Saturday, October 29, 2005

Retro-Toy Flashback # 15: Movie and TV Trading Cards

Well, as regular readers have probably noticed, I've been falling behind on the blog this week. I didn't get to post this on Thursday (or Friday...) because I was working on a deadline, but here - just a few days late - is Retro Toy Flashback # 15!! And the subject is indeed one close to my heart: trading cards!

My childhood fascination with movie and TV-related trading cards started with - of all things - a loaf of Wonder Bread.

It must have been late 1977 or early 1978, and Star Wars was the one-and-only blockbuster of the day and my constant obsession (I was 8, I guess...). Well, those canny makers of Wonder Bread decided to slip special collectors cards from the George Lucas space opera in each and every loaf of their product, and that made every trip to the local Shop-Rite a wondrous one! What an incentive to eat loads of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!! In fact, I remember trying to slip my beautiful calico cat, Penny, some pieces of wonder bread when no one was looking, so we could get the next loaf faster.

But then I discovered (thanks to my parents), a flea market in New Jersey called Englishtown, and one cold Saturday morning in the late 1970s, I found a vendor there selling packs of bonafide Star Wars cards from a manufacturer named Topps! About ten or so cards came in each carefully wrapped pack, and each pack included a stick of crumbly chewing gum, stickers (which I quickly adhered to everything I could...) and information about the making of the movie on the back side of the cards. The front of the cards always featured wonderful photos from the movie and were even sequentially numbered for easy collecting.

Naturally, I had to have them all. But then the first "blue" set of Star Wars cards gave way to the "red" set, and I was still collecting. Then the red set gave way to the yellow set, and I kept buying. I also remember an orange set...but the point was, there were something like 300 frickin' cards to collect just from the first Star Wars movie. Honestly, I don't actually remember trading many of these cards with friends, just keeping them in a drawer and trying to find the ones I didn't yet have. Today, I have what's left of my Star Wars collection (and I fear I've misplaced many over the decades...) in a nice loose-leaf notebook, with each card in a plastic holder. Geek alert! Geek alert!

Yet Star Wars was merely the gateway for more and more hardcore (!) trading card experiences. I've written on this blog before about how 1979 was one of the greatest years of my childhood because it saw the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Moonraker, Alien and on TV, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica. It was a hell of a time to be a young fan of science fiction "space adventures," and it was just great (especially that Christmas...)

Well, I lived in a town named Glen Ridge in New Jersey, on a street called Clinton Road, and our house was only about two blocks away from Bloomfield, where there was a small convenience store (we called it a "milk store" back then for some reason). Anyway, that store sold -- wait for it - trading cards from all these great sci-fi productions. My grandfather (who passed last January after a long illness), used to give my sister and me silver fifty-cent pieces every time we saw him, and I would save these up and use them to purchase trading cards.

I think that even as a kid, I was most "into" collecting things from Star Trek. And Star Trek: The Motion Picture truly fascinated me. It seemed so different from the space combat shows like Star Wars, Galactica, Buck Rogers and even, to some extent The Black Hole and Moonraker. Well, Topps did a great job with their set of 88 cards (and 22 stickers) from the movie. Many of their cards featured close-up views of the re-crafted U.S.S. Enterprise, the new "pajamas" uniforms and other interesting details. For one thing, there were a lot of new and really weird aliens in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that barely appeared in the film. But suddenly, on the cards, you could see all the weird costumes and make-ups close-up, and I thought that was fantastic. It opened up my eyes to the diversity of the Star Trek universe, So I enjoyed these cards tremendously. I still have 'em too. A complete set. Also stored safe and proudly in a notebook.

I was only nine or ten when the Sigourney Weaver blockbuster Alien came out, so I understand why my parents wouldn't let me see it. It was R-Rated, after all. But my next door neighbor, David, was the same age as me and he got to see it, and consequently was always talking about it. The movie sounded so cool, and naturally I felt inferior for not having seen it, so it was back off to the "Milk Store" (by then operated by Krausers, maybe...) to purchase cards from the Ridley Scott movie. Like the Star Trek: The Motion Picture set, these trading cards were fascinating to me because some of them revealed early designs of the spacecraft and set designs (By Ron Cobb). The cards were also - frankly - my first look at this now-classic alien design and the movies' main characters.

By 1983 and the advent of Return of the Jedi, I felt I was too old to be collecting trading cards, so I put my various collections away, and didn't think about them much. But, by 1992, I was back on my crazy science fiction kick, this time as a young adult. I was working at a chemical "flavoring" factory in New Jersey that summer, and I met a guy in the warehouse who was selling trading cards from Alien 3. Although a lot of people hated that David Fincher film, I thought it was pretty awesome - even artistic - and the price was right, so I bought the whole series and re-commenced my long tradition buying whole collections and displaying them in books.

The Alien 3 cards were nicely done, and fascinating because - again - some of the cards seemed to refer to events that weren't in the film. For instance, in the movie released, a dog was infected with the alien chestburster, but in an earlier version, it had been an ox, I believe. So there were some interesting discrepancies to chart in the set.

In 1993 and 1994, I began my adult obsession with the mid-1970s TV series, Space:1999. I collected all the laserdiscs, bought a laser disc player, and set about watching all of the episodes and recording my observations in a journal. This is how my first book, published by McFarland, actually came about.

I wanted to feature a section in my Exploring Space:1999 book about collectibles (how convenient!) and my then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife, Kathryn, patiently indulged me buying up comic books, magazines, action figures, model kits, water pistols and the inevitable trading cards from the series. The card set had been produced by Donruss in 1976. There were 66 cards in all, but no stickers, and all the scenes were from the first year. Hence no Maya, to my dismay. Still, these cards are great because they adroitly capture the minimalist, visual appeal of the series, and many cards display the fantastic miniature special effects work from the show (particularly the hanger bay where the Eagles are grounded between flights).

During the years from 1995 - 2005, I've been on a sometimes-passionate mission to collect trading cards from the franchises I missed between 1966 and 1992. One of my favorite finds (and I paid 35 dollars for it) was the entire trading card series from the short-lived 1974 Planet of the Apes series starring Mark Lenard, Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper and James Naughton. I had a special Planet of the Apes day at a flea market called Metrolina in Charlotte: I picked up the trading card set and a Planet of the Apes lunch box on the same day (total price: $70.00).

Over the years, I have also begun collecting cards from the 1984 David Lynch film, Dune (which I guess turned out to be a bomb...), from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters, from the Bond flick, Moonraker and on and on.

I have to say, I enjoy owning trading cards from almost any TV series -- from Happy Days to ALF. Also, my dear friend, Christopher Curry, recently gave me as a gift an unopened pack of Jaws 3-D cards from 1983. I'll tell you, I didn't even know that Jaws 3-D card existed.

Anyway, I think that as a rule, trading cards provide the same joy that colorforms, novelizations, storybooks and Little Golden books do. They're a way to nicely experience a favorite production again and again, but without a VCR or DVD player. Collecting trading cards isn't as passive an experience as watching TV can be, and I think it even teaches one a degree of patience. It also happens to be an entertaining pastime.

You'll notice I haven't ventured into the modern world of trading cards here. I'm aware that this collecting niche/market has just really, really taken off in recent years, but ultimately I'm a nostalgia freak. I like the cards from the productions of my childhood, and the new cards just don't hold the same appeal for me. Not that there's anything wrong with collecting or enjoying them, it's just that I prefer the universe of Space:1999, Planet of the Apes, and so forth.

So, let me hear your stories, folks! Who collected trading cards growing up? Who still does? And what's your greatest trading card story?

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "The Hunt"

Okay, this show is really getting good now. I don't know if it just took me a while to get into Invasion's slow-moving (but atmospheric...) vibe or what, but I'm enjoying each succeeding episode more and more.

This week, one of the "alien" (?) kids, Derek admits that his experience in the water "changed" him, and consequently goes about making a move on Dr. Mariel Underlay. The sparks fly when Sheriff Underlay finds out that this teenager is hot-to-trot for his (admittedly very fine-looking...) wife and goes after the kid. And then, there's that surprising resolution that makes it absolutely clear that the Sheriff is the leader of this "colony" of extra-terrestrials.

Meanwhile, Russell tags one of those glow-in-the-water orange fishy-things in the Everglades (shades of Surface, which two weeks ago also aired a story involving the tagging of a water beastie...). Here, Russell tracks the fish all the way onto dry land, to a no trespassing - finally - a human being!! So, holy cow, are we supposed to understand that these "alienated" humans can go back and forth in form, sometimes appearing as an orange sea-creature and sometimes as a human?! I guess this explains why Mariel is so drawn to the water (and loves taking baths so much...). Still, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

Invasion is better than the hackneyed Threshold (which aired a rerun of the pilot last night...), but Surface is coming on strong the last few weeks, so I'm glad that this Shaun Cassidy series is taking matters up a notch. I want to know more about these characters and what they're going through, and I guess that's a sign that - like Russell's sea critter - I'm "hooked."

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "The Collectors"

The second Logan's Run episode, "The Collectors" aired on September 23, 1977, and was written by James Schmerer and directed by Alexander Singer. And, bluntly stated, it's an episode that doesn't live up to the potential of the series. The episode is well-directed by helmer Singer, a veteran director many programs, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the story is hopelessly cliched, and just doesn't fit well in the Logan's Run universe.

Here's what happens: After their solar-powered hovercraft breaks down in the desert, Jessica (Heather Menzies) and Logan (Gregory Harrison) leave REM behind to repair it while they explore. Two aliens, Joanna (Leslie Parrish) and John (Linden Chiles) are secretly monitoring the humans, and decide to test them by granting their every wish. They create the illusion of "Sanctuary" for Logan and Jessica, in order to determine if these two humans are worth taking back to their home world, Kasorla. Seems their ship is wandering the galaxy collecting two specimens from each planet's dominant species and probing them for fatal defects as a prelude to conquering them. Jessica doesn't see through the illusion, but Logan does, and with REM's assistance, plans to pull a fast one on the aliens, releasing all of their specimens and staging an insurrection.

After a careful watching, I have to say that "The Collectors" would have been much more successful if, as viewers, we believed that the alien spaceship really were that grand destination, Sanctuary, along with Jessica and Logan. Instead, the episode undercuts the tension it should generate by revealing instantly that "evil" aliens are behind the illusion. This is bad TV plotting. We had to be spoonfed all the information INSTANTLY. Of course, had the aliens not been revealed, we still would have had doubts about whether this place was really Sanctuary, but we would have been sharing that doubt with the characters, and therefore grown closer to them. But this way - with the aliens revealed from nearly the beginning of the show - that just doesn't happen.

Secondly, the episode really treats Jessica really poorly. I thought she was slightly insipid in the pilot episode, but here this character - a revolutionary from an oppressive society, we should remember - throws caution to the wind and immediately believes that they have located Sanctuary. She falls for the deception hook, line and sinker. She doesn't think it odd that she imagines Sanctuary, and the next moment it appears. She doesn't think it strange that she imagines a runner friend named Martin, and the next minute, he materializes. Jessica is simply not served well by a willing and blind acceptance of what seems farfetched at best; impossible at worst.

Because Logan is our hero, he's the suspicious one, which fits in with his character, I suppose. After all, he is the only Sandman to have an introspective, questioning side. But I do think there is some "premise" drift here. Logan is basically an innocent: under 30; never been outside the City of Domes; raised to believe the propaganda of the State. And now, suddenly, in "The Collectors" he comes on all Captain Kirk-like, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together flawlessly. Yes, he should be suspicious, like Jessica, but would he be able to say flat out, lines like: "If I'm right, our minds our being manipulated. Our thoughts are being made real?" I'm not certain that his education and training would provide him that much information. Again, it's good that he would be suspicious (unlike Jessica, alas...) but I think he would be baffled and confused and questioning, not aggressively solving the problem. He just doesn't have that kind of experience. That should have been left to REM, a machine that can't be cowed by illusions. Logan should have just "felt" that things were off, but not have been able to verbalize it and plot against the enemy so rapidly, confidently and aggressively. He didn't attend Starfleet Academy. He's not the Commander of a Moonbase. He's the lone questioner from a "we don't question" totalitarian society. That gives him a leg up, but he's not a genius.

Even beyond these issues of character and plotting, the storyline of "The Collectors" is just trite. How many times over the years have we met aliens who want to collect Earth specimens in a kind of zoo and bring them back to their planet, only to be dissuaded by the wiles of humankind? Too many, I'd say. It feels a little too Star Trekkish, which - of course - was the yardstick for sci-fi programs in the 1970s.

But most sadly, "The Collectors" just doesn't address the themes and ideas that should be at the heart of a series like Logan's Run. This is a series about the mess man has made of his own planet. It's a post-apocalyptic world set in a dystopic future. It's about the growing pains of starting over. About trying to build a world right, this time. Invading alliens shouldn't even enter the picture. And certainly not so early in the program's run. There is a wealth of post-apocalyptic stories and villains worth telling without ever resorting to an otherworldly invasion or similar menace, and frankly I was disappointed to see this drift away from the core concept so quickly.

But then again, early episodes of a series often have difficulty finding their footing. The pilot is usually strong (it must be, to sell the series), and then the first few episodes dip in quality while everybody gets their legs, and then the show - if it is lucky - comes back strong. So I'm hoping Logan's Run recovers fully after this sophomore slip-up.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Castaways in Time and Space"

This week, on the CBS live-action kid vid series (from 1977) Space Academy, Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) and cadet Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin) investigate a nearby black hole from the relative safety of a Seeker (a kind of space mini-van). Results are "negative," but then the ship disappears inside the black hole, and the personnel are feared lost.

Meanwhile, back on Space Academy, Laura's brother Chris (Ric Carrott) is desperate to rescue his sister but meets with resistance from Paul Jerome (Ty Henderson), a new cadet on the team. He's from a "pioneer planet" where "survival was the name of the game" and hasn't gotten used to being part of a team yet. He only wants to look after himself.

But Chris is adamant, and on a Seeker mission with Jerome and Tee Gar Soom (and Peepo, the resident robot...) Gentry detects Laura's presence via their unusual mind-linking ability. The Seeker goes to "star speed" through the black hole, and emerges on the other side, at a desolate planet. There, on the surface, the team confronts a giant stop-motion dinosaur (with chin whiskers...). The creature is angry and also powerful, capable of rendering itself invisible for short spells. Paul saves the day by distracting the creature while Chris and Tee Gar rescue Laura and Commander Gampu.

At first, Tee Gar and Chris think that Paul is running back to the ship, protecting his own hide, but then they realize that he has bravely lured the monster away. Lesson of the week: "People learn and change."

Remember, this is a sci-fi space series designed for children, so it's typical that Space Academy hammers home (without much subtlety...) a valuable moral lesson each week. Frankly, I found this episode a lot less entertaining than the opener about Zalon, but I guess a child wouldn't find it so ponderous. A bigger helping of science might have helped -- more detail about a black hole and what it can do. But maybe that's just asking too much of a 22-minute 1970s space adventure for children.

What do we learn about the universe of Space Academy this week? Well, a Seeker can attain "star speed" (light speed?) and fire a "gravity ray" that can render big stop-motion dinosaurs sleepy (a non-violent way of removing a threat...). We also hear the series' catchphrase, Loki's exclamation of "Camalopartis," meaning "Wow!", in case you were wondering. The actual word "Camalopartis," we learn from Paul, is derived from the name of a distant star cluster.

Also, Loki and Peepo play "computer" tic-tac-toe this week, and when Loki loses, the computer scrawls out the legend: "You lose, Turkey." Nice to know that in the year 3732 AD and beyond, people will still be using the word "Turkey" as an insult...just like in the 1970s!

Finally, I have to say, I love good old-fashioned Saturday morning TV, even though I'm an adult. After watching this Space Academy episode, I flipped through the channels on "live TV" this Saturday morning. And you know what I found? Paid programming, paid programming, paid programming and more paid other words, informercials.

So if you ask me the question how has our world changed since the glorious and groovy 1970s, I'd say that once upon a time in our culture, we had time for top-notch programming designed for children - with good lessons included - but today, all we want to do is make money, and sell more beauty products or grills.

Sad, really...

Friday, October 28, 2005

TV PREVIEW: A Haunting Arrives!

Between the world we see

And the things we fear

There are doors.

When they are opened...

Nightmares become reality.

These are the true stories of the innocent and the unimaginable.

That's the spooky opening narration for the brand new paranormal TV series debuting on the Discovery Channel tonight. The series is called A Haunting and the show's first episode, "Hell House" starts things off. I recently had the opportunity to discuss the program with its associate producer, Joseph Maddrey, who also happens to be the author of the outstanding 2004 study of horror movies, Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film.

: I'm really looking forward to this series. How would you describe the mission of A Haunting in depicting "true" paranormal cases?"

: Our mission, first and foremost, is to scare the audience. The true stories depicted in each episode were chosen with that goal in mind. As we go into production on future episodes, we are open to suggestions about any real-life hauntings that meet this criteria.

Many of the cases in first season episodes are locally famous, and have inspired books or short segments on other television series, but that is not a requirement.

MUIR: Now what would you say is the approach on A Haunting? How is the production looking at these cases?

MADDREY: We’re trying to strike a delicate balance between documentary and drama. On one hand, it can be very difficult to create dramatic tension – which relies so much on pacing and acting – within a format that uses narration and interviews to convey information.

On the other hand, these shows have the potential to be scarier specifically because we are continually reminded that this is someone’s real life story. Many of the participants in these episodes agreed to be interviewed because they want others to know that hauntings are real. They believe that a program like this may help people in similar situations to cope with the unexplainable. We are giving them a voice.

MUIR: How many episodes can we look forward to in the first season?

MADDREY: Our initial run is six episodes, but we are already in production of ten more, and expect that they will follow closely on the heels of the first six.

The premiere episode, “Hell House,” airs at 10PM Eastern Standard Time on Friday, October 28, on The Discovery Channel.

MUIR: Tell me about your first installment, "Hell House." What can the viewer expect? Can you set up the story for us?

MADDREY: The promo reads: "
In this world, there is real evil. It lurks in the darkest shadows, as well as the most unassuming places. It wears many masks, to deceive us and ultimately to destroy us.

When Bonnie and her family buy a 19th century farmhouse in rural Connecticut, they sense that they are being watched. After two of the children are physically attacked by unseen entities, the family contacts a world-renowned team of psychic investigators – to find out what they are living with, and what it wants from them.

As the strange occurrences become increasingly violent, Bonnie develops a psychic connection with someone from the past… and investigators witness the escalation of the haunting from obsession to possession."

I’m reluctant to give away any of the story points. I will say that it features Lorraine Warren, one of the lead investigators of The Amityville Horror, and a very down-to-earth family. One of the things that I like the most about the series is that each episode presents different points of view on the paranormal. The victims and the investigators each have unique perspectives that inform their reactions to what’s going on. Likewise, no two hauntings are exactly alike.

MUIR: How does your literary experience with studying horror films help you make A Haunting a more full and satisfying experience for the viewer, do you think?

MADDREY: As much as I hate to draw attention away from myself, I can’t take credit for the end results. This series is the result of a huge collaborative effort at New Dominion Pictures, with series producer Larry Silverman at the helm. He is supported by a dedicated team of writers, directors, editors, cast and crew members, etc. There are simply too many people to name. In the future, I’d like to draw individual attention to some of the people whose hard work is particularly evident in the finished episodes.

MUIR: I'll take you up on that offer. Watch out! Now let me ask, have you had any bizarre happenings on the set while filming these stories? Do you believe in the supernatural?

MADDREY: There are always bizarre happenings during production, but nothing (so far) that I would characterize as supernatural. I will say that this series has prompted several staff members to think twice whenever anything
unusual occurs.

During a recent on-camera interview with a psychic in New York, our camera crew experienced a power failure at a significant point during the interview -- in a significant part of the interview location. They checked the breakers, but found that this was not the cause of the power failure.

Since I began working on this series, a lot of people have asked me if I believe in the supernatural, and I always respond the same way: Do you want the short answer or the long answer? The short answer is “Yes,” though I’m not sure I’d use the word supernatural. I have never seen a ghost myself, but it’s a big world. Since I began working on this series, a lot of people that I know personally have shared their own ghost stories. I have to admit that a hell of a lot of people claim to have had supernatural experiences and, in nearly every case, I believe that they believe what they are telling me.

This sounds like a fun series. I grew up with One Step Beyond, the paranormal series featuring dramatizations of strange events and hosted by the late, great John Newland, so I love a good, creepy "based on a true story" scare. Tonight at 10:00 pm (est) on the Discovery Channel, let's gather round the TV with some popcorn and hot cocoa and take a gander. And thanks to Joe Maddrey for introducing the series. Hopefully we'll get to chat with him again soon.

Here's a link to information on an upcoming episode entitled "Cursed."

And if you miss A Haunting's "Hell House" premiere tonight, you'll have plenty of other opportunities to catch it during this Halloween weekend. It airs again Saturday at 5:00 pm. Sunday at 7:00 pm and again at 11:00 pm; and then on Halloween (Monday) at 1:00 pm.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

CULT TV Blogging: Logan's Run: The Series - "Pilot"

"Two hundred years have passed since the nuclear war raged to an end and the computers took over what was left of the world, sealed it off from the outside, and made it perfect. Now, in the domed city of this year, 2319, living is unending joy. Every wish is granted. Every sensual dream is realized. And all the world is young, for in this perfect society, nobody is allowed to live past thirty..."

That's the opening narration (or rather a chunk of it,) that starts off the CBS series from 1977-1978, Logan's Run. The series was an adaptation of William F. Nolan's highly successful (and literate) novel about a future society in which citizens lived in bliss, but only got twenty-one years to do it. The TV show came after the movie, which meant that many of the modifications of the 1976 feature film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter were also translated to the weekly show. For instance, the original book did not feature "Carousel," the public ritual wherein denizens of the City of Domes watched their brethren "renew" (or not...) in a blaze of energy. But the TV series retained that concept. In fact, the costumes, props and much stock footage from the popular film were all recycled into the TV series. So the Logan's Run series felt twice removed from the Nolan novel, if that makes sense...

The idea for a Logan's Run TV series came while Nolan was on the set of the film, developing a 40-page treatment for a sequel with writer Saul David, Mr. Nolan told me during an interview a few years back. His preference was actually to produce a trilogy of films, but CBS wanted a TV series and paid nine million dollars for the rights to one. Nolan was offered the position of story editor, but wasn't thrilled with the series' concept. "Their idea," he told me for the Cinescape piece, "was to run Logan around in a car every week and encounter new societies underground. After solving their problems, he would return to the surface, get in his car and drive away. I felt that wasn't the way to handle the concept." (John K. Muir, Cinescape: "The Running Man," 2000, page 63.)

Logan's Run: The TV Series thus became a "civilization of the week"-style sci-fi TV series, partly inspired by the concept of Star Trek (exploring a different culture on a different planet every week) and partly by the post-apocalyptic film and TV craze of the mid-1970s, which included the Canadian Starlost, the popular Planet of the Apes films and the short-lived 1974 Apes series. Where the Apes film and TV series dealt with the concept of race and racism translated to a future universe, Logan's Run primarily concerned overpopulation, the idea of an unquestioning and easily-controlled populace, and an overreliance on machinery (computers). The proverb "never trust anybody over 30" - so popular in the 1960s and early 1970s - was made literal in Logan's universe. In the City of Domes, you were either young, or you were dead, and the result was a callow population, unconcerned with anything but its own pleasure (enhanced by drugs and lots and lots of sex). One also senses in this theme an understanding about the "youth culture" dominating Hollywood and the film industry, an age-ism that is even more prevalent today in the heyday of the WB. Their motto seems to be "never cast anybody over 30."

"Logan's Run was dropped in our laps because there was a big problem about how to make this into a TV series," said executive producer Ben Roberts in a Starlog interview back in the seventies. (David Houston, "Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, Executive Producers of Logan's Run," Starlog # 9, October 1977, page 42.) "When you're faced with Star Wars, or even Logan's Run as a movie, you're talking about nine to ten-million dollar projects. Here we're dealing only with hundreds of thousands of dollars..."

The ninety-minute Logan's Run pilot aired on September 16, 1977, with credits indicating a teleplay by William Nolan, Saul David and producer Leonard Katzman. The effort was directed by Robert Day, and like the movie, opens in the City of Domes as a young Sandman (police officer) in the City of Domes named Logan (Gregory Harrison) watches citizens "renew" at Carousel, the mandatory ritual undergone by all citizens at age 30. Although Sandmen are taught not to question, Logan wonders about Carousel and asks his partner, Francis 7 (Randy Powell) if he has ever actually seen anybody renew. After this conversation, Logan and Francis are called back to duty to terminate a "runner," a citizen who has shunned Carousel and is attempting to escape the closed city for a promised land called "Sanctuary."

Logan meets Jessica (Heather Menzies), a revolutionary who is helping runners escape the city, and after Francis murders the runner in cold blood, Logan clocks him and teams up with Jessica to flee the City of Domes for Sanctuary...somewhere outside, on the surface that Logan had once believed to be barren and poisonous. Meanwhile Francis is summoned to the Domed City's "White Quadrant One," where he meets a Council of Elders...the real power behind the metropolis. All the Council Members are old men - well beyond thirty - and Francis is shocked to learn of their existence. "You're looking at old age," one of the Council Members (Morgan Woodward) informs him, and then offers Francis a position at his side if - and only if - he can capture Logan and Jessica and return them to the city to renounce their heretical beliefs about Sanctuary. So Francis heads off after his former friend...

Meanwhile - outside - Logan and Jessica find a bomb shelter in the grown-over remains of "Greater" Washington D.C. (more stock footage from the MGM movie...). They locate a solar-power hovercraft and use it to begin their quest for Sanctuary. The first society they encounter is one where pacifists hide underground from malevolent, tyrannical "Riders" on horseback who use them as slaves. Logan and Jessica teach the sheep-like underdwellers that some things are worth fighting for, and subsequently defeat the Riders and free the slaves.

Next up, Logan and Jessica run across the Mountain City, a paradise run by robots Siri (Lina Raymond) and Draco (Keene Curtis). Their only wish is to serve Logan and Jessica...permanently, since their Masters are dead. Logan and Jessica realize they have stumbled into a gilded cage, and with the help of the city's advanced android repairman, REM (Donald Moffatt), escape in the hover craft for greener pastures, and hopefully, Sanctuary...

In a nutshell, that's the pilot. I haven't seen it in a few years, and I must say that I enjoyed it quite a bit...more than I expected. I had always remembered the series as an interesting and pleasant failure, but the pilot hits some interesting and successful notes. The three part structure (Domed City/Riders/Mountain City) keeps the story moving at quite a clip, and there are some moments of depth here that I didn't recall. One of my favorite scenes occurs after the escape from the Domed City when Logan and Jessica settle down for the night in a bomb shelter from a time before "the Great War." They're cold and they use bundles and bundles of American dollars (as well as top secret "classified" Defense papers") to stoke their fire. The money and the government documents are totally worthless in this culture, a relic of the past, and Logan and Jessica neither recognize these items as important, nor pay them any mind. This is almost a throwaway moment, but I found it one of Logan Run's most powerful: the idea that a nuclear war would render our currency, our secrets, our very way of life absolutely meaningless. Unlike some other points, this isn't accomplished in heavy-handed fashion, a big preachy moment. It just happens, and the characters don't even comment on it.

Perhaps it's my post-September 11th mentality, but also I felt that the pilot actually covered the idea of an uninformed, distracted populace rather well. An unquestioning people is a lot easier for a government to control - and lie to - isn't it? "Don't question the order of things" is a theme that keeps re-appearing in the early portion of the episode, and I found it particularly noteworthy. I didn't remember this much social subtext was present in the TV show. I know that many people and fans don't like the inclusion of a "Council of Elders" here (and the City of Domes was run by Computer in the movie and novels...), but again - given today's context - it works. A group of corrupt men, a "cabal" if you will, making damning, corrupt policy for the rest of an in-the-dark population is something that our world and our nation is all too familiar with today. I half-expected Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to be charter members of the Council. The Elders may have been a corruption of Logan's original concept, but oddly enough, I think it works in terms of "human nature." Especially now.

Some other aspects of the first show are not so welcome, however. The interlude involving the Riders, for instance, is the weakest element of the pilot. Why? Well, as always, TV has a way of making pacifism equal to cowardice. Here, Logan and Jessica teach the peaceful denizens of a bomb shelter to fight back against their overlords, rather than cling to their beliefs about not spilling blood. "Look what bloodshed has brought to this world!," one pacifist decries...and he's absolutely right. But when he finally fights, he quickly changes his mind and tells Logan that he "feels like a man again." Ugh!
American cowboy values dictate, apparently, that TV shows always hold strong to the belief that there are some things worth fighting the bitter, bloody, apocalyptic end. I wonder if that wasn't the cause of the Nuclear War in Logan's Run...a stubborn, insular belief that our Christian values are alwaysunquestionably the correct ones and we must defend them with violence and destruction. Anyway, I found it particularly distasteful that this portion of the pilot concludes with Logan victorious for the simple reason that he wields a more powerful weapon (the Sandman 'flare' gun...) than the Riders. Brute force beats brute force. This is a mixed message, given the rest of Logan's anti-war message (and the visual of the burned cash on the fire...unrecognized and unimportant).

Getting to the characters: Logan and Jessica are fine; though Jessica is a little insipid somehow. Logan is a nice guy, a more conscientious citizen of the City of Domes than many, though one wonders how he came to be more introspective since he went through the same training regimen (since birth!) that Francis did. I did miss the sexual component of the movie - where Jessica and Logan were casual lovers - and hated to see "family values" creep into the series here. Logan and Jessica hardly make eyes at one another in the pilot and instead are defined simply as "good friends." Kinda like brother and sister. I would have preferred an adult, romantic relationship.

And then there's REM. Donald Moffatt is a splendid actor, and he's Logan's Run version of Mr. Spock. Instead of saying that plot developments are "illogical," he notes that they "do not compute." Almost every science fiction TV show in the 1970s had its own version of the inquisitive, peaceful half-Vulcan Spock, the resident outsider -- not always an alien -- who could comment on humanity and its confusing ways from a super-advanced or at least highly-intelligent viewpoint. Space:1999 (Year Two) had Maya. Planet of the Apes had Galen. The Fantastic Journey had Varian (a man from the future), and Land of the Lost had the Altrusian, Enik. I guess it's just par for the course, and as far as Spock-copies go, REM is just fine. I notice that Star Trek returned the favor by featuring an intelligent, pacifist Android in its next incarnation, one not named REM, but rather Data.

In all, I rather liked this hour-and-a-half introduction to the world of Logan's Run. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories of new societies starting over from the ruins of an old culture, I guess. I'm always fascinated by the idea of an "old" civilization leaving behind its artifacts and religions and technology...only to have them subverted and misunderstood by those who come next. Growing up, I was fascinated by Mad Max, Planet of the Apes and, yes, Logan's Run. Perhaps because during my adolescence the specter of nuclear war seemed very real. In some senses, these programs (and programs like Genesis II and Planet Earth and Strange New World) offered a strange sense of hope. Yes, mankind destroyed himself, but he got a second chance. And this time...this time, things could be different. We could fix the mistakes that plague our overpopulated, war-weary world.

Logan's Run is a particularly interesting example of post-apocalyptic entertainment because Logan and Jessica come from a flawed society themselves. They are innocents who don't live in a utopia (like the characters of Star Trek), so it will be interesting to see how they confront other cultures that are misguided. They can't lead by being examples of a "shining city" on a hill, and as I watch the series again, I hope the creators remembers that fact.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Sandman Cometh...Blogging Logan's Run: The TV Series

Well, my Kolchak and American Gothic DVD box sets haven't arrived yet (nor has Revenge of the Sith), so the blogging of those shows and the Star Wars saga will have to wait a week or two. But, starting in this space tomorrow, I'll be blogging a classic bit of 1970s science-fiction television, the short-lived Logan's Run: The TV Series, starring Gregory Harrison and Heather Menzies. Every episode, every trip to Carousel, every opportunity to'll see it here. This space is Sanctuary!

Catnap Tuesday # 15: "Ezri..."

Today is a sad cat-blogging day...

Yesterday, we took one of our beloved cats, Ezri, to the vet's office to see what we could do about a sudden outbreak of kitty acne on her chin. What the doctor found, to our surprise and terror, was that Ezri has a heart murmur (a "squishy" sound in addition to the regular thump-thump). I took her to a specialist yesterday afternoon and Ezri's chest was shaved, and the poor thing was given a 90 minute ultrasound (with doppler). What the doctor found is that Ezri's mitral valve has "thickened" mysteriously, and is leaking blood. This is bad (though it could have been worse, had Ezri's aorta been damaged...).

The good news is that Ezri is not lethargic, that Ezri's blood pressure is good, and that the blood leak volume is low, but the bad news is that she could be suffering from the beginning of a heart disease that could cut her down in her prime (she's only six, for chrissake).

What we're hoping is this: the outbreak of acne and the thickened valve are symptoms of the same thing: some form of bacteriological infection. If that's the case, we can treat her with antiobiotics and in six weeks, get her completely back to normal. Right now, she's taking her medicine, but we don't know what we'll be facing with her until December, after the regimen ends. The bad news is that right now - and for the future - Ezri's thickened valve could cause a blood clot, and therefore an infarction. That means she could have a stroke/heart attack at any moment and die. I pray that the antibiotics work fast and reduce the inflammation on her mitral valve. So if you love cats, please think a kind thought for my Ezri today!

TV Review: Surface, Episode #6

Hey, Surface is really (and finally...) heating up! In last night's episode, the tide really, really turned. Dr. Aleksander Cirko (Rade Serbedzija - currently in The Fog...) triumphantly declared that he had discovered the origin of the mysterious sea creatures. But before he could tell the Powers-That-Be in Washington (or the audience, for that matter...), he was executed by forces of the Government Conspiracy. Next up on the chopping block was Singh (Shishir Kurup), Cirko's research associate, who at least managed to get some information to Laura before a sample of some strange marine life to boot.

Hell, I just love it when series turn a corner unexpectedly, and puts regular (or recurring...) characters up for the chopping block. I had believed that Cirko and Singh were going to be long-term regulars, and that the series would continue down the same road it has for several weks, with Laura being recruited by these guys to conduct further research. Instead, the opposite happened! I should have known that would be the case, considering that the Pate Brothers (G vs. E) are behind this series.

I think the Pates lulled us into thinking things were going to stay the same. We were "safe." Every week, we'd get a cute vignette about Nimrod, the toddler monster, while more information is gathered by Rich and Laura about the sea monsters. Instead, death and destruction reigns, Laura ditches her son, and we're off to the races. Even Nimrod appears to have turned murderous! Great stuff.

I think this show is getting better. I still haven't seen any reports, however, if it has been renewed past the initial order of 13 episodes. Hope you're still watching. The show just ratcheted things up...

The Brown Bunny and "Come Wander with Me"

I watched Vincent Gallo's controversial film The Brown Bunny this weekend, and really enjoyed it. In fact, I felt it was one of the strongest and most individual American-made films I'd seen in some time; like maybe in six years. This is the notorious motion picture, you'll recall, that climaxes, shall we say, with actress Chloe Sevigny performing (on-screen) oral sex on director Gallo. Yep, you read that right.

I hate to begin a review of a fine, artistic film with a discussion of the most exploitable angle when there are better things to mention, like the fact that The Brown Bunny is truly an emotional bomb-shell and a moving filmic experience. But no doubt the scene with the blow job is exactly what the press focused on; how critics framed the film - as that one with fellatio performed by a major actress. Honestly, I see that scene in the context of a filmmaker who is trying to show us something different; giving audiences a truly individual kind of art.

I think I may have taken for granted how "similar" all movies have become in 2005. They all look the same, they all move at the same pace, they all exist within a certain (relatively narrow...) set of boundaries. The Brown Bunny is refreshing because it exists wholly outside such boundaries and limitations. That doesn't mean it is perfect, but it is genuinely artistic and also - I believe - genuinely revolutionary.

The Brown Bunny is the story of a motorcyle racer named Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo). He sets out on a road trip back to California after a race. He stops at a house on the way, and meets the two strangely disengaged parents of his girlfriend, Daisy (Sevigny). They don't recognize him, but ask about their daughter, whom they haven't heard from. He tells her that he and Daisy rent a small house together and that she was pregant, but lost the baby. They seem confused, and he leaves. He continues driving, and driving. Later, Bud stops at a rest-stop and kisses a troubled-appearing stranger (Cheryl Tiegs) but then gets back on the road, heading ever westward. He returns to his home in California, and goes to Daisy's house. She isn't there, but he leaves her a note to meet him up in his hotel room. From here, I can't say much that doesn't give the film away, but suffice it to say that Bud experiences an emotionally-shattering reckoning with Daisy, and the events of a party that happened some time ago. What Daisy did there; and what Bud failed to do; is at the center of the film's revelatory climax. A flashback makes everything plain, and suddenly we understand who Bud is, and what he has been grappling - unsuccessfully -with.

More important, I think, than the story itself, is how Vincent Gallo dramatizes it in The Brown Bunny. I haven't seen a major film that feels this unshackled from narrative convention since Easy Rider and the late 1960s-1970s. The film moves at its own pace, and often there are shots that continue for a long, long time. For instance, there's a sequence at the start of the film where we see Bud riding his motorcycle. The camera follows him for a long, long time, and doesn't cut where a conventional movie would. Instead, it continues two, three times as long, and the sound comes in and out. As the shot continues and continues, you are left to ponder the image, and also, perhaps, to detect something about the main character. Bluntly stated, he's stuck in a rut, going round and round in a circle. The race is a metaphor for his personal life. I don't think you could have understood this if the shot had just existed long enough to "establish" the location.

Later, Bud drives his van on the highway, and we see over his shoulder, through the windshield, and onto the yawning, endless highway ahead, and again, the shot just goes and goes, with no end in sight. The conventional, kneejerk reaction to this kind of extended sequence in which "nothing" appears to happen is to complain that the narrative has stalled. That this is somehow "boring." But uniquely, these lengthy, quiet interludes actually forge what I can only call a tangiblel mood of melancholy. As viewers, we inevitably get the feeling of the trip that Bud is making, even of his fractured mental state. Gallo's approach goes beyond linear filmmaking into a form of visual poetry. It's difficult to explain, but I appreciate that Gallo hasn't let the thinking of others affect his filmmaking choices; instead he moves his own way, letting the sound come and go, holding a shot far past the point convention demands. By doing so, he forges a film of utter originality, a triumph.

And that goes for the oral sex scene as well. Again, this is the equivalent of a shot held at great length, being something that defies our expectations and conditioning by Hollywood to look only at plot and pace, only at forward momentum. This scene - and the entire movie - is a shock to the system; not merely Bud's, but ours. Film needn't exist in a narrow, carefully diagrammed world. It can operate outside the perimeters Hollywood demands, and emerge with something lyrical, something elegaic.

As a genre fan, one thing that struck me like a bolt of lightning was a choice of soundtrack music. Early in the film, as Bud drives his van on the way to visit Daisy's out-of-it parents, a song comes up on the soundtrack that I instantly placed, and which - truth be told - provides an early and valuable clue as to the nature of this story. That song is "Come Wander with Me," and it comes from CBS Productions, from one of the last three original Twilight Zones ever produced. The episode aired on May 22, 1964, some forty years before the premiere of The Brown Bunny, and it tells the story of a folk singer (played by Gary Crosby) who is in search of new material because he desperately needs a hit. He heads up into red-neck, mountain country and meets this beautiful girl in the backwoods, played by Bonnie Beecher. She sings a haunting tune, "Come Wander with Me" (also the title of the episode...), but the thing is, the song keeps changing; keeps evolving. New verses keep getting added by the singer, as events in her relationship with Crosby change. Crosby, the popular singer, gets in trouble with some of the locals, for instance, and the song starts to reflect his experience. It's eerie (and one of my all time favorite Zone episodes...). What the song ultimately represents - like The Brown Bunny - is a tragic love story. About a relationship that is doomed, and about a "ghost" from the past, living in the present, unaware (or in denial...) about reality.

"Come Wander with Me" is a haunting Twilight Zone episode, and a haunting song. If you've heard it once, you'll never forget it, and it adds yet another layer of interest and artistry to The Brown Bunny.

Okay, so this isn't a film for everybody. You mustapproach it with patience, and perhaps more than that, openness. But if you do, you'll find The Brown Bunny an incredibly rewarding venture, an effort that cuts to the heart of emotional truths with unblinking eye and revolutionary stylistics. And "Come Wander with Me" - straight from the Twilight Zone - is your clue to what it's all about.