Saturday, August 13, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback # 4: Marvel's Star Wars, Issue 1

Pictured here is the "fabulous first issue" of Marvel's Star Wars adaptation, from July of 1977. My copy, as you can no doubt tell from the illustration, is wrinkled, torn and tatty, because, well, I've had it since I was in third grade, or thereabouts. I've probably read this book dozens of times over the years, though lately its been stored in a plastic bag, on display in my home office.

Marvel Comics adapted the famous George Lucas film, "the greatest space-fantasy of all" in six parts back in 1977, with Roy Thomas scripting/editing and Howard Chaykin illustrating. What's kind of interesting (and you can see it from the cover art), is how much this visual interpretation of Stars Wars (both inside the book and on the cover...) deviates from the art design we're all so familiar with these days. On the cover illustration, for instance, Darth Vader's helmet is mysteriously forest green (and he has fiery flames in his eyes...), Princess Leia has red hair and no eye pupils - like she's a zombie or something - and Han Solo dons an orange shirt instead of a black vest and white shirt. Both Jedi light sabers are red, instead of blue. The design for the ships is also subtly different than what we're used to -- the Star Destroyer from the movie's opening attack over Tatooine looks in the comic more like a slice of pizza with a pyramid on top of it than the battle cruiser for the Galactic Empire.

But these, of course are quibbles. Often movie adaptations differ substantially from the actual movies, because artists have had the chance only to view production designs, not the actual film. And sometimes, writers work from an earlier draft of the script, or cut of the picture, as was the case with this first issue of Star Wars. For instance, on page 7, the issue presents us with Luke Skywalker's visit to the Tatooine metropolis of Anchorhead. There he meets his buddy Biggs Darklighter, and gets razzed by a tech chick who apparently gives Luke the nickname of "Wormie." Luke is there to tell the visiting Biggs (of the cruiser, Rand Ecliptic...) that he sighted a battle in the skies above Tatooine (Star Destroyer vs. Blockade Runner). In these scenes, Luke also wears - unfortunately - a Gilligan hat and big goggles.

Before Star Wars was available on VHS, or the script was produced by NPR for the radio, an additional scene like this one at Anchorhead - expanding the SW universe - was like a gift from Heaven. At that young age (eight, I guess...) I remember wanting more Star Wars, more Star Wars, more Star Wars. And every little detail, like the fact that Han Solo was a "Corellian" - which I gleaned from the Star Wars Storybook - was like a scrap of food for a starving man. This particular issue of Star Wars ends early in the film, at the point just before the introduction of Ben Kenobi, as Luke is beset by Sand People (Tusken Raiders), so it doesn't even dramatize the whole movie, but that doesn't reduce its importance or uniqueness for me. As a kid, I just read this thing over and over. To me, there's always something special about the beginning of a saga. About seeing how everything starts. I just find it fascinating.

Today, I appreciate the cover art on Star Wars # 1 a little more than I once did, in part because I like the blaring legend on the lower left side:

"Enter: Luke Skywalker! Will he save the galaxy or destroy it?"

I don't know how Marvel formulated this sentence, but in a way, it represents the very core of the Star Wars ethos as we know it today. Anakin Skywalker was once the great hope of the galaxy, before faltering and going down the path of the Dark Side, and at plenty of spots in the original trilogy (particularly in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) , we wonder if Luke will indeed repeat the same mistake, and succumb to that outstretched hand of Lord Darth Vader on Bespin. It's probably just happy coincidence that Marvel narrowed down the point of the still-fledgling series down to this valuable bit of copy, but boy does it hold up well today, now that we've seen all six episodes of the space epic.

Even today, I get a shiver from watching the original Star Wars, and in particular that early scene wherein Luke confronts his Uncle Owen. "Luke's just not a farmer, Owen. He's got too much of his father in him," warns kindly Aunt Beru. "That's what I'm afraid of..." replies Owen testily, his line carrying tons of foreboding. That exchange - which resonates throughout all six episodes of Lucas's work - appears in this issue of Marvel's Star Wars (which cost only 35 cents at the time...) on page 23, and it has lost none of its frisson today. In fact, it works better than ever, now that we've seen the fall of the Republic and the "birth" of Darth Vader.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Cult TV Flashback # 4: Doctor Who: "The War Games"

Doctor Who ran for 26 years on the BBC. It's the longest running science fiction TV program of all time, and for good reason. Although far too many serials featured that hoary old idea of an alien invasion of Earth (on Doctor Who by Daleks, Cybermen, The Kraal, the Krynoids, Sutekh, the Terileptil, etcetera etcetera), other stories during the two-decade-plus run proved absolutely brilliant. The series is being re-imagined in England as I write (now in its second season...), and most folks already know what the show is about: the adventures in time and space of a strange bird called the Doctor, a Time Lord from Gallifrey and a consummate scientist, meddler and philosopher. Although seven actors played the lead character from the 1960s to 1989, the original series never lost its identity, its sense of fun, low-budget ingenuity and social conscience.

The change in lead actors (and companions...) actually granted the show a sense of re-birth and re-vivification every few years, and each Doctor's era is remarkably different in tone and concept from the one before. The landmark first Doctor (William Hartnell), a crankly, curmudgeonly fellow, oversaw a span of mostly historical adventures set during Earth's past. The second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) was a more affectionate and child-like traveler through space, and some of his stories were quite horrific ("Tomb of the Cybermen"). Dashing Jon Pertwee played the Third Doctor as a kind of Quatermass/James Bond swashbuckler, relegated mostly to Earthly adventures in the 20th century. Tom Baker - the best known Time Lord to American audiences - oversaw what many believe is the series' golden-age, a post-Star Trek voyage through time and space incorporating horror ("Planet of Evil"), heist-comedy ("The Ribos Operation"), political drama ("The Deadly Assassin"), the fantastic and just about anything else you can imagine. And on the show went, until the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), who was a slightly darker Time Lord, one with secrets and mysteries...a master manipulator and chess player.

Critic John Baxter called Doctor Who a "good example of what may be done with limited facilities if a producer has imagination," (Science Fiction in The Cinema: A Complete Review of SF Films from A Trip to the Moon [1902] to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paperback Library, 1970, page 187). Scholars Jone Clute and Peter Nicholls have noted it is a "notably self-confident series juggling expertly with many of the great tropes and images of the genre...At its worst merely silly, at its best it has been spellbinding, (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 346.)

In the early 1990s, Epilog Magazine hailed the program as "perhaps the greatest science fiction series of all time..." (Epilog 11, October 1991, page 29). As you might guess, I've been a long-time admirer of the series myself, and in 1997 I wrote a book about the show entitled
A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television. The Earthbound Time Lords called my book "the strongest of critical works on the program...the definitive work on the program, one that will be used for years to come," Cult Movies called it "necessary reading," and Doctor Who Magazine noted that "spending time with Muir will breathe fresh life into your view of a series you thought you had sussed." Given my love of the series, it was only a matter of time before I included it here for a Friday Cult TV flashback.

And the serial I want to focus on, in particular, is one that I believe doesn't garner nearly enough attention among the fans, at least not anymore. There are any number of great serials I could focus on (and may do so in the future), including personal favorites like "Robots of Death," "Ark in Space," The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "The Aztecs," "Genesis of the Daleks" and "Tomb of the Cybermen," but I wanted to go back in time to a period when the universe of the Doctor was still a dark mystery, and we didn't necessarily understand his origins or his people. The serial I refer to is "The War Games," a 243-minute, ten-part epic that aired from April to June of 1969, and was written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, and directed by David Maloney. This story finds our good Doctor (played by the late Patrick Troughton; pictured above) and his companions Jamie and Zoe landing the T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) in what seems to be a World War I battlefield. However, they soon learn they have landed on alien planet filled with war zones from various Earth time periods (including the American Civil War, World War I, the Crimean War, and so on.)

Fifty-thousand abducted humans are being made to fight in these wars at the pleasure of a deadly alien being known as the War Lord, a tyrant hoping to construct the ultimate army for his strategy of galactic conquest. After much running around, the Doctor defeats the alien War Lord with the aid of the human resistors, but comes to realize he cannot send all 50,000 humans home using the T.A.R.D.I.S. It is simply beyond his capabilities. He needs help, and so must summon the Time Lords - the very people he ran away from - for help. In doing so, he exposes himself. The Doctor is captured by the Time Lords, put on trial for interference, and before the tenth episode (a season finale...) ends, the Time Lords mete out a terrible justice not just to the War Lord, but to the Doctor as well. This is, lest we forget, Patrick Troughton's final show as the star of the show.

I want to focus on "The War Games" because it is a beautifully-shot addition to the Who canon. Fans like to complain how cheap the series looks, but in the early, black-and-white days of Hartnell and Troughton, the series compensated for its low-budget with some exquisite visuals and beautiful camerawork, and this serial, perhaps, takes the cake in that regard. The first episode of "The War Games" opens with a long shot view of what seems a barren World War I battlefield. A slow tilt down by Maloney's camera reveals a pool of muddy water and flotsam, and then - in the pool's reflective surface - we see the T.A.R.D.I.S. materialize. Taken by itself, this is an artistic alternative to the "standard" opening of many a serial, a simple landscape shot with the T.A.R.D.I.S. merely appearing suddenly. But much more than that, the pan across this battlefield and the appearance of the T.A.R.D.I.S. in a kind of swamp uniquely expresses the isolation and desolation of this war zone. It's just an artistic and beautiful way to begin a show, and it's appropriate we see a reflection of the T.A.R.D.I.S. first, because in some senses, this serial is about a "reflection" of Earth, a simulation of Earth Wars, but not the real thing.

The War Games" also features a break-neck staccato pace, often to the cacophany of blaring German machine guns. When the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are assaulted, there are fast cuts in the show, and every episode is like that, moving at cliff-hanger speed. But then comes the final turnaround in the ninth half-hour. After episodes and episodes of rapid-fire battles, hair-raising escapes, last-minute rescues and the like, we have hardly had time to catch our breaths. But then, after the Doctor has summoned his people and is trying to escape so as to continue his adventures, slow-motion photography is employed to denote the inescapable fact that the Doctor can no longer continue to run, His very enemy is time itself - the enigmatic Time Lords. No matter how fast the Doctor runs, he cannot escape. The dramatic utilization of slow-motion photography in the closing portion of episode 9 is made doubly effective by all the staccato editing in the previous parts. By this point, the audience has been through one fast-paced scrape with the Doctor after another, and so we are not prepared for the impact of the slow-motion interlude, the fact that the Time Lords can and do intervene, and actually slow time to a crawl, hindering our hero's escape.

Yet dynamic visuals alone are not the only reason to remember the season closer for Doctor Who's sixth year. More importantly, "The War Games" tells a great story (and one repeated on Star Trek Voyager many years later, featuring the Hirogen and holodeck simulations of World War II and other battle scenarios...). And it isn't just about endless war. "The War Games" is one of the best examples of the Doctor's personal heroism. Here, his life and very future are at stake, but he puts that aside to help the human fighters. He contacts the Time Lords, even though he knows for him it will spell certain doom. And let us not forget that this serial came at a time in the series history when the Time Lords are a mysterious and frightening people.

In fact, as depicted in "The War Games," they are the most frightening villains the series has ever dramatized. They are invincible and powerful, able to control time. And they have a cold, draconian sense of law and justice. They punish the War Lord (after torturing him...) by wiping his existence from the record of time, a horrendous and heartless fate. Then, in an act of vengeance almost totally unjustified, these Lords of Time trap the War Lord's entire planet in a kind of stasis/forcefield. Cleverly, the final episode of "The War Games" shows us this evil, merciless "Time Lord" justice first, and then proceeds to the trial of the Doctor second. By this time, audiences understand that there will be no mercy. In the end, the Time Lords kill this incarnation of the Doctor, make his companions (Jamie and Zoe) forget their time with him, and exile the new incarnation of the Doctor to 20th century Earth. At the end of the show, it is quite sad and touching to see the forced separation of the Doctor from his companions, but still the Doctor knew that in saving the humans from the War Lord, he would face consequences. Talk about courage...

As a fan of mystery and unanswered questions in my drama (see my entry on Space:1999's "Force of Life,") I love this depiction of the Time Lords as strange and terrifying, and was saddened as I watched this element of the drama change with time. By the Pertwee years, the Time Lords were like "M" in the James Bond flicks, occasionally dispatching Pertwee's Doctor on important assignments and missions. By the Baker and Davison years (and serials such as "The Invasion of Time" and "Arc of Infinity,") the Time Lords were just another alien race - like the Vulcans or Klingons. Yes, they controlled time, but they were vulnerable to invasion, mired in their own petty politics, and in all, theTime Lords had lost their sense of menace and awe. This just reminds me how series' change ideas and conceits as they go forward over the years, and Doctor Who - being so long-lived - naturally had more of this kind of change than any other series.

So on this Cult TV Friday Flashback, I remember the visually dynamic, frightening and even touching Dr. Who serial from 1969, "The War Games" - the last gasp of the Patrick Troughton era. See it if you can. If for no other reason than Patrick Troughton's goodbye to his companion Jamie, and his admonition to remember that "time is relative."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Thursday Retro Toy Flashback # 5: Little Golden Books

In previous Thursday retro-toy flashbacks I've highlighted the 2-XL Robot (which plays 8-track tapes...) lunch-boxes, model kits, and Colorform Adventure Playsets, but this week I want to make note of another glorious bit of my 1970s childhood: The Little Golden Books!

The story of the Little Golden Book goes back to September 1942 - during World War II - when Simon & Schuster began publishing these books with the sturdy golden spine for children. Sold at 25 cents a piece, these books sold by the millions. By the late 1970s, the books were selling for 69 cents a piece and had come to mirror "children's popular culture over the years," according to the official history, which you can find here.

Over the years, Little Golden Books have completed their commendable stated mission of reflecting childrens' pop culture by featuring books on such characters as Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Sesame Street, Barbie, Scooby Doo and Pokemon, but - as usual - I'm thinking of the genre-related movie/TV-related books from my own youth (the 1970s), of which you can see several examples here. Among them: Sid & Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost ("The Surprise Guests,") Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the Children of Hopetown, and even one based on the Disney sci-fi movie from Christmas of 1979, The Black Hole, ("A Spaceship Adventure for Robots).

See, I have a theory about these wonderful Little Golden Books and our "geek generation" (see
Geek Philosophy). I think that before many of us were old enough to get into comic-books, and before many of us were ready to move to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, we began our reading careers with these books. For me, I was young when the Land of the Lost book came out (in 1975...) and it allowed me to pursue my interest of the TV characters into a reading format. For those born later, they might have done the same with Buck Rogers or The Black Hole. And today, the same thing is happening. Young fans of Pokemon can turn first to a Little Golden Story Book and then beyond. It's an introduction to reading, spurred by the popularity of a TV show, and I believe it's a very good thing. It certainly helped me.

As The Little Golden Book
Timeline notes, these books have existed for more than sixty years, and in the process have become an "icon." The Smithsonian Institute, for instance, includes them in its Division of Cultural History, and in 2001, the books won a Dr. Toy Award for "Best Classic Toy." It's easy to see why, they are primers for good readers, and - for my generation at least - eased us from TV watching into reading. And for that, I know I'm very grateful.

Today I have several Little Golden Books, and you can see a few from my collection pictured here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Summer Movie Wrap-Up

We've arrived at the end of another blockbuster movie summer, and many in the industry and press have already written an epitaph for the season. There were a lot of failures at the box office in the summer of 2005, and some surprise hits too. Revealing once more the critical community's general disconnect from the vast movie-going populace, some of the least well-received films by critics (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Fantastic Four) are doing great business. And - in a reversal of the Seabiscuit Principle - some fine, well reviewed films (like Cinderella Man) have bombed.

A few articles on the topic of the summer box office sweepstakes can be found
here at the Post-Gazette, and also at The Chronicle, here. Box Office Mojo has the skinny on Michael Bay's The Island, and its weak debut here.

I realize that for many studios and films, this summer meant "flat" earnings, and some voices have decried the domination of re-makes and sequels at the box office, but - in the science fiction and horror genres at least - I'd say that overall filmmakers got things just about right this summer. We had some very fine films to enjoy, and ones that often succeeded on an artistic basis.

This is how I would rank the "big" genre offerings this summer:

1.) George A Romero's Land of the Dead: This is the sequel I waited 20 years for (literally...) and it did not disappoint. Although I was surprised to see a traditional white male "hero" take center stage in the zombie saga since Romero has a tradition of casting African-Americans (Night of the Living Dead) and women (Day of the Dead) as protagonists, otherwise this film surpassed expectations. Set in a future, post-zombie/post-apocalyptic world where the rich, greedy and white live in luxury in a skyrise called Fiddler's Green and everybody else lives in squalor, Romero's movie is the perfect metaphor for "Fortress America" and post-September 11th thinking. It reveals the folly in the notion that we can just lock ourselves up, ignore the rest of the world, and hope that global problems don't reach us. Dennis Hopper's line about not negotiating with terrorists got a huge laugh from the audience I saw the film with.

Beyond the rich subtext, however, I was also delighted to see that Romero hadn't lost his master's touch at scaring the wits out of audiences. I saw this film in a full auditorium of mostly over-thirty-year-old married couples, and people jumped and screamed through the whole show. The movie kept all of us on-edge. Both a brilliant reflection of our times and a scary date-movie at the same time, Land of the Dead is the best genre film of the summer, regardless of its box-office take. By its own rules, and by the standards of Romero's zombie series, this film is a winner.

2.) Batman Begins: Who knew that a re-boot could give this ailing franchise such a shot in the arm? No bones about it, this is the best Batman movie yet produced, invigorated by Christopher Nolan's freedom to start over and take everything a step at a time. I love that - for once - a Batman film focuses on Batman's technology, and the reality of how he creates his world of batmobiles, batarangs and the like. Other movies treat these gadgets and vehicles as a "given," and that just amps up the fantasy aspects. This is a movie that - a sign of the times, no doubt - is grounded in reality and earns every step it takes. I do think the film falls down a bit in the last act, but this is a minor quibble. Nolan's action scenes are claustrophobic and confusing (though I can see what he was going for...) and there are massive holes in the climax (hundreds of Gothamites must have been killed...), but at the center of all this is a rock-solid force named Christian Bale. He gives a great performance as Wayne/Batman, and shows what a talented actor can do with the role when he isn't being upstaged by silly one-liners or fantastic (but improbable...) set-pieces. With Batman Begins and Spider-Man I & II, the age of the Superhero Triumphant is truly upon us. Like Land of the Dead, there is also a splendid subtext here: the idea that the world is in our hands, and it is up to each one of us to stand up to corruption and graft. Take that Tom Delay!

The film's biggest weakness is the miscasting of Katie Holmes as a high-powered assistant district attorney. This isn't a slight against Holmes - I've enjoyed her performances in many films (including Sam Raimi's The Gift), but she doesn't appear old enough to have graduated from law school, let alone have risen through the ranks of a DA's office. And that Betty Boop voice makes it hard to take her line-readings seriously.

3.) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: I suppose this is a sentimental choice more than a solid critical one. This is the best of the prequel trilogy, but as many have pointed out, perhaps that isn't really saying much. This film - like Phantom Menace and Attack of The Clones - suffers from weak dialogue, poor plotting, and an obsession on juvenile genre concepts (a wheezing war droid that is built up as a terror but then easily dispatched; a giant lizard steed for Obi-Wan, etcetera).

Yet the last forty-five minutes or so of Sith are incredibly powerful, and unfold with an inevitability that is grand, and quite touching. As the film leads us back to the beginning of the saga, the original Star Wars, this film truly takes flight. We've known for years the fate of Obi-Wan, Vader, Yoda, etcetera, but to see it unfold before us is still amazing, and touching. Some critics have compared the film to The Godfather, and in some odd way, that's apt. Like Coppola's masterpiece, the last sequences of Revenge of the Sith don't play favorites; don't candy-coat the darkness for the Jar-Jar crowd, and don't minimize the terror of the Empire's ascent. The sequence that involves the assassination of the Jedi Order is one of the best set-pieces Lucas has yet directed, and utterly, totally chilling.

Again, I felt there was a rich sub-text in this film. "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," is Kenobi's response to Anakin's George W. Bush-like assertion that Obi Wan is either with him or against him. And the moment when the Emperor seizes power and Amidala notes that this "how democracy dies") - reminded me of the passage of the Patriot Act and how Americans have been asked to trade civil liberties for security. Positively chilling.

Overall, I enjoyed Revenge of the Sith tremendously, but again - I felt this way about Attack of the Clones in the theaters too. Then when I got the DVD home and watched it again, I realized just how flat and cartoony the whole enterprise was. I hope the same won't happen with Revenge of the Sith.

4. War of the Worlds: Frankly, I resisted seeing this Steven Spielberg film for weeks. Tom Cruise has made such a royal ass of himself between "couch jumping" on Oprah and haranguing Matt Lauer about psychiatric drugs that it drained every bit of desire I had to see the film. I'm not alone, either. There isn't one person in my circle of friends and associates who hasn't felt the same way. So if War of the Worlds isn't the mega-hit that some folks predicted, I say blame Cruise's oddball TV antics. It's probably not fair to judge the film based solely on a dislike of Cruise's behavior, but said behavior killed a lot of folks' interest in what should have been a must-see project, that's for sure.

As for the movie itself, it is actually a very powerful film at moments, picking up on and amplifying a subconscious dread at work in the culture; a fear of another September 11th, except on a grander scale. The special effects are great, the alien attacks are horrific, and the film garners major points for opening and closing with the eloquent words of H.G. Wells (read beautifully by narrator Morgan Freeman). The film is dark, substantial and serious, and at times, you almost want to turn away from the screen because it is clear that humans are, as Tim Robbins' character states - being ruthlessly exterminated. The sound of the alien "horn" becomes a signal for fear to the audiences, and gives one a bad case of the creeps.

But by the second half of the film, one begins to realize that Spielberg may have an unhealthy obsession with children. There are so many inherently interesting ideas about an alien invasion of Earth - and the impact on humanity - and yet Spielberg repeats the hackneyed subplot of Jurassic Park and makes it all about Tom Cruise learning to be a better father. This is not only contrived, but a bit insulting. There are so many other important stories one could tell in this sitaution - stories of personal courage, of sacrifice, helping those who AREN'T blood, of holding on to one's humanity in a time of the mob mentality, to name but a few. I wish Spielberg would focused more heavily on some of those themes.

And the film's ending is a total Hollywood cop-out. I'm not talking about the destruction of the aliens by Earth's germs - that's a given from the novel - but rather the idea that Tom Cruise's son would show up alive and unharmed in Boston. That's flatly unacceptable dramatically. No way. Again - and we've seen this in A.I. and other Spielberg films - there's a terrible tendency to oversentimentalize; to go for the maudlin and the cute rather than the authentic. So at the end of the War of the Worlds - Cruise's character Ray has lost nobody? Not one family member? Nope, cuz he's learned to be a good dad. He knew when to let his son go. Ugh. How much more powerful would the film have been had his son been killed, a casualty of the extermination? But as it stands, not one major character dies in the film, except Robbins (and Cruise, not the alien invaders, kills him,...). Even Ray's ex-wife, her parents, and the boyfriend are alive and well in Boston when the curtain falls.

I guess I'd give War of the Worlds a modest three stars. Much of it works well, and yet often in the film I would find myself thinking that it was just a long chase, and one that ends without a real climax to boot.

Any thoughts out there on this summer and the movies? What are your favorites? Least favorites? Why? Let me know!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Catnap Tuesday # 5

My littlest cat, Lily, picks some strange places to sleep. She likes the sink in our downstairs bathroom. And heck, even if there's a pot around...she's in it! So enjoy my Lily on this fifth Catnap Tuesday.