Saturday, August 06, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback # 3: Space:1999's "Demon Star"

This week for our Saturday Comic-Book flashback, I take a brief break from Marvel - the subject of our previous flashbacks - and remember one of my favorite TV/movie-related books from another company, Charlton, in particular the adaptation of the 1970s TV series created by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson: Space:1999.

I’m highlighting Space:1999 Volume 2, Number 4, from May of 1976. The story is entitled "Demon Star," written by Nicola Cuti and drawn by the incredible John Byrne (one of my favorite comic-book artists). Why feature Space:1999 again, after my Cult TV flashback ("Force of Life") a few weeks ago? Well, I've already stated this many times, but 1999 is just about my favorite genre production ever, and I love to write about it. And hey, this is my blog, right?

The story presented in Charlton’s issue # 4 sees Earth’s errant moon approaching a planet in the binary star system of Algol. The unusual inhabitants of the planet are called "Jandians" and look like giant frogs. They ruthlessly attack the Alphans without provocation and kidnap Dr. Russell, but when Commander John Koenig leads a team to the surface to rescue her, the Jandians, led by Paceus in the City of Emera, are totally and completely peaceful. Koenig is at a loss to understand this, until Dr. Russell realizes the Alphans are seeing a "Jekyll and Hyde Syndrome on a planetary scale," one caused by the so-called "winking demon" of Jandian religion - the binary star of Algol! It seems that when one star is in the sky (the red one), the aliens are peaceful, but add the other (the blue one...) and it causes a "metabolic imbalance," one generating hostility and violence. What's really interesting is that the Jandians have built their culture around the notion of "denying" their dark halves. They pretend it doesn't exist, and have done so well with this emotional denial that they've convinced themselves of it. Visiting the ancient monuments and temples of the planet, Commander Koenig and Dr. Russell face the ascent of the blue star, and fight a pitched battle with the now hostile Jandians.

I appreciate this (admittedly kind-of-silly) story because it deals with the idea of schizophrenia on a global scale; and on a personal side shows that everybody has "two faces" - even if it's a truth we'd rather suppress. "Demon Star" also demonstrates with gusto the fact that the comic-book format can accomplish things that TV shows can’t. At the time it aired in 1976, Space:1999 was the most expensive TV production of all time, but even so, the TV series could not (often) create such gigantic space and sky battles like those featured in this issue. Koenig and Helena fly together in a kind of space car, their stun-guns blazing, and it’s a sprawling, awesome comic-book moment.

Of course, all is not sunshine and roses. Although there is a strong theme to this tale (schizophrenia/Jekyll & Hyde) "Demon Star" also pre-sages the unfortunate Year Two changes by featuring hideous monsters and lots of action over ideas. Year One of Space:1999 was much more philosophical than this, and that again proves that the comic-book was being marketed to kids, not grown-ups who grooved on the show.

The comic-book also features some notable mistakes. Dr. Russell’s name is misspelled consistently as "Dr. Russel" (see frame below). And Moonbase Alpha is equipped with Mark IX Hawk battlecruisers - ships the Alphans didn’t possess on the series. Hawks appeared as illusions in only one episode from Year One, "War Games." It sure would be nice to have 'em, though...

All that said, I loved this well-illustrated, if somewhat simplistic book as a kid, and it was a treat to see new adventures for Koenig, Moonbase Alpha, those great Eagle spaceships and the like, especially as I waited for new episodes between seasons.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Friday Cult TV Flashback # 4: Blake's 7: "Blake"

In my travels to Conventions and the like, I've discovered that many contemporary science-fiction fans are interested in the late-1970s British TV series Blake's 7, but for one reason or another have never seen it. This fine program, created by Terry Nation (the man who first imagined Dr. Who's nemesis, the Daleks), hasn't aired on the Sci-Fi Channel (that I know of...) for at least the last eleven or so years, and BBC has yet to release the series on DVD. The entire run of fifty-two hour-long episodes were available on VHS in the 1990s (two-volumes per tape), but that's a considerable investment. These tapes may still be on the market and available through secondary venues like E-bay or Half.com.

But really, that's neither here nor there. Blake's 7 (and it's final episode, "Blake") is the subject of this week's Friday cult TV flashback. For those who aren't familiar with the series, a brief re-cap is in order. Blake's 7 is set in a far-future world, wherein Earth is the central planet in a fascist, totalitarian, intergalacticac organization called 'The Federation.' The Federation controls its sheep-like population through mind-altering drugs, ruthless shock-troopers and propaganda. Basically, there are a few very rich people in the Federation, but they control everyt aspect of life. Resistors are ruthlessly stamped out, put up for mock trial, and accused of bogus crimes they didn't commit (such as the ever popular charge of child molestation.)

In the first episode of the series, "The Way Back," a freedom-fighter named Roj Blake (played by Gareth Thomas) wakes up from his drug-induced equivalent of "sleep" to remember that he was once a political figure to be reckoned with, before the Federation ruined and brainwashed him. He attends a meeting of rebels who hope he will lead them again, but shock troopers massacre everybody and capture Blake, putting him on trial for child molestation, a crime he never committed. Blake is sentenced to life imprisonment on a distant penal planet, but en route, (in the episode "Space Fall,") Blake teams up with a group of other criminals including the cunning computer-expert Avon (Paul Darrow), the beautiful space pilot and smuggler Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), the cowardly thief, Vila (Michael Keating) and the gentle giant with a behavior inhibitor chip in his head, Gan (David Jackson).

This core group of outcasts escapes from the Federation prison ship and takes charge of a mysterious alien derelict ship that possesses superior technology, the Liberator. Blake quickly uses the incredibly advanced vessel (which is equipped with a teleportation device...) to strike at the very heart of Federation planets and installations, and his quest for freedom and liberation becomes legend around the galaxy. Over the course of the first season, others are added to Blake's crew, including the Auron telepath, Cally (Jan Chappell), and the most-advanced computer ever designed by man, called Orac. Two years into the series, Blake disappears after a pitched space battle, leaving Avon in charge of the (often-changing) gang of rogues. The last half of the series' involves Avon attempting to lead the resistance, and trying to determine if Blake is alive or dead.

Blake's 7
is an interesting TV series because - unlike most American genre programming (excluding V: The Series) - it focuses on a leftist group of heroes resisting an overarching right-wing bureaucracy. Usually, in shows like Star Trek, Stargate SG-1 and the like, the heroes are PART of the bureaucracy (like Starfleect Command), so that alone makes it unique. But Blake's 7 has more to offer than just that distinction. Writing on page 301-302 of Science Fiction - The Illustrated Encyclopedia (Dorling Kindersley, 1995), critic John Clute noted that Blake's 7 was a "series with a sharp tendency to anarchism" and that it featured a "deliberately seedy, pessimistic ambience." Reviewer Peter Nicholls, writing in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 133) felt the Terry Nation-created program was "addictive" and "notable for a sense of doomed helplessness." Visible Ink Press's Video Hound's Sci-Fi Experience in 1997 (on page 35) dubbed Blake's 7 "the Anti-Star Trek."

This is how I describe the series in my book, A History and Critical Analysis of Blake's 7, The 1978-1981 British Television Space Adventure: "Blake's 7 is a futuristic accumulation and translation of classic literary, film, and television traditions. It is part Robin Hood with its band of futuristic outlaws facing the overwhelming power of an evil Galactic Empire and part The Seven Samurai (1954) or The Magnificent Seven (1960) in its thematic predisposition to dramatize heroes defending the innocent from conquering forces both alien and human. Unlike Robin Hood, however, Blake's 7's television avengers are noticeably not merry men. On the contrary, the heroes of Blake's 7 are depicted...as a desperate, fatalistic and determinedly pragmatic band. Although Blake is a man of honor, his mind starts to break down after the death of a follower ("Pressure Point,") and his continued failure to defeat the mighty Terran Federation. Blake's right-hand man, Avon, is even less traditional. Equipped with a razor-sharp intellect and an instinct for self-preservation, Avon chooses to accompany Blake on his cosmic quest only because it suits his purposes. In the words of Terry Nation, his television series is not about outer space or alien civilizations at all. Instead, it concerns "the little guy against city Hall." The heroes, including a loyal "everyman," a beautiful smuggler and a common thief, are thus defined in totally realistic and believable, non-superhuman terms."

This week, I focus on "Blake," the series' final episode, because I believe that in one sense it best expresses the aesthetic of this unique and valuable TV series. The episode begins with Avon and his group of rebels on the run. Their only base has been destroyed, and so they take their ship, The Scorpio in search of Blake to the lawless world of Gauda Prime. The Scorpio is badly damaged in a space battle and it crashes on the frontier world, leaving Avon's avengers without even modest transportation. They find Blake - scarred and battle weary - but Avon thinks that his old friend has sold him out to the Federation Security forces. Blake and Avon have a final confrontation, and only one man survives. Then, the Federation troops arrive to put down the insurrection once and for all, and there is a devastating shoot-out between Federation shocktroopers and the survivors of Avon's squad.


It has often been said that one way to judge a TV series is by the manner of its ending. Think of the bizarre and enigmatic conclusion to The Prisoner, Star Trek: Voyager's return to Earth - a tidy wrap-up - or The Next Generation's return to the first episode "Encounter at Farpoint," with Q. This is the case with Blake's 7 because "Blake" expresses perfectly the overall aesthetic of Blake's 7. To wit, the finale offers an unsentimental, brutal ending to a series that takes the conclusion of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid one step further. There's no polite freeze-frame here. No sir. There's a shoot-out and the dramatis-personae you have grown to love over the course of four years....go down. And that's after the stunning confrontation between Avon and Blake.

Basically, this is the episode where your hopes come crashing down. All through the series, you have followed Blake on his "impossible" dream to topple a space-spanning Federation. At times, you have actually believed that Blake - the idealist and hero - can accomplish this. Even though it is an impossible task. The final episode "Blake," makes you right your expectations. You were deluded, buddy -- there's no way this is going to have a happy ending. In fact, the strange smile that appears on Avon's face just before the end of the episode may well be his final understanding of this fact. That he too bought into a futile dream. You don't fight City Hall and win. You might disrupt it for a while, but you're just not going to beat a Galactic Federation. For me, this is a much more satisfying ending than what we see in Return of the Jedi. Take down the Emperor, destroy the Death Star and party down with Ewoks. Sorry, but It's just not that easy to bring down an entrenched, oppressive force. Blake's 7 stays true to its story line by expressing this with "Blake," a ballsy finale.

Some fans hate the ending of Blake's 7, and I can understand why. As fans, we always want to believe that "the adventure continues." That our heroes survive to fight another day. But that's really - if you examine it - not ever what this show was about. Blake's 7 concerns desperate men fighting a desperate battle, and on this day - and in their last adventure - the law catches up with them. I just love it, even if those last five minutes still leave a lump in my throat.

Today, thanks to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Lost and other modern series, we're used to the idea of losing our favorite characters. But back in 1981, few shows were willing to take this route (Sapphire & Steel was another British series with a grim finale...) and so today I praise and remember Blake's 7 for its final episode, "Blake." This was a show (and a last episode...) that fulfilled the series' premise in spades, in an exciting, cutthroat and utterly unemotional fashion.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Retro Toy Flashback Thursday # 4: Colorforms!


Y'all remember Colorforms, don't you? Way back in the disco era of the 1970s (before Atari 2600 came along in '78) and before Kenner introduced its great Star Wars action-figure line, Colorforms were THE place to go for hours of playtime and excitement. What did you say? You don't recall 'em?

All righty then, here's a quick refesher course: Colorform toys originated with a business called Colorforms that was located in Norwood, New Jersey, and each set came in a long, rectangular box. Colorforms were printed in the United States. Each Colorform "adventure set" consisted of four components: a box cover featuring appropriate (and often very beautiful...) art, a little adventure booklet, a long rectangular "playboard" featuring some interesting backdrops, and, finally, approximately thirty-or-so plastic pieces on a backer board (usually these pieces consisted of heroic figures, neat vehicles and even laser beams...). You would then fit together the pieces, position 'em on the playboard and thus create various action set-pieces. When you were done positioning the flat pieces, you'd clean up the board and start all over, fresh. Cool huh? As late as 1992, I saw Power Ranger Colorforms in stores like Toys 'R Us and Wal-Mart. Does anyone know if they're still being made today? And more importantly, do kids play with 'em?

Anyway, an important part of my toy and memorabilia collection in my office includes a selection of classic Colorform adventures sets. I own the original Star Trek Colorforms set (interior and box

art featured at top), a great set from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, one from my personal favorite, Space: 1999 (interior and figure board pictured above, slightly right, and below left ) and even one from the cartoon Flash Gordon (pictured above, left). The general merchandising idea was - much like model kits or lunch-boxes - to successfully tie-in Colorforms to popular TV series and movies of the day.

As a kid, I also remember seeing Holly Hobbie Colorforms, and many, many other sets as well. The only problem with Colorforms is that it was easy to lose the little pieces you stick on the board, and after some-time playing with the sets, the figure pieces would tend to lose their adhesive properties, meaning that pieces would fall out of place and off the playboard. But that's another story.

Go ahead and enjoy my selection of Colorform pictures - both exteriors and interiors - on this Retro Thursday Toy Flashback, and revel in a fun and inventive toy that kept many of us X'ers entertained for hours (and sometimes days...) as tykes.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Singing a New Tune: The Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical

Hey everybody, my sixteenth book is currently being published, Singing a New Tune: The Re-Birth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond (Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, $24.95) and is already available for order from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Basically, it's an in-depth study of the movie musical genre from the period 1994 to 2004. The book opens with a history of the movie musical during its glory days (1930s - 1960s) - ticking off such highlights as An American in Paris, Singin' in the Rain, West Side Story, and Sound of Music, - and then examines how the increasingly reality-obsessed world of the 1990s brought the once-proud, but highly-artificial and theatrical genre to a new low.

But after a series of fiascoes like Newsies, Swing Kids, I'll Do Anything and The Fantasticks, there came an unexpected turnaround. Suddenly artists such as Sir Alan Parker (Evita), Woody Allen (Everyone Says I Love You), Todd Haynes (Velvet Goldmine), Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut), Kenneth Branagh (Love's Labour's Lost) and others began to create interesting variations on the musical format, incorporating comedy and even Shakespeare into the mix. Then came the tidal wave shift: Baz Luhrmann's smash-hit, Moulin Rouge (2001). After that, the hits kept coming with films like Academy Award winner Chicago (2002), and the book concludes with the release of Phantom of the Opera at Christmas, 2004. There's also a chapter that gazes at the musical format on television during this span, including the Buffy the Vampire Slayer musical episode, "Once More With Feeling."

Singing a New Tune
features brand new interviews with many of the artists who made this span one of re-birth and growth, including directors Sir Alan Parker, Todd Haynes, John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), Keith Gordon (The Singing Detective), Todd Graff (Camp) and Joss Whedon. Writer Craig Pearce (Moulin Rouge) and Jay Cocks (De-Lovely) are also interviewed for their contributions to the genre.

Anyway, the movie musical probably seems a big a departure from my earlier work in books. After all, I've written about superheroes (The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television), film comedies (An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith, Best in Show: The Films of Christopher Guest and Company), horror (The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi, Horror Films of the 1970s) and science-fiction (Exploring Space:1999, A Critical History of Dr. Who,) and so forth. But when I looked at the films from this era -- Everybody Says I Love You, South Park, Moulin Rouge, and the like, I realized that they were great movies too, and certainly ones worthy of book-length study.

So anyway, I hope you'll support my latest work in print, Singing a New Tune. I'll look forward to reading your comments on the book.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Support Our Troops - watch Bochco's "Over There"

Television has a long and proud history with the 'war movie" genre. Combat, starring Vic Morrow ran from 1962 to 1967 (152 episodes) and dramatized events in Europe during World War II. In the late 1980s, Tour of Duty aired for close to sixty episodes (three seasons), starred Terence Knox, and centered on an American platoon trying to stay alive during the Vietnam War. Now, executive producer Steven Bochco - maestro of the exposed butt-crack on TV series such as NYPD Blue - has brought us the latest war epic for the boob tube, FX's Over There - an Iraq War drama. The only substantive difference between Over There and the other war shows is timing. Combat aired roughly twenty years after the end of World War II; Tour of Duty, a dozen or so beyond Vietnam. But Over There reaches our airwaves as the Iraq War continues to wage.

And that's what most of the controversy concerning Over There will likely focus on: the idea that an ongoing war has been reduced to a weekly entertainment while our troops are still fighting and dying in the sand. When I first saw the previews for the new FX series, I was deeply disturbed that any producer would be so craven as to produce a series about soldiers during a continuing war. It felt crude; it felt manipulative. I didn't like it one bit. That was my knee-jerk patriotic reaction, and hey, I'm a very patriotic guy.

But then I got to thinking...this is the first American war in which - by and large - our citizenry has basically been asked to do nothing to support the effort. No Victory Gardens. No gas rationing. No draft. Not even a tax hike. Nothing.

Which means that we're basically dependent on Administration spinmeisters and corporate-owned media whores to remind us of the War and how it's going. Everything we know about the war comes either from Donald Rumsfeld (ahem...how many Iraqi troops are trained and ready to serve, sir? What's that number again, Mr. Secretary of Defense?) or media talking heads, who were gung-ho embedded cheerleaders at the beginning, but who are now having second thoughts, burned by the Bush Administration claims about WMD. In Bush's words, "Fool me once, shame on you...fool me twice...uh...erh...won't get fooled again."

Anyway, this is a long-winded way of stating the obvious: at least Over There remembers that our nation is actually at War (even if it's the wrong war...) and focuses on the conflict for 45 searing minutes a week. While you're viewing the show, you'll remember the war too. It's like a slap in the face, or cold water poured down your pants. And so I've come to believe that the program is actually a service to the country, and to the men and women fighting.

Over There's pilot episode was written and directed by Chris Gerolmo (who also wrote the theme song), and it's an interesting evolution of the "war movie" subgenre. All the story cliches that we've come to know and love are present: the short-timer, the characters with cute nicknames like "Doublewide," the desperate but inevitably futile call-in for air-support, the hard-as-nails lieutenant, the green recruit who "believes" in the war, the teary letters home to families, yada yada. But, these ideas have evolved with the times, and TV has matured too. "Doublewide" is actually a woman, and the role of women in this show is important, since this is the first war drama produced in a time wherein females serve in a volunteer army. Sure, Tour of Duty had Kim Delaney in its second season, but she was a journalist, not a soldier. More importantly, those letters home have morphed into video diaries; monologues which - delivered by young, attractive and solid actors - carry real emotional punch.

The Bochco-Gerolmo series also keys up the visual style of the genre, looking more like Ridley Scott's apocalyptic Black Hawk Down than thefull-screen successor to Combat or Tour of Duty. In the first episode, a tense night raid occurs under the hue of green night vision. Later, there's a sand-storm that looks like something straight from David Lynch's Dune. The by-now-standard hand-held shaky cam (thanks, Oliver Stone!) remains a potent tool in the war-drama vocabulary, and I was relieved to see it used sparingly and effectively, at least in the first episode. These touches make the action seem more immediate, and I confess to finding the first episode spell-binding.

What originality the show adds to the history of war drama on TV comes in one form, primarily: a total and utter lack of decorum. One character is attacked while pulling down her pants to take a shit. That's precisely the sort of thing programming of an earlier age would have forbidden. People will complain, of course, but such moments are there for an important reason in Over There. War isn't just hell; it's damn unpredictable and random. Over There captures this feeling of constant danger and cruel fate all too well. It may offend the sensibilities, but again, our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, mothers and fathers are facing this kind of life every day that our presence in Iraq continues. It would be wrong, and worse - dishonest - to present the war in any light that didn't reflect this reality.

I'm usually reluctant to review a series after just one episode, but Over There earns the right to air now because it is thoughtful, illuminating, and because it slams the truth back in our faces and not just on a quickly passing CNN ticker. American men and women are dying in Iraq right now (we're at 1,800 dead, I believe...). The least we can do about it - besides go shopping, as President Bush suggested after 9/11 - is watch Over There. The more people who remember the horrors our brave troops face on a daily basis, the sooner we'll get the hell out of there and get back to doing something about our real enemy. You remember him, right? Osama Bin Forgotten...

Cat Nap Tuesday # 4

Our twins and litter-mates Lila (left) and Ezri (right) recline on the table in our breakfast nook, an early-morning, post-meal sleepy-time slump. They always sit with us while we drink our coffee. These two get on really well. We think that Lila is a little more dominant, though Ezri is definitely the stronger, bigger of the cats. Lila is my Cleopatra cat and likes to sleep a lot. Ezri is our wild cat.