Saturday, July 01, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Land of the Lost: "Elsewhen"

"Elsewhen" by D.C. Fontana (and directed by Dennis Steinmetz) has always been one of my favorite episodes of the 1970s kid-vid series, Land of the Lost. Even today, more than thirty years after it first aired, I feel it poignant, intelligent and endlessly fascinating.

This story finds the Marshalls exploring the Lost City of the Sleestak. The family heads to Enik's cave to open the time doorway there (or to attempt to, anyway...). Rick Marshall's experimentation at the matrix crystal table seems unsuccessful, or so it appears. He opens up a misty gateway...but to which world? It's unclear.

Meanwhile, Holly wanders off by herself. After an encounter with Big Alice, she discovers a deep cavern leading hundreds of meters below the stone city. She spies a pylon key ensconced on a cave wall by the entrance, and brings back Will and Rick to investigate this anomaly. The Marshalls quickly find a "black hole" in the cave and wonder if it will lead to a time doorway.
The hole appears to be bottomless.

While her brother and father research the black hole further, Holly returns to Enik's cave and is surprised to encounter a beautiful young woman, Ronnie. Ronnie lovingly tells the young girl things about herself and her future; things that Ronnie couldn't possibly know, and Holly is able to use this knowledge to save Will and Rick from the Sleestak, as well as survive a trip into that black hole (and conquer her fear of heights).

In the end, Holly comes to realize that Ronnie is actually an older or "future" version of herself; that she came through the time doorway that Rick Marshall opened. "Cherish your father and brother, Holly," Ronnie warns the young girl in closing. "They won't always be there."

That message - that loved ones die - is a powerful one that has always resonated with me; since I first saw the show in 1974-1975. It seems like a particularly strong message for a kid's show, but that's one of the things I love about Land of the Lost. Say what you want about it being a "kiddie" program, but it deals with real issues in an intelligent fashion, like the notion that friends, pets, and family don't...live forever.

I had the good fortune to discuss "Elsewhen" with its creator, writer D.C. Fontana, back in 2001. "The idea had been on my mind that it would be nice to know things as children that we do as adults," Fontana said. "They [the producers] wanted to do a Holly story because they didn't have too many. And so Holly's adult self came back to give her younger self a warning, which was like 'If I knew then what I know now...'"

I remember commenting to Ms. Fontana that this was all "pretty heavy stuff" for a childrens' show, since it implied Holly would lose both Will and Rick -- that they would die and apparently leave her to fend for herself in the Land of the Lost.

"I have two brothers, and my mother was alive when I wrote that show," Fontana expressed. "But I was exploring the idea of what would happen if you lost those people in your life that you care most about. In many ways, you're out in the world alone, and you have to be prepared for that."

Watching "Elsewhen," all this material comes through so clearly (and not cheesily), and I must say, I also appreciated the notion of that inexplicable pylon key showing up. It is never explained why it is there, what it is connected to, or what the purpose may be. I've always enjoyed the fact that this mystery is not resolved. We are not always privy in life to answers, after all, so why should the Marshalls figure it out? "I can't explain the unexplainable, Holly," Ronnie wisely tells Holly, and I think that's one of the undercurrents in this episode as well.

"Elsewhen" is a fine show, and probably one of the ten best episodes of Land of the Lost.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Production Diary # 8: The House Between: The REAL Production Diary

Okay, when I was blogging about director "lessons" yesterday, I forgot one of the most important lessons I learned while filming The House Between.

Whatever you do, leave your props under lock and key...

Because, if you don't, wackiness ensues. To wit, our second episode "Settled," involves the discovery of a diary that has emotional meaning for Bill Clark (Mercer), one of our leads. There's a scene where he finally breaks down and reads it, finding a tender message from his daughter, Samantha....whom he has been separated from.

Well...

Don't you know, every damn day, cast and crew members took it upon themselves to surreptitiously (that means sneakily...) write diary "entries" that mark the making of the production, as well as reveal generally unhinged states of mind.

So today I am presenting, in all its glory, the REAL production diary prop from The House Between. In the interest of decency, only the PG pages are included. I will keep this authentic The House Between collectible for a while (as well as the companion diary...which is burned...) and then auction them on E-Bay for lots and lots of money. No just kidding. No E-Bay! No E-Bay!


Space:1999 Year Two Omnibus!

Well lookie, lookie what I found on the Muir Moonbase landing pad yesterday morning!

Direct from Powys Media in sunny California comes the spanking new Space:1999 book release: a gigantic 442-page tome; an omnibus Year Two edition that features adaptations of every Year Two episode produced back in 1976. This colossal effort is by Michael Butterworth, and yours truly was one of many editors on the vast project (along with Jon Blum, Mateo Latosa, and William Latham). It's a substantial piece of work, and -- in it's own fashion -- revolutionary in terms of tie-ins.

But the dust jacket interior describes it all much better than I could:

Initially published as six individual books, this omnibus edition, newly revised by the author, contains all the episode novelizations from the original editions plus - for the first time - the novelization of "The Taybor."

In addition, this volume presents the episodes in corrected order, following the chronological dating convention employed in the television series.

In this precedent-setting edition, the texts have been revised and amended to ensure a consistent connected continuity with the first season of SPACE:1999 -- YEAR ONE - and with the line of original novels already published and forthcoming from Powys Media. The goal is to create a single, unified, internally consistent literary epic tale.

Nice huh? This limited edition book is not only gorgeous (and exquisitely laid out...), it packs a wallop. My only problem is finding a place in my office to display it...

For the record, the stories adapted here are: "The Metamorph," "The Exiles," "One Moment of Humanity," "All That Glisters," "The Mark of Archanon," "Journey to Where," "The Taybor," "The Rules of Luton," "New Adam, New Eve," "Brian the Brain," "Catacombs of the Moon," "The AB Chrysalis," "The Beta Cloud," "Seed of Destruction," "A Matter of Balance," "Space Warp," "The Bringers of Wonder" (Parts I & II), "Dorzak," "The Seance Spectre," "Devil's Planet," "The Lambda Factor," "The Immunity Syndrome," and "The Dorcons."

There's also a revealing, behind-the-scenes foreword by author Butterworth, and an amusing, informative afterword by Mateo.

If you're interested in ordering this incredible labor of love, this limited edition Space:1999 collectible, go to Powys Media here.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Production Diary # 7: The House Between: Director Lessons

I've directed various and sundry no-budget productions before (with titles like Salvation's Eclipse [1998], Rock'n'Roll Vampires from Hell [1989], Slaves of the Succubus [1992], and Annie Hell [1999])), but nothing - NOTHING - could compare to the experience of prepping, shooting and "experiencing" The House Between, my independently-crafted TV show (which I am currently editing with Rick Coulter). I feel I learned more about movie-making/TV production on this shoot than all my previous efforts combined. It was an immersive and transformative experience for me. I hope that doesn't sound self-congratulatory or anything like that. I'm just saying that, above all else, and putting other considerations aside...I loved the journey.

And that's important to me, not just because I enjoy crafting origin
al material and taking it from script to screen, but because as a professional writer of many books about film and television, I've always felt it is important to understand the process and experience of moviemaking. That's what a lot of film and TV journalists don't get or don't understand (and which endlessly vexes me as a reader). For me to be a good reviewer, a smart and knowledgeable one, I think it's necessary that I've practiced the craft...no matter if it is on a no budget production or low budget one.

Someone once said to me at a convention that you can't give a movie or TV show an "A" for effort; that it doesn't work that way. But in some sense, I think perhaps it does. I guess what I'm saying is that I would prefer to sit in a theater and view an ambitious failure, something new and exciting and different (even if flawed...) rather than something mainstream and uninventive. Knowing and understanding and working through the difficul
ties of the filmmaking process from start to finish, I certainly hope I've garnered a vital perspective on how and why failures occur; on how important some shots can become; and why film and television straddle the worlds of art and business. A journalist who's never lifted a finger; never written a script; never acted; never held a camera...well, they're basing their reviews essentially on...what? Personal subjective opinion? Maybe? You tell me.

So anyway, today I thought I would chat just a little bit about some of the innumerable and valuable lessons I learned while crafting The House Between. I should note, these are pretty much my subjective feelings and thoughts alone. Others on the project boast their own uinque experiences; their own remembrances, and I respect all of them. These are just my feelings, pure and simple.

1.) Casting is vitally important. In Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Scotty urged one of his co-workers to use "the right tool for the right job." I don't know if I ever understood before how important casting truly is; finding the "right person" for the "right job." But down to the last person (including our guest star), I felt that we had the right person for the right character each and every time. Despite all the Z-Grade stuff I've done over the years, I don't know that I've ever felt how tangible and vital good casting can be. In the past, I usually just cast my friends...and some were absolutely wonderful and some were...not. Here, everybody is - of course - a friend too, but each talent brought new layers to the characters I had crafted. People grew into their roles; people understood their roles; and if I may be so bold - I think some people fell in love with their characters too. I know I fell in love wit
h all of them. I loved that by the third day of the shoot, actors were commenting critically about the scripts; that their characters wouldn't act in a certain fashion at a certain juncture.

2.) Vision meets Reality and in the end comes compromise. After much delay, I learned that not every single shot is going to be the most beautiful, meaningful and artistic portrait in the world. Sometimes it can't be...for very dramatic physical reasons, especially if the parameters of your set won't permit it; or if you don't have a louma crane, or the like. A corollary to this is the following advice: don't shoot important scenes in the parlor. For some reason, our parlor location was just cursed. Every time we did a scene there, it turned into a disaster. Maybe it was the size of the room; perhaps it was that there was a mirror involved. Who knows...

3.)Trust the experts. I learned that there is no crime and no dishonor in stepping back and allowing for collaboration; permitting for the experts to do their jobs; to incorporate the creative originality of other talents. To give you a for instance: At first, I felt really guilty and lame that I was stepping back and letting a stunt coordinator (the exquisite Rob Floyd) block the fight scenes. I mean, I'm supposed to be an auteur, right? But then I realized, that's what a good director (or good captain) does. He must trust his people...he must solicit their input and more.

For the first time on a movie shoot, I actually had a resource like Rob at my disposal (both in terms of make-up/SPFX and stunts), and I would have been foolish and short-sighted not to unleash his creative genius. But instinctively and personally, that was tough for me at the start to understand...I felt guilty. And then, honestly, when I saw what Rob could do, I instantly felt overwhelming relief. It was one more thing I didn't have to handle myself. I could worry about the shots; about the script; about the characters; about the schedule; and trust in Rob to get the best out of the actors and the movements. The same was true with the lighting. It was just best to get out of the way and let my brilliant lighting directors do their job...because they understood things I didn't. How wonderful is that?! To have such resources at your disposal?

4.)Respect the process of the others. Everybody works in a different way, and again, this was something I learned and came to respect. Some actors preferred extensive preparation to get them "in the mood" for the scene; others just wanted to step in and do it without much discussion. Some preferred spontaneity; some wanted rehearsal after rehearsal. I feel that watching To
ny Mercer, Jim Blanton, Kim Breeding, Lee Hansen, and Alicia A. Wood, I came to understand the process of acting better than ever before. I also learned that for each actor, there was a different set of issues, a different set of insecurities and that as a director, it was my job to find the best way to communicate with each particular talent. I don't know if I always achieved that goal, but one of the best and most enjoyable things for me in directing this bunch was learning how to relate with each person and personality in a way that took into account their needs and work process. It was... quite simply ...wonderful.

5.)Be prepared, but being in the moment is actually more important. I had shot lists going in to The House Between, at least on "Arrived" and "Settled." But you know, there's that old adage about war, that no plan survives first contact with the enemy, and I think it also holds for filmmaking. I knew what I wanted, but if I had been rigid about those shot lists, we would have missed some great opportunities. In particular, in the fifth episode, "Mirrored," everybody on the production began thinking outside of the routine, outside the letter of the script, and in terms of character and emotions. Suddenly, we were picking up on new things, shooting original material and taking it all in a new direction. It felt great. Shooting that episode, I think, was the best day of the whole shoot. At least for me.

6. Never stop moving. Because if you do, you'll realize how fricking tired you are, and how crazy the whole enterprise is, and how many obstacles you have in front of you, and why this whole damn thing is impossible. Like a shark, you've got to keep swimming. If you stop, insecurity will snap at your butt.


So that's my sermon for the day.

CULT TV REVIEW: The Omega Factor: "The Undiscovered Country"

I've read little bits and pieces about the enigmatic BBC horror TV series The Omega Factor for a long, long time now. Created by Jack Gerson, the series lasted a scant ten episodes back in 1979, was a great source of social controversy in London (since the grandmother of the video nasty debate of the 1980s, Mary Whitehouse protested the series' supernatural/paranormal themes...), and has been heralded far and wide as the one of the fathers of genre television, with The X-Files named as a frequent and primary offspring. Thus I've been...curious.

Now, courtesy of DVD Box Sets, "the BBC's groundbreaking supernatural series" is available to view for the first time in twenty-five years, and, well, I couldn't resist. It was about a year-and-a-half-ago that I re-discovered Sapphire and Steel on DVD, another 1970s British TV classic, so I figured I couldn't go wrong with The Omega Factor.

And so far - more or less - I don't think I have; though right off the bat, The Omega Factor is neither as narratively crisp nor as visually confident as the glacial, assured Sapphire & Steel. Like many BBC productions of the day (the disco decade), there is virtually zero on-screen in terms of good production values (though that's just fine with me, honestly...), and the special effects can only kindly be referred to as such. More like modest effects than special ones, actually. But again, that's fine. The Omega Factor boasts other strengths.

Still, the opening credits of The Omega Factor open in cheesy 1970s fashion with a bleeping sine wave, a negative image of our protagonist running in the woods (apparently)... and a kind of kaleidoscope vision of his head, rendered pink or purple and colorized to look scary. Later in the first episode, the limitations of the primitive video technology are revealed several times. To wit, light sources actually "bleed" on-screen whenever a camera moves away from a light source. I owned an early home video camera in 1987 that did the same thing; so I'm all too familiar with this drawback of the early format. If you didn't want to catch the bleed, you couldn't move your camera within the composition, which seriously hinders your ability to craft mise-en-scene.

Still, I maintain you don't watch Blake's 7, Sapphire & Steel, Doctor Who or - I now know - The Omega Factor for gee-whiz, Hollywood-style special effects and production values. Instead, there are other virtues to be enjoyed (exquisite dialogue, provocative themes, etc.) and after the first episode, "The Undiscovered Country," I think The Omega Factor probably deserves to be ranked with these other British series, even if (at least in its premiere...) the show tends to be stagey and overly sedate.

The Omega Factor is the story of Tom Crane (James Hazeldine), a British journalist who has been experiencing bad dreams of late, and - though he's suppressed it - is a so-called "sensitive," a man capable of psychic visions and the like. Research on an article about the paranormal takes Tom to Edinburgh, and he becomes embroiled in a criminal case to find a missing woman there. At the same time, he makes contact with a gloomy fellow named Drexel (Cyril Luckham), a man who claims to be a powerful psychic, and is always accompanied by a strange, silent female. Drexel feels threatened by Crane's repressed telepathic powers and tells him to leave Edinburgh immediately...or else. "Don't loiter," Drexel suggests menacingly, "you won't like it if you do..."

But Tom does loiter, and follows a series of psychic clues (rendered to him through the paranormal art of automatic writing) and locates the missing woman's body in a tense scene that nicely resolves the mystery. The only problem I saw with this corpse-discovery sequence is that The Omega Factor temporarily forgets the importance of a very non-paranormal sense: smell.) Kathryn pointed this out to me while we watched the show. Tom's nose would have detected the corpse even before his eyes did.

Anyway, despite Drexel's warning, Tom does linger in Edinburgh and is joined there by his wife, Julia (Joanna Tope). One night, while Tom and Julia are driving about on a country road, the evil and powerful Drexel makes good on his warning. His mysterious female companion suddenly appears on a dark stretch of road in front of the automobile, and Tom swerves to avoid hitting her. A car accident ensues and Julia is killed. At the funeral, the strange siren appears again, unnoticed...

Sometime later, a frightened and mourning Tom is contacted back in his flat by a civil servant, Andrew Scott-Erskine (Brown Derby). Erskine tells Tom that Julia, his dead wife, was actually an agent for the government's Department 7, and that her assignment was to monitor her husband for signs of psychic activity. Furthermore, Erskine wants Tom himself to join up with Department 7, a branch which examines "The Omega Factor in life...the potential of the human mind." Understanding that "no man is whole until he understands himself," and that Department 7 is his key to catching and punishing Drexel, "a dangerous man" responsible for Julia's death, Tom agrees to sign on with the mysterious experimental unit. He'll work side-by-side with a psychiatrist named Dr. Anne Reynolds, a "scientist" (a la Scully...) character...played by Louise Jameson (the actress who played the fetching Leela during a season with Tom Baker on Dr. Who). His boss is psychiatrist Roy Martindale (John Carlisle), a bit of a cold fish.

"The Undiscovered Country" (directed by Paddy Russell) is not exactly earth-shattering television, but it is highly compelling and smart. Almost to a fault, actually. The pacing is...how shall I put this? It's...British. Still, there are some trippy visuals at the start of the episode involving an odd man sitting in a doctor's chair, surrounded by pure white background, focusing on a bizarre M.C. Escher-type painting. This sequence is ultimately explained as a "test" for Tom. Crane receives the images of the paintings in the form of a nightmare, and proceeds to meditate on the idea of "the terror of whiteness." Personally, I think this is a trenchant horror notion that I've only rarely seen explained in horror film or television. Much of the terror generated by Michael Myers in Halloween, I believe, is based on the concept of "the terror of whiteness," the concept of a blank, white slate, emerging from darkness. We project all of our fears and horrors onto that white mask, onto that abyss of ivory staring back at us, and in some small way The Omega Factor registers this idea of "mirrors reflecting mirrors."

There's also a nicely frightening scene (utilizing a hand-held camera...) in which Tom is pursued by something ominous in the dark, in the middle of the night. We see him walking alone on a street as a the night lights begin to deactivate, one-at-a-time behind him, until he seeks refuge in a telephone booth (not a TARDIS, alas). Then, he is overcome by what appears to be floating jigsaw puzzle pieces, and the image of Drexel's black eyes. It's primitively rendered, but expressive cinematically in a way that CGI just isn't.

But "The Undiscovered Country" isn't all hugs and puppies either. Early in the episode, there's an extended dialogue sequence in a pub involving a character named Alfred Oliphant (actor Colin Douglas), and Douglas is so over-the-top, so theatrical and florid, his voice so booming and grand, that his performance nearly sinks the credibility of the entire enterprise, which seeks to gaze at mind power, thought-transference and other psychic phenomena. The Omega Factor does so through the rubric of real research and science in the field. Hence the aura of scientific detachment is broken by this performance. Also, Tom Crane is not the most interesting or vital-seeming series lead (and his mourning seems particularly stiff-upper-lippy), and Louise Jameson is given virtually nothing to do in this pilot.

Still, best not to judge a series by the first episode alone, and what I see in "The Undiscovered Country" is mostly commendable. The focus is serious and dedicated; the dialogue is intelligent, and I'm not bothered by the fact that the show is mostly talky (I've been known to write talky dialogue, myself...). Perhaps most importantly, despite sub par effects, "The Undiscovered Country" captures the chill and fear of the supernatural with grace and simplicity. I never cracked a sweat or a chill watching the freshman season of the underwhelming WB scare series Supernatural, but The Omega Factor is wonky, unnerving and on some level, unsettling. The sequence in which Tom drives that country road at night, his car's headlights the only illumination, is pretty fear-inducing. We anticipate the worst happening, and it does, in a splendidly staged car crash that is highly realistic (and highly brief...).

Obviously, I'm only one episode in here, but I can see how The Omega Factor has resonated over the decades and across other genre series. The new Night Stalker (not the original Kolchak...) that aired briefly on ABC this year featured Kolchak as a journalist (like Tom) whose wife is killed in a car accident (like Tom), and who uses this tragic incident as the catalyst to investigate the paranormal (like Tom). None of those touches came from the original Kolchak, except the character's vocation, and they had to come from somewhere. On the other hand, I didn't see a whole lot of The X-Files here...at least not yet. That series' bread-and-butter was the twin world view, the twin lens of science and "belief" and I didn't find that material in The Omega Factor. Also, The X-Files depends on strong characterization and the chemistry between Mulder and Scully to drive many episodes, and there's no such chemistry here between Crane and Reynolds. They hardly seem to notice one another. Maybe that will change.

Next episode: "Visitations."

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

South Park 2006: Shark Jumping?

I am a self-acknowledged, avowed fan and admirer of the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. I've enthusiastically posted about their work here on the blog. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999) is an undeniable masterpiece both in terms of comedy and film musicals (and yes, I actually own the soundtrack). And frankly, I'd also put Team America: World Police (2004) in that camp. Heck, I even like Orgazmo (1997) a lot. Week in and week out - for ten seasons now - South Park the TV series has made me laugh, snort, and frequently gasp.

But I've had a kind of sinking feeling watching this season unspool on Comedy Central. It feels like a rough spell for the durable comedy series. How can I write such a thing? Well, South Park has always had a vicious, wonderfully wicked streak that I adore. But to go alongside with that mean streak, the show has always been scrupulously honest and fair in its indictments of politicians, actors and American culture. The saving grace of the series has always been that it sees matters clearly, cutting through talking points and B.S. In a world where there isn't much common sense, South Park, for all its absurdities, has proven a bastion of common sense. I don't always agree with the conclusions reached by the creators of the show, but I've always admired how they state the case, and bring clarity to it.

And, of course, South Park has always been unrelentingly funny. I still feel shock and awe at that episode from 2005 referencing the Terri Schiavo case (and simultaneously the release of the PSP.) That episode was one of the most daring, original and brilliant things I've ever seen on TV in a long, long time. It took its shots at both sides of that issue and came to a smart, even-handed conclusion.

And yet despite so many past triumphs, I can't help believing that South Park has lost some mo jo this season. The season opener (which enjoyed tremendous ratings...) felt like a personal vendetta against Isaac Hayes over his choice of religion, Scientology. It likened that admittedly-distasteful religion to child molesting...which is a really low blow. But okay, fine...that's what South Park does, and usually there's a point. And yet, going back in South Park's long and storied history, you can actually find an episode about child molesters (a convention of them; and also a jab at Catholicism). You can also find another episode thoroughly mocking Scientology, and in particular, Tom Cruise. So at best, the "Return of Chef" episode is a rehash. And I know this is a matter for personal taste...but I don't think it was particularly funny. Now the one with Tom Cruise locked in the closet? That was funny.

Then there was the episode this season that was supposed to be a reflection of the controversy surrounding Oprah Winfrey, James Frey, and his "fictionalized" memoirs, A Million Little Pieces. In the South Park version, the stoned "worst character ever," Towelie, writes his own fictionalized story and then appears on Oprah's show. But along the way, Oprah's apparently sentient private parts (literally, her ass and her...well you know...) stage a revolt against the TV show host for her long-time neglect of them. The episode was shocking, to be certain, but also - again - lacking even one genuine laugh.

Heck, I'm all for knocking down sacred cows like Oprah Winfrey. As far as I'm concerned, too often she gets a free pass from the MSM. However, the show just felt...mean. And mean by itself isn't good enough, as South Park has proven over its long run. It has to be mean, cogent and funny. And this episode was only one of those things. If you're going to go after Oprah, why not point out how she's a two-faced Janus, going on "black" radio saying she likes to listen to rap on her I-Pod, but then failing to book rap artists on her "soccer mom"-friendly TV series? Or why not go after her for the fact that she has turned a program that used to be about self-help and growth into a long commercial for expensive Oprah products? She's caved to craven commercialism...that's the thing to attack, I'd wager.

And then there was the South Park episode this season in which a "perfect storm" of smugness, caused by the air over "liberal" San Francisco, Hybrid car owners in South Park, and George Clooney's Oscar acceptance speech threatened to destroy the American West. I don't really care about politics if a show is funny, but this episode is - again - a retread of a great episode from last season in which the townspeople believe they are under attack by global warming. Why do it again so soon?

In both cases, the series takes the hard-right, Republican/conservative stance that global warming is junk science and hooey, and that's the creator's right to adopt and express that point of view...but do the creators of South Park seriously believe that hybrid car drivers are causing global warming (a phenomenon which they don't believe in, anyway)? Where have Matt Stone and Trey Parker been during the SUV years? Why have they been silent about that? What about the smugness FOR FRICKING YEARS of SUV drivers who hog the road, take up two parking spaces, and generally endanger the unlucky plebians who are still driving sedans? There are those of us who could never afford an SUV, and have had to deal with the smugness of those drivers since the mid-1990s. I mean, SUV drivers make me puke...watching people who never hiked a day in their lives buy these cars because they could go "off-road" with them? I mean, what the hell? Where was South Park to comment on that?

One funny thing about hybrid cars is that the same people who jumped mindlessly on the SUV bandwagon are now the ones jumping on the hybrid car bandwagon. That's what's funny...not that hybrids make liberals smug (because let's face it, a lot of things make liberals smug these days; most of all the Bush administration...). And depicting the people of San Francisco as people who like to smell their own farts? One: that's not funny because comedy always has to be "reality plus one step further" and this concept has no relation to reality. And two: could you even imagine what the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh would say about a TV show that portrayed the population of an entire Red State City as backwards, ignorant, and gap-toothed? If the people of San Francisco actually liked the smell of their own farts, this joke would be amusing but I've never met anyone from San Francisco who did anything like that. Or anybody anywhere.

And hold up - George Clooney's smugness is a "threat" to the fabric of our society?! What about Donald "we know where the weapons of mass destruction are" Rumsfeld's smugness? What about Dick "they're in the last throes" Cheney's smugness? What about George "we never anticipated the storm would breach the levees" Bush's smugness? What about Condi "I believe it was titled was Bin Laden determined to strike inside the U.S." Rice's smugness? Can George Clooney's smugness even rate on the scale of the cosmic smugness we've seen evidenced from the Administration in the last six years? If you want to go after a smug and annoying Democrat, that's cool - have at it. Personally, I'd pick Hillary Clinton...so take your shot. But George Clooney?! I guess what I'm saying is that (of late anyway), South Park has simply not passed the honesty smell taste. It is now purely and simply pushing one side of various hot-button issues, and furthermore rehashing issues it has already covered...solely to take pot shots at the people the creators of the series apparently don't like.

I loved Team America, and it certainly took shots at folks like Susan Sarandon and Michael Moore. Truthfully, I get a kick out of puncturing self-importance like that. I'm not so set in my ways or so closed-off that I can't laugh at these jokes, or see the truth behind them. But now South Park wants me to believe that hybrid drivers are creating our environmental problems? That liberal actors are the people driving our country into war, chaos, deficit spending and the like? Funny, not a one of them holds high office, or sits in the Majority in Congress or is warming the bench of the Supreme Court. They may be loud and obnoxious (and many are...), but they don't actually have any real power...except the power to gab. And that's Free Speech, baby. Like it or not.

But leaving political pandering aside, South Park's flaw this season is simply that it hasn't been consistently or often funny. Perhaps all the glowing talk of "South Park Republicans" has finally gotten to the show's creators. Sure, they can take any political stance they want (that's free speech, baby...), but I watch the show to laugh and be entertained. And the show has failed dramatically on those fronts. The perfect storm of smugness, I fear, is the one emanating from the show's creators this year. Suddenly, they realize they have something important to say (which makes them a heck of a lot like George Clooney, doesn't it?). A few years ago, South Park would have made fun of that very notion...that a basic cable comedy cartoon would try to influence how a culture thinks. Now, the show is too busy sampling its own farts, I suppose, to smell the irony.

TV REVIEW: Captain Scarlet: "Swarm"

The second episode of the new Gerry Anderson CG series, Captain Scarlet (written by Phil Ford) is entitled "Swarm" and involves yet another Mysteron attempt to destroy the agents of SPECTRUM. In this case, the gorgeous pilot Destiny Angel inadvertently brings back a swarm of little green insectoid robots to Skybase after a mysterious plane invades SPECTRUM airspace and is destroyed.

These "cyber bugs" are actually a secret, experimental weapon (built by the United States, if I recall correctly...), but one turned against mankind by those Mysteron scoundrels.. Once aboard Skybase, the creepy little bugs start multiplying and breeding (with yucky egg sacs), until Destiny and Captain Scarlet at last find a way to destroy them. "It's time to wash these bugs down the drain," Scarlet notes, after realizing that water is the bugs' one weakness. Meanwhile, Lt. Green gets more than she bargained for when she is cocooned by the bugs and they start to scan her mind for detailed information about the layout of Skybase (which leads them to the atomic reactor...).

Watching this episode of Captain Scarlet, which I enjoyed even more than the two-part pilot, I felt the warm and happy glow of nostalgia. Not so much for Captain Scarlet or the other supermarionation shows, but for the mod-1960s live-action epic, UFO...which I still love (flaws and all). "Swarm" felt very much like an episode of that series, only modulated with the latest CG effects to be more dramatic. The narrative is familiar, however: an alien plot to subvert mankind's last line of defense.

And hey -- wasn't someone going to remake UFO a couple of years ago? I think it would be a cool idea, but - to get off topic - I'd miss the series' (now misplaced...) sense of futurism, the feeling that the 1980s would be a glorious extension of the freewheeling late 1960s (including a mod, flamboyant sense of fashion, an optimism about space travel; casual sex, and lots and lots of drinking...). The new Captain Scarlet, made in our lugubrious, conservative 21st century (the era of the PG-13 horror film...), doesn't reflect any of that wonderful old Anderson stuff, but the stories, characters and technology do indeed feel familiar...and charming. If only the late Ed Bishop were around to give voice to Captain Scarlet.

Now that would be cool.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 42: The Interchangeable World of the Micronauts



Okay. This is a post I have wanted to write since I first began blogging in the Spring of '05. As you know, I possess an office filled with a plethora of sci-fi toys (primarily from the 1970s and 1980s), but one toy line which has fascinated me since childhood has not yet been featured here: Mego Corp's incredible "Micronauts" (or more accurately "The Interchangeable World of the Micronauts").

Why haven't I featured the Micronauts before? Well, quite frankly, of all my toys, very few Micronauts survived my long (and continuing...) journey to adulthood. Until this past weekend, I owned the Hornetroid spaceship (which is cool beyond reckoning), a Baron Karza action figure I got for Christmas in 1980, and a Space Glider figure I picked up at a flea market about five years ago. I also have a relatively complete line of Marvel Micronaut comic books, but they aren't toys...

However, when I went over to my parents' house for dinner this Saturday night, I discovered they had made a yard sale plunder. They had bought for me a mint-in-box Micronauts Giant Acroyear and a complete-in-box (but not mint box...) Micronauts Mobile Exploration Lab. The total price tag? Five frickin' dollars! My parents occasionally do something like this...they find me a treasure that just blows my mind. (Last year they found me a dinky die-cast metal SHADO 2 tank from the Gerry Anderson TV series UFO...which they picked up for two dollars...).

But back to the Micronauts. You see, I had kept an eye on E-Bay for toys like these...but they are always out of my financial reach. So I elected to keep my collecting attention on collections I already had a lot of: Space:1999, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and Star Wars. The Micronauts, I feared, were simply out of reach.

And then this! So yes, I'm a happy man today.

Who are the Micronauts? Well, it was before Star Wars, I believe (the copyright is 1976...) that Mego bgan developing this amazing and highly-detailed line of futuristic action figures, vehicles and machines. The line came to include whole cities (A megapolis, I think it was called), a functional tube subway system (which I got for one birthday from my aunt...), missile-firing ships, robots, helicopters, starcruisers (my favorite toy...) and more. As the toys were laid out (though I think it was different in the comics...) the Acroyears were the robotic bad guys (they looked kind of like space vikings) and the good guys had names like Time Traveler, Space Glider and the like.

I don't know what the exact "toy story" was, only that as a youth I created my own world with these Micronauts. Baron Karza -- a Darth Vader knock-off whose limbs were attached to his torso by magnets -- was the amazing villain who would launch his evil Acroyear warriors (and later, mutants...) against my peaceful and advanced Micronaut City. Which was defended by the likes of a weird helicopter ship, the multi-part starcruiser, and more. Meanwhile, the Micronauts expanded their territory with exploratory vehicles like the mobile laboratory. They also had guardian robots at their side, like the giant Biotron (I think that is what he was called...)

The Micronaut universe came to be huge (and I remember at one point even owning a Micronaut laser pistol with interchangeable muzzles...), a galaxy unto itself, and I honestly think the line was one of the best toys ever released during my childhood. I love the Kenner action figures for Star Wars, but in some sense, when playing with them, you're buying into a universe someone else has created. The Micronauts, being interchangeable and with no overall story (outside Marvel's), were toys that you could shape and mold to your ideas and imagination. You could build the cities the way you wanted; you could configure the vehicles as you saw fit. You could always combine and create something new and cool. One toy could be five or six different ships. Anyway, the Micronauts were amazingly cool.

There are many, many dozens of Micronauts toys, and my newly expanded collection barely scratches the surface of this remarkable Mego product. But who knows when I'll find more...so I wanted to feature them here. I know there was a re-release a few years back (of at a least a few Micronauts), but as you can tell from my blog, I'm an Old School kind of guy. It's the originals for me...

So, did you own any Micronauts? Which ones were your favorites? There was one figure called Galactic Defender that I really liked (he had a space helmet and a laser sword, I think...) , and also one who came in a sarcophagus...maybe called Phobos...

And there was a good guy to battle Baron Karza called Force Commander, right? I never actually had him...