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.