Saturday, November 18, 2006

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Flash Gordon: "Castaways in Tropica"

As this chapter of Flash Gordon commences, our heroes Flash and Barin have been forced to fight one another in the arena, in Ming the Merciless's "tournament of death." Since they are the last two gladiators, they are compelled to duel with "flame swords" on a high-wire over a raging fire.

At the last minute, Princess Aura realizes she loves Barin and rescues both the Prince of Arboria and Flash from the clutches of her father. Together with Dale and Zarkov, they all escape the arena together. Barin and Aura make for Arboria while the Earthers make for their (miraculously...) repaired rocket ship and blast off. Unfortunately, their ship runs out of fuel in the upper atmosphere of Mongo, and they're forced to set down again in dangerous territory.

That territory turns out to be the kingdom of Tropica, a land that looks like "The Garden of Eden" and is run by luscious Queen Desira and her major domo, Brasnor. Brasnor is hot for Desira, even though they're cousins. Also, Brasnor is planning an insurrection to seize the kingdom...

Flash, Dale and Zarkov are captured by Desira's men; basically armed guards in purple berets who ride horned beasts called gryphs. But Brasnor pulls a fast one, and stands idly by while a "tree dragon" attacks his queen. Flash saves Desira, and then Brasnor reveals his hand, taking everyone captive and imprisoning them in his mountain fortress.

"This is one prison that even Flash Gordon cannot escape," Brasnor cackles. When Flash does manage an escape with Desira and his friends, Brasnor bitterly observes that "the Earth man has more lives than a Mongo cat." Indeed.

The fugitives climb down the castle wall and into a cave, which is "honeycombed with abandoned passages from older ruins." They pause to take sustenance from a "bread tree" (a delicacy in these parts...), and then face a new danger from "rock termites," over-sized ants which eat everything in their path, including stones.

To escape the ants, Flash and his buddies jump into a river, but soon find themselves being pulled into a tunnel, as if by a magnet. "But where is it taking us?" queries a worried Dale Arden.

We won't find out till next week...

Friday, November 17, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 50: Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center



Last week for the retro toy flashback, I featured Mego's U.S.S Enterprise Bridge from 1980 (a favorite toy of mine...), and on a similar note, this week I'd like to remember another kindred Mego toy; also from 1980. It's Mego item # 85022. Otherwise known as the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center (recommended for children over 5 years old. Thus, I barely qualify...).

Anyway, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century starring Gil Gerard ran on NBC TV from autumn 1979 to the Spring of 1981. It was a fun sci-fi show, and as a kid, I loved every campy minute of it. How could you not love a series featuring Erin Gray (in spandex...) and Pamela Hensley (showing mid-riff)? . Even as a child, I think I understood that the series was cheesy and inconsistent, but it hardly mattered. No, Buck Rogers in this incarnation was like James Bond in space; with neat spaceships, cool sets, and gorgeous ladies. The villains (which included Frank Gorshin and Julie Newmar), were also quite colorful.

Of course, I collected all of the Buck Rogers action figures of the day, though even my ten year old mind rebelled at the lack of care that went into some of the marketing. For instance, Princess Ardala was called "Ardella" on her action figure card. What, nobody could be bothered to spell check the character's name? And why make a figure of King Draco, who was barely in the show at all? And Kane was called "Killer Kane." He was never called that on the series; though that name came from earlier incarnations. Fine, whatever.

Anyway, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from the show), the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series...), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I'll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle's house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy -- all Buck Rogers models and figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that's another story).

The toy box suggests: "Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!" Indeed.

The toy also includes "2 level deck with radar screens and railings, "Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck's Star Fighter," and "landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures." Wow, railings and radar screens! Okay, maybe not that very exciting on retrospect, but for me as a kid, this was exactly the kind of toy I wanted.

What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. Wonder why? I do know that Mego was juggling a number of licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show you that back in the 1970s and 1980s, even great toy companies like Mego weren't necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful) products. This isn't really an "authentic replica" of the landing bay on the series. That's okay, it's still a fun toy, but authentic? Naah.

As you can see from the pictures, this toy today holds a cherished spot in my home office. Bidi-bidi-bidi.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

TV REVIEW: Jericho: "Crossroads"

One week before the "fall finale" of CBS's promising new series Jericho, and things are heating up in Kansas. When last we left the stalwart Green brothers (Eric and Jake), they had returned from Rogue River with the medicine needed to save their Dad, Johnston (the mayor). But...they'd run afoul of professional mercenaries who pillaged Rogue River (just 90 miles from Jericho).

In "Crossroads," this week's installment, the chickens come home to roost as the Ravenwood mercenaries, led by villainous D.B. Sweeney, arrive on the outskirts of Jericho with humvees and guns. Lots of guns. The town sets up a roadblock on a bridge, but Jake has tangled with Ravenwood before (in the Iraq War...) and knows they won't be stopped short of a violent confrontation. Jake wants to blow up the bridge leading into Jericho, an act which will stop the professional soldiers once and for all but also geographically isolate the town (and force those who live on the other side of the bridge - like farmer Stanley - to abandon their homes).

The idea of mercenaries run amuck in heartland America isn't quite as farfetched as it may seem, as this episode clearly reflects the situation in Iraq where our Federal Government has "outsourced" security to professional, hired soldiers rather than the military. These private contractors are not bound by the military standard of conduct, and can therefore do...whatever the hell they want want. Imagine being an Iraqi citizen trying to figure out the difference between an American soldier and one of these guys? Not fun. Indeed, some of these "outsource" soldiers were responsible for the atrocities that occurred at Abu Ghraib. So Jericho - like all good science fiction - extrapolates the "future" or an alternate reality based on ours. We recognize the world it depicts, and here we're being told something about Iraq (and also about contemporary America).

Meanwhile, Emily wakes up to realize it is her wedding day...though her fiancee Roger is still missing. Throughout the episode, Emily (Ashley Scott) "fantasizes" an alternate day. One where "the end of the world" didn't come, and she and Roger married. We are treated to snippets of the wedding preparations, the reception, and so forth, as Emily contrasts what is with what might have been. This is an interesting touch that doesn't get too maudlin, and helps to reveal to audiences how much the world of Jericho has changed in a month. (In the fantasy world, Stanley is watching a sports game on the telly, for instance.)

Trouble is also brewing for Eric. April is finally ready to tell him she's pregnant with his child, but before she can, he works up the courage to tell her he's leaving her for his mistress, Mary Bailey. This development is a little bit soap-operaish, if you ask me, but these days (the days of Lost, Battlestar Galactica...) sci-fi fans are frequently asked to accept soap opera plotting as a substitute for genuine genre thinking.. Contemporary producers have mistaken old General Hospital plots for "maturity" and for being "dark" or "angsty"...when in fact the stories of alcoholism, affairs, unwanted pregnancies, etc., are merely staples of the soap opera form. In some cases this development is acceptable (hey, Jericho IS about a small town and the lives of its citizens, so it gets a tentative pass on this front...), but Battlestar Galactica is supposed to be about the big issues (like the extermination of the human race and the search for a new home...) and Lost has bigger issues - like about a dozen or so mysteries - to contend with. I just wish those shows would get over themselves and actually tell science fiction stories; deal with science fiction concepts instead of As The World Turns-style intrigues, but then, I digress...

After stopping the mercenaries, Jake confronts his father (now recovered) and warns that the town needs a military, a "trained" and "sanctioned" security force. The Mayor agrees and gives his son the responsibility, handing him a U Ranger handbook. A wise decision or opening a Pandora's Box? Discuss amongst yourselves.

Truly, this brings up an interesting dilemma. The town of Jericho needs to be defended from marauding outsiders. But would you want a heavily armed (but inexperienced...) citizen police force marching your street? What's the balance? Hopefully, Jericho will tell us (and show us...) in the weeks ahead.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

CULT TV BLOGGING: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Flames of Doom"

Some of my less-than-positive comments about the re-imagination process in modern Hollywood (particularly as it applies to the new Battlestar Galactica...) have made the rounds on other blogs and I guess I may be getting a reputation as an anti re-imagination guy. That's okay with me, I suppose, but it's not always true.

Exhibit A in my defense just may be the 1975 animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes, a re-imagination of the first order. It's a program developed for television by David De Patrie-Fritz Freleng, which assimilates and re-invents characters, plotlines, devices and technology from all previous incarnations of the once-popular franchise, including the Pierre Boulle novel, the 1968 film and sequels (Beneath, in particular...), and even the 1974 live-action TV series. The result is nothing less than an invigorating shot in the arm for the franchise. I hadn't watched these half-hour episodes for something like thirty-one years, but re-discovering them today on DVD, I was shocked and pleased at just how attentive and committed to details (and an overall story arc) this animated series remains.

Because frankly the buzz from the old genre press wasn't good. Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977, the author writes in a summary review of the NBC series that it "was a not very exciting animated version of the short-lived CBS live-action series," and that the artwork and plots were "simplistic." (page 177). Frankly, I don't see how anyone with a pulse, anyone with an intellect, anyone who actually watched the animated series, could honestly make such an assessment.

The premiere episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes, "Flames of Doom," (by Larry Spiegel), finds a NASA space capsule called the "Venture" traveling on a routine deep space mission on August 6, 1976. Aboard are three diverse astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American) and Judy Franklin (a woman). Bill narrates the captain's log and confirms Dr. Stanton's theory of "time thrust;" that man can utilize faster-than-light speeds to propel himself into the future. Admirers of the 1968 film will recognize this comment as a reflection of Chuck Heston's opening narration, and Dr. Hasslein's theory named there. It's been simplified for children in this cartoon, but the idea is the same.

No sooner has Hudson informed us about this theory than the ship's chronometer goes wild and the Venture plunges into some kind of time warp. The "Earth Clock" goes crazy, and the Venture arrives battered in the year 3979, where it crashes on a strange planet in a dead lake.

Meanwhile, on the planet below - a planet ruled by intelligent apes - General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide for all humans. Arguing the opposite case is the kindly chimpanzee Cornelius, who pleads for a "different course." He and his wife, a behavioral scientist named Zira, wish to study humans as the key to "simian origins." Arbitrating this dispute of national importance is the ruler of the apes, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius. I must note, the level of attention to detail in this scene is remarkable, for as Zaius issues his decision on the matter at hand, a stone relief on the wall behind him reveals the long history of ape-human relations. There are images of apes hunting humans, and domesticating them. Nice.

Humans may be hunted as legitimate sport, Zaius concludes, or brought into the city to perform "menial tasks." They may even serve as domestic pets, but Zaius will not demand their total destruction. However, on an ominous note, he warns that Article 18 of the "Book of Simian Prophecy" demands that man must be destroyed at any cost if he develops the power of speech. In other words, this is a temporary victory for Cornelius's cause, and for the primitive, mute, stone-age humans who populate caves outside the technologically advanced ape-city.

Watching this portion of the episode, a few things become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle's novel. In other words, the apes dwell in a twentieth century city with television, radio, automobiles and the like. Their city is not a rock-outcropping like in the popular movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings that resemble those from human history (in a wonderful nod to the adage "monkey see, monkey do.") The ape culture of the original film was almost medieval, despite the presence of guns and such things as brain surgery. Not so here.

For instance, the imposing ape council building resembles nothing so much as our own Capitol Building, where Congress deliberates.. Since this is a re-imagination and updating of Planet of the Apes for the mid-1970s, not only is there the burgeoning notion of diversity (this was the era of the equal rights amendment, we must not forget...) on hand in the make-up of the astronauts, but the focus on the Council and its proceedings reveals a more bureaucratic bent to the apes. Instead of ape culture being essentially of one mind (as in the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil triumvirate of the Schaffner film showcases), here Ape society is bedeviled by partisan politics, with chimpanzees representing the pacifist left, gorillas the militant right, and orangutans the sensible center. This is especially important considering the context of Return to the Planet of the Apes: immediately post-Watergate (and the congressional hearings would have been seen by Americans on TV), and soon after the Vietnam conflict. Again, this is an example of updating and changing a franchise, but not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Continuing with the story, Bill, Jeff (voiced by the amazing Austin Stoker of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Assault on Precinct 13), and Judy abandon their sinking spaceship and flee into the Forbidden Zone. Recalling the portions of the original film shot in Death Valley, the series here offers a brilliant and artistic montage as the three astronauts search for water and food under the glaring sun of what they believe is an alien world.

Here, the animated frames turn a bright scarlet hue to represent the heat of the desert and there are close-ups of human faces caked in sweat. Close-ups of tired feet marching in the sand also appear. This montage doesn't rely on dialogue but rather clever images. There is a lengthy interlude wherein we pan across (again, animated...) desert images to carry the mood and atmosphere of the story. The animation is limited perhaps, but these limitations are marshaled as a strength on the program. Overlapping views, double exposes, intense close-ups, insert shots and first person subjective point-of-view shots all provide a texture to the desperate march through the wasteland. This march ends, appropriately, with the sighting of an Ape Mount Rushmore. Another new touch, but again one that (along with the city), reveals the ape talent for mimicry (monkey see, monkey do) and is therefore thematically valuable; a subconscious reminder that all of the simian accomplishments are built on "aping" human society.

In the desert, Jeff and Bill lose Judy when fires spontaneously erupts in front of them and an earthquake splits the ground in a series of lovely frames that reveal a high degree of fidelity to images from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (particularly Taylor's abduction by the underground mutants). The astronauts have little time to ponder the loss of their companion, however, as Bill and Jeff encounter a tribe of stone age humans, including the beautiful Nova.

Suggesting an interesting mystery, Nova wears the dog tags of another astronaut, someone named Brent (again, a reference seemingly to Beneath the Planet of the Apes). His birthdate was May 2, 2079, so Jeff and Bill are forced to ponder the notion that an astronaut who was born after them arrived on the planet of the apes before they did. Boggles the mind, no? This is a pretty advanced concept for a kid's show, and it also provides an underlying mystery for adults to enjoy. Where is Brent? What happened to him? I suspect the series will explore that further...

Before long, the apes arrive - on the hunt - in tanks, jeeps and with heavy artillery. The gorillas even lob gas grenades at the primitive humans. Here, the series uses zooms inside individual frames (not actual motion, but rather camera motion...) to suggest the frenetic pace of the hunt. Jeff and Bill are separated, and Bill is captured and taken to ape city.

That's where the first episode ends, but already, the attentive viewer can detect how this canny re-imagination assimilates the important aspects of the Planet of the Apes mythos with something akin to 20/20 hindsight. Instead of making up the saga as it goes (a deficit of the otherwise outstanding motion picture series...), Return to the Planet of the Apes accounts for - from the beginning - the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed "The Underdwellers.") It also employs old characters in new ways and new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story.

In terms of characters, Urko comes from Mark Lenard's character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, the same character was known as "Ursus." He is essentially the same here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most. He is no longer a hypocritical religious zealot, but rather an equalizing force of moderation in Ape Society...almost heroic! "The free ape is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought," he even states; an ideal that the movie's "chief defender of the faith" could never get behind. This is actually an intelligent structural change as well as a symbolic representation of the left/right divide in our culture. Why? Because with Zaius moderating pacifists and war-mongers, we can more logically believe that humans (particularly the astronauts) can continue to escape and outmaneuver a technologically advanced simian culture. The whole planet isn't out to kill them; they have allies.

From the original Planet of the Apes movie, "Flames of Doom" also incorporates other powerful visuals. We see the ape scarecrows on the border of the Forbidden Zone again (and, on a connected note, hear the same gorilla "hunt" horn on the soundtrack...). We see a small, yellow rubber raft and a U.S. flag planted in the Forbidden Zone too, as well as the discovery of a first green plant indicating life on the fringe of the desert.

Again, the approach here seems to be to this: take what worked in the apes movie, book and TV series, and then put them all together in a more coherent, cohesive story, smoothing out the bumps and making everything jibe. That's important, because long time Planet of the Apes fans will remember some of the more dramatic gaps fouling continuity in the film series. In Planet of the Apes, for instance, it is the year 3978 when Taylor arrives, but when Brent arrives on his heels in the follow-up, Beneath, it is magically 3958. Similarly, there are discrepancies between Escape and Conquest in the story of how the apes ascended to superiority in man's world. Cornelius's story involves an ape named Aldo (whom we meet in Battle), but does not take into account the true ape revolutionary, Caesar. Return to the Planet of the Apes - coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle - benefits from knowing everything that came before.

Indeed, this is the true reason for a re-imagination. Taking what worked ine one production and maintaining it; and taking what didn't work and improving it. Notice that there is not merely change for the sake of change here; that characters have not miraculously switched sexes, and whole swaths of mythology have not been removed or altered. What I'm saying is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the apes mythos. So yes, Virginia, a re-imagination CAN work, and this dedicated animated series is one example where it did so. Splendidly.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

CULT TV BLOGGING: Lost in Space: "The Reluctant Stowaway"

"This is the beginning. This is the day. You are watching the unfolding of one of history's great adventures. Man's colonization of space. Beyond the stars..."

With these portentous words, so begins Irwin Allen's 1965-1968 science fiction TV series, Lost in Space. Visually, the episode "The Reluctant Stowaway" commences with a camera sweep of an impressive LBJ-era mission control center populated by numerous technicians. Well, it's not LBJ era, technically, but rather an LBJ era imagining of how the future would likely look. Thus computers are gigantic, wall-sized machines with beeping gauges and lights. As though the PC revolution and concurrent miniaturization of computer technology had never occurred.

The day is October 16, 1997, the viewer is informed, as Alpha Control is dominated by the hustle and bustle of expectant activity. A narrator with booming voice next informs us that the space program is in preparations to send a family into space, to a habitable planet in orbit of Alpha Centauri. The Robinsons have been selected for this particular mission out of 2.2 million families.

Why? Well, the Robinsons best fulfill three necessary criteria: scientific achievement, pioneer resourcefulness and emotional balance. These qualities will hold the family in good stead for their 5.5 year journey (though most of the trip will be spent in suspended animation). Still, nothing less than the future of the human race rests on this mission. With the "explosive increase of population" on Earth, the colonization of the stars is nothing less than an imperative.

Next, this debut episode of Lost in Space provides a splendid, highly-detailed tour of the unique craft carrying the Robinson family to the furthest reaches of space. The Jupiter 2 is not only a home away from home, we are told, but "the culmination of 40 years of intensive research" (at a cost of 30 billion dollars...); one which makes possible "man's thrust into deep space." This two-story craft accommodates state rooms for the crew, a galley, a control deck (with freezing tubes), a med bay and the powerful atomic motors. One noteworthy piece of equipment on board the craft (to help the Robinsons conduct their mission) is an environmental control robot.

But unfortunately for the Robinsons, as "The Reluctant Stowaway" continues, we learn that someone else is (illicitly...) aboard the Jupiter 2, a foreign saboteur with the rank of colonel, a fella by the name of Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris). He has programmed the robot to - at precisely "launch plus eight hours" - destroy the vessel's inertial guidance system, radio transmitter and cabin pressure control system. What Smith doesn't realize is that he's the stowaway of the episode's title! Oh, the pain!

Written by S. Bar David and directed by Tony Leader, "The Reluctant Stowaway" introduces television audiences to the main characters and central concepts of this space drama. As one might guess from the title of the series, the Jupiter 2's maiden flight will experience all sorts of difficulties and disasters, with the Robinsons and Smith hopelessly...lost in the space.

The dramatis personae on Lost in Space also include Dr. John Robinson (Guy Williams), the patriarch of the clan. He's a rock solid man's man, a geologist and space scientist perfectly suited to the colonization of space. His wife is Maureen Robinson (June Lockhart), a loving matriarchal-type who admits to some fear and misgivings about the mission. "I should say something light and clever," she notes as the journey begins, "I just can't." Then there's Judy (Marta Kristen), the eldest Robinson daughter and a brilliant scientist in her own right. Adolescent and mischievous Penny (Angela Cartwright) and the little genius, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy) round out the family. Piloting the ship is Mark Goddard's stolid Major Don West, who - quite rightly, given his options - sets his eyes on Judy.

Shot in crisp shades of beautiful black-and-white, "The Reluctant Stowaway" chronicles the launch of Jupiter 2 and its subsequent "stranding" in deep space. With Smith aboard, there are 200 extra lbs. to account for, and the ship strays from its trajectory even before the robot breaks bad and fulfill its sabotaged programming. In the course of the hour, a number of space hazards emerge, including an asteroid belt which pelts the Jupiter 2's hull. The robot goes on his destructive jag at last, thus causing the ship to go further off course ("As of this moment, the spacecraft has left the limits of the galaxy," one character breathlessly intones). The episode ends on a cliffhanger note as John heads outside the ship for EVA repairs. His tether breaks...and he spins into the void, out-of-control.

Let me offer a mea culpa about Lost in Space. I watched it a great deal when I was very, very young and pretty much wrote it off by the time I was ten. When I was a kid, my show of choice was either Star Trek or Space: 1999. My memories of the Allen drama were primarily of the color episodes from later seasons, and the ridiculous storylines. In unequivocal terms, that IS NOT the Lost in Space of the first season.

This is not a campy Batman-style series, but rather a sincere, straight-faced action-adventure, a transposition of the American Western genre; about the newest frontier and the pioneer required to tame deep space. It is, literally (as its source material suggests...), Space Family Robinson.

What I found most fascinating while watching "The Reluctant Stowaway" was the impressive (and apparently obsessive) attention to detail. Everything - from the sets to the costumes and props to the miniatures - appears absolutely beautiful and carefully thought-out. The Jupiter 2 is a gorgeous set, for instance. And ultimately, the show is convincing from a mid-1960s perspective. Have we outgrown it? Perhaps the melodramatic, humorless tone more than the technology, I'd say. Yet In black-and-white, this is still a more impressive production in terms of design than, say, the new Battlestar Galactica (which is, as I see it, Pier 1 meets Crate and Barrel). There's not one legitimate attempt to create either an "alien" or "future" world in that show. It's just "us" (meaning man in 2006) on a space battleship from an alien race. Lost in Space gets an "A" for effort, even if some of its extrapolations didn't prove correct.

The most impressive moment in "The Reluctant Stowaway" occurs when the Jupiter 2 loses artificial gravity and the Robinsons float weightless for a time. In fairness, this is something that other science fiction shows of the age (including Star Trek...) never really showed or attempted to show -- wire work! It looks as though it was time-consuming to shoot, and yet the results are not unimpressive. In 1965, this scene must have been positively stunning.

The episode ends with that cliffhanger and the legend "To be continued next week. Same time, same channel." I found myself immediately wanting to find out what happened next. Truly, the only thing that marks this first incarnation of Lost in Space as silly is the opening credits sequence, which depicts a cartoon spaceship tugging in its wake a line of tethered, space suited astronauts.

Another fact: Dr. Zachary Smith is one sinister cat. He's not the buffoon he would become in later seasons. Instead, he is ultra-menacing and dark. He wants to kill the Robinsons. And he doesn't take that job lightly. He's not a bumbler...he's a killer. Not exactly a playful sort.

Why am I watching Lost in Space? Well, someone recently told me that it's great for fathers and sons to watch together. That comment had some resonance with me, and I figured that when Joel is old enough, he might like watching the show with me. So, because I'm cautious with my money, I decided to rent the first few discs on Netflix and see if I agreed with the assessment.

After watching the first episode, I kind of do. And add, mothers and sons (and fathers and daughters...) to that list as well. This is a show about a pioneer family pulling together in hard times, and it's good, adventurous fun. It may not be deep or kinky or adult or modern, but it is beautifully-shot and it captures the dangers and thrills of space travel in a way I haven't seen on any show in some time.

Monday, November 13, 2006

TV REVIEW: 3 Lbs: "Lost for Words"

CBS has a new medical series airing Tuesday night, called "3 Lbs" (a nod to the brain's weight...). The more cynical critical elite may note that series lead Stanley Tucci, playing Dr. Doug Hanson, is yet another version of Dr. House M.D. (a colleague on Fox...) solving medical mysteries and so forth. Or that the series is really another Grey's Anatomy, only featuring horny neuro surgeons instead of horny residents.

But - thankfully - this assessment would be entirely wrong. "Lost for Words," the revised 3 Lbs. pilot that I screened last night in advance of the series premiere tomorrow, is it's own dramatic animal; both energetic and remarkably thoughtful. It is (thankfully) lacking the pretentious, self-satisfied air and Ally McBeal-type humor that ruins Grey's Anatomy. As for Hanson being a character like House, well, TV these days is packed to the gills with anti-heroes as central protagonists (James Woods on Shark; Victor Garber on Justice, and on and on...), and besides the idea of an arrogant M.D. is hardly the bailiwick of one series alone.

But enough with drawing comparisons to other series. "Lost for Words" finds young, handsome Dr. Singer (Mark Feuerstein) moving to New York to join the Hanson Neurology Clinic, "the most competitive surgical fellowship in the country." Singer is a sensitive and touchy-feely guy. He likes to meditate (and at this point in the episode, my wife Kathryn began drooling...). Singer feels that the brain is a mystery and that he can't operate on tumor patients without first knowing whose soul he is "bumping up against." A pumped-up Tucci (who shows off his new buff physique in a locker room scene...) plays Hanson, Singer's spiritual opposite.

Hanson's philosophy is that the brain is just "wires in a box." As Indira Varma, (Kama Sutra, Rome) - playing another doctor at the clinic - informs Singer, Hanson regards brain surgery as "a purely logical" enterprise with "no gray area." To my delight, she further notes, "He's like Spock, you know," making 3 Lbs. yet another new show this season (after Heroes) that makes a point of referencing the original Star Trek in a positive way.

Speaking of Star Trek, Singer also considers the brain is "the undiscovered country." Of course, to get whoopy-frigging technical about it, both Star Trek and 3 Lbs. get this Shakespeare reference wrong. On Trek, the undiscovered country was "the future," and here it's a metaphor for a medical frontier. However, the Bard had a much simpler metaphor in mind. To him, the undiscovered country was purely and simply...death. Still, this is a nice reference, and in the deluge of cop, lawyer and doctor shows on the air today, I can't think of another mainstream endeavor that would reference Shakespeare.

Anyway, Singer becomes Hanson's "shadow" (or "sorcerer's apprentice," as another character describes the job) on a difficult case involving a young violinist, Cassie Mack, who has developed a brain tumor and has arrived in the clinic for surgery. Cassie has lost the ability to play the violin, and worse is losing her facility for language...for words themselves. This dramatic and frightening loss is played out in a weird but strangely lyrical dream sequence. We see Cassie playing her instrument in a recital when her new inability to connect with words results in something strange. Cards with words written on them (like "sister" and "grace") fall from the ceiling like snowflakes. She stands tip-toed on a chair trying to catch the words...and fails. This is a poetic, expressive and non-linear way to express the horror of aphasia. I don't think you can have a series about a concrete thinker (Hanson) and a spiritual thinker (Singer) and not be willing to go into interludes that dramatize for the viewer the wonders and mysteries of the human brain. Yet dramatic television is too often a safe medium stylistically; a catalog of familiar "safe" shots that we've seen a hundred times before. 3 Lbs bucks that trend and is willing to harness fascinating and unconventional imagery to tell its story. I like that. I like that the show doesn't stop to explain everything, like what the dream "means." Viewers are left to interpret it for themselves.

While Hanson and Singer quibble over how to treat Cassie, and a publicity-seeking co-worker, Dr. Cole, inserts himself into the case, Varma's character also gets a subplot about a man named James Will, who is surprised to find himself confused and losing his way a lot. Turns out he has an AVM (which is what Nate in Six Feet Under had...), another condition requiring surgery. This "B" plot raises many questions about the way the human mind is unique; proving itself the only one in the animal kingdom to anticipate and obsess on fear. "We think too much," Varma notes, while also suggesting that "fear is the brain's magic trick." If not overtly deep, this is more than enough philosophical material to fill the hour, and keep the show moving at a good clip.

Other issues on the show: Dr. Doug Hanson is a brain doctor with a brain abnormality himself. To wit, he keeps hallucinating the appearance of a small, mysterious girl...a strange siren from "the other side," perhaps. The series also looks poised to dive full-bore into the personal lives of the doctors, as audiences meet Hanson's teenage daughter, and watch him attempt to seduce Cole's wife. Personally, I found all this "relationship" material a lot less interesting than the philosophical, medical stuff. For instance, I particularly enjoyed a shot near the beginning of the show: we get a CGI tour of the violinist's innards, watching as impulses race up her arm into her brain; her skin transparent. It's as if we're riding a roller coaster to the central nervous system itself.

Another moment I enjoyed involves the description likening sex to gravity (!), and overall I found the structure of the show solid. Generally, I like a series in which two world views are vetted and compared, Mulder/Scully or Spock/Bones style, and 3 Lbs looks poised to do so, gazing at the inner workings of the human brain with both cold detachment and spiritual insight. Plus, let's face it, Indira Varma is a gorgeous and more-than-welcome presence here.

What didn't I like? Well, Coldplay is on the soundtrack, and though I like Coldplay, their sound is apparently de rigueur now on dramatic TV shows, and is already getting old. Do we really need any more musical montages on purportedly dramatic series? I don't think so. Also, I approve of the fact that 3 Lbs. is clinical and mostly non-sentimental, but found a last minute line about Cassie receiving a message from her dead sister to be wholly unnecessary and cheesy. In an otherwise restrained, tasteful hour, this Ghost Whisperer moment sticks out like a sore thumb.

On the other hand, however, I found myself unexpectedly affected by the moment in 3 Lbs. (during exploratory surgery...) when Hanson's' probe triggers a sense memory in Cassie. For the briefest of instants, the patient smells lilacs...and is carried away (from the surgical theatre...) to a memory of a beloved one who has passed on. There's something in Cassie's close-up - in the way she asks to experience it again - that perfectly captures the mystery of the human experience. If 3 Lbs. continues to get moments like that just right, it's going to be appointment television.