Saturday, August 12, 2006

Sci-Fi Mantra: Mal Reynolds

Lately, I find myself thinking of these words (spoken in the feature film, Serenity by Captain Reynolds):

"I aim to misbehave."

It sounds flip, but it isn't. What Mal is responding to in the film when he voices that particular thought is the need - indeed, the duty - to sometimes question - and push back - against overreaching governmental authority.

In the film, Mal discovers that his government, the Alliance, has created something called PAX, a pacification drug that Parliament believes will make the citizenry "better." (And also, no doubt - safer.) He sees it for what it is: a new way to "control" and consolidate power for the powerful.

This mantra comes up for me now, because last week I saw the most despicable comments repeated on television. I saw government officials in high office (and wannabe government officials) telling us that to be safe and secure, we have to think just like they do.

Worse, they compared American voters in Connecticut - American citizens, mind you - to the Taliban and Al Qaeda because they didn't like the voters' choice. This is a new lowpoint in political discourse, and it is crass, ugly manipulation. Sorry, but I don't want my government telling me that making a personal choice between two options in the voting booth is tantamount to treason and makes voters "terrorists" or even in league with terrorists. What actually happened in Connecticut? That's called democracy, folks. The voters spoke. For better of worse. Instead of respecting that fact - and I still can't believe I'm hearing this from major politicial figures in the U.S. - the message coming out of Washington D.C. following a foiled terrorist plot in the UK is that only one party is good and American, and that the other is the party of "Al Qaeda." On CNN, I heard an anchor actually question if Ned Lamont could be called "The Al Qaeda" Candidate. What the fuck?! I hasten to add, I would be just as offended if that CNN anchor had asked if Condi Rice could be called "The Al Qaeda" Secretary of State. Disagree with any of these people...but jeez...they aren't terrorists!

This inflammatory, ugly rhetoric is something every American, regardless of party, might very seriously think twice about. Yes, Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives differ on how to achieve national goals, but why can't these differences make us stronger in the War on Terror? Isn't it always better to have more ideas rather than less? What about IDIC, Infinite Diversity and all that stuff? Why must we be in brain-lockstep and define different philosophies as traitorous, appeasing and terroristic? Here's a radical idea: as Americans, we can believe different things, and learn from each other. As Americans we can believe different things, and still be cordial...and still help one another. Hell, as Americans we can believe different things and be...friends. I don't know about you, but when I have conversations with my friends who hold different beliefs, I inevitably learn something from them; or see things in a new way. I might ultimately reject those things or I might not, but in every case I'm stronger and better for having listened to and understood a different point of view.

I tell you, some Americans - and from every end of the political spectrum - are going to sic the (electoral) Reavers on all these bastards if the kind of inflammatory and divisive rhetoric emanating from the tube last week doesn't subside. I direct these remarks in particular to Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman. Truly - they are the most craven politicians I've seen in my lifetime. I now call them the "vote for us or die horribly" bloc - and they are, individually, Republican AND Democrat.

And...they both suck.

As long as men like these control the bully pulpit of the corporate press and use it to cling to power by frightening people, I aim to misbehave and call them out for their crap. Bottom line folks: we can do better. I don't care if you vote Democrat or Republican come November, but please vote your heart and your gut and your brain, and throw the rotten, divisive bastards in both parties out. These jokers serve at our pleasure, so when the time comes, let's misbehave. We can have arguments, we can disagree, but Americans who exercise the right to vote as they wish are not and will never be terrorists. Can't we all - from both parties - at least agree on that?

Captain Reynolds would expect nothing less than some serious misbehavior. Only one thing left to say... "Miranda..."

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "The Monsters of Mongo"

The animated Flash Gordon series kicks it to high gear in "The Monsters of Mongo," the second episode of the early 1980s Filmation effort. Here (in a tale written by Sam Peeples), Flash, Dale and Thun (The Lion Man...) escape Mingo City into the caverns below, only to be recaptured by luscious Princess Aura. Then, Ming adds Dale to his harem, and consigns Flash and Thun to radioactive mines beneath the city, a place that "rots flesh and burns eyes."

In the caverns below, whipped and dominated by Lizard Women Overlords (mmm...Lizard Women Overlords...), Flash and Thun organize an impromptu miner's strike. "By sticking by each other, maybe we can accomplish something," Flash tells Thun. There's an uprising in the caves, and in great anti-fascist (pro communist?) imagery, the workers brandish their shovels and pick-axes (seen in black silhouette...) against their masters. The animation here is powerful, by the way. Black shovels jut into the air triumphantly and the background is a fire and revolutionary red. Okay, my friend Rick Coulter -- is this secret Marxist imagery creeping into American mainstream (kids!) entertainment during the right-wing Reagan eighties or what? I know you'd cheer if you saw this episode...

After the slave revolt (which gets flooded out by Ming...), Aura helps Flash and Thun escape to Arborea, but first the unlikely allies must face the god of the caverns, Ti-Sack (not to be confused with the other God of the mines, Ti-Bag.) The episode ends with Flash and Thun fleeing from Arborea (and the arrival of the Hawkmen), as Prince Barin and Aura trade barbs.

One of the things that struck me most powerfully about "The Monsters of Mongo" is the adherence in the series (and indeed, in the very concept of Flash Gordon) to the whole madonna/whore complex. Think about it: Flash is always forced to choose between the abundantly sexy but evil woman in the metallic bikini, or the acceptable, loyal, demure always-in-need-of-rescue Dale Arden, who in this episode lamely declares. "I'm no wilting violet. I share the risk." This is right after she gets scooped up by a dinosaur, by the way, and Flash saves her. AGAIN!

What's interesting is that Flash treats the "whore" as an equal. He's physically aggressive with Aura (he's always grabbing her by the wrist; and here he steals her *ahem* Multi-ray projector rod...). When they are attacked by a giant carnivorous plant [a metaphor for a devouring vagina, perhaps?), he lets her - like his buddy Thun - fend for herself. Whereas he's basically Daddy and protector to Dale, treating her like a child who needs guidance or help. I guess this is a 1930s vision of male/female relations, or is it still in play today? All I know is this: if I treated my wife as patronizingly as Flash treats Dale - indeed as a wilting violet - I'd get a swift kick to the groin. You know? So what's with this two-dimensional treatment of the ladies in Flash Gordon? Harmless male fantasy or something more subversive? Personally, I think if you blended Aura and Dale into one'd have a hell of a woman, instead of two extremes -the virtuous madonna and the hip-swinging whore - but that's just me...

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 46: Kenner's Alien

Look who's sitting on my desk today! He just hatched...

Yep, it's that wily "bug" from Ridley Scott's classic horror film, Alien. This unusual and highly cherished toy was released by Kenner (the same company who had the Star Wars license...) in 1979 to tie-in with the Christmas release of the film.

But the monster - who stands a whopping 18" tall - ended up scaring little kids out of toy stores by the dozen and was removed from shelves in a hurry. Ho-ho-ho.

Forget Winnie the Pooh or Teddy Bears or Peter Rabbit, this will be my son's first cuddly "animal" friend...

No, just wife won't let me.

As you can see, my alien isn't in very good shape these days. Rubber bands are keeping his barely-attached arms from falling off his body; you can see them in the photos. They are no longer "spring-loaded" to "crush victims" as the toy box once promised.

My alien's head dome is missing-in-action, though he still possesses his inner-jaw; which lunges out to bite people. These are, according to the package hyperbole, his "mechanical, easily operated jaws!"

The alien's finest attribute might be his curled, whip-tail because you can use it to surreptitiously hang the alien on door knobs, in the pantry, from the dish washer, from lamps, etcetera. "Alien can swing from his movable tail!" screamed the box, and I took that advice in earnest.

I enjoy scaring Kathryn with this guy, but truth be told, she's more frightened by my (to scale...) Mogwai/Gremlin figure from the 1984 Dante film. I'm not allowed to leave that Gremlin out anywhere; not after that time I waited until she was asleep and then stood him up on her night-stand so when she woke up, he'd be peering down at her. That was probably very wrong of me...

But that's a different story...

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Trading Card Close-up # 5: "Mark Lenard as Urko"

My fifth trading card "close up" is # 59 in the Planet of the Apes TV series collection from 1974. There are sixty-six cards in this set, and this one serves as number six in puzzle # 1. Got that?

Anyway, I picked this particular card, featuring series villain General Urko, not just because I love the gorilla's hat (!), but because - as the legend reads - the great Mark Lenard essayed this role. I've always felt that Lenard is a true shining star of sci-fi actors. He passed away in 1996, but Lenard is one of the few actors in history to have played (in a featured, not extra capacity...) a Vulcan, Romulan and Klingon on Star Trek.

And that's just one achievement. In addition to his role as Sarek - Spock's father - on various Star Trek generations ("Journey to Babel," "Yesteryear," "The Search for Spock," "The Voyage Home," "The Undiscovered Country," "Sarek," and "Unification"), he made a (brilliant...) career of playing aliens or non-humans on other classic TV shows.

Planet of the Apes is probably his most memorable role, because he was so effective as the brutal simian General, yet Lenard also played an alien ambassador with a removable head (!) on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("Journey to Oasis"), the evil Emperor Thorval in the Cliffhangers (1979) segment "The Secret Empire" and a military overlord in an episode ("Zone Troopers Build Men") of Otherworld (1985).

Lenard guested on shows as diverse as Mission: Impossible, The Magician and The Incredible Hulk, and even had a role in the Woody Allen film Annie Hall. Now that, my a great actor.

So today, gazing upon the ape features of the evil General Urko, let's also remember the performer beneath the appliance and yak hair. Let's hear it for Mark Lenard. Just imagine if he were still around. It would have been amazing to see him on Stargate or Firefly or Farscape...

Monday, August 07, 2006

Your "Arena" or Mine?

Anybody who appreciates genre television history also probably understands that the very medium of television - a massive gobbler of hours and stories - tends to repeat the same formula and conventions again and again. Decade after decade. Ad infinitum.

That's probably why we've had so many "civilization of the week" programs such as The Starlost (1973), The Fantastic Journey (1977), Logan's Run (1977) and Otherworld (1985). Yet science fiction TV doesn't just repeat formats, it very often goes further than that; repeating specific episodes (sometimes alarmingly so...). Variations on a theme, or rip-offs? Discuss amongst yourselves...

One old chestnut that has been repeated quite a bit since the 1960s is a variation on the brilliant short story "Arena," written by Frederic Brown. This story has probably been repeated more frequently even than that other cliche: the most dangerous game.

The original "Arena" first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction Magazine in 1944 and concerned the war for survival in outer space between two equally matched forces: the human race and the aliens known as "The Outsiders." During the final space battle of a long interstellar war, a human pilot named Carson is miraculously plucked from the cockpit of his one-man scouter and teleported to an arena of blue sand and bizarre, speaking lizards.

He is contacted there by an omnipotent alien who informs him that the space war will not be settled amongst the stars, but on this unique field instead. Carson is then forced to combat a deadly alien representative of the Outsiders, a repellant, round tentacled organism called "The Roller." Naturally, the battle is to the death. If Carson loses this vital contest, mankind stands to be wiped right out of existence. If Carson wins the fight, however, the human race inherits control of the galaxy. Talk about the weight of the world on your shoulders, huh?

In the short story "Arena," what followed this brilliant and elegant set-up was a tense, Darwinian tale of mental and physical conflict between two species in a battlefield replete with an impenetrable force field. Although author Frederic Brown was not aware of it when he penned this classic tale in the World War II era, his vignette would someday become the most cherished "stock" story in science fiction TV, at least in the sixties, seventies and eighties.

Perhaps the first variation on Brown's "Arena" arrived on TV in 1964 when Robert Specht wrote his teleplay "Natural Selection" for the anthology series called The Outer Limits. The episode became "Fun and Games" for air, and producer Joseph Stefano claimed never to have read Brown's original work. Specht's variation on the genre standard involved Earthlings who were transported away from their lives to fight a deadly alien competitor on an another planet and - of course - in a kind of arena.

As in the original story, the victor in this Outer Limits battle (and his species) would be permitted to survive and the loser, along with his people, faced annihilation. In this case, the battle occurred on a world known as "Andera," which is a jumbling of the title "Arena," isn't it? See the similarities?

Gene Coon, producer of the original Star Trek realized that "Arena" was too good a concept to pass up during the first season of that classic series in 1966-67. He authored a teleplay appropriately called "Arena" and did the right thing: he actually credited Brown as his co-writer on it. During this particular voyage of the starship Enterprise, the stakes for survival had changed. If Captain Kirk lost his battle with a reptilian Gorn captain (after a massacre at the planet, Cestus III), the Enterprise would be destroyed - but humanity would still survive. And vice versa.

At the end of the Trek adventure, a new twist entered the "Arena" mythos. Where Brown had described survival as a moral imperative and had seen his protagonist Carlson execute the evil Roller, a creature he likened to an intelligent spider, William Shatner's dashing and demonstrative Captain Kirk took a higher road. He refused to kill his lizard-like opponent and thereby demonstrated the advanced trait of mercy. As on so many TV series, a "valuable" lesson had been learned. In this case, I don't mean valuable lesson in a cynical fashion. Remember, America was getting deeper into the Vietnam War at the time of Star Trek, so the notions in the story were just as timely as they had been when Brown crafted the original.

The Star Trek variant on "Arena" also featured another important element in what has become a stock story: the search to build a primitive weapon to defeat a stronger foe. In Trek, it was Kirk's efforts to collect raw materials to forge gunpowder and build a primitive cannon. That element also stuck in the memory of many future episode writers.

When the stock "Arena" story re-appeared on Year Two of the British space opera, Space: 1999 in 1976, it was deja vu all over again. This time, the story was called "The Rules of Luton." It was written by Charles Woodgrove (a pseudonym for producer Freddie Freiberger...Star Trek's third season producer!), and saw Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) and Science Officer Maya (Catherine Schell) facing off against three alien criminals when they committed a so-called "crime" on the planet Luton - eating a berry. Yes, it was a planet of intelligent vegetables and eating a berry was tantamount to murder. What do you want, it was the seventies, okay?

On Space: 1999 there was no threat to the galaxy, or even Moonbase Alpha. At stake were merely the lives of Koenig and Maya if they lost. Interestingly, the three bad aliens (a teleport, an invisible alien and a super strong fella), were not the real bad guys at all. Instead, the supervisors of the arena became the primary antagonist because of their blood lust. Again, this was a new twist. The villainy had shifted from those the heroes had to fight against to those who were orchestrating the fighting. Perhaps this is symbolic of 1970s post-Watergate anti-authoritarianism.

Also, instead of building a makeshift cannon to defeat his foes, the resourceful Koenig made a bolo. Now if only Captain Kirk and Commander Koenig would fight in an arena, cannon against bolo. Landau vs. to man. One has an Oscar, the other an Emmy...

In 1978, another British space series, Blake's 7 recycled the "Arena" concept one more time. The first season episode "Duel" found freedom fighter Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) battling his nemesis, the one-eyed, cyborg Travis, in an arena supervised by another superior (and condescending) life form. On Star Trek it was the Metrons. On 1999 the Lutons. Here it was a Keeper called "Giroc" and a guardian called "Sinofar." Sinofar and Giroc's people had destroyed all life on their planet centuries earlier in a useless war, and were now doomed for eternity to teach other battling humanoids the same lesson in destruction.

In this case, Blake and his pilot Jenna forged primitives lances and spears out of the local brush (see how the same concepts keep sneaking in?). Blake also followed the example of Kirk and Koenig before him, refusing to kill his enemy. However, In typically cynical fashion (the rule on Blake's 7 rather than the exception...), Blake allowed Travis to live because he knew he could beat Travis, not out of any glorious human instincts or quality of mercy.

And so it has gone, over the years.

In 1979-80, Gil Gerard's out-of-time hero, Buck Rogers ended up in arena to fight a villain called the Traybor in an episode of that series, entitled "Buck's Duel to the Death." There was no superior overlord, but the battle in an arena still decided the fate of a society. Here, the Traybor could shoot bolts of electricity out of his hands, and Buck had to utilize Twiki as a kind of inhuman shield who got the bolts. Bidi-bidi-bidi. In the end, Buck won and freed the planet, telling the people that democracy was in their hands, not the Traybors'...or his.

Even Star Trek eventually regurgitated the "Arena" concept as late as 1987, when the fourth episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation vetted an (uncredited...) re-make called "The Last Outpost.' This time, the avaricious Ferengi (in their first appearance) subbed for the Gorns, and the Metrons were replaced by an old, cloaked alien from the mysterious T'Kon empire, called "Portal."

As before, the Federation and an enemy were locked in hostilities over "ownership" of territory or equipment, both ships were paralyzed in space by the superior race, and the answer to the riddle was to be found on a planet below. Portal stood in judgment over the combatants, and tested them for worthiness. I hasten to add, there have been cheesier variations of of the "Arena" story, but none that ended as anti-climactically as this installment. Riker beat the Ferengi simply by quoting Sun Tzu to Portal. Cop-out! Cop-out! This was also the second time in four episodes that Picard had surrendered the Enterprise, the Federation's flag ship. Jeez...Kirk must have been spinning in the Nexus over that.

But I digress. The core of the timeless "Arena" story, the idea that is resurrected over and over again across the decades on genre TV, is obviously a powerful one on an emotional level, which perhaps explains its longevity. Human beings are (apparently...) intrinsically violent creatures, and our violence makes us do stupid things. In the "Arena" template, aliens - sometimes with good motives, sometimes not - make us face the consequences of our stupidity. A superior force, like God in some fashion, stops us in our tracks and makes us confront the truth about our brutal natures. (I think this idea is also at the core of Star Trek's "Errand of Mercy," which also concerns the notion of war, and a third party stepping in to stop the killing.)

Perhaps there is also an element of wish-fulfilmment in the idea of two enemies battling it out personally, rather than with the might of governments behind them. Instead of millions dying in a conflict organized and orchestrated by a few planners, only representative leaders would face physical harm. I think we'd like to believe things could be so simple; that the fate of the universe could be settled by a good right hook.

Now I just wonder, how can I fit the "Arena" template into my series, The House Between? I probably shouldn't try, but it's fun to think about. Fredric Brown's story - forged in war time, when populations were being bombed from above by V2 rockets - will continue to carry meaning for us so long as humans wage war, and find more and more antiseptic ways to do so. How would you write a variation on "Arena" in 2006? What points would a clever writer make now, in light of the War on Terror and other conflicts raging across the globe? I wonder.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week: Matrix Reloaded

"Denial is the most predictable of all human responses."

-The Architect (to Neo); Matrix Reloaded