Saturday, December 10, 2005

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Life Begins at 300"

In "Life Begins at 300," another segment of the 1970s kids show Space Academy (written by Jack Paritz), a snobby cadet from Yellow Squad, Gina Corey (actress Paula Wagner) warns Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) that he should abort a Seeker mission to collect the mineral Zolium from a distant planet. She thoughtfully quotes "Stanley Crane's paper on Zolium Distribution," but Gampu doesn't consider the mission particularly dangerous.

Unfortunately, he's proven wrong, and Paul's life support badge malfunctions while he's collecting the Zolium on the planet surface. Worse, Peepo malfunctions in the atmosphere when sent out to save the cadet (with, of all things, an inflatable raft...). Though Paul is finally saved, Gampu now has serious questions about his own leadership. Was Gina right? "There's a very old saying: you can't teach old dogs new tricks," he bemoans. Then, Gampu tenders his resignation from the Academy and orders Gentry to transmit it to Earth.

But snotty Gina, who has constructed a device called "an extractor" to collect Zolium, also fails her mission, and it's up to Gampu - with his 300 year old wisdom and experience - to save her. He does so, and his faith in himself and his capabilities is restored. "We all need the experience of age, which I have, and the exuberance of youth, which you have," he tells the thankful Gina.

Ah, another lesson learned in the distant reaches of space! The most interesting thing about this episode is that it's the first one so far to include Jonathan Harris (Gampu) in more than a supporting role. I must say, he does rather nicely in the part...though his haircut is...regrettable. Also, this is the first time in the series we get to see Gampu's personal cabin, which is filled with Earth antiquities including old-fashioned spacesuits, tribal masks and shields, and nautical equipment. This decor makes a nice change from the typical Space Academy white.

I also just have to note how "Life Begins at 300" fits into that wonderful sci-fi TV convention: the mineral hunt. In so many science fiction TV series of the 1960s and 1970s, the hunt for a rare mineral resource was the plot of the day. Dilithium was in short supply in Star Trek ("Mudd's Women,") along with Ritalin ("Requiem for Methuselah.") On Space:1999, the moonbase desperately needed titanium ("The Metamorph") and tiranium ("Catacombs of the Moon.") On Battlestar Galactica, it was the valuable substance "tylium" that had to be mined by the ovions in "Saga of a Space World." Here, on Space Academy, Zolium is used to "regenerate life support badges."

I guess it makes sense that sci-fi TV shows would focus on this aspect of outer space: ideally, we hope it's a place brimming with the resources we require to sustain ourselves. But that remains to be seen. So when do we start mining the asteroid belt (and move into Outland territory?) I guess we have to win the war on terror, shore up Social Security and rebuild our crumbling infrastructure first. Sad, really. When I was a kid - watching Space Academy for the first time - I was certain that by the time of 36th birthday (last week...) we'd be making real progress towards Mars and beyond.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 20: Space:1999 Collectibles!

If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you know that I really, really love the 1975-1977 British space TV series from Gerry & Sylvia Anderson, Space:1999.

The TV show aired (on WPIX, New York) when I was six and seven years old, and I've just never forgotten it. I've been a "fan" now literally for decades, but the great thing about Space:1999 is that it rewards repeat viewing by featuring several episodes (like "Force of Life" and "Collision Course") that are open to various interpretations. At the time, the genre press had a fit about this ambiguous-style storytelling (this was pre-X-Files...) and reviewers wanted the show to be more like the colorful and comprehensible world of Star Trek, where man had conquered space.

But as I grew up (or pretended to...) and saw the world in shades of gray, I came to understand and appreciate all the wonderful visual and thematic flourishes on the show, until I was no longer a mere "fan," but actually an admirer and critic who would write extensively about the series.

What you may not know is that Space:1999 has always been my good luck charm, not just personally, but professionally. My first published book was Exploring Space:1999 in 1997. My first published article (also in 1997) was about Space:1999. My first sales to Cinescape and Filmfax concerned Space:1999. And my first novel, The Forsaken (2003), is an officially licensed continuation of Space:1999.

I could go on: my first convention appearances were at 1999 cons in California and New York in 1999 and 2000. I've been fortunate enough to interview series stars such as Martin Landau and Catherine Schell, writers like Johnny Byrne, directors such as Kevin Connor, and special effects genius Brian Johnson - all of whom worked on this mid-1970s space epic.

So anyway, as you can tell from this long-winded opener, Space:1999 is important to me for many reasons. It was my love and admiration for that particular program that essentially opened up my writing career at the beginning. My passion for it is what made a John Muir book happen in the first place.

Considering this, I thought it would be appropriate for my twentieth "retro toy" flashback to feature a cross-section of my Space:1999 toys. I know you've already seen some of these items (particularly the big Mattel Eagle, which was featured two weeks back...) but I wanted to feature a gaggle of the toys together (I also did this kind of post for The Black Hole, some months back). Occasionally, instead of picking out a particular toy (like Starcruiser 1) or a particular style of toys (like puzzles or playsets), it's fun to feature a wide variety of items.

Space:1999 arrived on American shores in September of 1975, and the toys, models and other merchandising associated with it came with that premiere. Planet of the Apes, The Six Million Dollar Man and Star Trek were popular (and heavily merchandised...) franchises at the time, but several companies also produced Space:1999 items.

Besides the giant toy eagle, my favorite Space:1999 items invariably featured re-creations of the spaceships and locales seen on the show. In this regard, MPC/Fundimensions really did a great job, offering highly-detailed kits of the trademark Alphan spacecraft, the Eagle, and even a giant lunar diorama of Moonbase Alpha (with an enlarged section or "close-up" of Main Mission Headquarters and little eagles to go on the launch pads...).

Another great kit came from the Year One episode "War Games," -- the Earth-built fighter-craft sibling to the Eagle, known as a Mark IX Hawk.

No doubt the strangest kit was one that didn't appear on the show at all , but was nonetheless packaged and sold as a Space:1999 vehicle. This was an alien car (not a moon buggy) known quite simply as "The Alien." The packaging featured stills from the series, but you won't find this (admittedly quite cool...) design on the show. Although I like this model, I would have preferred some kits of the alien crafts seen on the actual program...

As a kid, I also wanted to recreate the adventures of Commander Koenig, Dr. Russell, Professor Victor Bergman, Maya and the like, and therefore I needed some high-tech, "futuristic" accoutrements.

Helping out in this important category, Remco offered a Space:1999 stun gun featuring a "three function actuator" and "realistic space sound." The ad copy said the gun fired a "lazer [sic] beam." I've often compared the stun gun design on Space:1999 to a staple gun, and there's no doubt that this sidearm (along with Star Trek phasers and Logan's Run sandman "flare guns) is one of the most distinctive and easily recognizable in sci-fi TV history.

But if I wanted to head out onto the lunar surface for my adventures (well, my backyard...) I also needed the Space:1999 chestpack radio from Illco. This was a "solid state transistor radio with microphone, space signal morse code button and earplug." It was created to mimic the look and style of the Space:1999 atmosphere suit chest packs, and also bore the logo of the TV series.

If it was a rainy day, I had a wide variety of "stay at home" toys to play with. There were Space:1999 colorforms (featuring a recreation of the Eagle interior inside...not very accurate...), puzzles from HG (three all together, I believe), and a set of trading cards (packs - 10 cents a piece).

And, of course, there were those Mattel playsets and figures, and that giant Eagle. Really, who needed school when you had such a universe of adventure to choose from?

I have many more items in my collection (a little pinballl thingie, action figures, records, comics, novelizations, a water gun and on and on) but this probably sufficient Alphan bling for one day. We all had toys that we loved as kids, and I don't think there
were any that enjoyed more than those from Space:1999.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

TV REVIEW: Medium: "I Married a Mind Reader"

This episode of Medium aired originally on March 21 of 2005. In other words, it's a rerun from the first season. But heck, I'm new to Medium (having only seen a few episodes), so I'm going to review it anyway.

"I Married a Mind Reader" finds Allison DuBois (Arquette) home sick with a cold, watching a 1960s sitcom she remembers from reruns in childhood, called "I Married a Mind Reader." The TV show brings back memories, because it ended in a big Hollywood scandal. Married star Henry Stoller (Paul Blackthorne), killed his co-star and wife, Abigail Marsh (Frances Fisher), and is still (at age 84) in jail for the crime.

But things take a turn for the strange when Allison dreams herself back into the 1960s, taking on the identity of Dorothy Greybridge, Abigail's assistant on the TV program and Henry's mistress...and possibly the real perpetrator behind the crime...

I really got a kick out of this episode of Medium. True, it's a little lighter than the typical episode (like the gory "Still Life,") but that doesn't make it less fascinating. Of foremost interest is the loving recreation of 1960s Hollywood and a sitcom not unlike I Dream of Jeannie, or more closely, Bewitched. The black & white clips of the "I Married a Mind-Reader" show are evocative of a simpler, more innocent, and in some cases, more insipid time for mass entertainment. Every line of dialogue is a a carefully calculated (but ultimately harmless...) zinger, and every situation is "stock" (to borrow a phrase I heard repeatedly in a film I watched last night, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster). A much-put upon husband deals with his magically-oriented, troublesome wife. And hey, that's kinda (in a 2005 way...) the plot of Medium too. How very self-reflexive!

The inherent duality of 1960s Hollywood life is carefully crafted in this episode of Medium as a "perfect" suburban existence (life in the TV sitcom...) is contrasted with the sordid undertones of an industry built on good looks, money, passion, ratings...and secrets. The difference between TV as image (with actors as dream peddlers...) and the reality underneath (actors are just as flawed and venal as everybody else...) makes for compelling drama.

Medium's central conceit, nicely told through fun visuals here, is that psychic Allison goes into a "file cabinet" of thoughts to access the visions of others, and I found that a TV rerun was a nice, inventive way to get into this particular episode, and tell this story about a time and a crime long forgotten. The real Dorothy Greybridge, of course, is alive and in a coma when the reruns of "I Married a Mind Reader" are played on her hospital room TV, and that's how Allison gained access to them with her "thought antenna."

Ultimately, having watched a few episodes, I'm re-affirmed in my belief that the most valuable aspect of Medium is the chemistry/relationship between stars Matt Crower and Patricia Arquette. Like I indicated last week, these actors play between the lines, and there's a feeling of reality in this spousal relationship missing from such cookie-cutter programs as Ghost Whisperer. I find myself more involved in the "case of the week" because I'm curious to see how it will affect the DuBois marriage/relationship That's good writing and good acting. Because ultimately on TV, the people are more important than the stories. As the seasons wear on, the stories may repeat (and sometimes with markedly little variation...), but if we love the characters, we'll keep tuning in.

I'm still tuning in.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: Clash of the Titans (1981)

"The myth, the magic, the mystery... the combat, the courage... before history, beyond imagination..."

Those are just a few words of descriptive ad-copy (from the trailer...) heralding the ambitious 1981 adventure fantasy, Clash of the Titans.

This is a film I grew up with, and though I am quite aware that its story mangles the specifics of Greek Mythology, it's still a hell of a lot of fun.

Clash of the Titans also represents a golden "lost age" in film history and the development of visual effects, arising from an era when computers didn't create and control every aspect of special effects imaginable. Yes, Clash of the Titans arrived on screen with its fantastic effects courtesy of that legend, Ray Harryhausen, the latter-day heir to Willis O'Brien, and a true master of the form called stop-motion animation. All the effects are created here through that painstaking, unbelievably time-consuming process. Thus the models used (like that of the villain, Calibos...) are unbelievably detailed, and move exquisitely about their paces.

Clash of The Titans boasts a beautiful and disturbing (as well as atmospheric...) opening sequence, as a heartless king casts his daughter, Danae, and her infant son (Perseus) into a rageful sea. Filmed at Cornwall, these opening moments grant the audience a view of an angry sea and an accompanying cruel punishment. Set amongst craggy shores, crashing waves, and an entourage of soldiers (beautifully costumed...) this prologue begins the journey of Perseus in highly-detailed terms, and we feel as though we are really back there, in those ancient days, wondering what capricious fate awaits us...conjured not just by the sea, but by the whim of the Gods of Olympus.

The remainder of the film concerns the odyssey of Perseus (Harry Hamlin) as he grows to adulthood, and is instructed by his father, the King of Gods -- Zeus (Laurence Olivier, the king of actors...) to "find and fulfill" his destiny. He does so at the city of Joppa, a "Kingdom under a curse." It turns out that the beautiful princess Andromeda (Judi Bowker) has been put under a curse by her former fiancee, a monstrous creature called Calibos. Calibos was once a handsome man and heir to the throne of Joppa, but he hunted and killed all but one of Zeus's flying stallions and in retaliation, Zeus has transformed him into a devilish, horned beast with a tail.

Using three gifts from the Gods (a mirrored shield, an invisibility-rendering helmet and a sword that can slice stone), Perseus defeats Calibos and wins the hand of Andromeda in marriage. But all is still not well. The Goddess Thetis (Maggie Smith) is highly disturbed during the wedding when Andromeda's mother, the vain Cassiopeia (Sian Phillips) compares her daughter's beauty to that of the Goddess. Thetis thus orders Andromeda to stand as a human sacrifice to the "last of the Titans," the sea monster called "the Kraken," for her mother's insolence.

Worse - at least for unlucky Perseus - the gorgeous young woman must go to the sacrifice a virgin!! Perseus has only thirty days in which to find a way to save his beloved future wife, and with the help of a playwright named Amman (Burgess Meredith) and the leader of the Guard, Thallo, sets off on another quest. He must kill the Gorgon known as Medusa - a creature that can turn any man to stone with a gaze - and use her decapitated head to freeze the Kraken and thus free Joppa. He's assisted in his heroic journey by Pegasus, the last of the flying stallions, and Bubo, a little mechanical owl constructed by Hephaestus. But even this God-given gifts may not save Perseus as he crosses the River Styx with the Ferryman, Cheron, and heads out to the Isle of the Dead to confront Medusa, the beast with snakes in her hair...

I saw Clash of the Titans in the theater when I was ten or eleven years old, and I loved every aspect of it: the sword-fight with giant scorpions, the flooding and destruction of a city by the Kraken, and the wonderful flights of Pegasus. I still admire the film, particularly its craftsmanship. But when I was a kid, this film undeniably represented the state-of-the-art, and was heir to stop-motion film fantasy classics such as Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), which I also adored.

Watching it today, I reluctantly realized how far special effects have really come today with computers. And as an old-school kind of guy, I'm loathe to admit it, but Clash of the Titans has certainly aged badly in 24 years. The monsters are all still amazing to behold, and convincingly rendered with stop-motion animation...yet, the process matching work seems rather dire, so that exposures between foreground and background elements just don't blend well. Goddamn! I hate that. Not because it ruined the film for me (it didn't...) but because I sooooo much wanted the effects to hold up in the age of Revenge of the Sith and other CGI glories. After watching Clash of the Titans, I can no longer cling to my perception that special effects "used to be better". They were carefully crafted - and mastered without computers - but I can't deny the efficacy of today's approach. As much as I wish I could.

But Clash of the Titans remains a fun movie, despite the "aged" special effects. The film reaches its apex on the Isle of the Dead, as Perseus hunts Medusa in her dark temple, with fires flickering all around. This sequence involves the best special effects in the film, and is also undeniably the most tense. Perseus's men are picked off one at a time by the Gorgon, who is armed with a bow and arrow, and our hero must rely on the mirror in his shield (and a reflection...) to take the head of the beast. This is a terrifying scene, and very suspenseful, and I also think it suffers least from the processing problems I noted above. There is exquisite matching (down to the reflected light of the fire...) between live-action and stop-motion, and it may have something to do with the fact that the scene was staged inside, and all aspects of lighting could be controlled. The outdoor shots - while containing beautiful location vistas - really show the mis-match in exposures to ill-effect.

Of course, Clash of the Titans also gives the world another derivative R2-D2 clone - in ancient Greece, no less - a helpful mechanical owl who speaks in clicks and whirs, just like the beloved Star Wars droid. This was de rigeuer in fantasy movies of the age (think V.I.N.Cent in The Black Hole, or Muffit in Battlestar Galactica or Twiki and Theo in Buck Rogers...or that little cursor thing in Tron, and on and on). But even that never bothers me...there's just something innocent and delightful about Clash of the Titans. And that quality survives, even if the special effects have aged more than I would prefer.

From a visit to the Stygian Witches, to the taming of Pegasus, to the final battle with the Kraken, Clash of the Titans is just as much daring fun as I remember it was. A rip-roaring fantasy and a fast two-hours at the movies. This film got a reference in Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back, and I certainly understand why. It's probably a cultural touchstone for Generation X in that it was the stop-motion film for our particular generation. For the previous generation, it was probably Jason & The Argonauts or the amazing Seventh Voyage of Sinbad.

But for me, it's Clash of the Titans. Anyone out there seen this film lately? Does it still hold up for you? What draws you it, even after a quarter-century?

TUESDAY CATNAP # 21: Happy Holidays!

Christmas Garland in my house? Well, not today! For the last seven years (since we moved into our historic home, built 1912...), my wife, Kathryn, has decorated the staircase and ledge with garland. It's a long-standing tradition.

But not this year. Because Lila (pictured) just can't handle the garland this year. The moment it was up, she began obsessively chewing on it. We tried to distract her, to no avail. It was like Kitty crack to her. So I snapped a few photos, and then Kathryn took it down.

So garland? There's no Christmas garland this year in my house! (And there's one cranky cat complaining about it...)