Saturday, August 20, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback # 5: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (A Marvel Super Special Magazine)

On December 7, 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered in theatres around America and the response was decidedly mixed. Some critics (including Roger Ebert) liked the film a lot; many others found it boring or somehow tepid. I had just turned ten (on December 3rd) when I saw the first film in the long-running movie franchise at Essex Green in suburban New and...I was immediately taken with it. In many ways, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains the only film in the 10-strong canon that actually looks and feels cinematic, rather than the unholy offshoot of a TV production. I believe that much of the film's look comes from director Robert Wise - master-storyteller of such films as The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, The Day The Earth Stood Still and West Side Story . In particular, I remember the glorious and spectacular opening sequence, one involving the destruction of three Klingon cruisers pursuing a space cloud of unknown origin and intent. Another fantastic scene (though often criticized for its lengthy duration...) saw Scotty and Kirk circle the refurbished U.S.S. Enterprise in drydock. At that time, I had never seen a space movie that felt more real.

As an intrepid fourth grader weaned on Space:1999, Star Trek and Star Wars, I was fascinated with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I quickly went about collecting every bit of merchandise from the film that I could get my pre-adolescent hands on. This included Mego's 3 inch action figures, the Gene Roddenberry "novelization" from Pocket books and - of course - the Marvel comic books.

I'll never forget the day I brought home the Marvel "super special magazine" and got to relive the grand big-screen adventure through comic-form. Marv Wolfman was the story adapter, and Dave Cockrum and Klaus Janson were responsible for the art. Like the Star Wars # 1 issue that I featured in my last flashback, this Star Trek adaptation was cool because it featured scenes that didn't make it into the actual feature film.

For instance, late in the film, Mr. Spock takes a spacewalk through the interior of the cloud ship and mind-melds with V'ger to determine that it is a living machine. The comic adaptation reflects an earlier draft (and a scene actually shot...) in which Captain Kirk joins Spock for that mission and is attacked by a swarm of antibody-like crystals. After Spock phasers the crystals attempting to crush the good captain, the duo heads out into V'ger's vast memory core and sees the destroyed Klingon ships stored there, another visual not featured in the film. The space walk is surely one of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's most inspiring and visually appealing moments, but this alternate version seems to capture the essence of Star Trek pretty well- particularly in the give-and-take between Kirk and Spock as they solve a mystery together.

But what really makes the Star Trek: The Motion Picture magazine from Marvel such a total and delightful immersion in Star Trek lore is that following the adaptation of the film are pages and pages of articles about Star Trek. There's Tom Rogers' "Star Trek - The Phenomenon," which looks at the history of the series from inception to cancellation, to big screen re-birth. There's "Touching Base with Reality: An Interview with Jesco von Puttkamer" by Marian Stensgard, a Q&A that gazes at the science behind the motion picture and also probes the NASA scientist about the future shuttle program! Finally, Tom Rogers offers a "Star Trek - The Motion Picture Glossary," a three page concordance of people, technology and vehicles featured in the film. There are useful entries on everything from "Air Tram," to "Wormhole distortion."

For a kid Trekker living only with repeats and one new film, this stuff was just fantastic. I devoured every bit of this special magazine. And Star Trek: The Motion Picture - flaws and all - still holds a special place in my heart from that magic movie year of 1979. (The year of The Black Hole, Alien, Moonraker, and ST: TMP).

Friday, August 19, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 6: Battlestar Galactica: "Lost Planet of the Gods"

During the long wait between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), there was only one good way to make the time go faster: watching Glen Larson's ABC epic space saga, Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) every Sunday night. Although the series got on the prime-time schedule because of Star Wars' powerhouse influence on the box office and the industry, I've always felt that the series quickly and confidently staked out its own terrain in a rather interesting fashion, so much so that a "re-imagination" of the concept wasn't really necessary. The ingredients in the first series always had the potential, as far as I was concerned, to carry a Galactica franchise well into the future.

As I write in my study of the series,
An Analytical Guide to Television's Battlestar Galactica (1998; McFarland and Company Inc., Pub), due to be re-printed this month in soft-cover form, Battlestar Galactica boasted "some rather remarkable and memorable strengths." After just a few short weeks on the air, the series regulars, including Richard Hatch as Apollo, Dirk Benedict as Starbuck, and Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, were "entrenched as interesting, surprisingly believable people whom audiences found they truly cared for. Like Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) or even Lassie (1954-71), Battlestar Galactica featured a tragedy each and every week: an emotional, family-oriented tearjerker."

Sadly, most critics didn't view the series in this fashion, perhaps because they were inclined only to see the similarities to Star Wars. "Star Wars was fun and I enjoyed it. But Battlestar Galactica was Star Wars all over again and I couldn't enjoy it without amnesia," wrote Isaac Asimov in his article "Science Fiction is More Than a Space Age Western," (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, September 17, 1978). Phil Hardly, in The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (William and Morrow Company, page 339), called the series "a charmless clone" of the George Lucas epic, and Time Magazine, on September 18, 1978, page 98, noted that Galactica was perhaps "the most blatant rip-off ever to appear on the small screen."

Despite the blasts (Stephen King even called Galactica a "deep space turkey"), some astute reviewers began to detect that the series had value and its own identity, in part because TV can be a much more intimate medium than the movies. By mere virtue of the fact that Galactica was on the air every week - beaming into our living rooms - its dramatis personae boasted a deeper "inner life" than those featured in the delightful Star Wars. On Galactica, characters developed, changed, and evolved, and I submit that it is this character development that is actually the reason for the series' sustained popularity over more than a quarter century. We liked these people. We cared about them. We wanted to know what would happen to them; how they would survive.

"For the most part, the characters are given more psychological dimension than the comic-strip cutouts engaged in Star Wars, and Galactica creator Larson has a deft knack for spaced out humor...Expensive, ingeniously crafted and singularly fun-filled," critic Harry Waters described Galactica for Newsweek on September 11, 1978. "It's amazing that Battlestar Galactica looked as good as it did," noted critic Tom Shales at the time, and in 1995 a book called Net Trek (page 311) commented insightfully that Battlestar Galactica was..."immensely enjoyable, and few shows since have matched it for pure entertainment value." Amen.

An episode that shows off the dramatic series at its very best is "Lost Planet of the Gods." This is the episode that aired immediately after the three-hour premiere, "Saga of a Star World," and it was broadcast on September 24, 1978 and October 1, 1978. Written by Glen A. Larson and Donald Bellisario, and directed by Christian Nyby, Jr., this episode guest stars Jane Seymour as Serina, Boxey's mother, and tells the tale of a deadly plague that incapacitates the rag-tag fleet's warrior contingent, forcing Apollo and Starbuck (both unaffected by the disease...) to train a group of raw recruits including Athena (Maren Jensen) and Serina. At the same time, the Galactica and her wards run across a strange void - an area of unremitting darkness -in space, and Adama believes this strange phenomenon is actually the hallowed path to the legendary planet called Kobol, the planet where the 13 tribes originated long, long ago. He believes that somewhere in Kobol's ancient cities may be the answer to the location of Earth, the Galactica's destination. Although the Cylons (and Baltar...) are in pursuit, the Galactica stops at Kobol to explore the cities,( after a star is detected in the void right at the height of Apollo and Serina's joining [marriage] ceremony.) In the end, the Cylons attack Kobol, and there is another tragedy...

The first hour of this two-part of Battlestar Galactica focuses mainly on the warriors coming down with a disease, a genre trope of not much interest, but what makes both segments work so well is the chemistry and character fireworks between Richard Hatch's Captain Apollo and Jane Seymour's Serina. There's a real romantic spark there, and the moments wherein Apollo and Serina bicker over her decision to become a viper pilot, have a real kitchen-sink reality to them, something you just won't find anywhere in Star Wars. These scenes - played out against the cramped, gray-battleship set design of Battlestar Galactica - evoke what remains best about the series; that it can focus on the loves and losses of the Colonials, a kind of From Here to Eternity in space.

"Lost Planet of the Gods," follows this couple from their fight in Apollo's quarters, to a tender marriage ceremony, to utter despair and loss when Serina is shot in the back on Kobol by a Cylon Centurion. The episode's coda - one of Galactica's very best - sees young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) and Apollo visit Serina's bedside as she lays dying. It's a horribly sad goodbye. Out in the hallway beyond, all of Apollo's friends and family gather in mourning. For me, this in particular is just a lovely touch to the show. The large cast is gathered to grieve with Apollo, and this is precisely the kind of moment that is missing on the new Galactica which - well-written though it may be - never quite manages to tug at the heartstrings (in part because it is too busy scoring political points about Abu Ghraib, 9/11, religious fanaticism, whathaveyou.)

The new cast - accomplished as it is - never seems actually be working together on the same show, instead seeming fragmented and at odds, chewing away at various and sundry sub-plots (and quoting from great war movies such as Patton or pop culture touchstones like Top Gun).

This "Lost Planet of the Gods" coda reveals that in the original Battlestar Galactica at least, the characters do care about each other, and there is growth, change, mourning, etc. Apollo is married, and loses Serina after the equivalent of five episodes (five hours of the series), so it isn't like a guest star just popped on and got killed. As viewers, we felt the attachment to Serina that Apollo did, and now watch as he must raise her little son alone. The death of Serina is a 20-Kleenex tearjerker, and the characters' reaction to this loss puts truth to the lie that Galactica was just about dogfights and Star Wars, just a "popcorn" show. On the contrary, the series often concerned itself with very human characters and the sacrifices they had to endure.

Richard Hatch - who is so good as the revolutionary Tom Zarek in the new Sci-Fi Channel Battlestar Galactica - gives a touching, heart-wrenching and thoroughly honest performance in "Lost Planet of the Gods," and it may be his best work in Galactica's canon. It isn't shmaltzy or histrionic, just very, very genuine. It is for that performance -and for the touching, human - emotional - finale that sees the cast gathered in grief, that I recall Battlestar Galactica's "Lost Planet of the Gods" for this sixth Friday Cult TV Flashback. The next time somebody remarks that the characters were just ciphers, or rip-offs from Star Wars, pop this episode in the DVD player and prove 'em wrong.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Retro-Toy Thursday Flashback # 6: Gerry Anderson's Starcruiser 1

In the late 1970s, Space:1999 and UFO co-creator Gerry Anderson and writer David Hirsch contributed "Gerry Anderson's Space Report" as a regular column to Starlog Magazine. As a ten-year old kid, I was a regular subscriber to Starlog and an avid reader of the magazine. In particular, I liked reading about what was going on with Space:1999, and I dreamed of a revival, or in its stead, something new from Gerry Anderson. When issue # 21 arrived in the mail in April of 1979, I was in heaven at what I saw.

Emblazoned on the back cover of the magazine was a huge advert for a spanking new sci-fi model kit/toy from the US Airfix company (P.O. Box 850, Hewitt Texas, 76643). It was called "Starcruiser 1." This "new-snap-together space kit" was an amazingly detailed spacecraft created by Gerry Anderson (copyright Gerry Anderson Marketing Ltd., 1978). Not far removed from the technology of Space:1999, the unique craft was actually four spaceships in one, a heavily-armed (with defensive weaponry called "neutropedos" ) interceptor unit, a command module (where the pilots would sit...), a main unit with seven engines, which housed the top secret "Kryten Reactor," which was powered "by laser-fusion, using pellets of deuterium as fuel."), and a command base (a kind of all-terrain vehicle that could explore a planet surface). Even better, A Starcruiser 1 implicitly promised a Starcruiser 2...

On page 32 of Starlog # 21, all sorts of helpful information about this spaceship design (and model kit) was contained in an article called "The Birth of Starcruiser 1," that came along with an "Interestellar Command Technical Profile" of the ship and crew. In the article, Mr. Anderson explained that with his business partner Keith Shackleton, he had come to understand that the vehicles for his programs (such as Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, and the aforementioned UFO and Space:1999) were popular model kits even in regions where the programming did not air on TV. In other words, kids had a fascination with unique space vehicles, even if they weren't big fans. This gave the Anderson people the idea to market Starcruiser 1, an inventive spaceship design that had no media tie-in, but which nonetheless could be quite popular. It was an original model design, and as anyone who reads this blogs remembers, I had a true love affair with TV/movie model-kits growing up. That Gerry Anderson had designed this special craft just made it all the more appealing to me as a kid. And best of all, I didn't have to limit my adventures to S.H.A.D.O. or Moonbase Alpha. My imagination could man this ship, and create its universe.

But the "Intersteller Command Technicle Profile" certainly helped pave the way for specific and fun adventures with the model by listing a prospective crew, which included Mission Commander, Captain Christopher Stevens, Navigator/Astrophysicist Lt. Andrew Dehner, Medical Officer Dr. Brian Moore, Technical Officer Professor Melita Alterra who was "also responsible for the design and construction of Starcruiser 1." The Head of Intersteller Command was "Commander Edward Damion." I remember many days of play and imagination thinking up what these characters would be like. In my head, the captain and the astrophysicist were romantically linked, and my Professor Alterra was an older guy with a heavy German accent. Commander Edward Damion was the hard-ass superior who would occasionally tag along on Starcruiser 1 for especially difficult diplomatic missions. Not especially original? Perhaps not, but hey, I was frigging ten years old.

Of course, I bought the Starcruiser 1 model (in fact, I've had three of 'em over my lifetime...) at a Toys R Us in Paramus, New Jersey, and to my delight, the directions for the kit also came with a dynamic eight panel comic-strip that revealed A "Starcruiser 1 Typical Mission Sequence" (see panels). Again, I thought it was great that Gerry Anderson was fueling the imagination of his young fans by showing how the ship worked in a prospective adventure, while also keeping the universe "loose" enough for imagination to play a key role. As the last frame of the comic noted, "You can enact the story once you have assembled your Starcruiser kit and then....why not make up a Starcruiser story of your own." That's precisely what I did. For months...

Needless to stay, Starcruiser 1 became one of my favorite kits (and still is...), and I even outfitted my own modified Starcruiser 2 when I bought my second kit. I decaled it differently, painted it, and made it a different design. A year or so later, a actual second multi-unit ship came along from Airfix, called the Cosmic Clipper, and I loved that one just as much. Alas, I haven't seen that one available on E-bay at all in the last several years, but I was able to pick up my third Starcruiser 1 there as a birthday present a few years back.

So in a world where model kits aren't that popular anymore, this week I wanted to highlight one such kit - an original one - that I absolutely loved, and takes me back to the year 1979. This was the era when Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Alien, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Moonraker, Destination Moonbase Alpha and The Black Hole were all inspiring me to imagine my own adventures in the deepest regions of outer space.

I hope kids today have some kind of toys or kits like these...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

King Kong, Seventies Style

In December, Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings; Bad Taste) unveils to the world his remake of the 1933 fantasy masterpiece King Kong. No doubt it will be the ticket to beat at the box office come Christmas time. But I must wonder, will long-time Kong fans respond to this new film the way they did when King Kong was first re-made almost thirty years ago, back in 1976? That film was also a big Christmas time ticket, made with the (then...) most current special effects, and a big budget.

Granted, this new, 2005 Kong looks more faithful than the John Guillermin, Dino De Laurentiis remake of 1976, being set in the 1930s like the original, but as a child of the 1970s - and at the risk of incurring the wrath of the purists - there's still something special about the disco decade version of the film. It still holds a special place in this Generation X'er's heart. It's the version I (and many others...) grew up with, so I'm not ashamed to say I like it. That is not a view shared by many long-time genre fans, however. In fact, I remember I once had a book editor who called it a "bomb" and said that I couldn't refer to it in one of my books, because it wasn't the real Kong. That's the sort of nonsense I occasionally run into when the older generation attempts to keep its icons at the top of the heap, at the expense of my generation's.

As director John Guillermin noted in Starlog # 160, in an interview with Lowell Goldman (November 1990, page 61),
"The film simply isn't allowed to speak for itself...It was totally different from the original, which is now considered a classic. That was an enormous thing to overcome..."

But that's all prologue. The 1976 King Kong starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange is actually a very strong film - at least from an objective critical opinion - because it accomplishes what few remakes have: it takes all the elements that made the material so strong and powerful in the 1930s, and then updates those elements for the world of the 1970s. The original film - made and set during the Great Depression - showcased a magnficent fantasy to find and bring back something to the civilized world that had never before been seen - "The Eighth Wonder of the World," and all that. In general, the attitude was one of American ingenuity, can-do and bravura as Carl Denham, with his new-fangled gas grenades, braved a dangerous (read non-white, non Christian...) world to bring back surpreme entertainment for a proud people who had been brought low by economic misfortune. The original (and brilliant...) film was about man against beast, man against nature, and in it America strode above the world. Our airplanes - our superior technology - finally took down Kong during an "attack" on our City, and there was little doubt about the value of American might.

It would have been very difficult to tell that same story in the 1970s Kong, and it was wise of the filmmakers to choose otherwise. As the disco decade commenced, there was not Depression, but an an Energy Crisis. The Vietnam War had discolored permanently American attitudes about foreign intervention, and the fall of President Nixon because of Watergate disillusioned Americans who believed that a president was supposed to be a "hero."

Thus it is appropriate and interesting that the King Kong of our Bicentennial year featured a journey not of open-ended exploration aboard a ship called "Venture," but rather one of desperation, a search for limited resources serving as the reason behind visiting Kong's island. And since the Watergate scandal had fueled cynicism about authority figures, Lorenzo Semple's screenplay re-imagined moviemaker Carl Denham as Fred Wilson, someone far less trustworthy; an anti-hero, an opportunist, a greedy, nature-raping corporate type. This is what Richard Eder of The New York Times wrote about King Kong's thematic shift from the 1930s to the 1970s in his story "Hollywood is Having an Affair with the Anti-Hero" (January 2, 1977, Section 2, page 1):

"The impulse to explore, to discover, to bring back what you've discovered [ - that which we found in] the first King Kong is now replaced by simple greed - the greed of the oil company representative Fred Wilson, to find a gusher; his greed in trying to convert King Kong into a gusher of a different sort."

He's right, and beyond that, the mission to Skull Island in the remake serves also as an allegory for American involvement in Vietnam. It is a mission whereby the enemy is neither understood nor respected, but deadly and powerful nonetheless. "Six of my guys are cut off in the bush and you're building monkey traps?" one shell-shocked Kong hunter complains to Wilson at a critical moment, making the Vietnam connection clear. Thus, the audience detects Wilson is applying, or rather mis-applying, American technology in a so-called "primitive" land without comprehending the consequences of his actions. His men may as well be soldiers out there "in the bush," trying to fight an enemy who is smarter than his appearance lets on. Many of 'em learn the error of their ways on a fallen log connecting the two walls of a ravine...

But the 1970s King Kong also goes far beyond the original in another way. The first film utilized show business as the avenue to Kong's island. In the Great Depression, many moviegoers forgot their troubles in the darkness of of movie theatres, and King Kong was the latest such diversion. In the re-make, corporations exploit the "show business," celebrity-driven, commercial culture of America in the 1970s. Wilson is both an oil company executive and the host of the Kong party. Dwan - Kong's lady love in this version - is a failed actress hoping to achieve her 15 minutes of fame; obsessed with her own celebrity. The oil company requires a mascot, and so the mighty Kong himself becomes a celebrity of sorts. Yet all these characters become trapped by their prominence in the public eye: Wilson is crushed by Kong while performing his duties as host; Dwan loses Jack - the man she loves; and Kong is murdered when he breaks fee of his commercial shackles. This time, his murder does not champion technology and American might, but is seen as a tragedy, or as Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) calls it, " a farce." The helicopters circle and destroy a proud animal, one who should never have been brought to the States. In the 1970s Kong, even the final attack is a mis-application of American power.

Considering these points, the 1970s King Kong is evocative of a far less romantic aesthetic than that imagined in the early 1930s. For all the free love and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and the 1970s, as a nation we were much less romantic and idealistic than we were in the 1930s, and this King Kong reflects that fact. King Kong fans may prefer the more child-like, wondrous, fantasy-world imagined by the 1930s adventure (in part because they experienced it in their youth...), but the 1970s version reflects a different (but no less valuable) Zeitgeist. It is the "cynical" and "realistic" version of King Kong; in contrast to the fantasy version of the Great Depression.

This is just one reason to laud the remake. It could have tried - note for note - to accomplish the exact same thing as the 1930s version. Instead, we get a companion piece that speaks powerfully to a different generation and a different time. The remake attempts to expand and re-imagine Kong's universe (and importance to American myth...) rather than merely rehash that which cannot be surpassed...the fantastic original. Where the new Kong really succeeds, perhaps, is in the humanization and sentimentalization of Kong. During the conclusion on the World Trade Centers, the mighty ape is literally a guy fighting City Hall.

So this cynical, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, Energy Crisis era King Kong is as much a product and reflection of its time as was the original, but in the 21st century, it is - ironically - the 1970s Kong that still resonates with us and carries such currency. The Energy Crisis of 2005, the quagmire in the Iraq War -- these are all "remakes" of 1970s issues, aren't they? And so the Guillermin Kong seems more timely than ever. And in an age where CGI monsters evoke little human feeling, this depiction of the mighty Kong still pulls at the heartstrings. He may appear low-tech in the age of Jar-Jar Binks and Gollum, but low-tech isn't always such a bad thing.

I look forward to Peter Jackson's revival of Kong, and I hope the director remembers that audiences require a King Kong for 2005, one that speaks to us the way the 1976 version spoke to audiences of that age. We don't need a light, fluffy, nostalgic Kong that accomplishes exactly the same things as the original film. Because, after all, we already have seen that movie, and you just can't beat a masterpiece by copying it note for note. So that's why I appreciate the 1970s version. It is different from its progenitor, and bold in those differences. It serves to remind us how King Kong - as a cornerstone of American modern mythology - can adapt with the times and remain valuable.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Catnap Tuesday # 6

Here's my beautiful Lila (the Scarlett O'Hara of my cats). She's sleeping on the entertainment center, above the TV and cable box, and right in front of all my book titles. Yes, it looks like my books put her to sleep. This is the area where my first cat, Lulu, used to sleep and hang out a lot - high over everybody else. When Lulu passed away in 2003, Lila decided it was time for her to move into Lulu's apartment, and, well, there she is.