Saturday, September 10, 2005

Sci-Fi TV's Sexiest Resident Alien - Maya!

There are a lot of characters to choose from in this category, and because of my orientation, I guess, I'm focusing on women. Various incarnations of modern Star Trek have introduced the world to the Trill officer Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell) and her replacement, Ezri Dax (Nicole De Boer), and cat-suited Amazons like Seven-of-Nine (Jeri Ryan) and T-Pol (Jolene Blalock). Outside of the United Federation of Planets, Diana (Jane Badler) and Lydia (June Chadwick) made extra-terrestrial evil spectacularly sexy in V: The Series back in the 1980s; the kind of "Visitor" we hoped would stay around for a while...if they didn't end up killing us and serving us up on a platter.

More recently, Claudia Black's Aeryn Sun gave us years of athleticism, attitude, strength and other sexy qualities on the Sci-Fi Channel's Farscape. Going back to the 1970s, Katie Saylor - as Lianna - was a valuable team and "family" member in the short-lived The Fantastic Journey, and I must say, I get more e-mail at my web-site about Katie Saylor and "what ever happened to her" than virtually any other topic. So we must take time to remember Ms. Saylor and her contributions to the genre too. On Doctor Who, the Time Lady Romana (played by Mary Tamm and Lalla Ward) both proved that "smart" is sexy, and currently, Tricia Helfer plays "Number Six" on the new Battlestar Galactica. When her spine isn't glowing red during sex (wouldn't you notice that detail in certain - ahem - positions?), she's busy proving a kittenish and buxom distraction to the hapless Baltar...

No doubt all of these "resident aliens" are terrific, but I think the award for the sexiest (female) alien character still must go to one of the genre originals, Catherine Schell as Maya on the British TV series from the 1970s, Space: 1999. Why? well, first, just look at the photos accompanying this post, two in character, one in her natural state. Secondly - and more importantly - sexy isn't just about a great body, and it ain't just about brains, either. For me, sexiness is also about a sense of confidence (not arrogance, mind you, just confidence), and also a joy and irony about one's self. A woman who is intelligent, attractive, confident and good-humored is the whole package. I should know, I married a woman just like that, and who - I've been told - actually looks like Ezri Dax from DS9. Of course, my beautiful wife (Kathryn) isn't an alien...though she has dressed up as a Vulcan in an original Starfleet uniform for me from time to time. But enough of that...

Anyhoo, for those who don't remember her, Catherine Schell's Maya joined the ranks of Moonbase Alpha in the first Year Two (1976-1977) episode of Space:1999 entitled "The Metamorph." She is a native of the planet Psychon, and long before Odo first turned into a carry-on bag, she utilized her powers of "molecular transformation" as a shapeshifter. Sometimes she is known as a "metamorph" or "transmorph." Like all her people, Maya is incredibly intelligent, with a mind that can run circles around the most high-powered computer. As a Psychon, she is, we are told in "Seed of Destruction," "hyper sensitive to all forms of living matter." Indeed, Maya is also a pacifist, deploring the violence of the planet Earth when told of it in "Rules of Luton. "You mean, people killed people, just because they were different. That's disgusting!" She decried in that very episode.

But Maya is also one tough cookie. She regularly turns into frightening outer space creatures to stop the monster of the week in episodes such as "The Beta Cloud" and "The Bringers of Wonder." She stands up to the Commander when she believes he is wrong ("Seed of Destruction" again), and is just as comfortable flying an Eagle or running the science station in Command Center as she is in a party dress ("One Moment of Humanity.") The great thing about Maya is that she also has an impish (and sexy...) sense of humor, which she displays on many memorable occasions. In "The Exiles," Maya turns into an exact duplicate of Helena Russell, for instance, and kisses Commander Koenig, demanding to know if he can tell her apart from the real Dr. Russell. Kinky. In other episodes, she torments her would-be lover Tony Verdeschi (the late Tony Anholt) by turning into Mr. Hyde after drinking his abominable beer, and so on.

I also like Maya because Catherine Schell played her as very feminine. Is that a sexist comment? I don't think so. Unlike the message our society sends us constantly, being feminine is not the antithesis of being strong, as some people seem to think. Too many characters in science fiction television (and I'm thinking of the new Starbuck on Battlestar Galactica) seem to believe that for a woman to be strong, she must also be butch; she must be "masculine." I disagree, and believe that strength and nobility are often feminine qualities. For one thing, who else could carry a baby for nine months and then go through the pain of delivery? I'd love to see George W. Bush or some other "strong" "masculine" "cowboy"-type male leader bear up under that kind of pressure. Women are also psychologically strong, and some studies indicate they make better soldiers than men because they better understand working for the common good. So I resent it when "butch" women are fed to us in the media as the "strong" ideal in this culture, because this just reinforces the idea that maleness equates to strength. Not so, I say.

I find Catherine Schell's Maya to be feminine and strong in a way that our culture doesn't often allow. I love, for instance, in the episode "The Taybor" how she puts off the alien trader's sexual advances. He puts his hand on her leg and claims it is just a gesture of friendship. Seeing it as the inappropriate advance that it is, Maya returns the favor with a smile. Her hand shapeshifts into that of some green, scaled-monster, and she squeezes the Taybor's lap. A gesture of friendship reciprocated in full, thank you very much...what's good for the goose is good for the gander.

In Year Two of Space:1999, Maya was definitely Moonbase Alpha's most valuable player (and as critic Tom Shales once famously declared, the only woman to ever look sexy in sideburns). I've had the good fortune to interview Catherine Schell twice, once over the phone in 1994, and once in person at the Main Mission Convention in Manhattan in 2000. I think it's fair to state that Schell has a sense of humor and dignity equal to Maya's, and I've always followed her career with interest. She's fantastic opposite Peter Sellers in The Return of the Pink Panther (1975), and also joined the ranks of "Bond Girl" in the underrated 1969 George Lazenby film On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969). Sci-fi fans can also see her in flicks like Moon Zero Two and T
V episodes such as Dr. Who's "City of Death (1978).

It's been just about thirty years since the talented Ms. Schell brought Maya to such memorable life, but many fans - including this one - have never forgotten what she accomplished in those 24 hour-long episodes. Almost fifteen years before Dr. Crusher and Counselor Troi (both nurturers and health-care professionals; one step up from Nurse Chapel...) were looking cute smashing crockery over the heads of villains in Star Trek: The Next Generatioin episodes like "Q-pid" (rhymes with "stupid"), Maya on Space:1999 was co-piloting an Eagle through asteroid belts ("Mark of Archanon"), solving scientific dilemmas and rescuing her stranded crew-mates ("Journey to Where"), standing up to authority in "Seed of Destruction," and willing to sacrifice herself for the good of her friends ("The Dorcons.") It's ironic that Jadzia and Ezri, Seven, Aeryn and the like all came soooo much later than Maya - a character whom producers Freddy Freiberger and Gerry Anderson once considered spinning-off to her own series.

"I never thought of Maya as a role model," Ms. Schell told me during our interview, "perhaps because in my life I have never been held back from doing something just because I am a woman. I'm thrilled that she is seen by many as I role model, but I didn't intend it that way. Perhaps because Maya was an alien, she was allowed to do more than 'human' women were at the time."

For whatever reason it happened, Maya represents one of science-fiction television's most three-dimensional and sexy female alien characters, and that's why I think she's so damn hot. She can be innocent and tortured in one show ("The Metamorph," "Journey to Where"), impish in another ("The Exiles") and passionate ("The Beta Cloud") in the next. Any thoughts about this topic out there? Who do you think is the sexiest resident alien in science-fiction television history (female or male), and why? And, more importantly, do you remember (and love) Maya as much as I do?

Friday, September 09, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 9: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Once More With Feeling"

When I consider the ten best hours of TV ever produced (not just genre programming, but in general), I think of the final episode of The Fugitive, Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever," the M*A*S*H series finale, and last but certainly not least, a sixth season episode of Joss Whedon's brilliantly post-modern horror/superhero series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although there are many outstanding episodes of Buffy (including "Hush," "The Gift," "Conversations with Dead People," "The Prom," and "Earshot"), it is "Once More With Feeling," the all-singing, all-dancing musical episode, that shines today as something truly amazing, and transcends the both its genre and the medium. Critic David Klein called it "absolutely captivating," and "like nothing" he'd seen on regular series television, which he's watched and written about for more than twenty years. (Electronic Media, July 9, 2002, page 6.) He's spot-on.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has been called a "post-feminist parable on the challenge of balancing one's personal and work life," (Time Magazine, December 29, 1997, page 137), and a "literal scream and always a hoot," (TV Guide, January 2-8, 1999, page 23). "Just about the best horror show on television" according to Cinefantasique (October 1997, page 137), Buffy has also been praised for the fact that "no other show balances so many elements as deftly, without a trace of corniness or melodrama" (Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly: "Oujia Broads," November 6, 1998). "Once More With Feeling" boasts all those strengths, and more.

For its sixth season, Buffy the Vampire Slayer moved from its long-time home at the WB to UPN. In the fifth season finale, Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had died while saving the world from an evil God named Glory, and for the sixth season she was resurrected by her friends (including Willow and Xander), but something went terribly wrong. Our stalwart slayer had been pulled out of a heavenly after-life - not a hell dimension, as her friends feared - and now our mortal coil was all pain and suffering for Buffy. She felt disconnected, alone, out-of-touch, but the gallant Chosen One just couldn't express these emotions to her friends, and so she felt the pain in silence and isolation. Until "Once More with Feeling," a musical treatise about communication, about the songs we sing to ourselves, about the secrets we hide and yearn to share.

"Once More With Feeling" aired on November 5, 2001. Written and directed by Joss Whedon, the episode also featured original music and lyrics by this artist, with songs produced and arranged by Jesse Tobias and Christopher Beck. Choreographer Adam Shankman was responsible for not just fight scenes in graveyards, but dance numbers too.

The episode's action starts when a demon called Sweet (Hinton Battle) arrives in Sunnydale, summoned by someone close to Buffy. He casts a spell on the town that makes every inhabitant sing and dance about their innermost emotional issues. That doesn't sound so bad, except that the urge to release the singin' and dancin' also happens to cause murderous spontaneous combustion, and consequently townies are dropping like flies. Buffy and her friends - including the lovelorn vampire Spike (James Marsters) - investigate the crisis, but all the while sing their own tunes. Spike sings "Rest in Peace," imploring Buffy to stop toying with his emotions, or leave him alone. Buffy sings "Going Through the Motions," about her detachment from the world. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) croons about holding Buffy back ("Standing"), and Xander and Anya sing a duet, a 1930s-style "pastiche" called "I'll Never Tell," that reveals their fears about their romantic relationship and marriage plans. In the end, Buffy's secrets are revealed in the final confrontation with Sweet, and her friends know, at last, what is up with the Slayer. The honesty and hurt evidenced in this crescendo is practically jaw-dropping. It's devastating, but in the style of the old-fashioned movie musical, the episode climaxes with a kiss and curtain dropping. "Where do we go from here?" The cast sings, and as viewers of this fascinating series, we are aware that - again - the the characters are headed to new and dangerous places. Nothing on Buffy remains static; everything changes, and "Once More with Feeling" is a turning point.

"The thing about musicals," Joss Whedon told me in an interview for my new book, Singing a New Tune: The Re-birth of the Modern Film Musical (which features a chapter on "Once More with Feeling"), "is you sing what you can't say. In the same way as shutting up [in "Hush"] caused everybody to open up in ways they hadn't before, singing did the same thing...The heart of the matter - what the person is feeling, what the person needs to communicate, the great revelation, the denouement, whatever it is - all of this should be expressed through song."

Buffy The Vampire Slayer has always concerned language, and how characters use it to conceal, dissemble, reveal, lie, deny or express love. How the Scoobies sometimes look at Buffy (as a superhero) and themselves (as sidekicks) in dialogue ("Avengers Assemble!" Xander quips in one episode) is one of the perpetual joys of the show and "Once More With Feeling" takes the characters in exciting new directions and lays bare their emotions in another manner of communication - not psychologically-adroit patter, but the simplicity and elegance of song. It's a bit amazing that a show this good - boasting a dozen full-fledged musical numbers - could be made on a TV budget and within TV time limitations, but every single song in "Once More with Feeling" brings out new facets of the characters, and gives the series a wind behind its back for the remainder of the sixth season; one of my personal favorites.

The musical is a form that's perpetually out of fashion lately, but Joss Whedon did the seemingly impossible here. He made the artificial, theatrical form not just palatable to an increasingly "reality" obsessed world - but actually irresistible - especially to genre fan boys like myself. In fact, I credit this episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and Baz Luhrmann's dazzling Moulin Rouge) - both from 2001 - with sparking my research and love affair with movie musicals. "Once More with Feeling" is not only the finest and most involving episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it's one of the great hours in TV history, with a brilliant soundtrack to match the action on screen.

"It's such an alchemy,"
Whedon notes. "It's so hard to get it right, but if a musical really does hit people, they'll love it more than any damn thing in the world. Because music speaks to people more than anything else does...When you put in exciting lyrics, characters you love and all that good stuff, everything heightens. It takes you to another level of existence."

"Once More With Feeling" proves Whedon's thesis in spades. It is an installment of Buffy (and genre television...) that transcends standard episodic television, and just about everything else out there too.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Writer Interview: Christopher Wayne Curry; A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis

On August 24th, I featured a book review of A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis on this blog. The book (from Creation Cinema Publishers) is a very enjoyable (and highly-detailed) history and celebration of a notorious "fringe" filmmaker who directed highly exploitable films such as Blood Feast and The Wizard of Gore. The co-author of this film book is the young Christopher Wayne Curry - pictured left with Mr. Herschell Gordon Lewis himself! - and he recently consented to an interview about the book and his love of the Gordon canon.

One of my goals for this blog all along has been to feature the work of young filmmakers and authors, so I was thrilled to have this conversation with Mr. Curry, and I appreciate his willingness to discuss his work in print in detail.

MUIR: In the introduction to your excellent survey, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, you write about your first experience discovering his films in a video store. Can you take us back to that moment (1985, I believe?) and what your first thoughts were? Why was this such a pivotal moment?

CURRY: Yes, 1985 is correct. Well, my first thoughts, as I held the box for Blood Feast were, “What is this thing, and how could a film made in 1963 possibly be as gory as this description would have me believe?” The pivotal moment came when I saw the first murder / gore sequence. I mean, it happened inside of 3 minutes and it was really BLOODY and not that deep dark red blood that was so prominent in the mid-to-late 80's, but this very bright stuff.

I should also add, that I was immediately taken by Herschell’s long, lingering shots of the blood and gore. The gore / horror films that I’d seen in those days had these very quick and hurried edits that showed very little of what I was wanting to see. Herschell just seemed to relish in the notion or idea of rubbing my face and nose into his work. It was kinda like riding a roller coaster for the first time; it’s exhilarating yet scary as you just don’t know what awaits you around the corner.

MUIR: As you began to see more H.G. Lewis films, what factor continued to obsess you? How do you see the director as important historically? Had you been aware that he worked so much outside the horror genre?

CURRY: One of the factors that kept me coming back was how raw and unpretentious these films were. There’s a real honesty in the movies that Herschell made. Ted V. Mikels, William Grefe, Ray Dennis Steckler, Michael and Roberta Finlay are all examples of the “do it yourself” school of filmmaking. These types of directors rarely have the opportunity to work on a sound stage, so 98% of their movies are shot on actual locations.

For instance, in the opening scene of Blood Feast we get a brief tour of the victim’s apartment and it’s an apartment from 1963, not some slick Hollywood version of 1963. I really liked this aspect of Herschell’s movies, they were like some sort of time capsules. Obviously, the movies are depicting a fictitious story, but they are depicted in very real places where very real people live with their furnishings and decor that were popular or accessible to them in their geographic region.

Historically speaking, Herschell is the progenitor of the “gore film.” Good, bad or otherwise, Blood Feast was the first movie to show blood and guts merely for the sake of showing blood and guts. Of course, there were films out there that showed blood from time to time, but not nearly as unabashedly as Herschell did -- and certainly not for the same reasons. Herschell and his partner Dave Friedman set out to make a picture that either the major Hollywood studios couldn’t make or wouldn’t make, and in the end, they wound up creating a whole new genre of motion picture. Now, being the “godfather of gore” ranks Herschell somewhere in the annals of film history, but I also think the “time capsules” that I talked about earlier also qualify as being somewhat historical.

Was I aware that Herschell worked so extensively outside the horror genre? Not initially, no. It really wasn’t until I got a hold of the RE/Search book Incredibly Strange Films that I realized the vast number of subjects that Herschell was willing to exploit on film.

MUIR:
How and when did you decide to turn your admiration for this director into a book, and how did you find a publisher? How long did this process take, and was it difficult?

CURRY: I decided to write my own H.G. Lewis book after I found out that the only H.G. Lewis book in existence had been out of print for many years and fetched a healthy sum of $100.00 or more. Of course this was pre-E-bay days and you can get it much cheaper now, but in the early 90's The Amazing Herschell Gordon Lewis and His World of Exploitation Films was relatively impossible to come by. It was a means-to-an-end kind of thing.

I started hunting down a publisher by sending a query letter first, and then once they responded positively, I’d send them a package with 3 or 4 sample chapters, along with an outline of the entire work. Usually I wouldn’t get past sending a query. I received tons of rejection letters, mostly form letters with a stamped signature at the bottom thanking me for my interest in their publishing house, but they are not currently accepting new submissions or some such thing.

Now, I didn’t have an agent and so it was very difficult to find a publisher. All in all, I spent as much time writing the thing as I spent attempting to convince someone else that it was worth publishing. Here’s an interesting story, Fantasma Publishing was the first to have owned my work and it was the next book on their list to release, but in the meantime, they were sued completely out of business by Toho for releasing an unauthorized chronicle of Godzilla films. Well, in all that turmoil my manuscript and all of my materials were lost for a time in Key West. This period was incredibly difficult, as they had a lot of my original stills and one-sheets. Obviously, I had photocopies of the text, but there were all of the one-of-a-kind items that I could never replace. Eventually my stuff was sent back, and a year or so later I was picked up by Creation Books out of England.

MUIR: What was it like collaborating with your (very gentlemanly...) father on the project? As your Dad, did he ever pull rank on you?

CURRY: As a kid, he was the one who helped me with my research papers and my term papers and things of that nature, so it was mostly like a much larger version of that. I’d always seem to pick a subject matter that took place way before my time, and so he’d be kind enough to lend his thoughts and commentaries. It was easy for him to talk about that stuff because he lived through those time periods, and I think our book is all the better for it. And no, he never pulled rank on me, he was very patient, probably more patient than I was with him.

MUIR: Your book has so much visual appeal. How did you go about locating the photographs and advertising illustrations? Was this a difficult task?

CURRY: With the exception of a few things, Dan Krogh allowed me the use of those stills and photos and graphics, so it wasn’t difficult at all in regards to locating illustrations for the book. Dan - as you may or may not know - is also the co-author of the elusive H.G. Lewis book that I spoke of before. By the way, I finally did get a copy of it , and I was also lucky enough to meet Dan and have him sign it.

MUIR: You interviewed Mr. Lewis, so tell us, what are your impressions of him? Did he live up to your expectations, exceed them? How long were you on the phone with him? Have you continued a correspondence?

CURRY: Herschell’s a real gentleman to say the least. He was flattered at my admiration for him and his films, and he was always congenial and willing to answer questions whenever I called or e-mailed. The actual interviews that appear in the second half of the book are one shot deals, conversations if you will, and that particular chat with Herschell lasted somewhere in the area of 90 minutes. I haven’t necessarily kept in frequent touch with Herschell, though he does answer any e-mails I send , and I’ve run into him at conventions from time to time.

MUIR: How did you like working with Creation Cinema? Was that a good experience?

CURRY: Mostly it was all good, but nothing is 100% perfect. The majority of problems I had were due to my own ignorance. Like, I’d spoken with Dan Krogh about his book and he’d mentioned going over the “proofs,” and so I just took it for granted that Creation would send me a “proof” for my approval. They didn’t, and subsequently some things were left out of the book that I would have rather seen left in, even at the cost of editing out another portion. Oh well, I learned my lesson there.

MUIR: What thing (or things) would you like prospective readers to understand about a.) Herschell Gordon Lewis and b.) about your book itself? Where can the book be ordered today?

CURRY: Well, the first thing to know about Herschell is that he was not an artist of film making, he’s an artist of money making. As he’s said before, “I found out that I could put film in one end of my camera and money would come out the other.” Also, there aren’t any socio-political undercurrents to his movies. His films didn’t address any serious issues or concerns though some of them (his films) became targets of great concern. In the end Herschell is merely a business man. If a genre, whether it was gore, bikers, E.S.P., Rock and Roll or LSD, were to become unmarketable then he’d find some other subject to exploit for profit. I’m in no way suggesting that he didn’t enjoy making movies, because I know that he did. And he only got out of it because the drive-in markets were drying up and the distributors were becoming increasingly more difficult to deal with and the ratings boards were always on his back and so forth and so on. Recently he’s gotten back into it by doing Blood Feast 2 and I believe he has another project or two on the plate as well.

In regards to my work, I’d like to mention that the tone and the pacing of the book was meant to read like an H.G. Lewis movie plays. I never wanted to talk above the subject matter, because quite frankly there was no reason to. Herschell was a business man armed with a movie camera and I saw no reason to get analytical or poetic about it. I loved the movies, there’s no doubt about it, but if you’re looking for some deep study of sub-texts and underlying meanings in his films then A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis is not for you.

MUIR: What is your favorite H.G. Lewis horror film and why? Favorite non-horror film, and why? If a film student were starting out a study of the director's work, what is the first film you'd recommend?

CURRY: I’d have to say Blood Feast. I can watch that thing over and over again and never tire of it. It’s the first of its kind and for that reason I think anyone interested in Herschell’s cinema should start there. It has its historical value, and even today it still packs one helluva wallop.

My favorite non-horror H.G. Lewis film? Usually I’d say She Devils On Wheels, but that one does have some gore effects in it as well as a beheading, so it is approaching the horror genre, so I’d have to say The Girl, The Body and The Pill. This was Herschell’s cash-in on the newly introduced birth control pill. Herschell stepped right up to the plate and had his lead teenie bopper Nancy Lee Noble swapping out her mother’s contraceptives for another timely item, saccharine tablets. To no one’s surprise Nancy’s character “Randy” becomes promiscuous as hell and her mother becomes pregnant out of wedlock and has to undergo a back alley abortion. I think Nancy Lee Noble is cute as a button in this one and it also stars Bill Rogers who I think was one of Herschell’s better actors. Bill also starred as the vampire character in Herschell’s A Taste Of Blood.

MUIR: What is your next project, and can you tell us more about it? Where can readers find additional examples of your work?

CURRY: Currently I am hammering away at a piece that chronicles the life and films of the eccentric Ted V. Mikels. Initially the book was going to be entirely about his movies, but the more I’ve spoken with Ted the more of his real life stories are creeping into the text. Ted’s one fascinating dude and I’m proud to be working on this. Other than that I find time to contribute to
Film Threat and MK-Magazine.

I'd like to thank Christopher Curry for discussing his work on this blog, and I know we'll all look forward to that book on Ted V. Mikels. Below, two more photos from Christopher's collection. On the left, Christopher stands with the Sphinx (as seen in the opening of Blood Feast). On the right, is Christopher with Bill Rogers (standing in front of a poster for A Taste of Blood).

Retro-Toy Flashback Thursday # 9: Walt Disney's The Black Hole


If inclined toward outer space entertainment, Christmas 1979 was a wonderful time to be a kid. Kenner releases Star Wars and Alien toys. Mattel joined the space race with Battlestar Galactica, and Mego offered goods from Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

But there was another merchandise line based on a sci-fi movie in the toy stores that holiday season as well. In 1979, Walt Disney produced the most expensive film in its long corporate history: The Black Hole. Starring Ernest Borgnine, Anthony Perkins, Yvette Mimieux, Maximillian Schell, Robert Forster, and Joseph Bottoms, the film was essentially a futuristic re-make of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but bursting with neat robots, massive spaceships and laser battles galore. The story concerned the exploratory vessel Palomino discovering the "ghost" ship Cygnus on the edge of a powerful black hole. On board the latter was the mad Dr. Reinhardt, who had zombified his crew, built a Satanic robot with deadly propellor cutting blades (Maximillian), and who was determined to see what lay beyond the event horizon. The Black Hole opened against the much-anticipated Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and promptly fell into a financial black hole before disappearing all-together from the cinemas. Today the film is available on DVD.

Despite the box-office failure of Disney's space gambit, a Black Hole toy and merchandise blitz accompanied the film's December release in 1979. Today - over a quarter of a century later - many of these toys have become highly prized to two distinct groups of collectors: Disney fans, and space adventure aficionados. I count myself as the latter. To me, the film will always be a "guilty pleasure" but a pleasure, nonetheless. I have a shelf in my home office devoted to this film's merchandising.

To start with, Mego (mmmm, Mego....) unveiled a bevy of 3.5 inch figures in the same style as their popular Buck Rogers line. This meant that, among other things, the figures were held together at knee, elbow and shoulder joints by little silver metal pins resembling thumbtacks, and that their hands were not poseable. The figures torso were held together to the groin and legs by a tiny (and breakable...) black elastic. These design flaws often caused inarticulate thumbs to break, and jointed limbs to snap off. Additionally, The Black Hole figures lacked accessories such as laser guns or tools, making them markedly less fun to play with than those great (and durable) Star Wars figures, which sported retractable light sabers, capes, weaponry, back-packs, air masks and the like. Of the initial Mego release, the most popular Black Hole figures were of the devilish red flying robot Maximillian, molded in impressive scarlet, and the good "cute" robot, V.I.N.Cent, given voice by Roddy McDowall in the movie. V.I.N.Cent was gray and red, with a retractable helmet/hed compononet, and long black "pod" legs that could lengthen or shorten. I remember playing with these toys in a movie theatre seat while my parents watched Kramer vs. Kramer, which - to a 10 year old kid - was monumentally dull.

The human cast of The Black Hole was represented in action-figure form by Captain Holland and Exec Pizer, in their spiffy
white uniforms, Dr. Reinhardt - the film's Captain Nemo - in red, Dr. Durant, and reporter Harry Booth. The only female, Dr. Kate McCrae, came in a mauve uniform. Overall, the likenesses to cast members, uniforms and faces were outstanding. A highly sought-after figure today comes from a second Mego set: the robot Sentry, minion of Reinhardt. This auburn creation came with side holsters and even a laser weapon. Other figures such as Old B.O.B. and the "humanoid" are exceedingly rare today.

MPC was also pulled into The Black Hole merchandise orbit with three exquisitely detailed plastic model kits. Since this was the era of R2-D2 and C3PO, robots V.I.N.Cent and Maximillian were again spotlighted. The former was accurately molded in gray, with red and transparent parts, and he stood a whopping eight inches tall when assembled. Maximillian was molded in red, and towered at an impressive 11 inches when complete. The Maximillian kit was unique because, like his movie forbearer, he wielded a variety of murderous "action" arms (propellor blades...) which the Mego action-figure did not recreate. Perhaps the most impressive of the MPC models (and the only one I don't have....) was the two-foot long miniature of Reinhardt's ornate starship, the Cygnus. I...must...have...this.

Other manufacturers also saw The Black Hole as a major event on the horizon and offered additional items. Whitman released sticker, stamp, coloring and activity books ranging in price from 49 cents to 79 cents. It also marketed a giant "press-out" book with paper cut-outs of the Cygnus, the escape probe ship, and the good guy vessel, the Palomino.

Additional Whitman products included board games based on the film: Voyage of Fear and the "Space Alert." The goal of the Space Alert game was to escape the doomed Cygnus and reach the probe ship intact.

Western Publishing Company rocketed into space with two five-hundred piece Jigsaw Puzzles in attractive blue packaging. One puzzle was (again...) of the loveable V.I.N.Cent and the other revealed Dr. Reinhardt and Maximillian in the impressive, multi-deck Cygnus Control Room.

The Black Hole:
A Spaceship Adventure for Robots was A Little Golden Book (which I've already highlighted in another blog retro-toy flashback), and it sold originally for .69 cents. For slightly older fans, Western Publishing offered a comic book, "the illustrated adaptation of the exciting film," but the characters did not resemble the film actor's to any measurable degree, so the comic was more irritating than fun. The comic sold for $1.50 at the time.

From Harmony Books came another collectible: The Black Hole Pop-Up Book! As a kid, I collected tons of these pop-up books from a variety of franchises, and I plan to feature them as a "separate" flashback another time.

For those who would prefer to listen rather than read, Disneyland/Buena Vista released an album along with 12 pages of color photographs from the film, and a record with dialogue, music and special effects. This is a highly treasured item today because of the excellent (and rare) photographs, and the fact that LPs have gone the way of Betamax (and VHS?)

Some younger folks might not easily recall The Black Hole today, but for those who saw it on the big screen as a child, it was part of the great post-Star Wars outer space boom and merchandising blitz. Store shelves filled with everything from bed-sheets to colorforms. There were trading cards, novelizations, and the like. So for nostalgic toy colletors and Disney fans alike, the field of Black Hole collectibles remains as wide open as outer space itself. Hope you enjoy these photos from my collection, and let me know if you fell into collecting Black Hole toys.

International Literacy Day


Today (September 8th, 2005) is not only the 16th anniversary of my first date with my beautiful wife Kathryn (at the University of Richmond), it has also been designated by the United Nations as International Literacy Day. This is an important occasion to note because - although there are four billion literate people in our world - there are just as many who aren't; and too many of them live right here in the United States.

To celebrate International Literacy Day, the Literacy Council of Union County in North Carolina has invited me to an event they are holding around the county (at Waxhaw, Union West, Monroe, and Marshville). I will be at the Monroe Library today, participating in a program called "D.E.A.R." (Drop Everything And Read). The mission of the Literacy Council is to: "improve the quality of life in our community and expand individual potential by teaching adults to read, write, speak and understand the English language."

For fifteen minutes, from 12:15 to 12:30, I will be reading from one of my books (The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television), and in particular, the entry on my favorite superhero: Superman. Superman is a character of great moral strength and clarity, and a man - I believe - who would understand the value of literacy (especially since Clark Kent is a reporter). I'm very much looking forward to this public reading, and hope that everybody who reads this blog will take an opportunity today to think about International Literacy Day, and perhaps read a passage or two from your favorite book to commemorate it.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Upcoming TV & Radio Appearances


It's a busy time of year for me (which must explain why I'm falling behind...) . Singing a New Tune: The Re-birth of the Modern Film Musical was just published by Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, and I've begun to do some publicity on that project and my other works too.

First up, today I taped an eight-minute segment with Bloomberg radio's "On the Weekend" hosts Wes Richards and Joe Franklin. Their program airs on WBBR 1130 on the AM dial (or XM Channel 129; Sirius Stream 102) and boasts some 35 million listeners coast-to-coast. It was a delight to chat with both of these fine gentlemen and I found them knowledgeable, funny and quick-witted. We opened with a discussion of The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television (my award winner from last year) and then moved to Singing a New Tune.

This radio gig was a special privilege for me not just because I admire Mr. Richards and Mr. Franklin so much, but, well, because - as a New Jerseyite - I must confess I'm a bit starstruck by Joe Franklin. I mean this is a fellow whose TV show ran for forty consecutive years. He's a pioneer of the TV talk show format, has interviewed more than 300,000 guests, has his own restaurant "Joe Franklin's Memory Lane (which opened in 2000), has written trivia books, has spawned countless imitations and impressions (like Billy Crystal's on Saturday Night Live) and who has introduced the world to such luminaries as Woody Allen and Liza Minnelli. Joe Franklin is known as "the King of Nostalgia" for good reason - he owns an unparalleled and incredible memorabilia collection, and knows classic movies inside and out. I remember watching his TV program on WWOR TV (Channel 9) in the eighties. To be invited to talk about my work on his radio show with the great Mr. Richards was just a dream come true, not to sound too fawning (though I'm sure I do...)

Next up for me is another gig: The Toronto Film Festival. That's right, next week I'll be flying up to Canada for a three day stint at the festival, and I'll be interviewed by the film writer/critic Thom Ernst for TVOntario. It's all part of "Saturday Night at the Movies," the longest-running Canadian show on the air. Airing Saturdays at 8:00 pm, the program is entering its 31st season as the most popular adult series being broadcast in the country, and it is renowned for airing uninterrupted/uncut films. I'll be taping a segment for an upcoming show (two if I'm very, very lucky...), as part of their popular interview series. People say that Canada is the most film-literate country in the world, so I'm thrilled to be headed there to take in the festival, tape an interview, and see what's what.

I'll provide updates on this site as to when my radio segment with Mr. Franklin and Mr. Richards airs, as well as the date of the TVOntario premiere, though I imagine we won't get it here in the States.

On top of all that, I received my first review for Singing a New Tune today at Broadway.com, and by the illustrious and scholarly Ken Mandelbaum, "The Insider," no less. This gentleman and historian is a very knowledgeable book-writer himself. He opens with the thought that: "In Singing a a New Tune, author John Kenneth Muir has latched onto a good topic," and closes with the summation that the book is
"a useful study, particularly if they're [readers] interested in hearing from the moviemakers themselves."

I'm honored that the author of the critically acclaimed Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops took the time and energy to really read my work closely and then feature it in his column. In the book writer's field, there are two kinds of reviews: the ill-considered hateful, personal grudge type (written by frustrated writers or fans themselves...who don't want to see you get ahead and thus slam the dickens out of you...), and then those by scholars and critics with a deep knowledge and understanding of the material; reviews filled with insight and intelligence. This was the latter, so I'm delighted.

Catnap Tuesday # 9: Best Budz!



Lila (the gray cat) and Lily, our new black kitten, have become best friends over the last few weeks. I think Lila gave in kind of reluctantly, but now the two often spend time chasing each other around the house, napping in close quarters, and grooming one another. I think Lily might think that Lila is her Mommy...

Now if we can only get Ezri and Lily to become such close friends too. Lila and Ezri are litter mates, so they've always been close, but Ezri (not pictured) is kinda territorial and she's not quite ready to embrace Lily yet. She's accepted her presence, but not embraced it.