Saturday, September 30, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Adventure in Arboria"

In the seventh chapter of the animated Filmation series Flash Gordon, Flash and his buddies Zarkov and Dale reach the shores of Arboria, but are quickly confronted there by a swarm of "Squirrelons." In case you're wondering, these rabid animals are literally flying squirrels...and they make pterodactyl noises as they swoop around the jungle. Of course, right after Zarkov notes that Squirrelon bites are fatal, he gets bitten by one. Oopsy.

While Zarkov and Dale climb a tree to escape the flying squirrels, Flash attempts to dissuade the swarm from attacking...so he starts a forest fire. Umm...good plan, Flash! The Squirrelons are repelled, but the fire burns out of control (and somewhere, Smokey the Bear is crying...).

With the Squirrelons gone, Flash must rescue Dale and the increasingly deranged Zarkov from the forest fire he just set. They're all given an assist by Vultan and his Hawkmen, who fly in and shoot Barin's "ice arrows" into the fire, squelching it.

Now it's up to Flash and Dale (with the help of Barin and Thun) to cure Zarkov's fatal bite with a special Arborian root that grows only in *ahem* "the bowels of Mongo." Note to self: beware of roots that grow only in bowels. Unfortunately, Ming the Merciless has sent his Metal Men Minions (say that three times fast...) to intercept the good guys, spawning another battle...

This is a zany episode of Flash Gordon, since Flash starts a fire in the forest world of Arboria without the slightest sense of worry or alarm. What's up, Flash? Don't you know that only you can prevent forest fires. Also, after weeks of being a wilting violet, Dale can't stop talking in this episode. My (very pregnant...) wife Kathryn watched "Adventure in Arboria" with me this morning and noted that Dale has much more to say this week...but it's "all insipid." Indeed.

Chapter Seven of Flash Gordon culminates with Zarkov cured, and Dale, Flash, Thun, Vultan and Barin "teamed" up to take on Ming the Merciless...again. Meanwhile, they have a secret, not-quite-trustworthy ally in Princess Aura...

Thursday, September 28, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Fallout"

Readers here on the blog know that I was "iffy" about the new CBS drama Jericho after the premiere episode last Wednesday. I found the debut installment preachy, soap-opera-ish and truth be told, a little dull given the premise (a Kansas town survives a wide-ranging nuclear attack on America). It was too much melodrama and too little action/sci-fi for my taste.

Well, after "Fallout," the series' second episode, many of my complaints have not only been addressed, but rectified. In it's sophomore sortie, Jericho is commendably leaner and meaner. The program is shorn of the patriotic pabulum that was formerly at center stage, and this episode focuses instead on a batch of impending crises facing the burg. Accordingly, the hour is like a pressure cooker, and I found myself thoroughly involved in the play. Ah...I love it when a series comes together...

In "Fallout" a storm cloud of radioactive rain is bearing down on Jericho (population: 5,000) and the citizenry is forced to evacuate to two bomb shelters that were long ago forgotten (and not in very good shape.) Meanwhile, the Mayor has some kind of collapse (a heart attack?) And, making matters even more difficult, some of the population doesn't want to leave the local saloon, run by the sexy bartender Mary. Therefore, the deputy mayor, Eric (Kenneth Mitchell) paints the recalcitrant patrons a not-so-pretty picture of what they face if they don't evacuate: "You're going to get radiation poisoning. Your hair is going to fall out in chunks...your skin will blister...your organs will start to fail..."

After this description, the denizens re-consider their position and decide to take shelter...

Meanwhile, self-confessed "screw-up" Jake (Skeet Ulrich) is proving to be too much the hero too soon, at least for my taste. In this episode, he (almost...) fixes the shelter's ventilation system, safely gets much of the population into a nearby mine for safety, and then seals the group in the mine (and away from the rain...) by correctly and safely deploying dynamite charges. Who is this guy, MacGyver? And then, in the last few minutes, Jake braves the storm and rescues Emily Sullivan (Ashley Scott) - on a distant farm, no less - from two murderous prison escapees masquerading as cops. And this kid is the prodigal son? I don't think so...

The other sub-plot on Jericho this week involves Emily dealing with those ex-con wolves in sheep's clothing. There are a few Hollywood-style conceits here. For instance, everyone who needs to know it, conveniently understands sign language. And, of course, the final battle between spunky Emily and the prison escapees comes down to an old-fashioned (and cliched) gun-fight in which the heroes win without getting a scratch on them. That made me groan, but heck, this is still TV, right? I gotta give Jericho it's due for creating an involving and interesting hour.

One of the best and most chilling aspects of "Fallout" involved the coda. Robert Hawkins (Lennie James) - my favorite character on the series so far - has de-coded a Morse Code message from a ham radio transmission. Anyway, he's penned a list from his translation, and while sitting in front of a map of the United States, Hawkins begins marking (with stick pins), the location of nuclear strikes. Bombs have struck Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego, and on and on. After a few seconds, the camera stops highlighting the names of the cities destroyed and instead focuses on Robert's hand returning again and again - over and over - to the bin of stick pins. The message is plain: this has been a devastating and huge attack. At this point, however, we don't know who the attackers are...

If next week's installment of Jericho is this good - this dark and this serious-minded, the series has at least one new fan: me!

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

BOOK REVIEW: The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride

The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride landed on my doorstep the other day, and I welcomed this film study book with excitement and anticipation.

In part, my enthusiasm is due to the subject matter itself. I remember viewing The Princess Bride for the first time back in the late 1980s - at the Essex Green multiplex in West Orange, New Jersey, to be precise. I saw the movie with my best high school buddies, Bob and Kelly, and I've always harbored nostalgia for it because of the time it arrived in my young life.

Also, The Princess Bride is a significant work of cinematic art because of what it represents in terms of Hollywood trends (and back-trends); in other words: the context from which it arose. It arrived in theaters during the post-Star Wars era in film history (Return of the Jedi having wrapped up the original trilogy in 1983...) and here was a movie loaded with swashbuckle aplenty, princesses, hissable villains, colorful sidekicks, sword-fights and the like.

Indeed, the project could have been sold to unsuspecting film execs as Star Wars-like, right?

But...not so fast! The Princess Bride was and remains a totally different kind of endeavor. As different in tone, in fact, from the Lucas films as one could reasonably conceive. Although The Princess Bride's story concerns "true love," the film itself is not at all innocent or romantic in any sort of traditional sense. Instead, it's actually some brand of highly-observant, post-modern masterpiece...poking fun at and de-constructing the conventions of adventure and romance films at the same time that it wraps itself in the dressings of one. And yet, the heart of the film is genuine; it is about true love. There's a delicate alchemy at work in The Princess Bride; one that's never been repeated...or surpassed.

I'm also enthusiastic about this book because it's written by a colleague I truly respect and enjoy reading. In fact, I make it a ritual to read her reviews. MaryAnn Johanson is the author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride and also one of the most astute movie critics working today (visit her site, The Flick Filosopher to see what I mean...). So I knew I should expect great things from this text, and wasn't disappointed. Johanson has penned a virtual treatise on the reasons The Princess Bride is a great film; but more significantly than that - why Generation X'ers and "geeks" have adopted the film and hold it close to their hearts even two decades after the film's premiere.

Johanson writes: "There is a kinship among people who 'get' The Princess Bride that isn't about the movie per se but about sharing a particular outlook on the world, one that does not tolerate bullshit, mundanity, or obviousness. People who 'get' The Princess Bride 'get' irony and sarcasm. People who 'get' The Princess Bride do not suffer fools gladly. People who 'get' The Princess Bride long for swashbuckling romantic adventure while simultaneously acknowledging the impossibility of such a dream."

Johanson insightfully concludes that fans of the film are a "special breed of cynics who are thwarted idealists." In other words, that the movie melts the hearts of even the most hardened intellectual. The film functions on two levels: poking fun at its purely innocent form; the fairy tale; and also - ultimately - serving as one itself. The Princess Bride is commendably self-reflexive in this sense, and the film's structure (which involves a grandfather reading the fairy tale to his sick grandson...) reinforces this notion of a two-prong or multi-layer tale. The Princess Bride gets under the skin of many post-Watergate, post-Vietnam X'ers because - like a certain gent named Mulder - we want to believe in true love, justice, and so on. Occasionally, when our defenses are down, we do believe, and somehow the movie knows precisely how to pluck that string...

Those of you who have read my work in print know that for me context is critical when discussing a film. You can't really appreciate or "know" a cinematic work of art without understanding the history from which it sprang. To my delight, Johanson makes her case about The Princess Bride by pointing out how VCR technology played a crucial part in making the film a "cult" hit in the late 1980s and beyond. She writes about the manner in which VCRs (and now DVD) have permitted film scholars to approach the film like a work of literature "that can be examined and considered from all angles."

Really, that's what this book accomplishes in spades.

The author has peppered the book with new and delightful interview snippets from the likes of Bride stars Mandy Patinkin and Chris Sarandon, and - in a virtuoso turn - even developed a fascinating (and so far as I can tell, totally fresh...) comparison between Princess Bride and Casablanca. Nor did I expect a thoroughly illuminating section that compares and contrasts Pitch Black's Riddick to Bride's Westley, but it tickled my fancy and made an important point. Yet what I admire most about this Geeky Guide is Johanson's clarity. She doesn't wander off on tangents or forget her central thesis about the film and why it conjures such magic upon my generation. Instead, she applies her customary razor wit to her central argument and slashes any fat that doesn't belong, thus making the work a short, sweet and thoroughly satisfying read. In The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride, Johanson has metaphorically "stormed" the castle of modern film criticism; explaining how a post-absurd, post-innocence fairy tale successfully captured the imagination of a generation of cynics (herself included). The movie's feat is an impressive one; yet so is Johanson's ability to excavate and pinpoint the qualities underlying the film's long-lasting appeal.

Her "totally geeky" guide thus accomplished a very important mission: it made me want to pop in my DVD copy of The Princess Bride and experience the adventure, romance and humor all over again. This time, with fresh eyes, and new things to think about.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

TV REVIEW: Heroes (NBC)

Hollywood filmmakers have often found themselves in a quandary over the sub-genre of superheroes. Either the men and women behind film and TV comic-book adaptations and new superhero-style ventures rely on the popular "BIFF! BAM! ZOW!"-style of production that were part and parcel of the Age of Camp (Batman [1966]) or - as in the recent years of "The Dark Age" - the producers have tried so hard to take their costumed heroes and subject matter seriously that they have created broody, angsty, humorless night-time spectacles that all inevitably rely on the dialogue: "I made you? You made me!" Or at least a corollary, anyway. There have been so many "dark" superheroes of late, that some of the movies (particularly Elektra and Daredevil) have played like humorless parodies of the form. The real super-villains in these films are the over-utilized cliches...

Which is why I cheer and relish Sam Raimi's human-centric and daylight-filled Spider-Man films, and - to a lesser degree - last summer's Superman Returns. At least these films take place in a world we can recognize as close to our own. Not a world of either campy, so-straight-they-are-funny antics, nor one of perpetually rain-swept streets, night-time, and vigilante-ism substituting as heroics.

Which brings us to NBC's new superhero series, Heroes, which bowed last night at 9:00 pm. After an initial viewing of the premiere episode, it seems the series is neither Dark Age claptrap nor condescending camp. It's serious and smart, with a few nice touches of humor. While the notion of a "new gateway of evolution" granting certain individuals super powers is nothing new, and in fact very reminiscent of the X-Men mutation dynamic (and also the premise of the crappy, canceled, Mutant X...), this NBC series actually feels more like Lost or last-year's much mourned failure, Invasion. In other words, the story here unfolds slowly; there are many characters to keep track of; and the series looks primed to be laced with a number of fascinating mysteries. There's a methodical, deliberate pace, as each sub-plot is doled out with relish, and also the presence of a government conspiracy to contend with. Alas, no cigarette-smoking man...

I'm reluctant to make grand pronouncements after just one episode airs, but it certainly feels as though Heroes, created by Tim Kring, is respectful of superhero conventions (especially with its often-lugubrious tone...) without being slavish. There are moments in the pilot, at least, which are fun. Nothing undercuts a cliche better than humor, and any show that learns that lesson is headed in the right direction. So far, so good.

A little bit like last year's Surface (another series I miss, despite the cheesiness..), Heroes casts a wide geographic net, and - at least initially - keeps it dramatis personae carefully separated. In other words, central characters are experiencing strange things across the globe, and are not yet aware that they are part of a larger trend, the crossing of the "threshold of true human potential." Hence there's a work-a-day character in Japan who learns he can bend time and space, and he doesn't arrive in New York till episode's end. This sub-plot was actually my favorite part of the episode. Not only because this dorky character repeatedly referenced Star Trek (and, amusingly, the Vulcan death grip), but because he and his incredulous buddy actually evidenced a sense of humor about what was occurring to him.

Let's face it, superhero comics have been dragged down over the years by all the mopey super characters who dread their very cool powers and just long for "a normal life." I wonder how truly realistic this oft-repeated sub-plot really is. If I suddenly had the capacity to bend time and space, or shoot webs out of my wrists, or fly...I'd be excited about it...at least initially. Instead, in a misbegotten bow to "realism," comic book creators have gone overboard making heroes feel tortured of late. In other words, superheroes have lost their sense of fun (and let's face it, isn't the superhero myth one that's really about wish-fulfillment?). What isn't great about having a special destiny?

So, this is my long, roundabout way of saying that Heroes, at least in the Japanese segments, acknowledges the notion that "being special" can also be incredibly cool. At one point, this time-bending character enthuses "I'm not a loser anymore" and realizes he won't be last at work, in school, or on the sports field. In other words, his dreams have come true. What geek can't buy into that? His first real test of powers: teleporting into the ladies bathroom in a bar. That's great!

There are other interesting characters on Heroes too. I liked the Texas cheerleader, Claire Bennett, from Odessa, Texas. She's from a white-trash family, but she boasts the unusual ability to heal at an inhumanly accelerated rate. I particularly liked the moment in last night's show when she pulled up her cheerleader uniform to reveal bloody, cracked ribs protruding from her side. As if it was nothing, she just stuffed the shattered bones back in under the skin..by hand. Wow! Later, her fingers got chopped off in a sink disposal, and then re-formed before our eyes while she tried to hide it from Mom. The actress who plays this role is pretty good, and I thought I wouldn't like having another "teenager" with superpowers on the tube (since that's the premise of Smallville, after all). Instead, I found her pretty cool. She actually looks like a teenager, not a 25-year old underwear model.

Then there's Ali Larter, who may be playing a burgeoning super villain here, because she has a murderous reflection, a blood-soaked doppelganger. And there's also an artist in New York City who has had visions of Manhattan being destroyed in a nuclear mushroom explosion (he must have watched Jericho last week...), and so on.

All these characters were sketched rather thinly last night, but with enough depth to bring me back for further installments. At this point, I'd say Heroes is intriguing and different, and working on a "slow-burn" (again like Invasion...). I'd say the series is tantalizing enough to generate continued curiosity, and I'll be watching with interest. Also, I would commend the series for not veering into schmaltz and sentimentality, the handicap that crippled last week's installment of Jericho. I didn't find any dialogue in Heroes cringe-worthy or over-the-top. The premiere repeats tonight, so if you want to catch-up with the show, now's the time.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Into the Water World"

Chapter Six of our Filmation Flash Gordon serial from the early 1980s, "Into the Water World" by Ted Pederson, finds a magnetic ray pulling Flash's rocket-ship deep into Mongo's turbulent oceans. "Will we ever get off this horrible planet?" Dale Arden wonders.

Shortly, Flash, Zarkov and Dale are captured under the sea by the minions of sexy Queen Undina (rhymes with...?). She's the ruler of Coralia, an underwater domed metropolis. Like all her gray-green-skinned people, she's a water-breather. Worse, Undina has used her laboratory to convert the Earthlings into water breathers too.

Zarkov and Dale attempt to reverse the process, while Flash distracts Undina on a swim to salvage their damaged rocket ship. Unfortunately, Dale and Zarkov are caught and made prisoners. They're taken to a dungeon, and Dale remarks "This planet seems to be filled with dungeons..." Clever observation, Dale.

Meanwhile, Flash learns from Queen Undina that she too hates Ming the Merciless, and that the despot would like nothing better than to rule Coralia as he does the rest of Mongo. "As long as Ming rules, there will be no peace on this planet," the Earthlings are told.

Before long, Ming sends his Gill-Men and an armada of submarines to attack Coralia. When Coralia's magneto-ray is destroyed by Ming's forces, all looks lost. However, Zarkov and Flash come up with a plan to super-heat the water around Coralia. They boil the water and destroy the Gill-Men, earning Flash and his friends the gratitude of Queen Undina.

Now, Flash Gordon has united another kingdom of Mongo behind his cause. Queen Undina agrees to convert the Earthlings back to being air-breathers and all's well that ends well. Thematically, as you might be able to tell, "Into the Water World" is a thematic retread of earlier Flash Gordon stories. Flash visits a bizarre kingdom of Mongo; sees it attacked by Ming; defends it, and gains a new ally. It's all overly familiar, and one has to wonder at the stupidity of Ming that he keeps letting his kingdoms slip through his kingdoms, whether it be Arborea, Vultan's city, or Undina's underwater domain. Also, I was sad to see Flash's cool rocketship get destroyed in a battle with a sea monster this week. I love that retro rocket design; and have an inflatable toy of it here in my office...

Friday, September 22, 2006

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK # 4: War of the Worlds Album!


I know that last summer was the heyday of War of the Worlds, what with the Tom Cruise/Steven Spielberg movie out in thousands of thetaers, but just look what my parents found for me at a yard sale last week.

It's Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds! This two record set was manufactured and distributed by CBS records in 1978, and features the vocals of the late Richard Burton, Julie Covington, David Essex, Justin Hayward, Phil Lynott, Jo Partridge and Chris Thompson.

Inside the album fold is a terrific painting from Peter Goodfellow, depicting the arrival of the first Martian ship in rural England. Very evocative of the early twentieth century.

Side 1 of the album, "The Coming of the Martians" features two chapters, "The Eve of the War and "Horsell Common and the Heat Ray." Side 2 continues this section with "The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine, "Forever Autumn" and "Thunder Child." Side 3 is titled "The Earth Under the Maritans" and features chapters "The Red Weed," "The Spirit of Man" and "The Red Weed Part 2." Chapter Four has sub-headings "Brave New World," "Dead London" and "Epilogue."

What is a musical version of War of the Worlds like? I have no idea, because I haven't listened to it yet. I just love the artwork, and intend to keep the album in its plastic cover; proudly displayed in my office.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Pilot"

Last night, CBS unfurled the debut installment of the post-nuclear saga, Jericho -- a production many critics have already dismissed as CBS's own version of Lost. In other words, a little sci-fi...a lot of soap opera. I am always reluctant to judge a series by its pilot, but so far the series fits that stereotype. Jericho centers on a "what if" post-apocalyptic premise, and then descends into full-blown family melodrama and character soap opera interactions.

Jericho begins with enigmatic young Jake (Skeet Ulrich) - a self-confessed "screw up" - driving home to Jericho, Kansas for the first time in five years. There, he fights old battles with his self-righteous, politician Dad (Gerald McRaney) over the inheritance left by his dead grandfather. Jake also meets up with an old girlfriend, played by Birds of Prey star Ashley Scott, and learns that she's engaged to a banker. During his brief visit, Jake tells each old friend he encounters a different story about where he's been during the last five years. In the army; in the Navy; at military school; playing minor league baseball. The truth is never given, and that's a nice touch...and gives the story writers somewhere to go with the character.

Jake leaves Jericho soon after his arrival, but while he's driving away, Denver gets nuked! There's a beautiful shot in of this frightening incident occurring. The camera swoops up over a house's roof while a little boy is playing hide-and-seek there. The camera looms over the structure and in the distance, a mushroom cloud burns and expands...a deadly flower blooming on the horizon. The rest of the episode involves the town's response to the nuclear attack, and the audience learns from young Dale Turner that Atlanta has also been hit. He knows because his answering machine recorded a message from his Mom the moment of the impact; while she's talking, the bomb strikes.

Why the attack? Jericho tells us precious little; wisely leaving the politics vague. Early on, there's a story on the radio about the rise of "global violence" and the President's controversial response to it. Later, the attack seems timed right as the President (off-screen) is about to deliver an address to both houses of Congress. After the bombs hit, of course, it's unlikely anyone will ever know the exact reasons for the deadly attack. Phones, radios and television are all scrambled.

The last half of Jericho's pilot sees Jake rescuing a busload full of school kids on the highway. In one pretty harrowing scene for television, he performs an emergency tracheotomy on a little girl whose windpipe has been crushed in the crash. Meanwhile, back in town, the denizens start to panic at a local gas station, until the Mayor, Jake's Dad, delivers an inspirational, emotional, uplifting - and impromptu - speech. "Are we going to use our imagination to solve problems or cause them?" He asks pertinently. Then, gilding the lily a bit, he emotionally implores the town folk: "Don't you break my heart again..."

Talk about cheesy. And that's the main problem with Jericho, at least at this early stage. It boasts an engaging and unique premise, but so far the writers don't seem to know what to do with it. The writing vacillates between absolutely no sentimentality (in moments like the impromptu throat-slitting; and the re-playing of the answering machine death of Dale's Mom) and total TV bullshit, as in the inspiring speech that quells a panic. Rod Serling wrote "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" for The Twilight Zone a long time ago, and yet it's still a more trenchant comment on panic in suburbia than Jericho proves to be...and it features more authentic emotion too. If it were up to me, I'd let the sentimental, inspirational speechifying lapse and concentrate more on the desperate plight of the characters.

For instance, there's one character in Jericho who seems to understand what's really happening, Robert Hawkins, and I really like him. He's apparently the town's only black man...and also only citizen with a lick of sense. He rightly understands how to stop the panic; rightly recommends the sheriff spray paint over the name "Jericho" on his car (lest angry survivors descend on the town...) and it looks like next week he's wise to the radiation and fall-out that may be headed towards town. Maybe this guy should be mayor. If there's a nuclear attack, I want a problem solver, not a speech-maker in charge.

I don't want to dismiss Jericho out of hand at such an early juncture. The premise is interesting enough to keep me watching for at least five weeks; and as ever, I'm grateful the cast isn't comprised entirely of WB adolescent clothes horses (Supernatural, anybody?). But the writing needs to be a whole lot smoother, smarter and more engaging if we're expected to visit the burg of Jericho every week.

Because, let's face it, Jericho is tapping into a weird brand of wish-fulfillment in its premise. All TV is wish-fulfillment to some degree, but here Jericho plays subtly on our Zeitgeisst; the desire of many Americans to opt-out of the contemporary life-style; of global politics; of a modern life of isolation and alienation rather than community; of the 60-hour-a-week rat-race; of a technology-driven culture where you can be contacted at any time by work via cell phones, e-mails etc. For there to be a renewal of small towns in America, Jericho seems to suggest, the rest of the country's got to go. To renew an America that "can do," the America that can't save its own cities (like New Orleans) has to burn. That concept underlies this series, and as Jericho continues, I expect the town will serve as a microcosm for what's right and what's wrong in our culture today. If the series goes into this line of thinking - dwelling on resources; security, and so on - it could prove one of the most powerful science fiction dramas to come down the pike in a long time. If instead, the series is content to wave the flag and evidence rah-rah patriotism during uplifting speeches, it's just going to be another missed opportunity. And, after a nuclear attack on America, I'm not going to be satisfied with a depiction of small-town family politics every week. If I want a soap opera, I'll watch Grey's Anatomy or Desperate Housewives...

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 23: Cliffhangers (1979)

Now here's an almost-forgotten genre series from my youth - and the year 1979 - that I'd like to see made commercially available in a DVD box set.

Cliffhangers (also known in some circles as Cliff Hangers) is an obscure but memorable attempt to create something out-of-the-ordinary for mass television consumption; specifically to re-capture the excitement and innocence of yesteryear by presenting three 20-minute serials per prime-time hour. Each of the three old fashioned serials featured on this Kenneth Johnson-created series serves as an updated (for the 1970s, anyway...) version of the stylish 1930s-50s cliffhangers such as Flash Gordon (1936), Buck Rogers (1939), Radar Men from the Moon (1952), Zombies of the Stratosphere (1945) and the like.

The first serial in each hour of Cliffhangers was titled Stop Susan Williams, a non-genre adventure in the mode of Perils of Pauline. It starred Susan Anton, Ray Walston and Marj Dusay as it followed the misadventures of Susan (Anton), a newspaper photographer attempting to expose a plot to detonate a nuclear bomb near a Camp David peace summit gathering.

The second adventure was sci-fi. It was a variation on the Gene Autry serial The Phantom Empire (1935) called The Secret Empire. It featured Mark Lenard as Thorval, the tyrannical leader of the underground kingdom known as Chimera. Thorval had enslaved his extraterrestrial populace and it was up to cowboy, marshal and all around good citizen Jim Donner (Geoffrey Scott) to stop him. Unlike its two companion serials, The Secret Empire genuflected to the 1930s and 1940s film era by being shot partially in black-and-white. The above-ground scenes were black-and- white; while the underground scenes in amazing Chimera were lensed in color.


The third such serial seen on Cliffhangers is the most popular and well-known. Entitled The Curse of Dracula, and also referred to in some circles as Dracula "79 and World of Dracula, this serial was unlike its two quarter-hour companions because it actually completed it's fifteen chapter run (primarily because it started in mid-story, at Chapter 6...) before the series was canceled by NBC.

In The Curse of Dracula, the 512-year old vampire (Michael Nouri) from Transylvania is now (in the hip disco decade...) a professor of East European History teaching nights at scenic Southbay College in San Francisco. His teaching method is simple: he recounts personal experiences, describes the interior decorations of famous historical mansions, and even comments on the bosom size of women of the time...as if he was really there (which of course, he was...). During the course of the serial, Kurt Van Helsing (Stephen Johnson), the grandson of Dracula"s first nemesis, teams with Mary Gibbons (Carol Baxter), the daughter of one of Dracula"s many victims, to expose and kill the deadly, aged vampire. The primary mission of this duo is to destroy all twenty of Dracula"s strategically located (and hidden...) coffins so that the dark lord will have no place to sleep at night and thus succumb to daylight. As the serial begins, thirteen of Dracula"s coffins have been destroyed, leaving him only seven such resting places in the San Francisco area.

In the process of hunting Dracula, the heroes survive bombings, vampire attacks, vampire hypnosis, and even join forces with a mysterious woman named Amanda...Mary"s mother. Dracula is played by Michael Nouri as a tragic, Byronic figure who tells Mary that "There are many addictions...but the most potent is the addiction to life." While Mary and Kurt try to stop Dracula from killing again, Dracula sets his sights on converting Mary into one of his conquests. Unlike traditional vampire legend, in Curse of Dracula it takes three separate bites from Dracula to turn a person into a vampire. As the series progresses, Mary is bitten twice, making Dracula"s destruction more urgent. Dracula himself is portrayed humorously as a mixture of the ancient and the modern. He can communicate telepathically with animals such as dogs and crows, but is comfortable driving a car or using the telephone when it suits his needs.

In one segment, Dracula (in his 1970s model automobile) is pulled over for running a red light by a police officer on a motorcycle. "You went through that light like a bat out of Hell!" The cop reports with dismay, before asking Dracula for his driver"s license. When Dracula cannot oblige, he kills the cop, but not before observing that the light was yellow. After all, Dracula tells the unwitting cop, he knows the color "red" when he sees it. On occasions such as this, the writers on The Curse of Dracula seemed to poke fun at vampire lore, Dracula himself, and even the horror genre, as a whole. Among the juicy bon mots on Curse of Dracula: a drunken businessman asks a female vampire if she likes to "neck," and, during a meeting with the count, Mary reports of her handy crucifix that she "never leaves home without it."

Despite such an original, three-part format, Cliffhangers was canceled after only ten weeks on the air. Its final airing was May 1, 1979. In that short span, only Curse of Dracula completed its story arc. Though there were brief discussions about spinning-off The Curse of Dracula into its own prime time series, the show never cast its reflection in prime time. Instead, several pieces of the serial were edited together into a TV movie entitled The World of Dracula, which has aired occasionally in syndication and even on the Sci Fi Channel.

So where's that box set?

Monday, September 18, 2006

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 6: Dune



This is a slightly different kind of trading card close-up this week, in that I don't want to feature one particular card that captures my interest, but rather a whole set of 'em. In particular, I'm gazing at Fleer's collectible cards from the 1984 David Lynch film, Dune.

These "trading cards & stickers with bubble gum" came ten cards to a set, with one sticker (and one set of gum). That's the norm, of course. What isn't the norm is the movie itself. Dune is just not your average science fiction epic. It aims higher. Unlike, say, Star Wars, it isn't an instantly accessible entertainment. The movie dives into a the whole new lexicon for the Dune universe created by Frank Herbert and doesn't soften the informational blow. The movie is a three-hour download of weird names and more. Viewers unfamiliar with the franchise had to learn about various families; philosophies, sects, planets, creatures, technologies and more.

And this is where the trading cards could come in as an educational aid. There are 132 cards in all in this set, and many cards feature little chapter or plot summaries to help one understand the ins-and-outs of the complex, operatic story. Card # 88 for instance reads: "The Fremen effort to stop spice production on Arrakeen has meant fighting smugglers as well as Harkonnens. During a Fremen attack on a smuggling operation, Paul is surprised to be reunited with one of his old teachers, Gurney Halleck, who fled into the desert after the Harkonnen attack on the palace." See how nicely this gets a lot of story ideas across?

Other Fleer Dune cards are simply black-and-white renderings of critical characters, so the young viewer (and hopefully card trader...) will be familiar with the large dramatis personae. On the back of the stickers, these character images appear. Here, I've featured the Alia card.

Then the series features cards like # 131 of 132, called "Terms and Definitions." What is this, a history lesson? Well, yeah... This card covers a lot of that Dune lexicon; and on two sides! This particular card includes definitions from "Arrakeen" (the first settlement on Arrakis...) to "Kanly" (meaning formal feud). Other terms defined:Crysknife, Bene Gesserit, Fremkit, Glow Globe, Harvester, and more. The movie is so dense with information (especially if you haven't read the novel...) that one would do well to carry these cards into a screening.

And finally, there are cards like # 42 of 132, which gaze in detail at the ships and vehicles of the world of Dune. Here, the Carryall is the object focused upon. On the rear of the card, the vehicle's purpose is noted. "When wormsign is spotted, a Carryall is called in to remove the Harvester from danger," it reads in part. Again, its like a little snippet from a futuristic encyclopedia. I really dig that.

Dune was a financial disaster back in 1984 during its theatrical run (and I remember Roger Ebert called it one of the worst films of the year...), but it's a movie that - frankly - I'm obsessed with. I hate all the voice-over "thoughts" in the movie (though I understand why they're present; to make much of the story intelligible), but I love the production design, costumes, special effects, miniatures, battles and cast. It's a gloriously flawed movie I can watch and adore any time.

These memorable and collectible cards are great fun, I think, as an introduction to the movie, and to the larger Dune universe too.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Beast Men's Prey"

This episode of Flash Gordon, which follows last week's defeat of Ming the Merciless, isn't up to the same high quality standard of previous installments. In fact, it's a bit of a mess. I think that's because the first five episodes comprised footage from the made-for-TV film; whereas this is all new stuff now...and I guess that means resources were stretched thin as time flew by...

"The Beast Men's Prey" (by Sam Peeples) finds Flash, Zarkov and Dale seeking to escape Ming's palace just as Vultan, Barin and Thun - under pressure from Ming's Metal Men Warriors - make a hasty retreat. Zarkov thinks they've been abandoned. Flash's response.: "Don't think negatively, Doc."

Meanwhile, Flash and his friends are dealing with the fact that they may never get back to Earth, after demolishing Ming's planetary drive controls. Mongo - like Moonbase Alpha - is now roaming beyond Earth's solar system. Also, in this very same scene, Flash lets an important tidbit of information drop. It's almost a throwaway. Apparently, humans are stronger on Mongo than on Earth (kinda like Superman on Earth, I guess). That would have been nice to know earlier...

Anyway, Flash, Dale and Zarkov steal a magnetic automobile and careen through Mingo City in it until the vehicle goes off a bridge. The triumvirate makes it to a distant shore, to a primitive land like "Earth during prehistoric times." There, they encounter a tribe of Blue Meanies - ergh - I mean Blue Beast Men. These primitives worship a giant statue of Ming as their God. "I am your God, Ming," the Statue (replete with glowing eyes) tells his minions, "Obey Me!"

Flash and the others escape the cathedral of the Beast Men by climbing a staircase in the folds of the giant Ming statue's robes (yucky...). They head over a lava pit, and Flash muses "It can't be any worse over there..." Now that's leadership! Later, Flash, Dale and Zarkov discover that their rocket has been rebuilt by Ming, steal it from sexy Princess Aura, take to the skies aboard the vessel, engage in a beautifully animated space battle, and then chart a course for "The Sea of Mystery."

If this scattershot summary tells you anything, it's that "The Beast Men's Prey" feels like a catch-all episode. It's one unconnected event after another; a runaround. And that's sort of a disappointment, since the other stories have been so closely serialized and connected. Hopefully, next week will be better...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Best and Worst Movie Opening Cards...

Don't you just love movies that open with a black screen and a portentous title card that states "inspired by a true story" or some such thing? It's a common technique in horror films, especially; a way to drum up audience interest.

Over the years, many films have featured really great opening cards. I can think of two right off the bat.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre begins with this legend (both lettered on-screen and read by John Larroquette):

"The film which you are about to see is an account of a tragedy which befell a group of five youths, in particular Sally Hardesty and her invalid brother, Franklin. It's all the more tragic in that they were young. But had they lived very, very long lives, they could not have expected nor would they have wished to see as much of the mad and macabre as they were to see that day. For them, an idyllic summer afternoon became a nightmare. The events of that day were to lead to the discovery of one of the most bizarre crimes in the annals of American history, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre."

Another truly great (and elegantly terse...) opening card came from The Blair Witch Project in 1999:

"In October 1994, three student filmmakers disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland while shooting a documentary. A year later their footage was found."

Of course, in cinema history, everything (even title cards) boasts a precedent or antecedent. Compare that Blair Witch opening card with this one, from Peter Weir's 1975 masterpiece, Picnic at Hanging Rock:

"On Saturday the 14th of February 1900, a party of school girls from Appleyard College picknicked at Hanging Rock near Mt. Macedon in the state of Victoria. During the afternoon several members of the party disappeared without a trace..."

Of course, not all title cards are created equal. Here's one from the canon of one of my personal B-Grade heroes, the late, great William Girdler. In particular, it comes from Day of the Animals (1977):

"In June 1974, Drs. F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California startled the scientific world with their finding that fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth's protective ozone layer. Thus potentially dangerous amounts of ultra-violet rays are reaching the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things. This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future if we continue to do nothing to stop the damage to nature's protective shield for life on this planet."

And below is the opening card from Embryo (1976):

"The film you are about to see is not all science fiction. It is based upon a medical technology which currently exists for fetal growth outside the womb. It could be a possibility tomorrow...or today."

And lastly for today, here's one from Sssssss (1973) [don't say it; hiss it...]. This one practically shrieks "lawsuit" and "litigation":

"All the reptiles shown in this film are real. The King Cobras were imported from Bangkok, the Python from Singapore. We wish to thank the cast and crew for their courageous efforts while being exposed to extremely hazardous conditions."

So, read any good (or bad...) opening cards lately?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 47: Ideal's Universal Task Force



In 1980, The Ideal Toy Corporation (in Newark, N.J. 07105) and Interfun Toys combined to create a series of fun paper-based toys in the mold of Letraset Action Transfers. In particular, the companies released six "adventure sets" that were kind of like colorforms; kind of like iron-transfer shirts. But all in all, these toys could provide kids with hours of fun. I remember 'em well, and - yes - still own several.

These "super rub down action transfer" sets each came in a "sci-fantasy pack" which contained the following materials: over sixty multi-color action transfers, over fifty glow-in the-dark "action" transfers, two starships to cut out, decorate and fly, one iron-on for your T-shirt and best of all, a 12" x 23" full color battle scene for "you to complete."

These sets came under the title "Universal Task Force" and featured a diverse group of space heroes doing battle across the universe against villains of all varieties. "Only you can decide the fate of your heroes!" the toy packs blared, and indeed, that was true. There were six sets featuring the Universal Task force in all:

In "Commander Clone: Sabotage!" you could take the Task Force Leader, Commander Clone (and his army of clones) into a space battle against "sinister invaders" called "The Gree" who were attacking giant Solar Conservors over the Eden-like planet of Kabaal!

In Demona: "Mutant Marauders and Fallout Freaks," you were with the mutated (but hot!) femme fatale Demona. "The nerve-endings in her brain warped, twisted, reformed in new connections...till she felt the dark areas of her mind open up! She was still a human, still a woman, but now she had the power of the Dark Forces to command!," the description blared. And her mission was to lead a convoy of "Normals" across a vast desert - a nuclear wasteland (populated by mutants) - to safety.

In "Friends of Fire: City of Conflict," the robot law enforcement team, "the Friends of Fire" (which resembled classic BSG Cylons...) dealt with a riot on Kolos, a "giant city-asteroid" on the planet Kolos following a contested election between the People's Party and the Elitist Party. This "cyborg clean-up crew" had "only one order" programmed into them: "Stop the conflict!" This was the first Universal Task Force set I ever saw, and I was fascinated by it.

Then there were the adventures of other Universal Task Force members: Kaarl The Korrector ("Rampant Reptoids") and The Lasers (Insectae Invasion), though I was never lucky enough to have those, dammit. All in all, I had just four of the six.

The last adventure of the Universal Task Force was tiltled "Robot Revolt" and it featured the whole bloomin' team (Commander Clone, Demona, Friends of Fire, etc.) battling robots gone mad on the mining planet Syn-Syn.

I don't know anybody else who remembers this Ideal Toy franchise from 1980, and even though the writing on the backs of the sci-fi packs admonished kids to "watch out for the further adventures of the the Universal Task Force," they never came.

But heck, when I was ten years-old, I had a lot of fun putting the task force through its paces.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "To Save Earth"

This week on the Filmation animated series Flash Gordon, our stalwart hero from Earth has brought together Thun the Lion Man, King Vultan and Prince Barin as "brothers in arms" against the despot, Ming the Merciless. Flash muses that it would be nice to speak with Dr. Zarkov - who is still trapped in Mingo City with Dale - and lo and behold, Zarkov conveniently appears courtesy of a little astral projection. It's just his big floating head, however...

Unfortunately, Ming busts into the transmission to tell Flash he's launching an attack on Arborea with his "aerial navy." No sooner said than done, but Barin's "leaf fighters" repel the assault. From beneath Arborea, Ming then attacks again...dispatching evil mole people and a burrowing device to cut out the roots of the tree-laden metropolis. These Mole Men look suspiciously like evil clones of the McDonald's Grimace; they're porcine and purple. Anyway, they're defeated in short order thanks to a remote control which can activate tree roots (?) and make them attack on command. Then Flash uses the mechanical mole driver to tunnel through the magma beneath Mingo City so he can rescue Dale. He keeps referring to this tunnel as a "new crack" beneath the city, a descriptor which made me laugh. Especially when the mole driver got stuck in the crack...

Anyhoo, Dale is about to marry Ming the Merciless. Oh, and did I mention that the planet Mongo is now rapidly approaching Earth, wreaking havoc on Terra's weather?

Yes, it's a busy week for Flash Gordon. But he gets the girl, unites the planet, and defeats Ming. Only problem: by saving Earth, he's set Mongo on a course for deep space and now he, Dale and Zarkov can never return home. It's a pyrrhic victory.

There's a lot of silly action this week, as you might guess. For instance, Ming apparently has the capability to teleport whenever he wishes, yet he doesn't use this device/power when threatened by Flash; or when Flash follows him into the bowels of the city. In fact, Ming takes the elevator.

Note to self: if I ever get miraculous teleport abilities, I'm not waiting to take no damn elevator...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Happy 40th Birthday Star Trek...


Forty years ago, on September 8, 1966, NBC aired the first episode of a strange and colorful science fiction TV series called Star Trek. That first installment was entitled "The Man Trap" and focused on a starship's encounter with a shape-shifting creature (lovingly known as a Salt Vampire in fandom...) that was the last of its breed.

The ratings were low, and Star Trek clung to the airwaves for just three seasons until canceled in 1969. It wasn't until syndicated reruns in the mid-1970s that the series began to ascend in popularity. Now, of course, it's a phenomenon. It's difficult to imagine American pop culture without Star Trek. Without catchphrases like "beam me up, Scotty"; without devices like the flip-up communicators (the basis for today's cell phones).

Personally, it's Star Trek that has shaped so much of my life and my feelings about science fiction media. I was infatuated with Star Wars when I was in the second grade, but it is Star Trek that I have always returned to; again and again, over the years. The stories and characters are deeper; the universe...more endlessly fascinating; the tapestry - ultimately - wider.

I realize that puts me in the minority opinion. Star Wars features better special effects, a more operatic and concise story through-line, and is generally considered more mainstream and entertaining, I guess.

But me? I'm a Trekker.

And, by a cosmic coincidence, my wife Kathryn and I celebrate the seventeenth anniversary of our first date today, on September 8. On the very day that Star Trek turns forty.

So let's hear it for Star Trek, and the Great Bird of the Galaxy (the late Gene Roddenberry). His original series has probably shaped more lives across the globe than any entertainment in modern history, and that achievement deserves some hosannas.

Live long and prosper, Star Trek.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

A Starship is Almost 40...


On the eve of Star Trek's fortieth birthday (September 8), I thought I would post some pictures here of the lovely lady in her prime.

Wow! Look at her in all her elegant, 1966-1969 glory. She's still the most beautiful starship ever to grace a TV or movie screen. No wonder Kirk loves her so...

This is the starship that traveled beyond the barrier at the edge of the galaxy in "Where No Man Has Gone Before," and the vehicle which challenged the doomsday machine. She's the Constitution Class cruiser that made first contact with the First Federation ("The Corbomite Maneuver") and was overrun by tribbles ("The Trouble with Tribbles"). It was this Enterprise that voyaged to Organia ("Errand of Mercy"), battled Romulans ("Balance of Terror") and first encountered the Metrons "(Arena"). More than any of those things, she was the home to 432 of Starfleet's finest on a five year mission...

And this is the Enterprise that I grew up. She will be getting that CGI face lift soon, so treasure your memories (and photos...) of the lovely lass as she was. Did I mention I'm also getting a face lift at 40?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Star Trek HD and CG

While I toiled on my book last week, some of my buddies e-mailed me links to a news announcements on the net about the return of Star Trek. I'm sure you've read about it by now.

Anyway, the plan is to give Star Trek (The Original Series), which celebrates its 40th birthday in thee days, a dramatic face lift. All 79 hour-long episodes from 1966-1969 will be re-released into syndication in high definition, featuring newly created, state-of-the-art computer-generated effects.

Call it Star Trek: The Special Edition. The first re-crafted show appears on the air the weekend of September 16. The episode? The classic "Balance of Terror," which chronicles the Enterprise's first encounter with the Romulan Star Empire at the border of the Neutral Zone.

Here's a few more details, from Star Trek.com:


The most noticeable change will be redoing many of the special effects, created with 1960s technology, with 21st century computer-generated imagery (CGI). Upgrades include:

Space ship exteriors – The Enterprise, as well as other starships, will be replaced with state of the art CGI-created ships. The new computer-generated Enterprise is based on the exact measurements of the original model, which now rests in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

Show opening – The Enterprise and planets seen in the main title sequence will be redone, giving them depth and dimension for the first time.

Galaxy shots – All the graphics of the galaxy, so frequently seen through the viewscreen on the Enterprise's bridge, will be redone.

Exteriors – The battle scenes, planets and ships from other cultures (notably the Romulan Bird of Prey and Klingon Battle Cruisers) will be updated.

Background scenes – Some of the iconic, yet flat, matte paintings used as backdrops for the strange, new worlds explored by the Enterprise crew will get a CGI face-lift, adding atmosphere and lighting.


So, what do you think? Pro or con? (Or would that be, Pro or Khan?)

The cranky old fan in me - the one who's loved Star Trek just the way it is for my whole life - isn't exactly jumping with joy. This is a tough thing to explain in the age of computer-effects, but those resourceful if primitive effects on Star Trek are like old friends. I like how they look; I like how they sound. The retro-sixties feel is part of the fun of watching the show. I enjoy the way Nomad hovers around the bridge in "The Changeling;" the way Ruk disintegrates in What Are Little Girls Made of"; the manner in which the Enterprise plows into a space amoeba in "The Immunity Syndrome"; and how Stratos looks in miniature in "The Cloud Minders." These shots are amazingly cool. My wife and I watched the entire original series on DVD about a year ago, and you know what? It's so damn good (still...) that the aged effects don't detract a bit. In fact, they merely add nostalgia.

So, all right...these effects aren't always great; and they certainly don't always hold up. But they're part of the series' original production design; part and parcel of the Star Trek "look" that has inspired millions (if not billions). I imagine the artists working on the re-do will be mindful of this fact but still, I worry. I hope they also don't plan to re-tool the sound effects, which are so distinctive as to be split-second recognizable.

Yet, on the other hand, the part of me that just adores Star Trek and wants to see the series regain some of its old popularity with youngsters, is thrilled by this development. It'll also be nice to see the Enterprise that I love (no bloody C, no bloody D...) back in action "one more time." Who could resist such a thing? I just hope the spfx guys remember to treat NCC-1701 "like a lady." Because she is a lady, and we all love her...

So, bitch about at as much I probably will, I'm still going to watch. What do you think? Is this craven commercialism at its worst, or will Star Trek: The Real Special Edition simply be the thing to re-ignite and inspire fan devotion?

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Where the Hell Have I Been?

Hey everybody.

I'm baaaaaaaaack!!! My deadline is passed; my book is complete. And I'm very happy with the results.

The book I just finished is for Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, and shall be published in June, 2007. It's called TV Year (Volume 1).

Here's a sneak preview of what it looks like:
























Now, Johnny Boy is back to blogging (and editing The House Between). Ah, it's nice to be back...

Cult-TV Blogging: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Return of the Fighting 69th" (October 25, 1979)

In “Return of the Fighting 69 th ,” Colonel Wilma Deering ( Erin Gray) finds that her past has caught up with her in two ways. Fi...