Thursday, October 06, 2005

Off to Bride of Monsterfest!

Well, I'm up and at 'em early Friday morning for our road trip up to Chesapeake, Virginia, where I'll be speaking about Horror Films of the 1980s at 1:00 pm on Saturday at the Chesapeake Central Library. If you live anywhere near there, stop on by! I'll also be signing and selling copies of my books, and selling horror videotapes that my wife can no longer stand to have in my house. They're going cheap, cheap, cheap (and your purchases will help finance photographs, other videos for review in upcoming books, and various and sundry other John K. Muir productions!) How's that for incentive?

I'll be returning home late Monday night, so as a result of my trip, this blog will be mighty slow going till Tuesday or so! Sorry!!! But please check out out the blog links in red on the lower right side of the page, and catch up with some items you may have missed: interviews, cult tv flashbacks, TV reviews, movie essays, even retro-toy flashbacks. And don't forget to come back soon.

I'll let you know how the convention appearance went next week. And I'll be back on the job Tuesday to write more about Thursday's second Night Stalker, Monday's Surface, and much, much more.

Till then, live long and prosper. Wow, how geeky was that? Maybe I should have just typed the numbers from Lost again...

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 12: Gerry & Sylvia Anderson's UFO: "Confetti Check A-OK"

There are so many good reasons to remember and love that one season technological wonder from late 1960s-early 1970s, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's UFO. Prime among these reasons for me is the exquisite character of Ed Straker, as played with grace and humanity by the late, great Ed Bishop.

If you've watched the show with any regularity, you know what I'm talking about. Straker was hardcore. And I mean, hardcore. In the episode "Timelash," for instance, when confronted with an alien plot to fracture time, this commander of S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) shot-up with amphetamines to keep himself going. That act got the episode banned in the series' home country, the UK.

In "A Question of Priorities," Straker had a more difficult dilemma, choosing between saving his young son's life following a car accident, or capturing an alien spacecraft. The S.H.A.D.O. resources could only be involved in one assignment. Guess which option this hard-nosed, Earth defender ultimately selected?

So many series pay only lip service to the idea of the "strain of command." In Star Trek, Captain Kirk (in the classic episode "The Naked Time") complains about "no beach to walk on." In other words, that he has no life other than the Enterprise. In Babylon 5, we see Captain John Sheridan arrive on the station from the Agememnon and in no time confiding in his sister that he blames the death of his wife on his captaincy of that vessel. But in both series, these conflicts resolve within the hour and the men go on happily, or at least effectively: with friends, with purpose, with lives. Yes, the burden of command is great, but I submit that no man understands that better than does Ed Straker, a former U.S. airforce officer who has given up everything important in his life to battle the organ-stealing aliens from beyond. The choices he makes in UFO destroy his life, and ultimately isolate him. The episode "The Responsibility Seat" reveaks just how desperate he has become for human contact, to the degree that he almost beds a woman who is a betrayer.

Yet the episode that I believe best reveals Straker's ongoing sacrifice is not even the sterling (and haunting...) "A Question of Priorities," wherein he loses his son, but rather "Confetti Check A-OK." This episode commences in S.H.A.D.O.'s underground headquarters as one of Straker's underlings celebrates the birth of his first child. Naturally, this celebratory occasion gets Straker thinking about his past, and his alienation - over the years - from his wife, Mary (actress Suzanne Neve).

The episode follows a flashback format as young Straker is an air force officer working to put S.H.A.D.O. together (ten or so years before the events of the series). He has just married Mary, and Ed soon makes the first compromise in their personal life: he postpones their honeymoon (and at the airport too!!) for career business. This will become the recurring theme and conflict of their marriage, and later we see how the purchase of a new home together is sullied by Straker's constant absence from it. Work, for this man, understandably comes first. And that work is saving the planet. Yet Straker - because of regulations - can't tell Mary the truth about where he is and what he's doing. She just believes he's ambitious; that she's not as important to him as his job. Nothing could be further from the truth. He's actually protecting her, and everybody else by getting S.H.A.D.O. up and running.

Before long, Mary announces that she is with child, but still, Ed is absent for something like 20 hours a day, consumed by the "work" he can't share with her. Finally, after her mother plays Iago and puts the suspicion in her mind, Mary comes to believe that Ed is having an affair. She hires a private detective, who takes pictures of Ed entering the apartment of a beautiful woman named Nina Barry...a S.H.A.D.O. recruit. When Ed is confronted with these accusations - again, regulations don't permit him to defend himself. In a rage, Mary falls down the stairs and goes to the hospital. But the point is obvious: their marriage is over. He cannot speak up to tell Mary the truth; to tell her that he is commanding the most important venture in human history.

So many science fiction TV series focus on the heroes as essentially happy, stable people, doing what they love. It might be commanding a starship, investigating the paranormal, going to high school, or whathaveyou. Of course, there are the dark episodes where these heroes are in a funk and face emotional crises, but these tend to be put aside by hour's end. Not so with UFO, and "Confetti Check A-OK" spells out exactly what Ed Straker has lost by opting to command S.H.A.D.O. and fight the secret war against aliens. He has given up his youth, his innocence, his wife, and his marriage. And the job will still take more, as "A Question of Priorities" proves.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shows often get a bad rap as being "kiddie programs" (because many - like Stingray and Thunderbirds - feature "supermarionation," articulated puppets), but UFO is so ahead of its time because it probes the personal life of its lead character, Ed Straker with a total lack of romanticism or even optimism. This is something that Star Trek, Doctor Who of that era and even another contemporary, the enigmatic The Prisoner, rarely - if ever - attempted. What makes UFO. so memorable today is this great, tragic character of Ed Straker (and also the constant acknowledgment that space adventuring is expensive...and a business...and politics), and the sacrifices he makes to keep us all safe.

So today, in memory of Ed Straker and the quiet war he waged at great cost to his personal life - but could never acknowledge, much less be honored for fighting - I dedicate my 12th Cult TV Friday Flashback to UFO and "Confetti Check A-OK." It's really heartbreaking, and surely one of the top two or three episodes in the series' memorable one season run. If you've never seen this great, underrated sci-fi gem, what's stopping you? It's out on DVD and you can get the whole box set for under 70.00. Don't miss the opportunity to see a show that is, in many ways, a forerunner to The X-Files and
Dark Skies.

TV Review: Invasion, Episode # 3: "Watershed"

The general consensus on Invasion so far - as near as I can determine - is that people like the program in general but that it is, well, a bit slow-paced. The actors are all very good, the production values are fine, but the show...drags.

I kinda agree with that assessment, though I've learned (through my love of British television like Sapphire & Steel, Space:1999, Doctor Who, UFO and Blake's 7) that often it just takes a little time for the viewer to accept the pace of the series and re-modulate to it. I think that process began to happen for me last night. The hour passed quickly, and I didn't nod off or get disinterested.

So what's new on the alien invasion front in Homestead, FL this week? Well...Dr. Underlay can't give blood to her wounded son because, we learn, there's something not quite right with her blood. That was a logical development given her "encounter", and I'm glad the episode didn't try to dance around it. I got nervous as soon as I saw the good doctor making a blood donation and getting ready for the transfusion. I kept thinking, "Are they really going to contaminate her son? So soon?) They got around this by having him reject the blood and nearly die.

Then there was the mystery of those air force trucks, and what they're actually doing/what secret they are protecting. Their cover story (about a chemical spill down in the Florida Keys) didn't ring true, as the viewer learned quickly, and so we become aware that something else is going on. And hey, let's have a shout-out for guest star Armin Shimerman. He played Quark on DS9 and Principal Skinner on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and it's terrific to see him in action in the genreagain. Someone make him a regular, quick.

All in all, the aforementioned plot developments are just tiny points in the big narrative, but ones worth noting. I still think Invasion is less cliched and stupid than Threshold, and a bit less popcorny than Surface, which, admittedly, I'm enjoying very much. Surface is still better-paced, somehow. I think back to Shaun Cassidy's previous genre series, American Gothic, and I didn't have any pacing issues with that, but it was a different ball game. There, Gary Cole's evil Sheriff was plain, old-fashioned, demonic (but charming...) evil and everybody in town knew it. Here, the town is still in the dark about the mysterious plot unfolding, so the Sheriff and other "possessed" folks can't get away with such overt activity. Yet.

I still have several outstanding questions about the characters in Invasion and the precise nature of their "alienation," but - unlike many TV series - I feel there's a steady hand and a real plan behind all of this, and that we are just being doled out goodies one-at-a-time. Thankfully, Invasion has been garnering some high ratings (particularly in the key 18-49 demographic), so the show won't be going anywhere any time soon unless viewers drop away.

Will viewers hang around in large numbers for a slow-paced, slow-boiling mystery? I certainly hope so. What about you? Are you still watching? And I wonder, how do you rank the three "alien" shows this fall?

For me, it's Invasion first, then Surface, with Threshold bringing up the rear, but I understand that a lot of lonely Star Trekkers are tuning into Threshold in large numbers and calling it one their faves. To give the devil it's due, I guess it is the most fast-paced and action-packed of the bunch. At a poll on recently, Invasion also finished last in popularity, and Threshold won out.

Guess I'm just out-of-step or something...but at my advanced age of 35, I prefer a little humanity to go with my sci-fi. Somehow, covert agents with puffy collagen-enhanced lips running around in high heels brandishing guns and going after super strong aliens just doesn't float my boat like it did when I was sixteen...

I'm sticking with Invasion.

TV Review: Lost, Season Two, Episode #3: "Orientation"

Now that's more like it.

Last week Lost was "adrift," both in title and plot, shortchanging viewers by featuring an episode with almost no new information. But this fascinating and popular series roars back to full enigmatic power with the second season's third episode, "Orientation." Finally, we begin to get some details about the underground bunker, Desmond, the 1980s era computer and the clock ticking down from one hour-and-eight minutes.

Whenever movies and TV shows reveal "old" movies to us, there's always the chance that the period production won't look right, or accurate to the era. I hate it when that happens. We all notice the wrong film stock, or if something appears too "clean." That isn't the case here with the strange orientation film that Jack and Locke view. I enjoyed the bumps and gurgles on the old film, the generally lousy film stock, and the "high school film strip" attitude of the project leader. I also think the substance of this "Dharma Project" is particularly interesting, because it is open to interpretation.

The bulk of "Orientation" concerns how two very different men interpret the same information. (This is a super timely notion, given the Red State/Blue State divide and bifurication in the culture on everything from evolution/intelligent design to Iraq success/quagmire). On Lost, Locke takes a "leap of faith" and believes that everything Desmond has told them is absolutely true. That, in essence, the world will come to an end if someone doesn't sit at that keyboard and type in that sequence of numbers every hour-and-eight minutes.

Jack, on the other hand, rejects fate and destiny and all those other grand-sounding (but non-scientific...) words and suspects that this is really a psychological project, one that actually charts the endurance/gullibility, perhaps, of the subject. Question: would you sit next to a keyboard for your whole life so that you could type in a sequence of numbers every hour-and-eight minutes? Would you believe somebody that you hardly know who tells you that by doing so, you are saving the world? A rational, scientific man would have none of that nonsense, and so Jack simply doesn't "believe."

Terry O'Quinn, who was fantastic as Peter Watts on Millennium, is one of Lost's great and enduring strengths, and he's terrific in this episode too. One can see his character, Locke, struggling to figure out his place in the universe. Why has he been made to suffer so? Why has he been brought here? Is it his destiny (with Jack...) to replace Desmond at the keyboard? If so, it seems Locke accepts that, blindly. Like a man of "faith." Like a man who wants to believe in order, and a reason for his pain. Because if there's a reason, all his agony hasn't been for nothing.

We received precious little information about "The Others" in Sawyer's subplot last night, but that's okay. The series is playing fair with viewers again, and took some serious steps towards explaining the mystery of Station # 3 and the Dharma Project (the underground bunker). Apparently, this part of the island is subject to some kind of electromagnetic pressure that could destroy it, and the whole Earth?

Hopefully there'll be more about that particularly important nugget of information next week.

Oh, and before I sign off and forget this totally..

>: 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.

Retro Toy Thursday Flashback # 12: Jigsaw Puzzles

When I gaze back at all the movie and TV-related merchandise I owned as a child (and retain now, as a crazy collector...), I'm struck by how times have changed. If - as a kid - I wanted to relive the adventures of Moonbase Alpha, the starship Enterprise, Starbuck and Apollo on Battlestar Galactica or the crew of the Palomino in the Black Hole, there were a whole lot of ways to do it...but always ones away from the headache-inducing glare of the TV set.

Of course, there were novelizations. I dug those. Comic adaptations too. But beyond those literary and graphic re-tellings of favorite tales, my generation also had a host of other optiions. There were "story" record albums (like Power Records), colorform playsets, Amsco cardboard playsets, model kits, board games and the like - many of which I've featured right here on my blog. Today, thanks to DVD (which I do love...a lot) it seems that kids who are fans of popular movies and TV shows could the popular movies and TV shows on DVD. Again and again.

While this is wonderful, I must admit I often question if today's generation of kids is actually only learning to be more passive and somehow less creative. When my generation played, we had all of these other ways of creating our own adventures, rather than just flaking out on the sofa. Now understand, I ain't dissing DVD. This is just a thought. I mean, we were inspired by TV shows like 1999 or movies like Star Wars, but ultimately, we had to take that inspiration and continue the adventure on our own (and wait hopefully for a rerun or a sequel...) Today, the DVD is just always handy. On the shelf.

Which brings us to my retro toy thursday flashback, number 12: Jigsaw Puzzles. When I was a kid, I loved to assemble jigsaw puzzles, especially those related to my favorite things (Star Wars, Planet of the Apes, Star Trek, Space:1999 - you name it), and a number of companies in America marketed a variety of media tie-in jigsaw puzzles over the years to interest kids in this (I believe...) therapeutic pastime.

HG Toys (Long Beach, NY 11561) not only produced Star Trek jigsaw puzzles in the 1970s (ones with 300 pieces), but the company also held the license to my favorite show, Space:1999. The Space:1999 puzzles came in small square boxes or - interestingly - cylindrical containers. There were three puzzles created for Space:1999. One featured the famous art/poster of the series, itself with leads Martin Landau, Barbara Bain and Barry Morse standing nefore a moon (exploding!) and an Eagle flying by overhead. There was also a second puzzle, featuring Commander Koenig (Armed with a laser rifle) and Helena Russell on some strange alien planet, between weird forcefield gate. Pictured here on the right, you see the third Space:1999 puzzle from HG Toys, number 497-3. This 150 pc, 14" x 10" jigsaw puzzle features Koenig and Bergman locked in combat with deadly-looking alien robots. Those robots were never actually seen on the TV show, but the puzzle was sure cool!

By the late 1970s, Whitman (Western Publishing company, Inc., Racine, Wisconsin, 53404) was producing Star Trek puzzles based on the original 1966-69 TV series, including a yellow one (depicting a shuttle landing) and a red one (see photo, left). Pictured here is the red one, depicting a strange adventure in which the characters all appear to be glowing for some odd reason. This "Guild 200 Jigsaw Puzzle" features over 200 fully interlocking pieces. It is 14" x 18" (or 36 cm x 46 cm).

The license changed hands again by the time of Star Trek: the Motion Picture. By 1979, Milton Bradley was selling 250 piece jigsaw puzzles based on the film, for ages 8 and up. The dimensions on these were 19 7/8 by 13 7/8 inches. Included in the series were three puzzles: Sick Bay (which you see pictured right), Enterprise and "Faces of the Future."

In the summer of 1977, Star Wars changed everything, and the floodgates of science fiction merchandise opened. The Star Wars saga produced half-a-dozen puzzle series. Some were 140-piece puzzles, others 500, others 1,000, some even 1,500. From Star Wars, there were at least ten puzzles, featuring Luke Skywalker, a battle in space, the droids, Han Solo and Chewbacca, the trash compactor, the Tusken Raiders, the Stormtroopers at Mos Eisley and more and more. One of the most beautiful of the puzzles depicted Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi crossing light sabers in profile; the Millennium Falcon in the background. Other puzzles: The Cantina Band and Jawa Droid Sale on Tatooine.

When Star Wars proved so successful not just as a film and cultural touchstone, but as a marketing enterprise, every new sci-fi film and TV show soon had its own series of jigsaw puzzles. Even Steven Spielberg's (very adult...) space-related movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind had a jigsaw puzzle, one depicting the diminutive aliens and a human exiting from their landed craft. In one corner read the legend "We Are Not Alone." The Close Encounters puzzle consisted of 108 pieces, for ages 5 to 10. It's pictured too.

In the fall of 1978, Glen Larson's Battlestar Galactica premiered to stellar ratings, and it wasn't long before Parker Brothers released a set of two 140 piece jigsaw puzzles (dimensions: 14" x 18"). The puzzles, designed for ages 7 to 14, featured Dirk Benedict's Lt. Starbuck and an insectoid Ovion (pictured right), respectively.

The last year of the disco decade, 1979, brought not only Star Trek: The Motion Picture, but Walt Disney's magnum opus, The Black Hole. Whitman released two 500 piece "fully interlocking" jigsaw puzzles with stills from the movie. One depicted the crew of the Palomino (including Yvette Mimieux, Robert Forster and Joseph Bottoms) battling Sentries and racing for the Probe Ship, the other dramatized a moment between the villains: Maximillian and Dr. Reinhardt (Maximillian Schell). You can see the former below.
The one puzzle from this year that I DON'T OWN (and want desperately), came from the Ridley Scott film, ALIEN. H.G. Toys released "giant jigsaw puzzle" that was 3 feet tall (and advertised as "poster sized!") It showed artist renderings of the titular alien, Parker and Ripley, as well as a view of three suited astronauts (Kane, Dallas and Lambert) about to enter the derelict. I bet these sell for a pretty penny today, and I've never even seen one in the flesh.

I know that jigsaw puzzles are timeless, and that people still play with them. In fact, I even own a few from Star Wars: Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (pictured right), which was released in 1999. It's Jar-Jar shaped! (No!!!!!!!) But in the old days of the 1970s and 1980s, puzzles were actually a creative substitute for watching your favorite movies and TV shows. Anybody out there else remember fun days (especially if you were home sick from school?) assembling movie and TV-related jigsaws?

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

The End of an Era: TV Theme Songs Disappear

My close friend - and often commenter on this blog - Dr. Howard Margolin (the host of Destinies: the Voice of Science Fiction) pointed out an interesting trend in TV the other day. Have you noticed how the new dramas, including Supernatural, Night Stalker, Invasion and Surface have eschewed a noble and time-honored TV tradition? Not a one of them features an opening theme song or opening credits montage.

Although I'm enjoying the new trend of high concept TV, the disappearance of the theme song and accompanying music-video like credits sequence is something that concerns me. In fact, I submit that these new TV series will have a harder time becoming iconic cultural touchstones without the theme song and accompanying montage that would cement a connection in the viewer's mind.

Think about some of the theme songs and montages we've seen in TV history. Everybody remembers the tune to Gilligan's Island, and the montage that sets up the premise. We know what to expect when we hear "Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip..."

Ditto The Brady Bunch. The lyrics "Here's the story..." cue us in about the program, and have stayed in our minds for thirty years!

Inside the sci-fi genre, the bold opening notes of Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme, followed by Captain Kirk's voiceover ("these are the voyages of the starship Enterprise...) are a clarion call to adventure, and set up the very premise of the series.

Likewise, I cannot imagine Joss Whedon's Firefly without the folksy theme song, "The Ballad of Firefly," which explores the very themes of the series: independence, liberty, and defiance of authority . Similarly, I think of the rush of excitement I feel when I hear the first notes of The X-Files theme, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer. My enjoyment of these series' would be seriously hindered without these moments.

Why is it happening? Why is the theme song disappearing? Well, as Howard pointed out in a comment, in part because Lost aired without a theme song last season, and everybody this season is intent on capturing some of Lost's magic. Also, I think it comes down to time. Series' creators now have to tell a lot of story in basically 41 minutes. Almost twenty minutes of commecials occur per each so-called "hour" of drama. Therefore, some producers might feel it better to utilize the time with story, rather than a theme song and montage.

Frankly, I miss the theme songs. And I deplore the amount of commercials we're subjected to. Did you know that Star Trek episodes are 52 minutes long? That Space:1999 episodes are 48 minutes long? That early X-Files episodes are 45 minutes long? Why is it, that as time goes by, our drama is being cut short, and we're being exposed to more commercials? It really sucks.

Anyway, I miss the era of distinctive theme songs and their accompanying opening montages. To this day, I can't separate Space:1999 from that Year One opening: the drum roll, the blare of of the horns, and then the quick-cutting of the first amazing sequence, depicting an Eagler spinning and crashing on the lunar surface.

What's your favorite series theme song and montage? And why do you think they're disappearing today? Have we finally just gotten so busy, so pressed for time, that we don't want any extras in our TV? That we just want to cut to the chase and get immediately to the narrative? Is that it?

The 2005-2006 season: High Concept TV

The 2004-2005 season heralded network television's welcome (and long-in-coming) move away from unscripted, so-called "reality" TV with successful dramatic programming including Lost, Boston Legal, Desperate Housewives and Grey's Anatomy (all airing, oddly, on ABC).

Historically, television always moves in trends, (anyone remember the game show craze of the early 2000s? No? Then you're "The Weakest Link!"). Nonetheless, the shift back to scripted-drama is a trend I'm delighted with. Reality TV has very limited appeal, because - let's face it - how many times can we enjoy seeing someone humiliated? After the 7,000th repetition, that stuff gets old...

If the 2005-2006 season is remembered as a special one, it will be because the major networks have all embraced a new ideal in scripted drama: high-concept TV.

What is high concept TV? Well, consider the Fox drama 24. This series about counter-terrorism expert Jack Bauer occurs in "real time" and each episode is one hour out of the 24-hour cycle. You can explain 24's premise just like that, in one sentence. The concept is immediately and broadly comprehensible, and also tantalizing.

This season, Fox TV has given us two other "high concept" programs that have proven, for the most part, incredibly entertaining. The first is Prison Break, starring Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller. In this series, a dedicated (and intense...) fellow named Michael (Miller) goes into Fox River Prison to free his brother, Lincoln (Purcell), who is slated to be executed in less than a month's time. The title tells you everything you need to know about the show: there's gonna be a prison break, and each episode brings you closer to that eventuality. I have to admit, I was dubious that such a premise could work on a weekly basis, but the series' has totally won me over. It's a guilty pleasure, and a crazy roller-coaster ride. Is it implausible? Perhaps. But riveting too. The build-up to the prison break has been extraordinary, with Michael assembling a team of not-always-trustworthy convicts, and being dealt a series of plan-busting reverses. The series reached its peak of intensity (so far...) in the last two weeks during a prison riot.

Fox's second "high concept" series airs on Thursday nights at 9:00 pm (after the O.C.) and is called Reunion. This is a soap-opera-style mystery about a murder in the present amongst a circle of six friends who graduated twenty years ago, in 1986. Each episode features one year in the life of these friends, leading up to the year of the murder. Thus far we've seen 86, 87 and 1988. Again, the concept is easily understood: from high school to adulthood, a reunion of "friends" leads eventually to murder. I've also been entertained by this series, although the most recent installment (1988) got a little too soapy for my tastes. But again, I'm tantalized by the high concept, the central tenet of the series that over the years, best friends change, and - at some point - we stop really knowing them.

The drawback in these high concept shows is the following: Where do they go after a first season? Wentworth Miller can't keep escaping from prison season after season, so where does Prison Break go after 24 episodes? How does it return for a second season at all? And Reunion is similarly limited. After one season, ostensibly the murder will be solved, and what will be left to hold our interest? Both shows seem to have built-in expiration dates.

Fact is, I'm not sure that I want to return to either of these programs next year, even if they do find a way to engineer a renewal from Fox. Once the novelty has worn off, I can't imagine being interested in either drama. On the contrary, I'd like to see both shows end strong after 24 episodes. They're potboiler TV shows and guilty pleasures, and they shouldn't outstay their welcome.

The 2005-2006 season wouldn't be half-as-good without Prison Break or Reunion, so I hope high concept TV is here to stay. I'm perfectly content to watch - and love - a TV show for a year and then move on. It would be gilding the lilly, however, to renew these shows. Let's have some new high concepts next season!

TV Review: Supernatural, Episode # 4: "Phantom Traveler"

Supernatural terror run rampant on an airplane (or, as I've dubbed it, "the in-flight horror"), is one of the long-time staples of horror television. As far back as The Twilight Zone, and the classic William Shatner-"there's a gremlin on the wing" episode, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," this particular plot has proven a durable genre cliche. There was an episode of The Sixth Sense in 1972 called "Coffin, Coffin in ths Sky." In 1989, an episode of Freddy's Nightmares, entitled "Cabin Fever" featured the same kind of story. Other horror series that featured versions of the airplane story over the years include: The X-Files ("Tempus Fugit/Max"), The Burning Zone ("Night Flight"), Poltergeist: the Legacy ("Let Sleeping Demons Lie"), Millennium ("The Innocents"), G vs. E. ("Airplane") and The Others ("Souls on Board")

So, it's a little late in the game for Supernatural's twist on this tale, called "Phantom Traveler." Here, the stalwart Winchester boys - Dean and Sam - investigate the crash of an airplane and discover that a passenger who was possessed by a demon was responsible for the downing of the craft. Now, they must board a plane to stop the demon from doing it again, and even perform an exorcism in midair. Putting aside the fact that the number one movie this weekend, Flight Plan, also concerns terror (of a very different sort) on a plane, one can only conclude from "Phantom Traveler" that the creators of Supernatural are intent (or should I say hellbent?) on taking a tour of horror history's greatest hits. Thus far in the run, we've had a ghost story ("Dead in the Water") a monster in the forest story ("Wendigo") and a Lady in White story ("Pilot"), but none of these are as well-traveled as the in-flight horror. One episode (entitled "Hook Man")- unaired so far - is about a Scream/I Know What You Did Last Summer kind of killer.

"Phantom Traveler" really adds nothing to the sub-genre. And it's only mildly scary. This is the Supernatural rut, I suppose, and it doesn't seem to be improving. Each story so far has followed the same woefully predictable pattern: a supernatural event (like a demon-possessed airline passenger), an investigation which requires the Winchester's to imitate Federal agents (here, from Homeland Security), and then a conclusion in which the monster is vanquished. Seeing this play out for the fourth week in a row, I realized how tired the format is, and how desperately the series' needs a twist; a way to break free of it. Horror isn't scary if it's always predictable, and follows the same pattern. Again, I'm reminded of Tru Calling, a flawed series which received bad reviews but was actually far superior to this drama. By the middle of the first season, Tru Calling's writers were going nuts, stretching their badly limited format in ways that, quite frankly, were crazy and inspiring. I loved their leap of faith; I loved their cajones. As a result of stretching their format, the writers made Tru Calling required viewing, just so I could see what they were going to do next. Granted, Supernatural is only in its fourth episode here at "Phantom Traveler," but somebody needs to shake it up.

What would I do? I'd kill one of the leads, and replace him with a more interesting character, probably someone a good deal older. My choice for the chopping block would be Sam, played by Padalecki. He just doesn't contribute much, except earnestness, to the format. If they can't kill him, they need to add a third character, someone who does things differently. I personally think they'd benefit from a partner who is someone like Quint from Jaws. An experienced, colorful old guy who doesn't mince words.

Last night, as my attention waned and "Phantom Traveler" went on its merry but predictable way, my feelings about Supernatural came into clarity. It's nothing but a boy band horror show; it's teen pop. Supernatural is tailor-made for sixteen-year-old girls who nothing about horror TV history. With its hunky but callow lead actors, it's content to recycle old pop tunes (horror cliches) rather than stretch to include any new or revolutionary material.

the Hanson of horror television. If you can enjoy it on those terms, have at it.

One more week before I bail out.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Movie Review: Serenity (Includes SPOILERS!)

A cinematic masterpiece about rogue adventurers in "the black" (outer space) is currently, alas, in the red. Though I find this unfathomable given the quality of the film, the dedication of the fan base and the outstanding reviews, Joss Whedon's Serenity premiered this weekend to distinctly lackluster box office. The film version of the TV series Firefly grossed only slightly over ten million dollars, and on a budget of over 40 million, that just isn't...shiny.

Frankly, I'm devastated.

Because when I came home from the theater on Saturday night, I was on a high, convinced that I had witnessed the birth of a new franchise, one on the scale of The Matrix. Perhaps that was just wishful, grandiose thinking, a result of the fact that my wife and I had just finished a marathon of the TV series and were thus totally immersed in the world of Mal Reynolds, Firefly class ships, The Alliance and Reavers.

But more likely, I felt so strongly for a very good reason: because Serenity is, hands-down, the best space adventure movie I've seen since at least 1996 (and Star Trek: First Contact). Simply stated, Serenity deftly blends the heart, pace and swashbuckling excitement of the best Star Wars films with the character thrills, pathos and social commentary of the best Star Trek films. This is an incredible accomplishment, combining the nature of those two great franchises in a manner nearly flawless, and so I had hoped that this would be THE NEXT BIG THING. After all, Star Trek and Star Wars are both in a bad spot now -- prequels finished; TV series cancelled. So I was doubly delighted that Serenity looked poised to bring space adventure back to cinemas in a mainstream way.

Many experts will have (and express...) opinions about why the film has not proved a draw to audiences beyond those who enjoyed the TV series (reportedly, 44% of the opening weekend take was from self-acknowledged "fans" of Firefly.) We'll hear all kinds of cockamie theories, but I suspect that none will have anything to do with the product itself, an artful film that at times borders on the downright poetic. Is the film fast-paced? You betcha. Well-written and funny? Check! Deeply thoughtful and relevant in these times of Big Brother Government and The Patriot Act? Absolutely. What's not to love here?

Whenever I view work by Joss Whedon, I'm impressed by the artist's capacity to surprise audiences, and guide the whole enterprise in shocking directions. This film is no exception. In Serenity - somewhere in the middle - a main character from the TV series dies. It's a sad, but noble death, and one that drives the action forward and helps to establish the real power and reach of the villain. It's a necessary death, not unlike Obi-Wan's in Star Wars, or even Spock's in The Wrath of Khan.

Good, you can hear the audience mutter after the sad scene is finished, we're sorry to lose this great character, but at least that's out of the way. We're safe.

But then Whedon does something truly innovative and rather nasty. He kills another of his main characters. Senselessly. Brutally. Unexpectedly. Right before the big battle. Fans will complain, and indeed my wife is still in a state of shock (and mourning...), because that doomed character was her favorite. But the fact of the matter is this: never in a sci-fi movie has there been a more brilliantly timed "murder" of a beloved character. When this character dies, the audience freezes, emotionally walloped. Joss Whedon's message is this: no one is safe.

All bets are off.

Consequently, the finale of the film is about a hundred times more effective than it would have been without the diversion (the first death) and the surprise (the second death). When the Serenity crew subsequently stands and fights in the climax - hopelessly outnumbered - and the remainder of the beloved crew members begin dropping like flies, the movie rocks. People in the theater gasped. When Zoe took a hit to the back, my wife literally shrieked. This is the most intense, heart-wrenching climax of any sci-fi movie franchise since Aliens (when we lost great characters like Hudson and Vasquez...), and certainly doubly so for a TV-turned-movie franchise. By contrast, I think of Data's death in Star Trek: Nemesis. Yes, it was sad (and hey, I cried!) but the producers didn't want you to feel so bad when you left the theater, so they had a replacement named B-4 all lined up. In other words, you knew everything would be okay. Not so in Serenity, and Whedon is some kind of twisted (and frickin' sadistic!) genius for the timing and effect of this second death.

Alfred Hitchcock used to state that he enjoyed playing audiences "like a piano," and Joss Whedon has mastered that talent too. We all mourn the deaths of these beloved characters, but they serve the movie incredibly well. The deaths of these characters (particularly the second death...) rocket the finale into white-knuckle territory. Because of the deaths, the film stops being a "TV-show-turned movie" and it ascends to another level. It becomes a riveting cinematic experience.

Joss Whedon is also a good, solid visualist. People always complain about TV directors and their transition to movies, but Whedon is not hindered at all by his small-screen beginnings. On the contrary, he understands how to use the frame and how to compose beautiful and meaningful shots. The opening sequence, which moves from outer space, into Serenity's bridge, down the hall, down the stairs, into the cargo-bay and then up onto a ledge is practically Brian De Palma-worthy. It's an unbroken shot with tons of dialogue, and Whedon (and the cast) bring it off brilliantly. It's an important early shot too, because it flawlessly establishes the reality of the ship Serenity. You feel as though you are aboard the craft, having walked the length of it. You couldn't achieve this with lots of cuts; it would feel stagey.

As I've stated here before, I interviewed Joss Whedon for my book about musicals last September. I was told he was busy making Serenity, and that I should expect no more than a half hour with him. I wrapped up my questions for Mr. Whedon in thirty minutes, because I wanted to be mindful of his time after he granted me the courtesy of the interview. But he stayed on the phone with me for another 90 minutes to discuss movie musicals, and his love of them. During this time, he was shooting Serenity's fight sequences, and we discussed, among other things, how fight sequences resemble dances. And for Whedon, he made it clear it was important to him to see the entire body of a fighter (or dancer...) in an action/musical scene. So it was with great delight that I watched Serenity and saw how Whedon directed the fight scenes with River, particularly the first one in a bar. Go see the film and see it for yourself, but it's important to note here how Whedon lets the camera stand back, so you can see the full-breadth of the choreography, so you can see River (Summer Glau) fully engaged in lethal motion. There are few cuts in the fight, and consequently the scene boasts an unusually strong rhythm. It was the right choice, because the notion of River as a "living weapon" is transmitted beautifully. We see for ourselves (without insert shots of kicks or punches...) what she is capable of achieving. Much like the opening shot, Whedon's selection here to limit cuts and show entire bodies (rather than frantic, jerky quick cuts like in Batman Begins), informs the film,

And the form of the film tells us much about the content.

Storywise, Joss Whedon is long-established, in my book anyway, as a maestro, and his tale has a terrific surprise in the last act, one that puts the entire universe of Firefly in a new light. I thought it was a great plot twist, and furthermore, one that makes absolute perfect sense. Characterwise, Joss Whedon is also to be commended because his script adequately serviced a large cast of more than 10 main players (if you include The Operative and Mr. Universe). Inara is my favorite character, and I would have liked to see more of the Mal/Inara romance, but the very fact that the crew must go to rescue her maintains the importance of her role in this 'verse. Otherwise, I'd say that Kaylee and Jayne served as great comic-relief, andthat Zoe was the most touching of all the dramatis personae, and that Mal - my God - is a space captain for the ages.

Beyond the spaceships and the fight scenes, Serenity is really a film about love. Simon loves his sister, River. Mal loves his crew. And Mal delivers a great speech at the close of the film about how love keeps his ship flying. It was in that beautifull directed-and-performed climactic moment that I realized Whedon had given the genre a great film, and more to the point, a classic character in Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion). He truly rivals - if not surpasses - other space captains, ones with names like Solo or Kirk. He's a pragmatic sort, but also one of essential decency. And he likes to fight battles he can't win. The only way Mal does win, actually, is through the loyalty he inspires in his crew. He'd be nothing without them, and I think he knows that. More than ever, Mal reminded me of Rick in Casablanca, a comparison I believe other writers have also suggested.

If you're looking at the genre films of 2005, I'd place Serenity light years ahead of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (a disaster...), far past Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds, and in the same ballpark as Romero's Land of the Dead. I saw reviews last Friday favorably compare the film to Aliens, The Empire Strikes Back and The Matrix in terms of quality. And there was also one other film it was mentioned in the same breath as: Blade Runner.

Lest we forget, Blade Runner was not a success in its original theatrical run either. In fact, it was a critical and box office bomb. Serenity received better reviews, and hopefully will find its legs at the box office. But beyond that, I believe it will age well. Audiences may discover - better late than never - that this is one of the genre greats.

New Articles & Blogs Posted at Far Sector and NCFLIX

In addition to this blog (and my various book projects...), I also maintain a regular monthly column over at Far Sector, and - as a resident of North Carolina - have begun submitting posts to a blog called NCFlix, a site devoted to the North Carolina Film Industry, and North Carolina Film Publishers.

At both sites, my latest work is up.

Over at Far Sector, I'm previewing three new DVD releases for the Halloween month of October. The original Kolchak: the Night Stalker, American Gothic and the 1991 Dark Shadows are all featured in the piece. In one fashion or another, all three of those shows is a classic in the genre, and given the lack of quality we see today, entirely worth re-visiting.

Over at
NCFlix, I review the latest release by interviewer extraordinaire, Tom Weaver. His newest book from publisher McFarland is Earth vs. The Sci-Fi Filmmakers, and it's a collection of twenty reviews with 1950s-1960s B movie Gods like Peter Graves, Frankie Thomas, and - yes - Arch Hall Jr! Anyone out there remember EEGAH?!

So if you get a chance, beam on over to those sites to see what I've been reading and what I've been anticipating next on my DVD shelf.

TV Review: "Surface," Episode # 3

Having now viewed a few weeks of Invasion, a few of Threshold and a few of Surface, I must say, I'm probably most comfortable with the pacing of Surface. Threshold moves fast - but borders on incoherent - and not much happens in the story arc, and some important details seem to get forgotten week-to-week (like the whole "aliens trying to access the Internet" plot. See? I told you, I'm going to mention that until it gets resolved...). Invasion is certainly the best drama of the three in terms of writing and acting, and it has a great, slow-burn, creepy mood, but on the downside it seems to move at a snail's pace. Surface continues to develop nicely, with enough good character moments and story "events" to keep one interested, rather than either confused (Threshold) or slightly bored (Invasion). It actually moves at the pace of an relatively decent blockbuster movie, each week, and that's cool. It also, without question, has the most ambition. Showing us a believable new (or extinct?) species is something that demands a lot of effects work.

As I watched Surface, I marveled at the unfolding plot. So this is really a TV show about sea monsters? Wow! How cool is that? It's not an alien invasion show at all (or will it take another turn?) I really like that, especially since all three of these shows seemed virtually interchangeable during premiere week. Three episodes in, Surface doesn't feel like any other program on TV; or that has ever been on TV; but rather as though Godzilla or some other monster movie was grabted the luxury of 22 hours to tell its tale, and could therefore focus on things like the origin and nature of the monster, and the lives of the characters affected by it. The E.T. subplot about the kid with the sea monster now appears to be the heart of the series, and I actually find the lead character, Laura, the least interesting person so far. The guy having post-traumatic stress over his diving experience is clearly living a Close Encounters-type situation with a wife at home who doesn't understand him. I mentioned these very films last week in my review too, and I'm more convinced than ever that they were the inspiration for Surface. But the very fact that Surface has 22 weeks (and possibly a few seasons...) to weave its story makes it original enough. The very intimate nature of television will assure us that we get to see different sides of the story than a feature film could afford.

What was good this week? The opener, which saw a vortex open on Lake Travis in Texas. A small motorboat with a teeny-bopper aboard got sucked in, while a para-sailer watched in terror above, tethered to the doomed craft. That was a creepy opener, worthy of The X-Files (though there was a similar sort of para-sailing scene in the opener of Jurassic Park III, right?) Also noteworthy was the information on the home territory of these giant critters. Turns out they live inside volcanoes and are virtually immune to heat. The shot of these giant things rolling around in lava was worth the whole hour, if you ask me. And, I admit it, I'm a sucker for stories of kids befriending monsters, so I was touched by the scene of the kid finding and taming the wee beastie in the washing machine. I know, I'm sentimental. What can I say?

What wasn't so good? First all, the special effects sequence of Old Faithful exploding in Yellowstone National Park. That must be some of the worst process work I've seen on TV since Crusade. Very crappy effects. Which is weird, since the sea monster effects seem consistently good to me.

Also, I'm amused and irritated - if not surprised - by Laura Daughtery's predicament. She lives in this great house on the water, with expensive furniture (lush sofas, etcetera) and yet she complains of poverty. It's like a million dollar house or something! Hollywood always feeds us this sort of crap. Movies and TV shows reveal to us "single mothers" working hard to make it on their own, but they live in friggin' gorgeous homes. If Laura is really hurting for money, there's no need to work as a waitress. She should sell her house, and move into a little garden apartment in a complex somewhere nearby. She could live off the proceeds of the house sale for a few years, believe me. I hate how production designers always pull this sells a false image of America, and middle class life. No way that a single mom scientist, just out of school could afford a place like Laura's (on the water and beautifully furnished). More likely, she'd live in a dump. Probably it ain't fair to rag on Surface about this industry-wide gap between reality and illusion, but Surface makes Laura's poverty a part of the drama, and it just doesn't ring true. She could have a furniture sale and live high off the hog for two months!

Still, I'm liking Surface, and sticking with it. This one isn't a chore to watch, and I actually like it more every week.

Catnap Tuesday # 12: By the Window

Well, autumn is in the air, and that means that the air conditioner is off, and the windows and doors are open. To quote my mother-in-law, the breeze at this time of year is...royal. And speaking of royal, here's a few shots of Lila, my princess - and the Cleopatra of my three cats - enjoying an opening window in my kitchen.