Saturday, December 09, 2006


Filmation was really da bomb in the 1970s, at least in terms of Saturday morning science fiction television. They had Star Trek: The Animated Series, Space Academy, Flash Gordon, and this series, Ark II. What's not to love?

Ark II aired on Saturday mornings beginning September 11, 1976. Like many sf tv efforts of the time, it was a "civilization of the week" program; meaning that each week and in each episode, the diverse protagonists traveled (usually by a ground vehicle; sometimes on foot...) to a new and strange civilization. Basically, it was Star Trek again, only without the U.S.S. Enterprise and outer space. The format was seen on Logan's Run, The Fantastic Journey, The Starlost and, in the 1980s, Otherworld, to name a few. Gene Roddenberry himself had attempted to take the formula to new heights with Genesis II and Planet Earth, two made-for-tv movie/backdoor series pilots from the early 1970s.

Although airing during America's bicentennial year, Ark II is set in the 25th century, and focuses on a large, impressive tank-like vehicle, the Ark II, which traverses the wasteland to come to the aid of what remains of mankind after an environmental disaster. The opening narration goes like this:

"For millions of years, Earth was fertile and rich. Then pollution and waste began to take their toll. Civilization fell into ruin. This is the world of the 25th Century. Only a handful of scientists remain, men who have vowed to re-build what has been destroyed. This is their achievement: Ark II, a mobile storehouse of scientific knowledge manned by a highly trained crew of young people. Their mission: to bring the hope of a new future to mankind."

The crew of Ark II consists of Captain Jonah (Terry Lester), scientist Ruth (Jean Marie Hon), and young scholar Samuel (Jose Flores). Bizarrely, they also travel with a talking chimpanzee named Adam(!)...who can play chess and drive the Ark in a pinch. Weird, huh? I have to say, as much as I like Ark II, it is really weird (and frankly, stupid...) to put a talking chimp in the crew. I guess this was the series' way of including a "resident alien" type. But I mean, really...where's Roddy McDowall when you need him?

The first episode of Ark II is entitled "The Flies." Written by Martin Roth and directed by Ted Post, it finds Jonah recording his log entry numbered 1444. The Ark is patrolling Sector 83, Area 12, investigating a gang called "The Flies" that is responsible for "serious infringements on the rights of the others." The assignment: bring "discipline" and "reason" into their lives.

Unfortunately for Jonah, the Flies - an interracial gang of youngsters - are all too loyal to their leader, a rapscallion named Fagon, a scoundrel played by the one-and-only Jonathan Harris. He isn't exactly susceptible to reason or diplomacy, and ties up Jonah, who has used the rocket pack to find the Flies. Making matters worse, Fagon is now in possession of a relic from old times: deadly gas canisters!

Fagon takes the poison gas cylinder (and a gas mask to protect himself), and heads to the HQ of the local warlord Brack (Malachi Throne), who lives in the "the Village of the Lords," actually the Ape City set from the live action Planet of the Apes TV series and films. Fagon believes he has found "the ultimate weapon," and attempts to wrest control of the warlords from Brack. Brack beats Fagon at his own game, however, and captures the Flies, forcing Fagon to forfeit his leadership.

Now it's up to the crew of Ark II to save Fagon and the Flies, and retrieve (and dismantle...) all the dangerous gas canisters. They do so cleverly, simply and without resorting to violence. I appreciate that (and this is a show for kids...). The episode ends with a nice moral. It's written well and doesn't come across as heavy-handed that much. Basically, "weapons man creates to use against others can easily be turned against himself." Yep, that's true.

I admire the look and production design of Ark II. The main cast, for instance, wears skin-tight, attractive space-age uniforms with computerized belts and cuffs (replete with wrist communicators). One can see how this design influenced later Star Trek outings, for example. Also the set design is kind of interesting, a mix of Old West, Viking and Planet of the Apes. It presages the barbarity of The Road Warrior on a TV budget and within TV restrictions. The Ark II itself, built by the Brubaker Group, is a remarkable piece of hardware (a life-size, operational vehicle...) that looks thoroughly convincing....especially in motion. It is equipped with a protective forcefield so the savages can't run off with it, I guess, and also billets a smaller vehicle, a fast-moving roadster. I also like Jonah's rocket pack, though I had just seen basically the same device in action while watching an early Lost in Space episode.

At 22 minutes, "The Flies" moves at a good clip and boasts a nice, literary feel (as the DVD insert notes). For instance, Fagon is clearly "Fagan" from Oliver Twist; and the "Flies" seems to reference Lord of the Flies. How many other Saturday morning shows allude to such works? I could name one: Star Trek.

Still, I could do without the talking (or croaking...) chimpanzee. I haven't seen the other episodes in years (though I will soon, as I blog them here...), but I wonder how Adam gets explained. I mean a talking ape who isn't named Caesar, Cornelius or Galen? Is this throwing a bone to Planet of the Apes fans? If so, it's a bad idea.

Until next week...

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

TV REVIEW: Sleeper Cell: "Salesman"

"Salesman," the second episode of Sleeper Cell's sophomore sortie, may also be the best installment of the entire series. Why? Well, for starters, the episode is a brilliantly crafted character piece about this unique fella named Hasani. He's someone we haven't seen on TV before; or at least not very often.

Hasani is an Americanized muslim, whose son is a U.S. marine that served proudly in Iraq. Hasani's history is checkered, however. He was an armorer for the mujahadeen in Afghanistan during the war with the Soviets in the 1980s. In fact, Hasani claims he single-handedly won the war for the resistance in that conflict. Now, however, he runs a butcher shop in Los Angeles and drives a cab by night. He was a rich man in Pakistan, but is a poor man in America and now...well, he just wants to feel important. He wants his son to be proud of him again.

Which is the reason why he agrees to do something stupid: broker an arms deal (coming out of retirement...) for Darwyn, who has been tasked by his terrorist superiors to acquire a surface-to-air missile for a future jihad operation. Unfortunately for him, Hasani has fallen under the watchful eye of Uncle Sam, whose agents believe he is a big-time arms dealer. They want to nab him making the deal with Darwyn.

What happens to Hasani - a rather pitiful loser type, and his family - while becoming caught in the War on Terror, makes for emotional drama. Hasani is a man who lives "in a fantasy world," and the cost to him and his son for his deluded belief in himself is high. By turns, the episode is harrowing, brutal, sad, and funny. Consequently Sleeper Cell has never proven more affecting emotionally because of it. In fact, "Salesman" is eminently Emmy-worthy in terms of regular and guest performances, writing (Alexander Woo) and direction (Charles Dutton).

Also in this episode, Jay Ferguson (from NBC's Surface last season...) joins the Sleeper Cell cast as a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent who takes over as Darwyn's case manager. Wearing a shit-eating grin, he makes a number of gaffes that cost Darwyn (and others...) dearly, but he's a great and welcome addition to the show. Sleeper Cell works best with Darwyn trapped between a rock and a hard place; forced to manage and out-think both the terrorists and the American bureaucrats who arrogantly believe they know better than a soldier on the battlefield in the War on Terror. Ferguson's clueless character is a great foil.

Also in this installment: Farik gets a Muslim chaplin who encourages him to tell the U.S. captors everything he knows, lest he be remanded to a CIA prison overseas...where the gloves will come off. Farik gives up some information in exchange for a video link-up with his wife, but as usual, the terrorist has a surprise or two up his sleeve...

Just two episodes into the second season, Sleeper Cell is poised to top its impressive season one story arc. Can't wait to see where this is all headed...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

McFarland December '06 Releases

Looks like another fascinating month at McFarland, publisher of exquisite film and TV reference books. I see on the slate an interesting effort on Hitchcock (focusing on his less-famous or celebrated works...), and a text I'm certain the readers here would really enjoy...a book that gazes at the Hellraiser films and their legacy (which arrives with a foreword by Pinhead, Doug Bradley, himself!).

If you have a film "reader" on your Christmas list, consider these McFarland titles:

In this book the author examines how women detectives are portrayed in film, in literature and on TV. Chapters examine the portrayal of female investigators in each of these four genres:the Gothic novel, the lesbian detective novel, television, and film.

Best-selling horror novelist Clive Barker had a rocky start with the first attempts to convert his stories into a visual
medium. Directors and screenwriters turned the film adaptations of Underworld and Rawhead Rex into something barely recognizable—and box office failures as well. Consequently, when he approached film companies about Hellraiser, Barker insisted that he be involved in every step, including the direction. The resulting 1987 film has become an undisputed horror classic, spawning a movie franchise that to date includes eight films.This volume explores not only the cinematic interpretations of the Hellraiser mythos but also its intrusion into other artistic and cultural forms. Beginning with the unconventional sources of Clive Barker’s inspiration, the book follows Barker from his pre–Hellraiser cinematic experience through the filming of the horror classic. It examines various themes (such as the undermining of the traditional family unit and the malleability of the flesh) found throughout the film series and the ways in which the representation of these themes changes from film to film. The religious aspects of the films are also discussed. Characters central to the franchise—and the mythos—are examined in detail. Included is a foreword by actor Doug Bradley, who portrayed the infamous Pinhead.

Ma Joad in The Grapes of Wrath, Mammy in Gone with the Wind, Auntie Em in The Wizard of Oz —all were unforgettable characters who played an integral part in some of Hollywood’s most memorable productions. For over three decades, from the 1930s to the 1950s, character actresses who brought such roles to life were one of Hollywood’s great but little acknowledged assets. Often lured from Broadway yet billed fifth or sixth (if at all), these talented ladies received little acclaim for their roles in film industry productions. Still, what they lacked in promotion and perhaps adulation they made up for in longevity. While a screen star’s career was generally limited by age and physical appearance, character actresses often worked well into their seventies, eighties or even nineties. Signed to contracts by major studios just like the stars they supported on screen, character actresses made hundreds of films over their careers.From the early days of sound film through the end of the studio era, this volume documents in detail the lives and careers of two score of Hollywood’s most talented character actresses. It presents information regarding birth, death, film credits and prizes and analyzes each player’s unique talents, signature roles and overall career development. Forty individual profiles are provided from a representative range of backgrounds, character types and career experiences. These include actresses such as Marjorie Main, Agnes Moorehead, Thelma Ritter, Fay Bainter, Beulah Bondi, Lucile Watson, Sara Allgood, Lee Patrick and Jessie Ralph, among others. A fascinating tour through Hollywood’s big studio era and the lives of its characters.

In 1891, William Dickson, a researcher at Thomas Edison’s firm, developed the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera that used Eastman Kodak’s new celluloid film. Almost immediately, an industry was born. The new artistic and technical discipline of motion picture photography matured as the film industry grew. From the beginnings of the movie camera, developments in film production and exhibition have been inextricably linked to the evolution of motion picture photography.This work traces the history of motion picture photography from the late 19th century through the year 1960, when color photography became the accepted standard. Generously illustrated, it covers each decade’s cameras, lenses, cameramen, film processing methods, formats, studios, lighting techniques and major cinematographic developments. Each chapter concludes with examples of the decade’s outstanding cinematography.

Alfred Hitchcock made many great films, but he also made many that critics and audiences largely dismissed. These least celebrated films, despite their admitted flaws and relative obscurity, offer much to reward the open-minded viewer.This critical study examines and reappraises fifteen such films generally overlooked by scholars and Hitchcock aficionados: Juno and the Paycock, The Skin Game, Waltzes from Vienna, Jamaica Inn, The Paradine Case, Under Capricorn, I Confess, Torn Curtain, Number Seventeen, Rich and Strange, Secret Agent, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Stage Fright, The Wrong Man, and Topaz. Each film is discussed and analyzed in detail, revealing the master’s touch in many previously unheralded ways. Brief assessments of the films from popular review compendia introduce each one, and excerpted highlights of numerous works of scholarship are liberally sprinkled throughout the text. In addition, wonderful rare still photographs from each film are included. Readers will come away with a richer sense of the director’s talents in these films, adding to their appreciation of his work in unexpected ways.

“He always is very, very close to the camera, and he is terribly inspiring. I don’t know what his magic is, but it is something that makes you want to give everything you have. He has respect for actors and for everybody. A bad director very often doesn’t have that respect.” Liv Ullman’s words about Ingmar Bergman hint at the consummate director he was, one who knew the business, the strengths and weaknesses of actors and crews, the arrangement of the set, the framing of the camera, and all other particulars of the fine art of directing. This work presents Bergman’s life and work, beginning with his youth in Uppsala, Sweden, and covering his formative years, his development as an artist, and his career as a world-renowned director. A brief synopsis for each of Bergman’s films is provided, with such information as producer, screenwriter, cinematographer, editor, art director, music sound credits, running time, casts, Bergman’s own comments, and the reactions of critics.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Sleeper Cell Season Two: "Al-Baqara"

The Emmy-nominated Sleeper Cell returns for a second season on Showtime this December 10th, and I'm glad it's back. The first season was dynamic, riveting, nail-biting television; boasting all the qualities that make 24 such a hit on Fox...and then some.

Now, I'm not taking a pot-shot at 24 (one of my favorite programs...), but merely noting that thus far, Sleeper Cell hasn't endured any cringe-worthy "mountain lion" moments of disbelief (yeah, you know what I'm talking about...). Whereas 24 by necessity is slave to its revolutionary "real-time" style and format, Sleeper Cell boasts the luxury of beinga little more loose. It can afford to be both anxiety-provoking (like the Sutherland show...) and very thoughtful, even contemplative when the mood strikes.

For those who didn't watch the series the first year, Sleeper Cell is the tale of Darwyn (Michael Ealy), an FBI UC (undercover agent...) who - because of his devout faith in Islam - has joined the War of Terror against the Middle East radicals who have hijacked the name of Allah for their nefarious and murderous strikes on America. Darwyn is - to my knowledge, anyway - the only Muslim portrayed as an action hero on American television; and that's certainly noteworthy. Now, I'm not such a lefty that I think Islam should be championed or glorified all the time on TV (any more than Christianity should be...), but I do believe there's room for a TV series that examines the religion in a full-blooded, even-handed way, and makes a Muslim the protagonist. Sleeper Cell fills that niche. I like Darwyn as a hero; he lives up to his name, because he must be fit (and observant) to survive. He's constantly in danger of being exposed; and constantly being forced to question what people are doing in the name of his religion. And also what his government is doing in the war on that religion.

Anyway, in the first season, Darwyn successfully infiltrated and dismantled an Al-Qaeda cell working in Los Angeles that was planning to poison 150,000 Americans at Dodger Stadium. His nemesis was the cell's cunning, diabolical leader, Farik (Oded Fehr)...who was captured by American authorities in last year's season finale.

Season Two of Sleeper Cell opens with the installment called "Al-Baqara," an episode which finds Darwyn "decompressing" (according to the lingo...) on vacation in San Diego. He's become a beach bum along with his girlfriend Gayle (Melissa Sagemiller) and her young son, Marcus. Darwyn's also been offered a teaching job at Quantico, which has the advantages of being "boring" and "safe," according to Gayle. But lo and behold, Darwyn's case agent Patrice (sexy Sonya Walger...) shows up with news that an old acquaintance of Darwyn's from his days undercover in prison - a Latino Islamist named Benito Velasquez - has turned up at a Mosque in California, and may be "radicalized." She asks Darwyn to do just one little job; to discover if Benito is working with terrorists or is (as he claims...) a "peaceful brother."

Naturally, this brief assignment turns into something far more dangerous as Darwyn is abducted and tested, and then recruited into a new terrorist cell. Darwyn's needed by this new group's leader, Khalid, because he still has access to Farik's financial connections...and the cell is in need of money. The new cell members include an Engineer from the UK, Benito Velasquez, who has gang connections, and Mina, a beautiful Dutch woman whose husband was a holy warrior, demolitions expert and martyr in Iraq. The scene that introduces these characters is great. Darwyn, hoping to prove his credentials as a radical, attacks Mina as "some white chick from Amsterdam" and argues that there is no place for women in the jihad. It's great stuff, and such layered material too. Darwyn isn't a sexist, but he plays one in the cell.

While Darwyn again navigates the tight-rope of undercover work, Sleeper Cell's second season also gazes at two other survivors of the Los Angeles cell from the first season. Farik is now in prison, and the episode's first shot is a long, slow pull-back of the terrorist kneeling in prayer....and then being interrupted by his captors. He is ruthlessly interrogated by a pair of American agents, one a good cop, one a bad cop. Chris Mulkey plays the good cop, a fella who attempts to play a mind-game on Farik that make the terrorist question his faith.

The other subplot involves Ilija (Henri Lubatti), who has dyed his hair blonde and is living with an American girlfriend. He's become paranoid (and he compulsively cleans her apartment so as not to leave DNA samples anywhere...). The episode is particularly clever in depicting this relationship. Ilija's girlfriend is a conspiracy-theorist who believes that Dick Cheney and Rudy Giuliani masterminded the terrorist attacks on 9/11 from a bunker in WTC 7. But, of course, she's actually shacking up with an honest-to-goodness terrorist.

This sub-plot is an example of one reason why I admire Sleeper Cell. It is even-handed; not taking sides, in what is clearly a controversial war. Conspiracy nuts are lampooned here for not believing that terrorists exist (or that they don't pose a danger), at the same time that America's ruthless interrogation tactics are attacked for their barbarity. In other words, both the extreme right and the extreme left take their shots here. And that's important. For me, the interrogation scenes are especially interesting. How do you apply force to save lives, while still retaining your humanity and morality? In the episode I saw, one American interrogator was a vicious bastard, both arrogant and ignorant...which is pretty deplorable. He makes a joke about going to the bathroom, asking if his crap is a "Shi'ite or a Sunni," for example. So...I wonder, can you use force without being racist or hateful? Can you hate the terrorists and what they stand for without also ridiculing the religion of millions? That's the question this episode raises; but it's not obvious or simple-minded (like, say, Battlestar Galactica's torture episode...).

Also, I must note that in its second season, so far, Sleeper Cell is revealing a bit more wit and humor than we saw in the first season. There's a funny sequence in which Darwyn points out Khalid's hypocrisy driving an SUV. Darwyn reminds the terrorist he could fund an attack for the price of the luxury vehicle. Khalid dismisses Darwyn's argument with the comment that a Land Cruiser is "the vehicle of choice for holy warriors across the world." Wonder when we'll see that line on Land Cruiser TV commercials...

"Al-Baqara" also talks a lot about faith; and what faith is and isn't. It balances the views of those who have faith with those who see organized religion (and faith) only as a tool of mind control; a way of separating us into teams. This is the kind of debate we - as Americans - have been denied in our public square for years, but at least our "art" is filling the gap.

Sleeper Cell season two is off to a good start, and I'll be blogging several more episodes this week...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Muir in the Contra Costa Times!

Hey folks, I'm quoted today in Chuck Barney's article about the new show Heroes (and superheroes on TV...), in The Contra Costa Times. It's called "TV Heroes Show Their Powers," and it's a good commentary on the state of the genre now, and where it's been.

Here's a sample of the Barney piece:

"Kring's grounded-in-reality approach is partially why "Heroes" has managed to go beyond the comic-book crowd and cross over into the mainstream, according to John Kenneth Muir, author of "The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television."

"The show has avoided some of the crazier conventions of the genre's past," he says. "The characters aren't saving the world on a weekly basis. They're not facing a cast of colorful freaks like the Joker or Penguin ..."

"...We want to see our superheroes do extraordinary things. We want to see Spider-Man, for example, fly from building to building in spectacular fashion," says Muir. "But television usually hasn't been able to pull that off. We briefly got a live-action Spider-Man on TV in the late '70s who wore clunky wristbands and whose eyes looked like ski goggles. He simply wasn't the Spider-Man we all envisioned."

Check out the rest of Mr. Barney's article