 2005

Thursday Retro-Toy Flashback # 2: The Lunch Box!

Well, it’s time to highlight my retro-toy of the week. This time out, my focus is...the TV/movie tie-in lunch box. Pictured left is the lunch box from the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV classic series, UFO, which starred Ed Bishop, Michael Billington and Wanda Ventham. The box illustration depicts S.H.A.D.O.’s Sky One flying over the moon’s craggy surface, a UFO whizzing by on the left; and Moonbase down on the lunar plain.

Once upon a time - back in the 1970s and early 1980s - every primary school kid carried metal lunch boxes, and it was a sign of utter coolness if you had a really neat one. A lot of my friends had the Star Wars lunch box (which displayed a dogfight between an X-Wing and a TIE Fighter on one side), but - ever the contrarian - I owned a Battlestar Galactica lunch box, which featured Boxey and his daggit (Muffey) fleeing from the Cylons on one side; the rag-tag fleet on the other. Another popular one of the day was the Superman: The Movie (1978) lunch box, a red box dramatizing scenes from the Christopher Reeve movie, including baby Kal-El's arrival on Earth and lifting of a 1930s-style truck to save Pa Kent.

Today, I display several movie-TV tie-in lunch boxes in my office collection, including: Planet of the Apes (TV series; 1974), Space:1999 (1975), the UFO one you see here (1973), The Last Starfighter (1983) and even one from Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987). I make a point to collect ‘em whenever I can - and flea markets are often ideal - but I wonder why TV-and-movie lunch boxes don’t have the aura of popularity they did when I was a kid.

Which ones did you have? And do you still have 'em?

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

May the Wind Be At His Back

I just learned that James Doohan has passed away at age 85, at his home in Washington State. The Canadian actor and veteran is best remembered for his performances in film and on TV as Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, of the U.S.S. Enterprise on various incarnations of Star Trek, including the original TV series (1966-69), the animated series (1973), and the film franchise (1982 - 1991). This character is such a part of the American lexicon that Scotty has been mentioned throughout our pop culture in all kinds of places, from the 1995 submarine-crisis film Crimson Tide to various episodes of The Simpsons. I also remember Doohan as the Commander of the Space Academy on a season of Filmation's Jason of Star Command, from the mid-1970s.

Doohan's Scotty gave the original Star Trek so much of its heart and drive. I'll never forget Scotty drinking a Kelvan agent under the table in "By Any Other Name," defending the honor of Lt. Palamas in "Who Mourns for Adonis," or nursing the U.S.S. Constellation back to health in "The Doomsday Machine." I'll always love Doohan's Scotty for defending the honor of the Enterprise in "The Trouble with Tribbles," and admire him for commanding her through multiple crises in episodes such as "Bread and Circuses," and "Friday's Child." Basically, Doohan brought energy, zeal and a sense of determined "can-do" attitude to Star Trek, and I know from experience that engineers around the world grew up admiring him. He truly was the miracle worker that Captain Kirk claimed he was.

We'll all miss Mr. Doohan, grieve with is family, and cherish his life and talents. He brought so much joy to so many millions of viewers, and his legacy will live long and prosper.

As Captain Kirk would no doubt say at this point, "Well done, Scotty..."

Cult TV Flashback # 2: Space:1999's "Force of Life"

I’m posting Cult TV Friday Flashback on Wednesday this week because I’ll be out-of-town for the weekend, making presentations at the FantaSci Convention in Chesapeake and at the Williamsburg Regional Library. But I didn’t want to miss an opportunity to feature one of my all time favorite episodes of any cult TV show.

In 1975, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s epic space adventure Space:1999 aired in syndication in the United States and was a mega-hit in the ratings, causing networks to dump shows like William Shatner’s Barbary Coast, David McCallum’s The Invisible Man and others. The series was also a critical smash, at least before Star Trek fans and writers got their say in the burgeoning genre press (which in those days consisted mostly of Starlog). No less a source than Science Digest, in November of 1975, termed the Andersons' production "a visually-stunning space age morality play that chronicles the downfall of 20th-century technological man," while Newsweek noted on October 20, 1975 that "not since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry." The Richmond Times commented that Space 1999 had "one foot in science and a range of special effects that would make even the emotionless Mr. Spock envious," and The Wall Street Journal enthused that it was "the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV. Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug." Even The New York Times (on October 19, 1975) reviewed the show positively, noting that it "has what no other TV science fiction program except Star Trek had - good stories and good special effects."

As these reviews make plain, Space:1999 was unlike any other sci-fi show ever produced, the model being much closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Trek or Lost in Space. It was a quantum leap forward for the genre, a pioneer. And as those who watch it will recall, the series had a whopper of a premise. The story involves the 311 denizens of Moonbase Alpha who, on September 13, 1999 are stranded there after the moon is blasted out of Earth orbit by a nuclear explosion. These stalwart scientists and astronauts are left to fend for themselves - drifting among the stars - as the moon encounters temporal anomalies, space warps, visiting aliens and the like.

The ninth episode of Space:1999, "Force of Life," written by Irish poet Johnny Byrne and directed by UFO and The Prisoner veteran David Tomblin, is probably the episode that really blew the whole Space:1999 controversy wide open for most viewers. Some people (like myself...) immediately fell in love with it, while others simply could not stand it. "Force of Life" was the dividing line between those who appreciate ambiguity in their drama, and those who prefer neat little wrap-ups and attempts at explanation.

To re-cap briefly, this episode of Space:1999 sees a mysterious ball of energy - an alien life-force - infiltrate Alpha. In particular, the alien focuses on Nuclear Generating Area Three and Technician Anton Zoref, played by Ian McShane (of HBO’s current hit, Deadwood.) Before long, to the dismay of Anton’s loving wife, Eva (Gay Hamilton), the technician begins to change. In particular, he can’t seem to stay warm. By seeming osmosis, he begins to drain all the heat from a lamp in his quarters, then a lighting panel in a corridor, and so forth...his appetite for energy and heat ever-increasing. Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and his team, including Victor Bergman (Barry Morse) and Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) register the energy drops, but don’t yet realize Zoref is the cause. Before long, Zoref is seeking to stay alive (and warm...) by draining the heat from living human beings, his fellow Alphans. Koenig and the others catch on, but not before Zoref marches right into the Nuclear Generating Area and absorbs its heat...causing a tremendous explosion on Alpha. Out of the smoldering rubble of the devastated nuclear plant, the energy sphere re-emerges whole - stronger than before - and heads off into space, no doubt carrying elements of Zoref with it. There are no definite answers about the strange and dangerous alien encounter, but Professor Bergman speculates that the Alphans may have witnessed some kind of creative evolution, the birth stages of a star, perhaps...

And that’s it. The episode makes no bones about the fact that the Alphans don’t understand a lick about the alien that has come knocking on their doorstep. These are not the knowledgeable, highly-evolved humans featured on Star Trek: The Next Generation, who attempt to make peace with aliens and learn all about them through tricorder readings and techno-babble. Instead, the viewer is presented with a simple mystery. I love the episode’s haunting coda, wherein Dr. Helena Russell tries to comfort Anton’s wife, in mourning over the loss of her husband: "We’re living in deep space, there are so many things we don’t understand," she says. "We don’t know what that alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we’ve got to try to help each other understand..."

In other words, the episode perfectly reflects the essence of our human condition. There are things in this universe we don’t understand - fate, life, death, you name it - but what we can do is reach out to other humans; provide comfort and succor. For me that’s a very human and touching message in what is otherwise a spine-tingling episode with a hard-edge. For an example of the latter, I need only recommend you to the scene in which Astronaut Alan Carter (Nick Tate) fires his laser at Zoref and chars his skin off. Completely. Yikes! (See photo above for a look at the charred Anton about to enter the nuclear generator...)

Some folks, including the late great Buster Crabbe, just didn’t like "Force of Life," and that’s certainly their right. Back when Space:1999 was on the air, he complained about the episode on a talk show in which the other guest was series star Martin Landau. Mr. Crabbe wanted to know what the alien was, what it represented, and what the whole episode meant. But of course, that would have spoiled the fun. Better, isn’t it, to leave some things unclear; to allow the viewer to fill in the gaps? (Think of Hitchcock's The Birds. Would any explanation really satisfy you as to the reason for the avian attack on humanity? The same holds true for "Force of Life.")

Over the years, I’ve had the honor to speak with Johnny Byrne, Space:1999's script editor, about many series episodes, including "Force of Life." This is what he told me about the episode in 2001:

"It was a process of a life force traveling through space, chrysalis into butterfly. That’s entirely all it was. Why can’t people see that? Just last night, I was watching this program about the universe, about the incredible ways life can survive. These scientists study these tiny microbes found on Mars, or learn how life can survive literally anywhere. It’s incredible. I didn’t know about these things when I wrote "Force of Life," but it is the same thing. The life force had its own agenda, and there were no philosophical discussions to be had. It couldn’t express itself verbally, because it was very different from the Alphans. I mean, was it going to pop in and say ‘charge me up and send me on my way’? That would have been ridiculous."

"The Alphans didn’t understand the process," Byrne continues, "but remember, we weren’t dealing with super smart space jockeys, we were dealing with near-future people caught in a very un-Earth-like situation. But the process was purely that of the caterpillar transforming into something else."

Beyond the interesting story, "Force of Life," is worthy of spotlighting because of its startling visualizations. I’ve always loved Space:1999 because it is a TV series that adroitly manipulates film grammar (i.e. mise-en-scene, camera angles), and in the process cogently transmit its themes. It is a visual masterpiece first and foremost, and almost everything else (including characterization...) is secondary to the mind-blowing imagery. David Tomblin directs "Force of Life" with a quiver full of stylish film techniques including a tracking camera, slow-motion photography, distortion lenses, and most famously of all, a slow turn of the camera into an inverted position.

The aforementioned upside-down camera turn, the final shot of the episode’s shocking teaser is efficacious because it symbolically (and visually) suggests that Moonbase Alpha will be turned on its head by the alien energy force. Even more effectively, the use of extensive slow-motion photography in the chase sequences prolongs the terror of Zoref’s victims, and heightens audience suspense. The menacing low-angle shots of the technician stalking his prey also contribute to the episode’s overall feeling of dread and paranoia. These moments - which fill the screen with the imposing image of the homicidal, starving Zoref - depict strength and the invincible nature of this alien intruder. The color and focus shifts on Zoref’s face further reflect that this human is in the grip of an alien force by alternating dramatically from blue to red (symbolically cold to hot...) as Zoref drains his victims. All of these remarkable and stylish touches make "Force of Life" appear more like a full-fledged feature than a mereTV show. As in the best of productions, form reflects content. This isn’t just a pretty melange of master-shots/close-ups, but a clearly-thought out tapestry that carries distinct visual meaning and thus thematic weight.

"The way it looked took some thought," acknowledges Byrne, "and was beautifully expressed by David [Tomblin]. I don’t understand why people don’t get it..."

I must say, I also like the little in-joke about Zoref’s name, which Byrne insists was unintentional. Jumble the letters around a bit and you spell the word...froze. Nice touch.

The essence and driving concept of Space:1999 is always that outer space is a realm both frightening and wondrous, so unlike the series' detractors, I believe it totally unnecessary to explain where the alien in "Force of Life" originated, how it thinks, why it selected Zoref, where it’s headed, and so forth. If all those questions had been addressed, the mystery would vanish, murdered in the rush to find an authentic-sounding scientific explanation or some pat psychological motivation for something that - to the Alphans - should remain inexplicable. There would be no room for horror, no space for awe, and thus no sense that the Alphans are strangers in a strange land - the very thesis of the program.

So today, I wholeheartedly champion Space:1999's ninth episode, "Force of Life." It credits the viewer with intelligence, and doesn’t rush to spoon-feed us every last detail. In its deliberate ambiguity and impressive technical skill, it represents a remarkable installment of an often misunderstood or underestimated TV series. After you watch it, you might look up at the stars and shiver. There are things up there we can’t even imagine, and every now and then, science fiction TV programming has a duty to look beyond laser duels, tales of good vs. evil, or metaphors for our political world, and focus instead on the universe of mystery inherent in the cosmos. That’s precisely what "Force of Life" accomplishes, and the genre is stronger for it.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Cat Nap Tuesday # 2

Here's another one of my three feline girls for Tuesday Cat Naps: Ezri (EZ for short). She's a healthy six-year old, coming out of a deep sleep on our family room sofa. Groggy, but truly adorable. She's a playful cat, and almost like a dog with her wagging tail and constant need for affection.

Monday, July 18, 2005

The Dorothy Grim & Splatter Show!

Just saw Future-Kill (1985), a low-budget horror-fantasy movie, for the first time last night. The box art (see pic) is by the legendary H.R. Giger, but has virtually nothing to do with the actual film, which is celebrated in some circles because it's the reunion of Edwin Neal and Marilyn Burn, two stars of Tobe Hooper's Texas Chain Saw Massacre. No, we're not exactly talking Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Here, Neal - so memorable as the Chainsaw hitchhiker - plays a mutant/punk villain named Splatter, and Burns is his punk-rocking, heavy-eyeshadowed sometimes friend/sometimes foe, Dorothy Grim. That probably tells some people as much as they need to know but whether or not they want to see the film...

Anyway, the hijinks in Future-Kill commence in earnest when a group of frat brothers get in trouble for tarring & feathering a brother, and are sent downtown to capture a Mutant. A mutant? Well, yeah. You see, this was 1985, and the socially-conscious makers of this film imagined a future where No-Nuke Protesters and punks would combine to start their own sub-culture, the "Mutants," and live in an inner city ghetto, spurned by "the conservatives." This is really funny, because no-nuke protesters are socially-conscious people who hope for a better future, whereas punks are deliberately nihilistic and see no future at all. So mixing the two ideas doesn't make much sense. Whatever. At least it's kind of different. It's like Escape from New York meets The Road Warrior meets Streets of Fire meets The Warriors. All for about $1.50.

So anyway, the frat boys visit the bad part of the Mutant town to abduct an unlucky mutant for a party back at the frat. Unfortunately, they run into Splatter, the major domo of Eddie Pain, the pacifist Mutant leader. Eddie doesn't believe in violence, which upsets the psychotic Splatter, so he assassinates his boss and frames the hapless frat boys. The rest of the movie concerns a night of terror as Splatter and his elite guard of mutants chase the frat boys through a series of abandoned warehouses (supposedly nuclear research labs...) A kindly hooker named Julie helps the boys, and then there's that bad-ass Dorothy Grim, whose allegiance is a mystery right until the climax. Such as it is.

What a strange, strange movie. Yet...there's something to it. Sure, it is relentlessly low-budget, the acting is barely adequate (except for Neal, who is a monstrous and powerful villain...), and the story is absurd. Still, this is one of those movies you can't take your eyes off of. It's an honest (and frankly, kinda silly...) horror-fantasy that attempts to extrapolate what a future America could look like (from the perspective of the Reagan 80s): frats versus freaks. I know it doesn't make a lick of sense, but the same filmmakers could have made an unimaginative, rote slasher film instead, one where they had to tread no new ideas or imagine no interesting concepts. They didn't do that, and I champion them for setting their sights just a little higher. Future-Kill kept me interested in it, even if the execution left something to be desired.

Never heard of Future-Kill? Join the club. This is one of those movies that inevitably turns up at flea markets and sells for a dollar or less, but, hey, I've seen far worse. To name a few: Troll 2, Neon Maniacs, The Stay Awake, and so on.