Saturday, October 15, 2005

Book Review: The Dinosaur Filmography, by Mark F. Berry

Well, leapin' lizards! I haven't felt this jealous of another McFarland author since the North Carolina-based publisher released Eric Greene's remarkable Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race and Politics In the Films and Television Series back in the mid-1990s.

Nonetheless, jealous I am. Real jealous. You see, writer Mark F. Berry has written an exhaustive tome called The Dinosaur Filmography (483 page in softcover...) about all the dinosaur movies produced in the last century or so. Now tell me, is that a terrific topic for a reference book or what?

Heck, I would have paid McFarland to write this book. Not that I could have done it half as ably as the enterprising Mr. Berry, who provides fans and researchers of the sub-genre a giant nugget of dinosaur fun to chew over. This is such a remarkable and entertaining book; and I heartily recommend it if you're at all interested in the 100 year history of "when dinosaurs attack" cinema.

You see, I grew up in the 1970s, and that means that (before Star Wars and Space:1999), I loved nothing so much as dinosaur movies and TV shows. I religiously viewed Land of the Lost on TV. My parents took me to see The Land That Time Forgot, a great movie I loved (dinosaurs and submarines! Together!), but which time has indeed forgotten! And then there were all the dino-action films on WPIX's 4:30 movie. Reading this enthusiastic resource really brought back fond memories of some of those classics (or anti-classics...).

Damn, I never thought I'd live to see the day that Dinosaurus! earned a positive review; but when I was a kid I loved that film. I must have seen it on TV five or six times, and I never tired of it.

And I had actually come to believe that I imagined a TV-movie called The Last Dinosaur, only to re-discover it in all its glory here, reviewed with exceptional detail and even a small degree of love. When I was young, I had a toy shotgun and a cowboy hat (and seventies sun glasses..), and I would head up into the nearby trails with my friends and pretend to go hunting dinosaurs, aping the characters - especially Richard Boone's - in this movie.

What I appreciate so much about this book is that Berry is no easy apologist for dinosaur movies. He loves 'em all right; but he loves 'em especially when they're good. He doesn't mince words when it comes to the Mitch & Arnie redneck humor of The Crater Lake Monster for instance. And he doesn't give Son of Kong a complete "pass" just because King Kong was a landmark film. He's fair, and when he dislikes a film, you have a clear understanding of why he feels the way he does. At least for the most part. He slags off the new Godzilla (1998) here at one point (without featuring the movie in the book...). I understand and agree with his sentiment, but I want to know why! What elements made the film so bad, in his opinion? Since he's the expert, I want a point-by-point analysis!

Thankfully, Berry's also a completist, no doubt about it. There are films here I've never even heard about, let alone seen, though he did neglect to mention that really rotten movie Future War, which features miniature dinosaurs as the shackled slaves of futurustic cyborg leader Robert Z'Dar. No great loss there...

The Dinosaur Filmography goes far beyond the basic synopsis/commentary structure of many reference books, and also includes a section on production history and people, and special effects, and much more. The author has done a lot of research on this topic, including first-person interviews, and he's the absolute perfect talent to present this book to the world. I applaud his work, because these films bring back such intense (and happy) memories from my childhood.

I wonder if the love of dinosaurs (and dinosaur movies) is a male thing, because my wife, Kathryn - who will watch sci-fi and horror with me until the cows come home - just can't stomach these things. We recently had a marathon of AIP 70s flicks (Land That Time Forgot, People That Time Forgot and At The Earth's Core) and to say that she checked out during them is a polite way of putting it. I own (and love...) all the Jurassic Park movies too, but my wife doesn't even like those, and let's face it, they're kind of the pick of the litter in this sub-genre.

Speaking of the Jurassic Park movies, I feel I've discovered a kindred spirit in writer Mark Berry. When I first saw the 1993 Steven Spielberg film, I actually cried when I saw the first dinosaur (a brachiosaur?) on screen. Yep, I cried like a little baby. I'm sure the effects probably looks dated today, but that dinosaur appeared and felt so real to me. It was like a living creature...and I just wept.

God I love dinosaurs.

Whew. Okay, I'm better now. But my point, before I went all maudlin on you, is that Berry understood the importance of that moment too. As kids, didn't we all want to see a living dinosaur? Didn't we all imagine what that moment might be like? Those great rubbery monsters of yesteryear whet our appetite to see the real thing. And in some bizarre way, that first view of a CG dinosaur in Jurassic Park felt like a dream come true. It's one of my favorite moments in 1990s cinema, a watershed, and I've never forgotten it

So, if you love Valley of the Gwangi, if you think King Kong (1933) is tops, this is the book you must own. You'll have a great time reliving movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million BC, or The Lost World, and learning about ones you've never heard of before (Saurians, The Secret of the Loch...). The book is also lavishly illustrated, and there's a great twenty-page color section that features the poster art from such efforts as Where Time Began, Untamed Women, King Dinosaur, The Land Unknown, One Million Years B.C. (with Raquel Welch!) and more.

Did you grow up with dinosaurs and harbor a secret (or not so secret...) love for these movies? If the answer is yes, you can re-kindle the affair by ordering The Dinosaur Filmography from McFarland or the publisher's order line (800 253-2187). The book is $39.95, a reprint of a 2002 edition.

TV Review: Threshold: "Pulse"

Threshold's fourth episode aired last night (Friday), and was pretty weak.

If you haven't been watching, don't start now. But I kid Threshold.

Here's the plot so far. An alien signal has reached Earth and - if received by human ears - begins to mutate affected humans, transforming them into super-strong and super-determined slaves of an unseen alien race bent on spreading the signal further. In response, the U.S. govt. initiates a plan called "Threshold" under the auspices of team leader Molly Caffrey (Carla Gugino) and attempts to block the aliens wherever they turn up.

So, every week now, the aliens try and fail to upload their signal to some component of our modern American technological grid. In an earlier installment, "Blood of the Children," the aliens were prevented from uploading their signal to the Net. Why? Because they stupidly picked a site (a military academy) where only one chamber had Internet access. Good one, E.T. In this episode, "Pulse," the aliens change tactics and use I-Pods, text-messages and ATM networks in Miami to propagate their "bio altering" signal. The result? The Threshold team - outwitted - fries the city with an electromagnetic pulse and stops the alien incursion.

I have a few thoughts about the premise and execution of Threshold, and they're probably not particularly welcome by anyone involved in the show. Let's handle the premise first. In one sense, it's sorta interesting. The point being that it is our own technology that makes us vulnerable to an alien threat - our use of cell phones, computers, I-Pods, etc. The notion that an alien could hijack our innocuous tech-head gadgetry and turn it against us works for me. I guess I have a little Luddite in me (and I should tell him to get out...) I still miss my Atari 2600. In any case, this was also the story of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, but this is a variation on that theme and as such, not wholly unoriginal or unpromising.

And yet...the very nature of the alien threat is rendered underwhelming by Threshold's premise. I was up in arms a few weeks ago when, after "Blood of the Children," it was clear that nobody was still monitoring the Internet for alien incursion. Then and now, my point is that the Internet is always open, always vulnerable, and you just need one person (with a blog like this one?) to upload the alien threat. But Threshold dropped that notion like a hot potato. Why? Just because the aliens attempted to breach the Internet once and were stopped, the issue isn't resolved. It's not like they won't try again. There's an old Vulcan proverb that goes: If at first you don't succeed, try and try again. I'm sure the aliens have a similar notion. I think they would be trying constantly to infect the Internet. But the very fact that the aliens can't succeed in getting one infected person to log onto AOL makes the aliens just seem...stupid.

In "Pulse," the signal gets into an I-Pod, and then into a cell-phone, where it replicates itself into every infected phone's calling circle. Again, that's neat, but you're telling me that the aliens won't try this again, even though they failed this one little time? How many cell phones are there in a world? I just don't buy it that the Threshold team's intervention prevents the aliens from trying this plan again.

This weak plotting always bothers me in movies, especially when bad guys are guilty of faulty, irrational thinking. Like when a good guy is surrounded by bad guys, and the bad guys come at him one at a time so he can martial-arts-himself out of the crisis. If the bad guys had all just attacked together, the hero would be toast. The same principle is true in Threshold. You're telling me that sinister aliens with the capability of creating a bio-altering and tech-altering catch-all evil signal and the ability to travel to Earth from another solar system can't launch an attack on the Internet or cell phones in a variety of countries simultaneously? They couldn't try it in Russia, China, India and the United States at the same time? I just don't believe that. Any smart alien would attack the Internet from 50 - hell 500 - computers at once. Try stopping that Ms. "I Look Good in Green Leather" Caffrey!

Because the aliens are so lame, and their plan is so basic and flawed, I have a difficult time buying into the world of Threshold. The series' premise just don't hold up under the smell-test.

The execution is even worse. So far the episodes go like this: Aliens infect our technology, almost spread their dastardly signal, and are blocked at the last minute (whew!) by Threshold team members....which consists of five people; four-and-a-half if you count Dutton, who must be under house arrest cuz he never gets to leave the office. All I can say to this is: Those damn meddling kids!! First of all, this plot is dull and repetitive, and secondly it allows little opportunity for growth.

In last night's "Pulse," push finally came to shove. Threshold team members couldn't stop the spread of alien-infected cell phones, so the government efficiently and quickly shut down all of Miami with an electromagnetic pulse.

Oh, okay.
That was easy. the post-Katrina age, are we supposed to believe that the government response would be so effective and so quick? (Sorry, I don't buy it). And secondly, do we blindly accept that there would be no casualties or looting if Miami went totally dark? In the last scene, Baylock (Charles Dutton) gleamed happily that the Corp of Engineers was already in Miami and would have the power grid back up by nightfall.

Uh, yeah, right. We've seen in real life that it would probably take the Corp of Engineers a week to get to Miami, there would be lawlessness there in the meantime, and people would really, really panic. And jeez - an electromagnetic pulse would take out everything. Cars, microwaves, VCRS, ATMs, cell phones, everything. So hospitals would be shut down. Shelters would shut down. No buses would run, and that would mean no evacuation. That's all gonna get fixed overnight? Who will repair the cars? Hmmm? You can't just pulse an entire American city and then end an episode on an upnote like the problem's been solved. You might get away with that in a perfect universe (say, like Star Trek's), one where everybody is decent and calm, and technology unchained makes the world a paradise. But in 2005 America?

Secondly, the EMP-ing of Miami - though undeniably dramatic - is a huge problem for all future Threshold episodes. You want to know why? Because every time the alien signal is about to spread, you know what I'm going to say - right here in this very space? Just EMP the city! Hell, it worked in Miami! (And the Corp of Engineers had the grid up in a day...). How seriously can I take any future threat on Threshold when in the fourth episode of the series they've already used their "last" resort - an electromagnetic pulse - and not only did it defeat the aliens, it caused no serious harm to our populace?!!!

This show is lame, and the writers have typed themselves into a corner. Sorry folks, I think Threshold just shit its pants.

Six Months on the Blogosphere

This Monday marks my six-month anniversary on the blogosphere, posting my various and sundry "reflections" on film/tv. Even after half-a-year and multiple posts, I'm still getting the hang of blogging. I notice that many other blog posts are fairly short. Mine aren't. I guess it comes from my history with writing books (sometimes very lengthy books...). I find it difficult keeping things short and sweet, but I'm working on it. My books aim to be scholarly, but I know to keep up on the 'Net I must be snappier. I'm working on that, so bear with me.

Where we have we been so far? Well, 124 posts in six months, and about a dozen-or-so each of my most popular features - which based on e-mail and comments - I would say are my Thursday entries (Retro-Toy Flashbacks) and Friday entries (Cult TV flashbacks). The new TV season has given me a lot of fodder lately, with reviews of this year's genre programming.

So where do we go from here? Well, I'll be continuing Thursday Retro-Toy Memories and Friday Cult TV Flashbacks. I'll also be blogging current TV shows, and I plan to expand my CULT TV blogging episode-by-episode entries. I'll be finished with Push, Nevada before long, and then I intend to move along to blogging the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker and American Gothic. If there are any short-lived (like one season...) TV series that you' feel haven't gotten the attention they deserved, and you'd like me to blog 'em, put in a request. I'm open to anything, as long as I can get my hands on the episodes.

The new season of genre television has kind of limited my focus on movies for the time being, which is something I intend to rectify. I'm off to see History of Violence later today and a review will be up Tuesday. Also, I would like to do some cult movie blogging (first up: William Girdler's blaxploitation version of The Exorcist: Abby). I would also very much like to continue featuring book reviews and interviews with authors/filmmakers. I feel so fortunate that I've been successful in my career and that things are stable for my family, and I want to share the wealth. I want to draw attention to other talents who deserve recognition. So if I can swing it, you'll see more of that.

Also upcoming, I plan to watch all the Star Wars movies in order (Ep 1 - Ep 6) and blog the whole bloomin' movie series here. I'm excited about this, because this will be the first time (after the release of Revenge of the Sith on DVD in November...) that I'll be able to see the story in the sequence Lucas intended. I'm assuming that my understanding and perception of Star Wars will be transformed in this process. My take is this: I'm starting with Phantom Menace and pretending never to have seen the story before. I'm going in like this is the first episode of a saga, and I'm putting all prejudice aside and taking nothing for granted. We'll see if I can manage it. Starting in November (around Thanksgiving), I'll ask that you join me on this quest, so we take this ride through the Star Wars saga together. I'd like to see some other blogs and comments on this too, so after Sith's release to the DVD venue, look for the Star Wars blog here...

What would you like to see in this space? Have a favorite and overlooked production you'd like me to blog? Let me know, and I'm on it! Just don't make it too hard for me. Don't ask me to blog nine seasons of Charmed or something else that would kill me, please. The Power of Three just won't set me free.

Hope you'll hang around for the next six months.

CULT TV Blogging: Push, Nevada, Episode # 4: "Storybook Hero"

The fourth episode of the 2002 cult-tv series Push, Nevada finds our noirish hero, Jim Prufrock (Derek Cecil) in some hot water. The town sheriff and his mysterious deputy, Dawn (Liz Vassey) have just arrested him for the murder of Oswald Wilkes - the assassin with a serpent tattoo emblazoned on his arm. Even worse, his dependable girl-Friday back in Carson City, Grace (Melora Walters) has been suspended from her duties at the IRS for her illicit 7C search of IRS records on the town of Push, and his bail is set at nearly a million dollars. Complicating Jim's situation further, his lawyer - Push's public defender - isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed.

Fortunately, these matters start to clear up a little as the episode continues. Grace turns out to be a tough cookie (unlike her replacement, Myrna), and agrees to help Jim unofficially by finding out who posted his bail. The trail leads to Reno and a mysterious man named Phineas Cobb. And before long, the IRS sends Jim a decent lawyer in the person of the erudite Jameson Jones, a very bright fellow who begins asking some of the important questions that we viewers need answered. Including: who sent that erroneous fax to the IRS in the first place? I mean, think about it...wasn't it a strange coincidence that a fax should mistakenly be sent to the IRS, the worst of all possible places? Someone, somewhere, is on Jim's side...

There's a great noir-style conversation in "Storybook Hero" as Mary, the town's femme fatale - is called on the carpet to confront Sloman, our hissable villain. This reptilian fellow engages in "an exercise" about "empathy and perspective" to get her to spill the beans about the location of the missing (and all-important...) Bible. When that doesn't work, he breaks down and resorts to threats. "My heart is blacker than ash. My insatiable black hole," he warns, and given Raymond Barry's exquisite, icy delivery, we believe him.

New character: Push, Nevada introduces another new eccentric in this fourth episode, Eunice Blackwell (played by Nan Martin). She's the town coroner/funeral director, and this martini-drinking, cigarette smoking old broad talks to the dead, including Oswald Wilkes. When Jim meets her, she reveals that 1984 was a big year for Push...and dead people. Seems that eight copycat suicides occurred in one week. And there was a rash of oddball, so-called accidents. Just so happens that this "banner year" for deaths was also the very year that the Versailles Casino opened. Hmmm...

I'm still trying to discern some clues about the location and amount of the money stolen in the first episode (the contest gimmick of the series...) I think some of the clues this week include the number 2215 (the time that Jim was in the casino; military time), the chess moves shouted out by the inmates in a prison van, and the amount of the theft: 1 million, 45 thousand dollars. I guess I'll find out some answers soon (or not). Only three episodes left...

In the fourth week of Push, Nevada, written by Tom Garrigus and directed by John Patterson, the mysteries are still deepening. We see more "flash cuts" of Jim's childhood trauma (a spell in the trunk of a car...) and this installment ends on a cliffhanger, with a gun pointed at Prufrock's skull. I don't know how many people were watching this series when it aired in 2002, but I imagine it was pretty-much a nail-biter. And frustrating when it was cancelled so quickly...

Friday, October 14, 2005

Action Figures Redux

Hey there - I'm not alone, the only adult (sorta...) collecting movie/tv-tie-in action figures. My Thursday Retro-Toy Flashback this week was on this very subject, and it's nice to see that others also share this madness/passion for 'em. This week, two of my cool new friends from Chesapeake, VA, are busy blogging about action figures and their personal memories of 'em. They battled over Serenity earlier, but they're on the same page here.

I grieve for Tony, in particular, and his great purge of action figures in the 1980s. Man, that is painful. If you ever feel like you need someone to talk to about that, Tony - I know a really good therapist! Damn, and I thought I had suffered because my Mother threw away my Battlestar Galactica thermos...

And Chris's blog, Wat Tambor's War Journal, focuses on a couple of real treasures (like the Legend of the Lone Ranger figures! Holy Cow!, I own those too! They're not carded or anything, but I've got 'em!) and the Star Trek Playmates Era. My office is filled with Star Trek Playmates figures. I have literally hundreds. We probably could have had a new car or two in the 1990s, but now, what the hell, I have a legion of these figures instead...

Here's two excerpts about action figures! (Visit these blogs for more from these articles...)

I have loved action figures for as long as I can remember. I am a part of the generation that grew up with Star Wars, so almost from birth I have been sucking on the merchandising tit of Lucasfilm. There was something about growing up that way that cemented the connection in my mind between enjoying a film and owning the corresponding action figures. Lots of movies are fun and enjoyable, but you know you loved a movie when you come out of the theater with an overwhelming desire to go to the toy store and buy figures of your favourite characters.

I have heard cultural critics bemoaning this style of marketing as a bad thing that indoctrinates children into a consumer mentality and robs them of their imagination. Real toys, these critics say, allow children to use their imaginations, not simply provide them with establish characters and scenarios to recreate. I could not disagree more. Can you think of anything more inspiring to a child's imagination than Star Wars?

Action figures allowed us to fully explore a world that fired our imaginations like no other.The first figures I remember owning were from Star Wars. I am lucky enough to still have all of my Star Wars figures from when I was a kid. I don't have any of the extremely rare figures like Blue Snaggletooth, Yakface, of Amanaman but I do have a pretty complete collection of figures from Star Wars to Return of the Jedi. Sadly, I missed out of The Power of the Force figures when they came out. I remember how shocked I was when I found out that there had been a figure of Han Solo that you could put in and take out of the carbonite! How on Earth did I miss that? But that was 1985 and I was fully immersed into my other great love, Transformers, by that point.

I was too old for toys. I had a growing infatuation with heavy metal music, and punk rock was just around the corner. My parents didn’t understand me. Sometimes when I looked at girls, they actually looked right back. I didn’t need toys. I had just turned thirteen. I was primarily concerned with ‘cool’. The cool kids of the junior high school set, we of the black t-shirts and leather wristbands, did not have toys in our bedrooms, or so I thought. For God’s sake, what if a girl saw them?

Throughout my young life, before that fateful thirteenth year, action figures had been the very definition of cool. In my earliest days it would be something from Mego’s World Famous Superheroes line awaiting me beneath the Christmas tree. I believe the Mego Batman was my very first action figure. Then came Star Wars, and nothing would ever be the same.

Like so many kids of my generation, I had an absolute passion for toys based on my favorite movies and television shows.In addition to the forces of the Rebel Alliance and the Evil Galactic Empire, my toy chest contained characters and vehicles from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. I owned action figures based on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Clash of the Titans and The Black Hole. Remco’s Universal Monsters line was an instant favorite after I discovered the Frankenstein Monster himself on the shelf at Rose’s.

As the 80’s hit full stride, a paradigm shift occurred that would forever change the way that toys were marketed to children. Instead of manufacturing toys based on a popular TV show or movie, TV shows and movies were now being manufactured for the sole purpose of promoting new toys. This was the era of GI Joe (the little ones), The Transformers and the Masters of the Universe. I loved all three, but I was especially fond of Transformers. I mean, come on: it’s a robot and it’s a jet. How cool is that?

So come on, I know you're out there! Who else has the love for these little hunks of plastics and their fun little accessories? One of my favorite accessories comes from the Playmates Deep Space Nine collection. Vedek Bareil comes equipped with a group of "snakes" for snake handling. I think somebody at Playmates misinterpreted that episode. I think the good Vedek was haunted by images of snakes, I don't think that snake handling is part of the Bajoran religion. But that's a blog for another day.

TV Review: Night Stalker: "Three"

The highest compliment I can pay last night's episode of Night Stalker, titled "Three," is that it was late X-Files quality good. Like from the eighth season or something. It wasn't Mulder/Scully good, but it was clearly Doggett/Scully good. And let's face it, that's not bad for an episode so early in the series run.

There was a moment in the midst of the action last night, however, when I really missed Mulder and Scully. You see, Kolchak (Townsend) and Perry Reed (Union) sat in Kolchak's car together investigating a series of deaths centering around a college initiation rite and a secret society. For a moment, the characters stopped talking exposition about the plot, and actually espoused distinct world-views. Kolchak - perpetually a loner - started talking about how much he hates secret societies and commented about how they are merely excuses for elitism and exclusionism. By contrast, the more social and happy Perry replied that in secret societies, you make friends for life, people you can trust more than anybody else. Turns out she's a member of a secret society, herself!

The specifics of this conversation aren't important. What's important is that for a few shining moments, these characters in a horror TV series revealed their perspectives and insights on an issue that had nothing to do with ghosts or goblins. It was a personal, and amusing moment. It had social value, and there was a sene of joie de vivre in the proceedings. Nicely done.

And yet as I watched it, I couldn't help but realize that David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would have hit this material right out of the park. There would have been layers upon layers of subtext: romance, intellect, annoyance, anger. In the hands of Townsend and Union, the vetting of the conversation was merely good, a solid "B" - the best character moment in the series so far - but nobody could perform this kind of banter like Duchovny and Anderson did. The stars on Night Stalker should practice.

That established, this was still the best episode of Night Stalker aired thus far. Near its climax, it featured a superb (and actually SCARY) flashback of a terrible family crime. This flashback came replete with an axe, children in danger, and bloody shoes. It was very, very disturbing, and edited as if straight from an R-rated feature film. This flashback raised the quality of the episode above the standard horror stuff. Very nicely done. It also fits in with the earlier two shows. Unlike the original Kolchak, it doesn't seem that we'll be encountering vampires and werewolves, but rather supernatural crimes that evolve from human sins. That's an intersting take, and different from your run-of-the-mill supernatural program.

I haven't heard anything about Night Stalker's ratings recently. I will say this, I'm still enjoying it more than Supernatural, and if it keeps on this track, maybe it really will be this decade's X-Files. At least at the eighth-season Doggett/Scully level. That's better than nothing...

007 Number 006

Well, it's officially official new: little-known blond Englishman Daniel Craig is replacing Pierce Brosnan as the world's most well-known secret agent, Commander James Bond. I've never seen Craig in anything, so I have no way of judging whether this is a good choice or not. I'll say this - I was hoping for the return of Pierce Brosnan because I would have liked to see him have five films to his "legacy." I think he still had at least one more great Bond film in him; maybe even his best film. As far as a replacement, I was kind of supporting Clive Owen. But Craig is who we get, and I'll be curious to see how he does in the role. Didn't see Layer Cake.

So, we get our sixth big screen James Bond.

To recap:

Sean Connery played the part from 1962 - 1970 (with one interruption in 1969), and starred in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, and the non-canon Never Say Never Again in 1983.

BEST CONNERY BOND GIRL: Honor Blackman, as Pussy Galore
BEST CONNERY BOND VILLAIN: Gert Frobe, as Goldfinger

George Lazenby (an Australian...) played Bond in one film, in 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service. He also played "JB" in a 1985 TV movie, Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E. Don't know if that counts. But anyway - and this is strange to admit openly - On Her Majesty's Secret Service is my all-time favorite Bond movie even though I don't have much nice to say about Lazenby's performance. A primary reason? Diana Rigg. Another reason: that ending. Also, the editing in this film is nothing short of amazing. Go back and watch how this thing is put together, and you will be in awe. The ski-chase and the stock car race represent two amazing Bond set-pieces.

Roger Moore played Bond from 1971 - 1985. He appeared in Live and Let Die, The Man with the Golden Gun, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker, For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and A View to a Kill.

A View to a Kill
BEST MOORE BOND BABE: Jane Seymour as Solitaire in Live and Let Die
BEST MOORE BOND VILLAIN: Christopher Walken as Max Zorin in
A View to a Kill
BEST MOORE BOND THEME SONG: For Your Eyes Only, sung by Sheena Easton

Timothy Dalton played Bond # 4 from 1987 - 1989 and appeared in two films: The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. Another admission: In the late 1980s, I was re-reading all the Ian Fleming original Bond novels, and I felt (and still do...) that Timothy Dalton comes closest to the book Bond in his interpretation of the part. Now, he may not be the most cinematically successful Bond, but I thought he did a good job recreating the Bond of literature. Both of his films are among my favorites.

Pierce Brosnan essayed the role of 007 from 1995 - 2002. He starred in Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day.

BEST BROSNAN BOND BABE: Michelle Yeoh, Tomorrow Never Dies
BEST BROSNAN VILLAIN: Sean Bean, 006 in Goldeneye
BEST BROSNAN THEME SONG: Goldeneye, Tina Turner

Okay, my top ten Bond films. Disclaimer: My choices are idiosyncratic, not the result of the received wisdom of others, and I take personal responsibility for 'em. And I'd be glad to argue for the value of any of 'em over a beer.

1. On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
2. From Russia with Love
3. Goldfinger
4. The Living Daylights
5. Licence to Kill
6. For Your Eyes Only
7. Live and Let Die
8. The Spy Who Loved Me
9. Tomorrow Never Dies
10.Dr. No

Now, I'm on the record. How about you? What are you favorite and least favorite Bonds. And how do you feel about a Blond Bond? What's the best Bond double entendre or one-liner? (I vote for "And I thought Christmas only comes once a year...")

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 13: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century:

Well, you won't be reading here a deep, insightful "critical analysis" of what a brilliant and artistic program the Gil Gerard/Erin Gray Buck Rogers (1979-1981) was. Sorry. Look elsewhere for that. Basically, my opinion on this quarter-century old TV series is this: it was The show, which aired on NBC for two seasons remains wildly entertaining and enjoyable to this day (and, hey, I own the DVD Box set...), and after all, there's no reason I have to be serious in every one of these Cult TV Friday flashbacks, is there? I mean, I feel like just having fun today, and hence this selection for my thirteenth re-cap.

I've been a part of sci-fi fandom for more than twenty years (yes, I'm officially old...) and based on my observations (and my own personal feelings), an important (and under-reported) element of fandom is wish-fulfillment, an active and happy fantasy life. I mean, why dress up all fancy-like and shiny in a Star Fleet uniform if there isn't a small part (maybe a large part...) of you that wishes you lived in the 23rd or 24th century, right? Well, I enjoy Buck Rogers in the 25th Century so much because, in essence, it appeals to that wish-fulfillment aspect of the genre.

Think about it. You fall asleep for 500 years only to wake up in a world populated by gorgeous women (like Erin Gray's Wilma Deering). She alternates between wearing tight red and tight blue spandex. Then, you get a little robot buddy to follow you around all the time, and laugh at your stupid jokes (Twiki). When aliens from another world arrive, their drop-dead gorgeous leader, Pamela Hensley's Princess Ardala, looks at you and decides you're worth going to war over; that you're a genetically perfect man ("Escape from Wedded Bliss").

Even better, none of the kind-hearted boobs who live in the 25th century can fly their own spaceships, so you - 500 years behind the times - are their savior. Only you can manage that joystick and make aliens eat laser dust. You alone can save Earth from marauding Draconians, space pirates and the like. So your new boss, Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) sets you up in your own apartment and makes you an "unofficial" spy for the Earth Defense Directorate. This is like being an intergalactic James Bond. Women want you; the Earth needs you, and you get to play with all kinds of gadgets. You missions will take you to a place called Sinaloa, a "Vegas in Space," and even on a cruise ship where you will meet the lovely beauty pageant winner, Ms. Cosmos ("Cruise Ship to the Stars.")

In the course of these dangerous missions, you'll romance hot space women who look like Jamie Lee Curtis ("Unchained Woman"), Pamela Susan Shoop ("Vegas in Space"), Anne Lockhart ("A Dream of Jennifer") and Markie Post ("Plot to Kill a City"). I mean, come on - how cool is that? Add a Burt Reynolds, 1970s disco vibe, and this is fan nirvana!

Let's pause for some history: the character of Buck Rogers first appeared fifty years before the 1979 television series debuted on NBC TV. Conceived first in comic-strip form by John Flint Dille, and artists Russell Keaton and Rick Yager, "Rogers" became a perennial Americam pop-culture favorite in 1929. A radio serial about the pilot trapped in a future world was produced in 1932, followed by a series of cinematic cliffhangers starring Buster Crabbe in 1939. It is fair to say that Buck Rogers, along with Flash Gordon, personified space adventure in the first half of the twentieth-century. Even that was not the end of Buck, however. Ken Dibbs took on the role for ABC television in 1950, in a series of twenty-five minute episodes that aired for a single season. Shot lived, it was limited to small sets and primitive (by today's standards...) special effects.

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the 1979 series, is Glen A. Larson's second science fiction "opus." It premiered on NBC scarcely a year after Battlestar Galactica bowed on ABC. And like it's 1978 compatriot, the first Buck Rogers television pilot played with great success in movie theaters throughout the United States. Starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, the series last for two years, thirty-six hours in all. It was a moderate success in the ratings during its Thursday night time-slot, slated against the highly-rated Mork and Mindy (ABC).

The 1979 Buck Rogers series was a hip (perhaps too hip?) updating that kept all the character names from earlier incarnations, but veered wildly into tongue-and-cheek, humorous settings. We all know the premise: Astronaut Buck Rogers awakes in 2491 and finds Earth has survived a devastating nuclear war. Vulnerable, the planet is on the verge of annihilation from many alien sources. Pirates regularly attack shipping lanes, and every two-bit dictator in the galaxy has set his sights on conquering the green planet. In this environment of danger, Buck, his "ambuquad"(!) Twiki (voiced by Mel Blanc) and the gorgeous Colonel Deering defend the planet as secret-agent type operatives. In addition to his peerless ability as a starfighter pilot, Buck takes the world of the 25th century by storm with his 20th century wisdom and colloquialisms.

Unlike its somber Galactican counterpart, Buck Rogers was, essentially, a lark. It was Mission: Impossible in space, and on that basis a tremendous amount of fun. In the first season, the series eschewed morality plays, focusing instead on Buck's "unofficial" missions to bring down galactic criminals. In "Plot to Kill a City", Rogers disguised himself as a mercenary named Raphael Argus and combated an organization called the Legion of Death, lead by Frank Gorshin's Kellog. In "Unchained Woman," he masqueraded as an inmate on Zantia to rescue from a subterranean prison a woman who might finger a crook. In "Cosmic Whiz Kid" - starring Gary Coleman(!) - he rescued a 20th century genius from the hands of mercenary Ray Walston. This was essentially the pattern for the 20-something episodes, and in many ways it was a unique formula for the genre on TV at the time. The "caper" was all that mattered.

On Buck Rogers, there was no continuing alien menace, although Princess Ardala, Kane (Michael Ansara) and the Draconians showed up occasionally. And unlike Star Trek, there was little or no exploration of new worlds. Instead, Buck was an outer space crime/espionage show. And that meant - that for the first time I'm aware of - all the conventions of crime and spy television were transposed to the future; to outer space. On Buck Rogers, this transposition was accomplished with charm and a degree of wit. There were telepathic informants selling their services in "Cosmic Whiz Kid," powerful assassins from "heavy gravity" worlds in "Plot to Kill a City," super-charged athletes looking to defect from dictatorial regimes (the futuristic equivalent of the Kremlin) in "Olympiad," cyborg gun runners in "Return of the Fighting 69th" and a planet conducting a booming slave-trade in "Planet of the Amazon Women."

Not a one of these above-listed episodes was particularly meaningful or even moderately artistically written, but each was enjoyable in a popcorn sort-of-way. The series seemed far more interested in humor and female pulchritude than in developing real people or compelling storylines. In fact most of the episodes featured not only fetching Erin Gray, but other gorgeous women in hip-hugging spandex and tantalizing leather garb. They had names like Ana Alicia, and Julie Newmar. Yowza!

These gorgeous women were joined by high-profile TV guest stars including Cesar Romero, Roddy McDowall, Peter Graves, Jay Robinson, Sid Haig, Vera Miles, Joseph Wiseman, Mary Woronov, Buster Crabbe, Jerry Orbach and the like. With this level of support, the series never lacked visual appeal or charm, and the first season was a fun, fast-paced jaunt across the galaxy.

However, in one important category, Buck Rogers was a letdown. The outer space battles were competently achieved with the special effects of the day (models; motion-control), but were often badly mis-edited into the proceedings. In the early episode "Planet of the Slave Girls," mercenary ships transformed into Draconian marauders - a noticeably different design - from shot-to-shot. In the same episode, a shuttle on the distant world Vistula launched skyward and passed the matte painting of New Chicago (on Earth), a matte painting that was used EVERY SINGLE WEEK to depict Directorate headquarters. This was the kind of goof that occurred repeatedly.

Another repetitive and very bad edit concerned the principal spaceship of the show, the very cool-looking starfighter. There were two different designs for this craft, the single and double seaters. Each one had a distinctive and recognizable cockpit design: one slim, one fat. However, the "space" footage of different crafts were often cut together interchangeably within one sequence. In one shot, Buck tooled around space in the single-seater, and in the next, his ship was the impossible-to-miss wider version.

Special effects from Buck's sister series, Battlestar Galactica, were mercilessly plugged into the proceedings too. In "Planet of the Slave Girls," the Cylon base from "Lost Planet of the Gods" substituted for Vistula's launch bay. In "Vegas in Space," "Cosmic Whiz Kid," and many others, the Galactica planet Carillon, seen in "Saga of a Star World," was substituted for the planet of the week. This was achieved in so sloppy a fashion that the Cylon-mined Nova of Madagon, a red star field, was even visible for a few seconds. BG spacecrafts were also brought out of mothballs. The Galactica shuttle doubled as Buck's shuttle in the second season, and ships from Galactica's rag tag fleet showed up in "Planet of the Amazon Women" and "Space Vampire" among others.

Make-up, costumes and props from Galactica also materialized with alarming regularity. The alien "Boray," the focal point of the Galactica episode "The Magnificent Warriors," was seen in the BR episode "Unchained Woman," and Colonial fatigues, also BG hand-me-downs, were utilized as the uniforms for Roderick Zale's henchmen in "Cosmic Whiz Kid." This oppressive re-use of Galactica equipment, effects, make-up and sets, along with the frequent editing glitches, often made the future depicted in Buck Rogers appear cobbled-together, cheap or just unimpressive.

Storywise, Buck Rogers also rehashed identical plot elements in tale after tale. A spy in the Directorate might have made an effective plot developmnet in one or two episodes. However, different spies in Huer's HQ showed up in "Planet of the Slave Girls," "Plot to Kill A City," "Return of the Fighting 69th," and "Unchained Woman," episodes 2, 4, 5, and 6 of the series! There was also the embarrassing overuse of the goofy drug. This was a chemical compound that, when injected into suspects, made them look like a total goofball, stoned and "groovy" feeling. Buck received the goofy drug twice in "Awakenings," and once in "Cosmic Whiz Kid." He used it on a thug in "Vegas in Space," and Wilma utilized it on Quince in "Polot to Kill a City" and then again on Mykos in "Olympiad." This drug was a truth serum, and interesting to see deployed, but six times in less than two-dozen episodes may have been gilding the Lilly just a tad.

After its first year on the air, Buck Rogers underwent dramatic changes. Gil Gerard and Erin Gray were both apparently unhappy with the less-than-substantive storylines. In an interview with Starlog, Gerard confided that he'd re-written virtually every episode of the first year, sometimes on-set, to make terrible stories passable. As a result of his disenchantment, a new format was devised. Dr. Huer, the Defense Directorate, Dr. Theopolis and the Draconians were axed. Buck, Wilma and Twiki became crewmembers aboard a starship called the Searcher (really the redressed cruise ship from "Cruise Ship to the Stars.") The Searcher's mission was to locate the "lost tribes" of Earth, men who were believed to have fled the planet some time after the nuclear holocaust of the late 20th century.

New to the cast as an alien named Hawk, played with great dignity and restraint by Thom Christopher. In conception, he was kinda ridiculous though: a half-bird/half-man alien with a grudge against Earthlings. The rest of the new cast was not even that inspiring. Crichton was a smart-ass robot who looked as though he had been designed out of spare parts. Dr. Goodfellow, played by the charming Wilfrid Hyde-White, came across as dottering instead of charming, and Admiral Asimov (played by Jay Garner) was an abrasive personality undermined by story exigencies. Asimov was commander of the Searcher, but Buck was the star of the show, so Asimov by needs had to be ineffectual. Rogers always had to jump in to save the day and so Asimov just seemed...inept.

The crime/spy template of the first season was gone, and the new Buck Rogers came to resemble the original Star Trek, focusing on heavy morality plays. "Time of the Hawk," the two-hour premiere, served as a diatribe against racial intolerance, and was probably the best show of the second season. "Journey to Oasis" was another plea for acceptance and diversity. "The Guardians" was a competently-produced space nightmare, and "The Dorian Secret" was a powerful indictment of the "mob mentality." Thought-provoking and competent, these shows were decent, if not great.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the second season stories saw a parade of cliches and time-worn sci-fi chestnuts. "Testimony of a Traitor" was that old gimmick, the court martial story (repeated on every variation of Star Trek from now till kingdom-come...). "Mark of the Saurian" was a bald-faced, unbelievably imitative, virtually play-by-play repeat of Space:1999's only two parter, "The Bringers of Wonder." "The Satyr" was the typical "single-mother in jeopardy" episode that appeard periodically on every genre show from Battlestar Galactica ("The Lost Warrior") to V: The Series ("The Wildcats.") Also, season two produced two utterly embarrassing episodes: "The Golden Man," which featured life-forms aging backward, and "Shgoraphchx," about mischevious alien dwarves on the Searcher. If you can, please avoid "Shgoraphchx" like the plague. It is really, really rotten. It could hurt you.

Buck Rogers' second run clearly lacked the sense of fun so prevalent in the freshman season. After just a dozen new stories, the series was cancelled in 1981. Before it made the journey to Valhalla, Buck Rogers was nominated for several Emmys including "Time of the Hawk" for Outstanding Cinematography and "The Dorian Secret" for Outstanding Costume Design. The series scored a win for Outstanding Achievement in Musical Scoring for "The Satyr."

Despite such honors, Buck Rogers is not a popular cult hit, today, though all the episodes work well-enough on a rainy day. It is, however, probably more influential than folks realize. Many of the episodes have been shamelessly echoed in later productions. The ludicrous, backwards-aging creatures of "The Golden Man" apparently inspired an equally ludicrous Star Trek: Voyager second season story called "The Innocent." The "Space Vampire" episode of Buck Rogers was rehashed, rather less-successfully in an early installment of Babylon 5 called "Soul Hunter," and if you think about it, Buck Rogers' stargates also appear to be the model for that series' "jump-gates." Lastly, the outer space/crime and espionage trappings of Buck Rogers have been revived on Space Rangers and Space Precinct, among other shows.

If the 1970s Buck Rogers remains truly disowned by any particular subset of fans, it would have to be the die-hard Rogers fan who felt that this version just didn't stack up or show adequate respect to an American legend. That's not really a fair assessment, I suggest. In the first year at least, Buck Rogers attempted the same swashbuckling sense of fun seen in the Crabbe serials, only updated for the more freewheeling 1970s. Yes, the icon was updated to include sexy costumes and disco music, but what else could one expect? Art must speak to its own time if it is to have a chance of surviving, and this is the 1970s take on Buck Rogers. Disco glitter balls and all...

And hey, who says that all science fiction television must always be deadly grim and utterly serious? Certainly there's a place for that lugubrious stuff, but what's wrong with a sci-fi Starsky and Hutch or Mission:Impossible every now and then? Must we all be so elitist about this stuff, must we take ourselves so seriously, that we can't have a good time with something designed just to be fun?

Buck Rogers in the 25th Century was a good time. It was fun. And, proving the existence of God, Erin Gray wore spandex. A lot.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

TV Review: Lost: "Everybody Hates Hugo"

The fourth episode of Lost's second season aired last night at 9:00 pm, and I must say, the storyline is now moving at a good clip. I was really worried after "Adrift," the second episode, that we were going to be in for a long haul, watching for weeks without new developments. That anxiety is gone now. Which is really good. I'd hate for Lost to get old.

So what happened in last night's show? Well, most importantly, Kate (Evangeline Lilly) took a shower. (Mmmm, Kate...shower...) Even better, she seemed to be inviting Jack (Matthew Fox) to take a shower. Unfortunately - as usual - he refused her flirtation. What's up with this guy? No wonder she kissed Sawyer last season. I know some people on the Net think Jack's gay. I could see that. I know he was married to the woman he saved from paralysis, but that didn't seem like a happy marriage. Maybe he's still in the closet. Could be. After forty days on a desert island, I can't imagine any red-blooded hetero American male not trying to make time with Kate.

Anyway, what else happened? Well, Rose's husband Bernard is alive after all (and played by that great, highly underrated actor, Sam Anderson). More to the point, he's with a small and very defensive group of Flight 815 survivors, including Michelle Rodriguez, who live in a second underground facility. Strangely (and we had no explanation for this...), these survivors have seen their numbers dwindle from 23 to about three. Wonder what's going on. But these guys aren't the Others, despite the fact that they seemed awfully violent last week. The preview trailers promised the Others for next week. So we'll see.

Hugo's story was okay, but nothing earth-shattering was revealed (or did I miss something?) Jack and Sayid (Naveen Andrew) took a trip under some floor grating but didn't find anything to speak of, which means that the survivors will be plugging in numbers on that 1980s computer for the near-term. No other developments...

I enjoy Lost. I think it's one of the best shows currently airing on television. But (and you knew there was a big 'but' coming, so-to-speak, especially in an episode about Hurley...) I also feel that we haven't really re-engaged with the whole cast yet this year. I realize it is difficult to service such a large group, but Maggie Grace, Malcolm David Kelley, Daniel Dae Kim, Yunjin Kim and even Dominic Monaghan have been pretty darn underutilized. I guess I shouldn't complain, since the general plotline does seem to be moving more quickly. But there hasn't been one episode yet that has adequately featured the ensemble.

I have a suggestion: ditch the frickin' flashbacks. Michael's flashback episode was dire. Hugo's was only so-so. We know enough about these characters now that we don't need the flashbacks. Instead, develop the story. Tell us more about the island. About Dharma. If the flashbacks can't be "lost," then scale 'em back. Big time.

I also think that after last week's ferocious climax with the "purported" Others, Lost is guilty of playing the audience for suckers. I have a friend in Chesapeake, Virginia named Chris who would probably term the show a "cocktease" (his term for The X-Files.) I could understand such a moniker. I mean, there's been no appearance of those tree-rustling monsters from last season! If Lost has a big, fat flaw, it is certainly that important ideas appear to be dropped like hot potatoes from week-to-week; left perpetually unexplained. At this point, the creators would need seven seasons just to answer the riddles of the monster, the polar bear, the disappearance of Walt, the computer, the numbers, Desmond, etc.

But hey, I'm being waaay too hard on Lost. It does boast an element which makes it truly inspiring: Terry O'Quinn. I loved him on Millennium, and last night I screened The Stepfather (from 1987) for my current book, Horror Films of the 1980s. He was absolutely terrific in that movie as a psychotic, family-murdering guy named Jerry Blake. He's good on Lost too. Somehow, O'Quinn (along with Naveen Andrews, whom I had the pleasure of interviewing a few months ago...) adds a real element of class and gravitas to this series.

Next week, we supposedly get the real Others. Stay tuned.

The 2005-2006 TV Season, A Report One Month In

Well, how are the TV freshmen faring this year? As usual, it's a mixed bag, but this season already boasts one break-out hit and it's on the same network as most of the big hits from last season: ABC. Of course, I'm talking about Commander-in-Chief starring Geena Davis. Apparently Steven Bochco will be the show-runner there soon, and ABC has picked up the remainder of a full season of 22-episodes, known in the industry as "the back nine."

Other shows that have been granted the reprieve of a full-season pick up are: Supernatural on the WB (first five episodes blogged here by yours truly...), Criminal Minds - which airs on CBS against Lost, so I haven't seen it - and CBS's dire Love-Hewitt vehicle The Ghost Whisperer.

On Fox, Monday night's literal "break out" hit, Prison Break got the order for 22 episodes, making it a full seasoner. This development will make my wife exceedingly happy, because she likes looking at Wentworth Miller. A lot. Also on Fox, David "Angel" Boreanaz's new series Bones gets the tag for a complete season, so it won't be going anywhere soon.

The two best new sitcoms of the season - My Name is Earl starring Jason Lee and Everyone Hates Chris (on NBC and UPN) respectively have gotten a vote of confidence for the remainder of the season as well.

What's not coming back? The first casualty of the season was the Chris O'Donnell series Head Cases on Fox. The network canceled it after two episodes aired. Inconceivable on NBC was next. And word just came out that Don Johnson's WB show Just Legal is a goner, along with Sex, Love and Secrets.

And what about the "sci-fi" troika of the season, Invasion-Threshold-Surface? Well, CBS is happy enough with Threshold to grant it three additional episodess. Invasion is doing well in its time-slot, so hopefully word about a pick-up will come soon. I have grave concerns about the life-span of Surface. In the past, NBC hasn't done so well by sci-fi, cancelling the original Star Trek back in the 1960s, and V:The Series in the 1980s. We'll see what happens.

Also gone for good: The Simple Life on Fox. Hopefully this cancellation heralds the end of "celebrity" reality TV. I also hear that Martha Stewart's version of The Apprentice is not the powerhouse house that was hoped for.

And I think it's still too early to know anything about Night Stalker, which I prefer to Supernatural (and Threshold, for that matter).

CULT TV Blogging: Push, Nevada, Episode # 3: "The Color Of..."

In Push, Nevada's third episode, "The Color Of...", the search for Oswald Wilkes - an assassin (appropriately named as a mixture of John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald...) - has led straight-arrow IRS agent Jim Prufrock to a trailer in the desert where he has been forced to submit to an "inking," a tattoo. And what is that tattoo? Well, it's a legend stretching across his shoulders that reads "DEATH AND TAXES."

"The Color Of..." adds layers to the growing mystery of this unusual ABC, 2002 TV series. Grace, Jim's secretary, has conducted a 7C computer search on the town and learned that not a one of Push's residents has filed a single tax return in 17 years. Even more mysteriously, the Versailles Casino, Prufrock discovers, is paying out winnings 62% percent of the time. This is odd, because casinos cannot stay afloat if they are losing more than 50 % of the time. Operating costs preclude survival otherwise. Another oddity: Trucks are making mysterious deliveries to the casino on a daily basis...

But these new facts take a back seat to Jim's back story in this episode. We see flashbacks of Jim's deceased father, and learn that - at some point - he was actually in Push, Nevada, and perhaps understood the secrets there. Jim's landlady has been holding on to one of his father's monogrammed handkerchiefs. What was Jim's dad doing there? When was he there? Was the erroneous fax that brought Jim to Push in the first place really sent by mistake? Or is there a larger plot going on here?

These are some of the questions raised by the third, and perhaps most complex episode of Push, Nevada thus far. The viewer is asked to keep track of local authorities, black ops conspiracy men, Jim's alcoholic wife, his father, the machinations inside the IRS (complicated by Jim's boss, Ira Glassman), and the treasure map he discovers on a handkerchief. And what, pray tell, is the secret about the car trunk that Jim keeps seeing flashes of?

Stay tuned, I'm only about half-way through the series now, and hoping against hope that some of this gets wrapped up before the final episode (#7).

Thursday Retro Toy Flashback # 13: Action Figures, 1973-1988

Since I was a wee one, I've been a crazed collector of movie/TV tie-in action figures. My love for action figures began with the release of a gigantic Eagle spaceship from Space:1999 (and Mattel...) in 1976. The three-foot long spaceship came with three orange space suited figures of Commander John Koenig, Dr. Helena Russell, and Professor Victor Bergman (pictured left). They were accessorized with tiny gray stun guns, white back-packs/chest-packs, laser rifles and removable apricot space helmets.

These small figures (three inches or so tall) could be lowered and raised into alien terrains by a winch on the eagle craft, and I took them everywhere I went. When we traveled to Stokes Forest, NJ as a family (near where Friday the 13th was filmed, incidentally...) I landed my Eagle team near a creek. When in 1977 we had a giant snow storm in my home town of Glen Ridge, I put down the Alphans on giant snow drifts and recreated "Death's Other Dominion." Inside my basement, I landed the space travelers in alien cities constructed from blocks.

Not to sound like a broken record, but my childhood days came long (loooooong...) before DVD (hell, even before VHS), and the only way to capture the adventure of my favorite shows was to create new stories with ancillary merchandise, including novelizations, puzzles, colorforms, comic-books and - naturally - action figures.

I still own that giant Eagle - as well as those well-worn figures. When I look at these three figures today with an objective eye, I realize they aren't particularly nice or well-done. Heck, they don't even have hair color! And Helena Russell posses the same manly, hulking body as the two male figures. Wonder how the glamorous Barbara Bain feels about that? But boy did I love these toys anyway, though I also wished for Alan Carter, Paul Morrow and other Alphans to include in my action-figure games.

But Space:1999 was only the tip of the action-figure iceberg. I remember for my early birthdays (I can't recall which one), I received the whole set of Star Trek Mego figures, the ones from the original, classic and still-best TV series. These figures included Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, Dr. "Bones" McCoy, Scotty (or, as on the card "Scottie), a Klingon and Lt. Uhura. These figures came with blue communicators (in the closed, flipped-down position), and phaser pistols. Spock, Uhura and Bones also had tricorders, replete with shoulder strap. The Klingon had the same accessories but they were painted red.

The holy grail of this Star Trek figure collection was the later "Aliens" release. Today in my office, I have a Gorn, a Neptunian, a Cheron (pictured) and a Keeper. But there were others...ones that I've never been able to afford. Andorians, Talosians, Romulans and the Mugato, to name a few. These things sell for absolutely ridiculous prices on E-bay. As soon as I get my first million dollar advance, I'll add 'em to my collection.

Mego also released Planet of the Apes figures (which I collected). I still have Dr. Zaius, Cornelius, and two variations on the Soldier Ape, but many more were released. Dr. Zira and an "Astronaut" were part of the original line, and as the TV series became popular, representations of Peter Burke (James Naughton) and Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) were released. If I'm not mistaken, Mego also released both General Urko (from the TV series; Mark Lenard) and General Ursus (from Beneath the Planet of the Apes).

What I remember best about these larger-sized action figures is the great playsets that were also available. The Star Trek figures had a starship Enterprise bridge playset, replete with a spinning transporter beam! There was also a planetary playset called "Mission to Gamma," which sorta/kinda/maybe resembled the alien God/statue "Vaal" from the second season episode, "The Apple." The Apes playsets and accessories were even better. Mego sold a Forbidden Zone playset, an Ape tree house, a catapult set, and much, much more. The only thing Mego didn't make, which I would have really liked, was a spaceship resembling the design seen in the original films and 1974 TV series.

In the mid-1970s, Mattel also manufactured a collection of larger-scaled Space:1999 figures, again of the series stars: Koenig, Bergman and Russell. These figures came with stun guns and accurate-looking commlocks (the series' version of communicators). Sadly, their hands were not able to grasp the toys, and that took away some of the fun. Also, the uniforms were not particularly accurate. Helena Russell - as a toy - wore orange, which wasn't what the character adorned in the minimalist TV show. More than anything, these figures resemble another set of the time: The Sunshine Family. A new, more accurate line of Space:1999 figures is being released currently by Classic Toys, but - alas - this company doesn't have the license to reproduce the likeness of Martin Landau and Barbara Bain, so these Mattel figures from the 1970s are likely the only large scale Koenig and Russell figures the world will ever see.

In 1976, Woolworths produced a line of four action figures based on the popular Saturday morning TV series, Space Academy. The series involved the adventures of cadets based out of an asteroid university commanded by Isaac Gampu, played by Lost in Space's Jonathan Harris. Among the figures: Tee Gar Soom, Chris Gentry and the young orphan, Loki. As you can tell from the photographs, these figures start to decay over age. Hands and arms break off very easily.

The action figure floodgates truly opened with the release of Star Wars in 1977. Soon after (but not soon enough for little kids like me!!!), Kenner began producing small, 3+ inch action figures that were not only durable, but also seemed pretty accurate to the designs of the film series. Luke Skywalker, Chewbacca, R2-D2 and Princess Leia were the first figures released in an "early bird" kit, but more came after that. Much more.

Luke, Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader all had retractable light sabers. Luke's was yellow, Darth's red and Ben's blue. Some figures, like Ben, Darth, the Sand People, the Jawa, and later Lando, also had plastic capes. Virtually all the figures came with one kind of accessory or another, usually blasters. My cat liked to eat these tiny blasters, and if she didn't get them, they'd be vacuumed up by my mother! I lost a bunch of accessories this way.

At one point, I guess I owned over a hundred action figures, including the rare Blue Snaggletooth (available only from Sears). I remember that before The Empire Strikes Back came out, Boba Fett was also made available through a special promotion, and everybody was desperate to get their hands on this bounty hunter, the "new villain." Also, after the Empire Strikes Back, Kenner released another mail-order toy, a "survival kit" for the Kenner figures. This kit came with atmosphere masks (Mynocks!) and backpacks, as I recall.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the Star Wars action figure line from Kenner was the pure scope. Everybody had a figure (Death Squad Commanders, Death Star Droids, Power Droids, Greedo, IG-88, Bosskk, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, R5-D4), and there were playsets galore. I loved Yoda's house on Dagobah (complete with quick sand trap!), and all the Hoth "ice planet" toys. And the ships! My god, the ships! There were X-wings (battle damaged and not), TIE fighters, the Millennium Falcon, AT-ATs, Bespin Cloud Cars, snow-speeders, Rebel transports and more. If you were at all imaginative, you could recreate the whole trilogy with this vast line of action figures and toys. But you'd need a lot of room...

The year 1979 was perhaps the greatest of my childhood, because it was the year that everybody tried to rip-off Star Wars, and that meant lots of space movies and TV shows. This was the year of Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Moonraker, Alien and
Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Because I've criticized Battlestar Galactica in print - and said it didn't reach the potential the series showed from time-to-time, some people have claimed I'm not even a "fan." This is patently untrue, as my Battlestar Galactica collection reveals. I'll tell you, as a kid, I positively loved this show. Mattel released a line of action figures from the series that were approximately Star Wars-sized. Representing the heroes were Commander Adama, Lt. Starbuck (both with cloth capes), and Muffit the robotic daggit. The bad guy figures were even better. There were silver and gold Cylons Centurions, four-armed Ovions, the pig-like Boray (from the episode "The Magnificent Warriors"), Baltar and even Lucifer! Mattel also released a large-sized Cylon Centurian (with a red eye you could pivot in his head...) and a cloth-vested Colonial Warrior.

Mego also released large and small figures for Buck Rogers and the Black Hole. Alas, the small figures from both productions were held together with small metal pins at their joints. These figures did not hold together well at all, and often they would break at the critical joints (like the elbow). My Buck Rogers figure broke within twenty-four hours of my purchase, leaving me only with Twiki.

The hands on these figures were also cast in a hard plastic, and when you tried to make them hold weaponry or stuff, their thumbs would snap right off. The Black Hole team did not get many accessories, but the Buck Rogers figures (including Buck, Wilma Deering, Twiki, Dr. Huer, "Killer" Kane, Draco, Draconian Guard and Tigerman...) had some really cool ships. Directorate Star Fighters and Draconian Marauders, and a plastic landing bay were among the toys manufactured. A ship not featured on the series was a "laserscope" fighter. I always wished for an action figure of the character called Hawk (from the series' second season), but by then, no new merchandise was being produced.

Mego also had the license to Star Trek: the Motion Picture, and produced a large and small line of action figures. The small ones - unlike Buck Rogers - were not held together by pins, and have stood the test of time. Of course, I remember that as a kid I was one of the few people who loved the film, and my friends constantly ribbed me about having action figures for such a boring movie. What were they going to do, sit on the bridge and stare at the viewscreen? And who were they going to fight? V'ger? Ah well. The figures from the (small) line include Admiral Kirk, Mr. Spock, Lt. Ilia (the bald Deltan), Captain Decker, Mr. Scott (with moustache), and Dr. McCoy. A line of aliens (including the new bumpy headed Klingons) was also released, on a much smaller scale, and I've never even seen one of 'em in the flesh.

By the advent of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the license to produce action figures had moved over to the company called Galoob. The company released a line of six figures from the new series: Captain Picard, Commander Riker, Lt. Data, Lt. Tasha Yar (er, deceased...), Lt. Geordi LaForge and Lt. Worf. They came with tricorders, and hands molded to the early phaser design (resembling a dust-buster).

Again, a line of aliens came later, including Q, Selay and Antican (from "Lonely Among Us," an early show) and a Ferengi. These figures also had some spaceships to tool around the universe in, including the shuttlecraft Galileo and a Ferengi Fighter (not actually seen in the show...). There was also apparently a plan to release a Wesley Crusher figure, and a representative of the Romulan Empire (from the episode "The Neutral Zone"). I don't believe these were ever mass produced.

In the 1990s, Playmates went absolutely balls-to-the-walls apeshit with the Star Trek license and created hundreds of action figures, ships and even landing party (or "away team" gear). They created authentic figures large and small, but I'm focusing here mostly on the older figures...just because.

Over the years, I have collected action figures from virtually every franchise imaginable. My office displays action figures from Clash of the Titans, Mork and Mindy, ID4, Dune, The X-Files, Farscape, Smallville (sorry), The X-Men movie, Scream, Terminator, Aliens, Captain Power and the Soldiers of the Future, V, Dr. Who, Predator, Space Precinct (sorry again) and Flash Gordon. I suppose that of all the collectibles in the world, my favorite type is - indeed - the action figure.

I wish, however, that I had collected two lines: Tron (1982) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). These are very rare, very interesting and very expensive to acquire. I don't know what I was thinking at the time. I guess maybe I didn't like Tron that much as a kid (though I love it now...) and Raiders of the Lost Ark - though awesome - wasn't a "space adventure," my favorite.

Anyone have any action figure stories?

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Muir Book Wednesday # 1: The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television

I've had a few friends and family members e-mail lately and tell me that although they like and enjoy my blog, I need to do a better job of pitching my books to the world. I just figured that I had my book titles down the right side of this page, and a "buy John's books" ad/link to Amazon down there too, and that would be enough. But apparently I need to AGGRESSIVELY market my books here.


This week, I'm initiating another new "blog" feature, the "Muir Book Wednesday." I figure that since sixteen of my books have been published (and I've signed contracts for twenty-one...sheesh...) I ought to be able to write about my books once a week for a while. It will a) fill up some space, and b.) familiarize people with my work off the net, in print.

I want to start off with my award-winner, The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television, published by
McFarland in 2004. Although I didn't expect this would be so, it ended up being (so far) my most successful book with the company, both in sales and in response from the critical community. In April of 2005, The New York Public Library selected it as a "Best of Reference" for the year. Library Journal awarded it a "starred" review.

Here are some quick stats: The book is 621 pages in length. It features four appendices: Conventions and Cliches of Superhero Films and Live-Action Television, Incarnations, Memorable Superhero Ad-Lines, and The Best, Worst and Most Influential Productions.

The book opens with an introduction called "Thank God You're Here!" and then moves into a more-than-20 page overview of superhero film/tv, including sections with the following titles: "In the Beginning: Superheroes with Straight Faces (1938-1957)," "Then There Was Camp: The Age of Batman (1966-1975)," "The Age of Americana: Nostalgia Reigns Supreme (1973-1985)," "The Dark Age (1985-1998"), "The Dawn of the Woman: The Ascent of Buffy (1997-2002)," Renaissance and Re-imagination: Superheroes Triumphant (1999-2003)," and "A Cartoon (and Kid-Vid) Nation."

After the overview, I move into the bulk of the Encyclopedia which includes all the various entries for superheroes on TV and film, 1951 - 2003. These include: The Amazing Spider-Man, The Ambiguously Gay Duo, Angel, Aquaman, Automan, The Bionic Woman, Birdman and the Galaxy Trio, Birds of Prey, Black Scorpion, Blade, Blankman, Bluntman and Chronic, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Captain America, Captain Nice, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Condorman, The Crow, Daredevil, Dark Angel, Darkman, Doctor Strange, ElectraWoman and DynaGirl, The Fantastic Four, The Flash, The Gemini Man, The Greatest American Hero, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, The Incredible Hulk, The Invincible Iron Man, Isis, The Justice League of America, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Man from Atlantis, Manimal, M.A.N.T.I.S., Martian Manhunter, The Mask, The Meteor Man, The Mighty Thor, Misfits of Science, Mister Terrific, Mutant X, Mystery Men, Nick Fury: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., Nightman, Now and Again, Once A Hero, The Phantom, Plastic Man, RoboCop, The Rocketeer, The Shadow, Shazam!, Sheena, The Silver Surfer, The Six Million Dollar Man, Spawn, Steel, Superboy (including Smallville), Supergirl, Superman, Swamp Thing, The Tick, Unbreakable, Witchblade, Wonder Woman and The X-Men. Whew!

These entries range from a single page to 42 pages in the case of superheroes with many productions (like Batman). All TV shows featured include episode guides replete with cast and crew, synopsis and airdate.

But hey, enough of my yakking, here's what the critics say about The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television:


"The over-the-top, first-stop-in-pop-culture maven, McFarland has unearthed another killer-kryptonite jewel. This bounteous reference cornucopia documents 50-plus years of 71 superheroes in film and television, providing both basic and detailed information for films and episodic listings for television shows. This is genre guru Muir's 11th book for McFarland, and he knows the landscape like Aquaman knows Atlantis...Divided into four sections, the text includes a history of film and television superheroes, a conclusion, and numerous fun and quirky appendixes. The bling-bling, of course, is the mondo-hefty Part 2, encyclopedia of shows, each entry of which provides a full origin and history of the superhero, full credits, format, cross-references, episode-by-episode descriptions for the television shows, and critical notes. If you can swing it, get two'll need them both. Rock on, Muir and McFarland! A Library Journal "Starred" Review." - LIBRARY JOURNAL, May 15, 2004, pages 77-79.

"For years I have wanted a book on superhero movies, and the new 600 + page brick known as THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERHEROES ON FILM AND TELEVISION by John Kenneth Muir goes one better by including TV shows too. From the early days of Adam West camping the cape of Batman to the current Marvel movie bonanza of X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN, this book covers them all...Each title gets an individual discussion and review, with the TV shows often accompanied by detailed episode guides. The book's introduction is a terrific history of the genre, with Muir demonstrating he knows his stuff..." - Rod Lott, HITCH DAILY, March 8, 2004.

"Those seeking a highly detailed guide to such colorful crime fighters should discover John Kenneth Muir's 'The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.'...Going back more than 50 years, the author offers a history, episode guide, film description and critical commentary for every entry. Muir also details information on arch-villains, gadgets, origins and super powers."-Lou Gaul, THE BURLINGTON COUNTY TIMES, March 4, 2004, page C1-C2.

"* * * * (FOUR STARS/OUT OF FOUR)...The book opens with a succinct history of the subgenre, and notes how various eras have presented comic book figures, on home and cinema screens, from the straight-faced gung-ho action of postwar America through a camp phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a decade of nostalgia, to the 'dark age' of hard-edged cynicism that characterised 1990s' vigilantes...Having written books about Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999 and the films of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and Kevin Smith, author John Kenneth Muir is well-grounded in the lore and minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy adventure...This is the first book where all three Captain America movies are featured. Coverage of The Crow is particularly welcome...and [the book] provides the most comprehensive section on The Six Million Dollar Man...I've yet seen in print. Of course Superman, the mainstay of this book's entire subject, demands and gets a suitably expansive chapter-size entry and along with the write-ups for Superboy and Supergirl, this offers the most extensive coverage of DC Comics' veteran figurehead outside of those specialist single-character books." - Tony Lee, THE ZONE: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Mystery Website, June 13, 2004.

"There seems to be no end in sight for the dominance of comic-book heroes at the movies. That's why it's a good time to dive into this hefty 600-page-plus compendium of trivia and essays about caped crusader types from the past half century. John Kenneth Muir, whose credits include Horror Films of the 1970s and Terror Television is our knowledgeable guide through this tour of supernatural heroes. Each entry includes a detailed history, cast and credits, TV episodes and live-action and animated film descriptions, as well as critical commentaries and entertaining data on origins, catch phrases, gadgets and arch-villains. There are some great focuses on recurring themes - almost-exposed secrets, lost powers, misfits, crossover shows, etc. - and nice appendixes such as "The Best, Worst and Most Influential Productions...[a] must-have geek reference book." -ANIMATION MAGAZINE: "BOOKS WE LOVE" July 2004, page 6.

"John Kenneth Muir must have had one mis-spent youth. In his 'Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television' he gives superhero fans a good resource to the various movie/TV incarnations of our favorite heroes. Covering animation as well, this book is current up to mid-2003, and reaches back to the early 1950s. His presentation covers comic book and comic book-inspired heroes in an entertaining 'Did you know'/documentary format...Filled with great anecdotal and historical information, the entries are illustrated with a smattering of photographs...I love superheroes. And during the course of this writing I was 'lost' several times in numerous entries. That is the beauty of the book, no matter what information was missed due to space, or time limitations you can enjoy it fully...Buy this book. And wait for the second edition where John Kenneth Muir updates the entries and gives us more delight and comic book/superhero video fodder...Happy reading. May your cape never need dry cleaning!"-Tumbleweed, PENGUIN COMICS June 2004.

"John Kenneth Muir's books for McFarland are distinctive because of their authority and effective research. The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television is no different...the detail is mind-boggling." - CLASSIC IMAGES, May 2004.

"...riveting...Muir sandwiches entries on 71 superheroic individuals or teams from the past 50-plus years of broadcast media between a pithy historical overview and back matter that includes a compendium of plot cliches and several "Best/Worst" lists...Where else are readers going to find such depth of detail, not only on such major figures as Superman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the likes of Captain Nice, Isis and Saturday Night Live's Ambiguously Gay Duo?...this is a browser's delight." - School Library Journal August 2004.

"...I thought I'd point you out to this cool guide. This book is 600 some pages of everything you need to know pertaining to superheroes. All you could possible wish to have at your fingertips about guys like Superman, Batman, Daredevil and more." - Yvonne Glasgow, MusicRevueMag: Undergound - The Goth and Punk Page. May 2004.

"Muir characterizes the superhero genre as a uniquely American myth that he tracks from the early age of straight-faced crime fighters through its camp and nostalgic phases and to more recent incarnations as dark heroes powerful heroines...and re-imagined characters." - C&RL News, June 2004 page 338.

"...the encyclopedia is well-researched and provides a wide array of television and film superhero characters' backgrounds, histories, ways they were perceived by critics, plus valuable facts about the TV shows and motion pictures that will prove useful to library patrons who are researching topics as varied as female superheroes in TV and film to the evolution of superheroes from comic book characters to TV and/or film central subjects. As this work is unique in its subject matter...academic, public, school and special librarians will find this title to be a good jumping off point for patrons when they are beginning research on TV and film superheroes. It will also be a good ready reference tool to consult for a particular fact or piece of data on a specific movie or TV programme that centres on a superhero. It is a valuable addition to any library's reference collection." - Carolyn Frenger, Reference Reviews, Volume 18, Number 6, 2004, pages 49-50.

"This book is to be read and referenced. Hardcore superhero enthusiasts will treasure it...Recommended." -LIBRARY MEDIA CONNECTION, Nov/Dec 2004, page 185

"An amazing collection of superhero biographies...detailed." - THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, "Best of Reference, 2005" Selection.

"Muir's encyclopedia should find much use, issued at a time when superheroes have made a strong comeback in feature films and animation...The book is recommended for libraries...and superhero researchers and fans." - ARBA, Volume 36.

"Most coverages of superheroes focus on comic books and illustrators for the comic book world. John Kenneth Muir's Encyclopedia Of Superheroes On Film And Television narrows the focus to film and television superheroes, with entries by show discussing shows ranging from short-run productions like 'Isis' to 'M.A.N.T.I.S', 'Shazam!' and more. Each film and show receives critical quotes, overviews of plot and premise, cast and crew listings, and seasonal episode overviews. An excellent and recommended reference for film and television buffs." - MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW.

Okay, and here, finally, is an excerpt from my introduction, the first three-and-half paragraphs. Enjoy!

"Thank God You're Here!" An Introduction

People have always adored their superheroes, those larger-than-life figures who rescue the weak, preserve the species, and fight evil in all its forms. Our ongoing delight with superheroes is evident even in the earliest recorded works. After all, what is the great Greek hero Hercules, son of Olympian Zeus and the mortal woman, Alcmena, but a "super man," half-human and half-divine. His great strength and power, granted by his demigod heritage, no doubt, makes Hercules one of the earliest known and oft-imited representatives of the genre.

However, going out on something of a limb, one might say that the superhero really came into his (or her) own in the United States of America of the twentieth century, which gave birth to Superman, Captain America, Spider-Man, Batman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the X-Men, Daredevil, the Incredible Hulk and many more. Perhaps it is not difficult to understand how or why the superhero evolved in this manner. Scarcely over two hundred years old, the United States of America remains a young country in the scheme of world hisstory, and because of that youth lacks a coherent and comforting "old world" mythology such as those of Ancient Greece or the Roman Empire.

A melting pot of immigrants from all the planet's nations, the United States repreents a synthesis of peoples, religions and legends. Still, many common ideals, notably those of freedom and opportunity, are shared among new arrivals to American shores, and those common ideals must be championed in a new and relevant mythology. What could be more appropriate than the mythology of the justice-seeking superhero? Thus Batman and the other contemporary representatives of the genre replace the mostly irrevelant, old or classical myths, like England's Robin Hood, France's Three Musketeers or Greece's pantheon of great heroes (such as Hercules, Thesues and Perseus).

Notably, Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster's long-lived creation Superman, ""the man of tomorrow," is actually a child of yesterday, representing the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century immigrant experience. Kal-El is a child of foreign origin, from the planet Krypton, adopted by American parents (much as America "adopts" all immigrants) and given a solid, American sounding name of rock-hard strength: Clark Kent. He matures in the safety and security of the corn-fed American heartland of Kansas, is raised to respect traditional family values, and then moves to the big city, Metropolis, where he lives out the American dream...

So, anyway, there it is! Check out my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television if you can swing it. It sells at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million,, and direct from the publisher at
McFarland. The book isn't cheap, but it is thick, durable (hardcover) and packed to the gills with information. Next week, I'll be back with another "Muir Book Wednesday." Consider that fair warning...