Saturday, November 26, 2005

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "The Rocks of Janus"

Probably just about every outer space show of the late 1960s and 1970s (and even some in the 1980s...) featured dramas revolving around the silicon life-form; or rather "the living rock." On Star Trek, of course, "Devil in the Dark" set the pace as probably the best of all these programs. But Space:1999 also did a version in Year Two called "All That Glisters," and as late as Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Home Soil" in 1988, the story of a silicon life-form discovered by space-going carbon-based folks (humans...us) has been a serviceable one for the genre.

"The Rocks of Janus" is Space Academy's contribution to this time-worn but trusty genre convention. If you recall, "Janus" was also the name of the Horta's planet in "Devil in the Dark," so you have to wonder if Space Academy scribe Samuel Peeples was paying some homage where homage was due.

Anyway, this episode of the 1970s Saturday morning kid's show finds the Academy in orbit of a giant planet, but two comets are fast approaching -- on a collision course with the space academy planetoid. Commander Gampu sends Blue Team in a Seeker to activate explosive charges and destroy the comets before they hit. But on the comet's surface, Laura and Chris and the others (including Peepo) find veins and arteries, and when one of the cadets attempts to hack off a sample, the rocks bleed. Turns out the whole comet is alive, a sick fella named Ergo. Peepo communicates with him and Ergo (in perfect English) tells the cadets "I forgive you...for chopping off pieces of me." Nice fella, this Ergo...

But Ergo is the least of the Academy's problems. Turns out that the other living rock (the other comet) is named "Targ." Targ is a criminal and wants to destroy everything, including the Academy and the seekere. Ergo would be able to stop him if he were at full strength, unfortunately he used the last of his free energy to enter the galaxy, and then the cadets started carving off samples. Fortunately, the cadets are able to strengthen Ergo by feeding him "magnetic flux," and at the end of the day, Targ is defeated and Ergo is taken back to the Academy to be healed.

"The Rocks of Janus" doesn't add much to the "silicon life-form" sci-fi TV convention. Like "Home Soil" (which came much later), the life form isn't detected until after humans have injured it. Like "All that Glisters," the good guys (in this case, from the Academy) seek to help out and do right after committing (an accidental). Otherwise, it's a familiar tale.

What else happens in this episode of Space Academy? Not much. Peepo yelps at one point, and sounds just like Michael Jackson. And we find out exactly what the Academy slang "Oraco!" means. "Order Received And Carried Out!"

Thursday, November 24, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK 18: Eagle 1 Spaceship (1976)




Simply stated, I have never loved a toy more than I love this one. On December 3, 1976 -- my seventh birthday -- my parents gave me this incredible, large-scale ("over 2 1/2 feet long!") replica of the workhouse spaceship from my favorite TV show, Gerry & Sylvia Anderson's Space:1999 starring Martin Landau and Barbara Bain.

The toy you see photographed here is the one I have carried with me from New Jersey to Virginia to my current home in North Carolina, for nearly 30 years. Today, it sits proudly on my new glass desk.

This Eagle 1 Spaceship toy is just so much fun, I don't know where to begin. Let's start with the box copy: "It's a space vehicle, it's a headquarters and living quarters on Moonbase Alpha! With three 3" TV characters." Wow. Very fun. And I love the box art too. Brings back a whole era of futurism that doesn't exist anymore. Not grungy (like Star Wars); not pulpy (like Flash Gordon) and not technology unchained (like Star Trek). This is a utilitarian design from a believable extrapolation of the future. Or so it looked in 1975. Just one step beyond the Apollo program, so I hoped.

The greatest thing about this Eagle is that it was really all kitted up, to use a phrase I picked up from Blake's 7. This means that the cockpit "hatch" opens to reveal the pilot seats inside. This means that the two side doors open to reveal a cleverly constructed ship interior with a winch, a gun rack, and two chairs. This means that the space-suited figures of Commander John Koenig, Dr. Helena Russell and Professor Bergman came fully equipped with removable back-pack/chest packs, space helmets, and laser rifles and pistols. There is also a hatch on the floor of the compartment, through which you can lower your people into a "world beyond belief."

And if you longed to play with a different style craft, you could even take this Eagle apart, and make a smaller scout ship, or a "mini-space ship" as the box suggested.

Produced by Mattel, this toy is simply a beautiful design, and fairly faithful to the TV series. My old Eagle is showing its age these days with peeling stickers and yellowed glue marks, but for me, it will always represent my childhood, hours of fun, and "the future!" I used to take this thing out into the back yard at my house in Glen Ridge, New Jersey, or up into the trails nearby. My Moonbase Alpha team would encounter all kinds of adventures. In particular, I always re-created in miniature the scary episode "Dragon's Domain," concerning a cyclopean, tentacled beast which would kill astronauts (and spit their steaming bones out...). I even remember to this day that I used a giant squid from an old-fashioned (large-sized) G.I. Joe submarine playset as my tentacled space monster. Unfortunately, I didn't keep that!

Can't believe the year 1999 actually passed six years ago. For me, this Eagle will always be "the future" and I will always consider this toy the cat's meow. I intend to be buried with it, when the day comes...

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Happy 30th Anniversary, Dr. Madblood!

Hey, here's something really cool. If you live anywhere near Virginia (or get Sky 4 or DirecTV), be on the look-out for a very special genre program airing soon. Yes, the ghoulish and garish Dr. Madblood "presents history" on Saturday, November 26, 2005 at 8:00 pm (est) with the shocking behind-the-scenes documentary: Madblood: Thirty Frightening Years"

Here's a clip from the press release:

In this special two-hour documentary by Madblood director Rachel C. Hunter, cast members Jerry Harrell, Mike Arlo, Penny Palen, Craig T. Adams and Carter Perry narrate and tell stories about the local institution that is the Doctor Madblood show. Covering the entire thirty-year history of the doctor's exploits in Pungo and beyond was a daunting undertaking, but the result is a program as unique and entertaining as Doctor Madblood himself. There are interviews with crew members and longtime viewers, a tour of the current set with its array of one-of-a-kind props and custom-made bric-a-brac, and, of course, choice clips from past and present episodes, some of which have not seen the light of day since they first aired. This is an event not to be missed!

Don't know who the esteemed Dr. Madblood is? Then you don't know what you're missing! Check out his site here (the good doctor also pod-casts, so check that out!).

Anyway, straight from the Muir movie/tv blog to Dr. Madblood himself: Happy 30th Anniversary!

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Outland (1981)

This was a movie that got trounced at the box office when it was first released in 1981. Despite that fact, it remains one of my favorite genre films from the decade, and I can pop it in the laserdisc player anytime and enjoy it all over again.

Outland stars Sean Connery as Marshal O'Niel, a cop who has just been assigned to the Con-Am 27 installation on Io, the third moon of Jupiter. Seventy hours from the the nearest space station, this mine boasts a population of 2,144 workers, and a supply shuttle visits once a week.

While O'Niel deals with his wife's (Kika Markham's) choice to take their son and leave the grim installation, there's also a rash of worker suicides. One miner rips open his atmosphere suit while on the surface, convinced that he is being attacked by spiders. Another worker walks into the airlock and mining elevator with no suit whatsoever...and leaves behind a boiling, bloody mess.

O'Niel is curious - perhaps even suspicious - about these deaths, and learns from the post's dissolute doctor, named Lazarus (an outstanding Frances Sternhagen...) that there have been 24 such "suicides" in the past six months. O'Niel doesn't buy that explanation (for one thing, neither miner left a note...) and learns that the station's administrator, Sheppard (Peter Boyle) is actually running an illegal drug operation. He is using two workers, Spota and Yario to pass the drugs about the population. The synthetic narcotic, an amphetamine, makes workers do their jobs much more quickly: 14 hours of work in 6 hours. Of course, this means a higher quota; which means the business is more profitable for Sheppard and his bosses. but there's a down side, the drug also "fries the brain" and turns normal men psychotic.

O'Niel interferes with the drug-running operation, but learns he was given the assignment as Federal District Marshal because it was expected he wouldn't rock the boat. He doesn't like that arrangement, and so confronts Sheppard. Sheppard responds by sending professional assassins to kill the meddling O'Niel. Unfortunately, this frontier world is a place where nobody wants to stick their neck out, so O'Niel must face the killers alone...and the next shuttle is arriving soon!

Outland is a perfect example of just how important production design remains in the crafting of an effective and intelligent science fiction film. Here, the moviemakers take special pains to create a tangible sense of place, a futuristic frontier town that, according to Sheppard "is just like any other mining town." Only here, the frontier is even more dangerous than one can imagine, and we see several gory de-pressurizations in the movie. But more importantly, the environs of this futuristic outpost on Io are completely and totally believable in virtually aspect. Since space (and atmosphere...) are at a premium, miners sleep in little compartments stacked several high and rows deep. These compartments are not much larger than a casket...

Likewise, every detail, down to the hookers in the Leisure Club and Sheppard's spacious office, reveal to the audience something important about this location, and how it affects the human psyche. And delightfully, this is all visual, not some expositional dialogue. I remember the ad-line for Superman: The Movie. It was You'll Believe a Man Can Fly. The ad-line for Outland could have very well been "You'll Believe We Can Live in Space..."

At about the fifty minute point of Outland, director Peter Hyams ramps up the pace and directs an exquisite and sustained action sequence that sees O'Niel in pursuit of Spota. Lensed in long shot (and with few cuts, at least at first), this chase is not only exhilarating, it lends reality to the locale. We see Connery chase his prey from locker room to sleeping quarters, to cafeteria to kitchen with precious few cuts. Thus a sense of space is preserved, and again -- we believe this is all real. There in the kitchen, the fight ends brutally (with a butcher knife and a pot of boiling water), and you're on the edge of your seat. In many ways, this chase/fight is the film's high point, a crazed, accelerated tour of a futuristic installation that is utilitarian, depressing, and completely believable as an extrapolation of future technology.

One of the things I admire most about Outland is that it concerns human vice. So many stories set on other worlds view humans as perfect (like Star Trek), focus on confrontations with monstrous extra-terrestrials (like Alien) or deal with a giant scope, like a galactic war (Star Wars). All of those franchises are great, and I love them all dearly, but I also appreciate the uniqueness of Outland: that it concerns human characters in space, not phantasmagoria. It's makers didn't feel the need to include any other fantasy elements, and the film is all the stronger for its singularity of focus. It is what is is: a personal confrontation on a frontier, and that's why so many critics at the time compared it to the Western genre. There's even a ticking clock here, right out of High Noon.

I always like to point this out in great science fiction or fantasy films, but everything about Outland had to be created from scratch. Every set had to be built from the ground up. A believable world had to be imagined, and then erected with a fine eye towards detail. The resulting film is immersive and tense and involving, (in no small part because of Connery's performance, either), and that just means that the production designers and art directors did a magnificent job.

I'm old enough to remember how shabbily Outland was received by critics both in and out of the genre. Today, most of those complaints don't really hold up. For instance, I remember one prominent science fiction author of the day expressing disappointment that the film ends with O'Niel simply punching out his enemy, Sheppard. This critic complained that it was an anti-climax, and sorely disappointing not to have Sheppard murdered by the hero. Well, all I can say is that this writer must have taken a potty-break in the film, or not paid attention. Because when Sheppard contacts his bosses to acquire assassins, they warn him in no uncertain terms that "the next guy coming for someone will be coming for you." In other words, by defeating Sheppard's assassins and exposing the drug ring, O'Niel has already beaten his enemy. Sheppard's own allies are going to kill him, so O'Niel doesn't need to. I find this resolution a much more elegant climax, rather than simply having O'Niel blast Sheppard with a shotgun. Why? O'Niel could have done that at any point in the story. This isn't really a story about O'Niel committing murder; it's a story about O'Niel's redemption, and his individual method for beating "City Hall." Better, I think, to leave Sheppard dangling on the hook, waiting to be offed by the very people he conspired with.

"Even in space, the ultimate enemy is still man," shouted the ad-copy for Outland, and today, I wanted to champion a film from the 1980s that is entertaining, funny, and created with an eye towards exquisite detail. The greatest thing about Outland is just what I noted above -- you can tune it in and immerse yourself in the futuristic, grimy and grubby "vibe" for 100 minutes, and feel that you've really and truly visited the future.

Blade Runner
gets championed all the time for its texture and futuristic sense of "reality," but in its own unique way, Outland equals the glories of that (undeniably great) film.

TV REVIEW: Threshold: "Progeny"

Threshold returned to prime-time last night, fleeing from CBS's Friday night schedule to make room there for CBS's Close to Home. This episode, "Progeny" concerned yet another method by which those pesky aliens can infiltrate and enslave humanity: fertility clinics! Seems that one of the crew (a fella named Sanford) from the infected ship is also a regular sperm donor. His alien-contaminated semen has been used to inseminate three normal women; transforming them into loyal soldiers to the cause.

One of the women infected this week was Showgirls' star Elizabeth Berkeley. That alone made the episode worth watching. That, and Carla Gugino in a red party dress.

It does seem a waste, however, to feature Berkeley in an episode about artificial insemination. It would have been much better if she had been having a hot, torrid illicit affair with the alien-infected guy. Which brings us to this point: You're an alien hoping to infect as many people as possible as quickly as possible, okay? You find out that you can pass the bio-altering signal by sexual transmission. So which course do you take: become a sperm donor (and risk that doctors could find your genetic abnormality and rule you out...) or just go on a rape bender instead? I mean, I'm certainly not advocating rape, but I'm thinking logically here. Imagine how much damage six infected men could do if they just went around raping "Earth women," rather than depending on being sperm donors? They would transform people a lot quicker, methinks! This is where Threshold always loses me: the plots don't hold up if you think about them for more than six seconds. Each story manages to grab defeat from the jaws of victory...

But seriously, Threshold is still just treading water. The aliens have now tried to get their bio-altering signal to the masses through the Internet, cell phones and ATMs, driftwood(!) and fertility clinics. In every case, the Threshold team has stopped the plan cold; sometimes using quite extreme measures (an electromagnetic pulse; a guided missile; and in this episode, fire...) So are the aliens just plain stupid or what? Why are they too dumb to try the Internet angle again? Why are they so ineffective that they resort to donating sperm rather than merely impregnating Earth woman?

But no matter the details of the alien-plan-of-the-week, the big flaw in this series is that the main characters don't develop at all from episode to episode; and every story so far is virtually the same. In your typical episode, we begin with an "outbreak" as Molly calls it; an alien-infection inspired incident (here, it's a series of three incidents: a decapitation, an exploding woman at a hot dog stand, and Berkeley punching through a bank teller's window glass). Then the team finds out about it, organizes, and after your typical second-act difficulties, then eliminates the threat using some pretty serious means (after imitating Department of Homeland Security Officers). Oh, and Brent Spiner puts in a guest appearance, gets the best lines, and effectively steals every scene he's in.

So, Threshold, when do we get a new plot? When will the characters get a chance to do something different? Although as a horror fan, I must say I enjoyed the blood and guts from "Progeny" (including that decapitation and exploding woman...), I found precious little else to enjoy here. I am curious to see what will become of the alien-infected "fetus," however. That's something that I assume we will see paid off, if the series survives much longer...

Again, however, I've got to criticize Threshold on the grounds that it feels like a Star Trek series transplanted to modern day. Every episode spends 40 minutes on threat; 5 minutes on pat wrap-up and resolution. Each team member has a "special ability" that comes in handy (just like on an Away Team!) and the good guys always win. Again, I accept the deus ex machina endings and two-dimensional characters on Star Trek because of the rules of that universe. I don't accept these flaws in a drama like Threshold, set in our world. The series just shouldn't feel so contrived.

I read somewhere online(?) about a three-season plan for Threshold, involving the aliens eventually taking over the planet, and the team members of Threshold having to fight to stay alive. I must admit, that sounds incredibly cool. But if Threshold is to feature a story-arc, the writers better get started. We've already seen the same story too many times now, and I don't know how long a leash CBS has given the show. The network has ordered three more scripts, but that isn't exactly promising.

Threshold
needs to show us what it's got; and it needs to do so in a hurry.

MOVIE MUSINGS: Rent : Will It Succeed?

Today Rent opens in theaters, and it's been getting some pretty solid reviews. A.O. Scott, over at The New York Times, terms the film "occasionally silly, often melodramatic and never subtle," as well as "openhearted to a fault."

Just a few months ago, my book about the modern movie musical and the current "re-birth" was released, Singing a New Tune: The Rebirth of the Modern Film Musical, From Evita to De-Lovely and Beyond. So naturally, I have a few reflections about the arrival of this Chris Columbus adaptation of the popular Jonathan Larson 1996 theatrical venture, and its chances at the national box office. Let's lay out the arguments pro and con. Starting with con.

Rent is the ultimate "blue state" stage musical, I'd say (and I did say it, in The New York Post.) That's a distinctly double-edged sword in our divided culture. Because it concerns topics such as AIDS, drug addiction and sexual orientation, any movie adaptation of Rent is automatically going to frighten away Red State Grannies at the same time it speaks trenchantly to Blue State-rs. That's a problem for the studio suits and accounting bean counters, because it is many of those Red State Grannies who represent a chunk of the audience for movie musicals of old, having grown up with classics such as Singin' in the Rain, Oklahoma, South Pacific and the like. What will they think of a musical involving AIDs?

On stage, Rent is extremely popular in cities such as New York and Chicago because it speaks directly to the modern (or at least 1990s...) problems of a group of young adult urbanites in a context that has meaning and relevance for that specific audience. The play is about art, selling out, the future (or lack thereof -- "no day but today")...in short, the human experience. But to put it bluntly, what's immensely popular on Broadway isn't necessarily going to play well in Peoria, and I think that's probably the biggest concern so far as Rent's subject matter. .

Also, as I'm learning from a few the reviews of my book (!), Rent also has much to worry about from the vocal musical theater fans...the dreaded purists. In my book, these elitists objected to the fact that I liked De-Lovely, for instance. Why! How could I? Modern singers (like Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morrissette) singing Cole Porter?!! Nah, we have to slam that down! So from a purist point of view, you always have to be concerned. Purists are by definition, hardcore. They're never going to be happy with any changes from the original stage show, especially if the original cast isn't involved in a significant capacity. So Rent has to navigate that tightrope too. Since the film does feature most of the original cast, the purists might hold their fire on this occasion.

For an example of the purists on the war path, look at how negatively many of them received Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera last year. They objected to Gerard Butler in the lead role -- in particular because of his lack of singing experience. But most of their objections don't really take into account that film is an entirely different medium from theatre. Film requires different things, and therefore you have to judge it differently. Purists tend to forget that. They want a one-for-one translation, but that's just an impossibility considering how different stage and screen remain.

Consider the following: In theatre, you're enjoying an individual live performance; in film, you're seeing something that's been edited, looped, maybe even dubbed. At the very least, it's canned; recorded, not something original to the "moment."

In theatre, you're dealing with the limitations of that proscenium arch, whereas you have the capacity on film to go anywhere and show anything. Indeed, the expectation is that cinema will "open up" a story that seems limited or confined on the stage.

Finally, a theatrical production can essentially cater to a smaller more focused audience: theatre-goers in NYC, for example. A film is expected to play successfully across a vast swath of mainstream America - preferably all on one (opening...) weekend - and that means some rough edges will be polished away to appeal to more folk. But, the moment you do that, the purists go nuts and you risk losing your core demographic. See the problem?

Now let's look at the opposite side of the coin. Here are some reasons why I think Rent may have a good shot at succeeding in cinemas:

It is based on a brand name (a stage show; like Evita, or Chicago or Phantom of the Opera) and has a theme relevant to the experience of many American moviegoers. The cast album was enormously popular and successful, so there is some familiarity with the play's signature tunes too. More to the point, the purists will be encouraged that many original cast members have been retained for the film adaptation.

Also, Rent has already entered the pop culture lexicon after a fashion. As recently as last year, we saw Team America spoof the play with a production called "Lease," which featured the tune "Everybody has AIDS." You can't buy publicity like that; especially with the non-musical-theatre crowd (of which I used to count myself...)

Finally, there's timing. Rent arrives in the same season that saw Evita succeed (the holidays). It's a time when summer is behind us and audiences are looking for quality, for something a little different.

Closing thoughts on Rent and its chances:

Let's face it, audiences today demand more and more realism from their cinema, more naturalism, down to the use of shaky cams and the like. For the movie musical to survive today, what is essentially a "theatrical" form has to adjust and be seen as more realistic, more natural. Rent actually does boast a realistic aspect -- life just isn't all perfect and wondrous and painted Parisian backgrounds. On the contrary, the problems of the dramatis personae are problems we relate to as audience members. So Rent can be darker, which is undeniably the trend in movie musicals now. Earlier musicals such as Dancer in the Dark, The Singing Detective and Todd Graff's Camp - which addressed gay bashing - were willing to embrace this "darkness" we associate with a more realistic and contemporary cinema, so I think the audience may be primed for Rent.

But The Producers is still an easier sell, in my opinion. Audiences will be more easily enticed to a musical that has big laughs in it, that's for sure.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 9

Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea! Kinda...

This week on NBC's Surface, Rich and Laura spent most of the time running out of air on the ocean floor in their make-shift submersible while outside, those giant sea critters laid tons of eggs. "You're looking at the new top of the food chain," Laura warned. Wow, that's a scary thought...

By the end of the show, this intrepid undersea duo had managed to get back to the surface (thanks to Jackson's emergency raft device...) but it really irritated me that Laura would immediately open the sub's hatch (into the open sea...) before at least taking the precaution of protecting some of their very important research. Sure, I know she was in desperate need of fresh air, but she could have taken a few seconds to protect her work. I mean, the government bad guy Lee has now found the "boneyard" where they were working, so he's got all those papers and disks. And now it looks like Laura's going to lose the video she shot and everything else on the submarine. I guess this plot development "happened" so the writers could see to it that the government can continue its plausible deniability for a while, but I think that a researcher and scientist as thorough as Laura would certainly have taken some steps to save her work before exposing it to the sea water.

Elsewhere, in Wilmington, North Carolina, Miles fears that little Nim is in trouble and has murdered a fisherman. Turns out instead that a bunch of the little critters are living in the shallows, near an appetizing electrical cable (which the creatures seem to feed on). And, because I'm a sucker for these people/pet relationships (see my Catnap posts!) I was touched by the reunion of Nim and Miles. I hated seeing fishermen kicking and hitting and otherwise abusing the wee beastie, and I appreciated Miles' discussion about knowing "how to talk to tigers," and the fact that he recognized his pet from the others. That's a very accurate touch. Pets may all look the same to non-owners, but owners know. There's a bond there. Even with electrical, sea-going lizard monsters. Very touching.

Otherwise last night's episode just didn't seem quite as exciting or interesting as the last few episodes. (Unlike last night's Prison Break, which was intense...). I hope Surface isn't sinking. It looks like next week we're going to get an update of the movie Lifeboat, with Laura and Rich sharing an inflatable raft during a storm, and sharks circling.

Catnap Tuesday # 19: Bedtime for Lila




Every night, my sweet Lila disappears from the family room around 8:00 or 9:00 pm. Turns out she's just getting a head start on a good night sleep. You see, we discovered Lila has a spot she absolutely loves on the end of our bed (upstairs), and she settles down there as the evening gets late. When Kathryn and I head upstairs to go to sleep, we often find her right here on the end of the bed (on the small blanket that once belonged to our cat who passed away in 2003, Lulu). As you see, Lila's well on her way to dreamland...

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Muir in The New York Post!

Today's New York Post features an article called "Risky Business" by reporter Barbara Hoffman. It's a piece about the movie musical art form, and the current difficulties it has winning audiences (and profits...) in the cinema. Ms. Hoffman interviewed me for the article, and I get a few good quotes in it. Between the New York Daily News last week and The New York Post today, I'm really gettin' around these days...and I have the arrival of Rent to thank for it.

Here's a snippet of the article:

Just like actual Broadway productions, film musicals are costly to mount, making them dicey propositions. Plus, the singing cowboys of "Oklahoma!" and the swinging gamblers of "Guys and Dolls" are a hard sell to a generation bred on reality TV.

"In this day and age, we don't accept the old convention that people just burst into song," says John Kenneth Muir, author of "Singing a New Tune." "You have to have a canny director to find the right film translation..."

Check it out at The New York Post, though I think you have to register to read it...