Monday, August 13, 2007

Tippie, 1925 - 2007

You are looking at the irrepressible Mealdine Principe, or "Tippie" as her friends always knew her. Here she is in 1944, looking absolutely radiant as a U.S. Army Pin-Up Girl. I always knew her simply as "Granny." She passed away this weekend in Texas.

Some of my best memories of Granny are from my childhood in New Jersey. I remember when I was in second grade and had become obsessed with Star Wars, and she told me all about how much, as a kid, she had loved going to the matinee to watch Buster Crabbe in each serialized installment of the original Flash Gordon.

Over the years, Granny also told me strange tales of UFOs over Texas skies. She was from Big Spring, Texas, where the mysterious Hanger 18 is supposedly located, and was thrilled when a movie was made about the subject in 1980. She was forever a Texan - born and bred - and we shared a playful running joke about Texas over the decades...about how everything there was bigger and better.

Like me, Granny always loved the movies, or at least the movies of her generation .She didn't care too much for the modern cinema, and there's a funny story about her walking out of the theater when we took her to see Good Will Hunting in 1997. Still, if a movie had been released in the golden age of Hollywood - the golden age of Tippie's youth - she could pretty much tell you who the male and female leads were without batting an eye.

I'm glad Granny was able to meet her great-grandson, Joel, at least once, last Thanksgiving. I have a photo of him (at just about a month-and-half old) sitting contentedly on her lap. When he's old enough, I'll be certain to share with him all my tall tales of Texas Tippie...

TV REVIEW: The Dresden Files (2007)

Imagine The X-Files without the scares, Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the wit and Kolchak: The Night Stalker without the charm, quirkiness and individuality and you’ll have a pretty good grasp on the (recently canceled) Sci-Fi Channel’s supernatural series, The Dresden Files. It’s sort of The X-Files for dullards; slow-paced yet simultaneously over-explained and obvious. This is one of those series that is so mediocre and so lacking in interesting characters and story nuance (or even interest) that you can read a book or talk on the phone for whole stretches of an installment and not miss anything important when you return to it. Everything is crushingly obvious…and dull.

Based on a series of novels by Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files is the story of a handsome wizard named Harry (no, not that one!) who basically spends his adult life as a private eye; taking on supernatural cases in Chicago (which was also Kolchak’s turf). Harry’s cases pit him against the likes of werewolves (“Hair of the Dog”), involve him with vampires (“Bad Blood”) and put him in conflict with other malevolent creatures, like skin walkers (“Birds of a Feather.”) For some reason, these moments are never remotely frightening. In “Birds of a Feather” there is a crow-person - a feathered humanoid monster - and it looks more comical than scary. Unlike Buffy the Vampire Slayer, however, it never says anything clever. Because the monsters don't frighten, the episodes as a whole lack a sense of menace and feel rather flat.

Handsome Harry (Paul Blackthorne) is aided in his investigations by a friendly English spirit named Bob (Terrence Mann), who has been cursed to live for all eternity inside his own cracked skull (!) because he once used forbidden black magic, but who also can conveniently materialize in Dresden’s office and serve as this private dick’s Q or armourer, providing Harry with such goodies as “a doom box,” essentially a supernatural explosive device which is handy for defeating evil creatures. Harry also works with lovely Chicago detective Connie Murphy (Valerie Cruz), a hard-boiled cop who is predictably skeptical about magic, but definitely has her romantic sights set on the saturnine Harry.

What’s good about The Dresden Files is the manner in which it attempts to fashion a larger magical world around Harry; a world which includes mediums, a mysterious High Council, and the temptation to use black magic (a big no-no, as you can guess). The mythology of the books is potent, interesting, and complex, but it’s just a minor backdrop in this lugubrious adaptation.

The first Dresden Files episode aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, “Birds of a Feather,” sees Harry helping a little boy who possesses the same magical “Gift” as Harry, and the episode is an occasion to reveal some back story (via flashback) from Harry’s youth in Atlantic City in 1981, including his mother’s gift of a protective “shield” bracelet, and a look at life with his father, a failed magician but a lovable loser. Also, the concept of magic coupled with the film noir or detective format is a good one, if now slightly over-utilized thanks to such efforts as Angel Heart (1987) and Lord of Illusions (1995). By itself, the concept isn’t fresh enough to sustain a series with such weak writing.

Every character relationship on The Dresden Files feels canned and familiar. Dresden is the mystery man with a dark past but a good heart, meaning he’s a cliché. Murphy is the “tough cop” of a million past productions doing the banter-thing with Dresden, and introducing the whole tired milieu of the police procedural. Bob is the most interesting character in the mix, but is used inconsistently by the writers. In one episode, he’s brilliantly and madly creating complex magical formulas out of thin air, literally before the viewer’s eyes (“Birds of a Feather”), but in the next, “The Boone Identity,” he’s a stupid vehicle for exposition, asking questions of Dresden about, of all things, magic (and the reasons Dresden is taking a blood sample; and what it can be used for). Which is he, expert or neophyte? The answer: whatever the script requires.

The story plots are also derivative and crushingly obvious. Take “The Boone Identity” for example. In this installment, Dresden wrangles with a “body jumper” who marshals the ancient relic called The Lock of Anubis to steal bodies and attain immortality. As Harry describes it, the Lock is a sort of “Get out of death free card.” The story begins as Dresden aids a man whose young daughter was killed by a robber and who is now a ghost, desperately trying to tell her mourning father something important about her death. It turns out that the robber stole an Egyptian stone tablet (the aforementioned Lock of Anubis) from her father, and then carjacked one of the richest and most powerful men in Chicago, a fellow named Miller. Miller killed the robber, or so it seems. End of story? What do you think?

So Harry goes to visit Miller to ask him questions about how he killed his carjacker/robber, and Miller – who clearly has something to hide – dismisses Dresden…but doesn’t even show him out of his palatial home. Instead, he conveniently goes to see his visiting masseuse in another room, thus allowing Dresden the opportunity to see an Egyptian tattoo on his neck and shoulders when he strips down. Then, with continued access and no supervision, Dresden wanders around the house a little longer, and finds Miller’s collection of Egyptian artifacts, including a statue of Anubis. Dresden slowly (and I mean slowly…) starts to put together the notion that Miller is actually the robber; that he used the lock of Anubis to switch bodies with a wealthy man.

Forgetting for a moment the fact that genre fans have seen the body switch story a million-and-a-half times, one need ask only one simple question: if you were illicitly stealing bodies (and hoping to do so again the very next day…), would you jeopardize your entire plan and permit a probing detective – one who is clearly suspicious - to walk around your house unattended (and maybe find your relatively unique collection of Ancient Egyptian artifacts while he’s there) – all while you get a massage?! Or, more realistically, would you simply walk Dresden out, lock the door behind him, and go to your massage after he’s gone? It’s amazing that The Dresden Files hinges critical story developments on such contrivances. It’s bad writing, pure and simple. Given even an infinitesimal amount of thought, the writers could have at least had Dresden break in later, rather than being invited in and left to nose around.

Alas, this sort of problem is the norm, not the exception on The Dresden Files. I realize that the show has developed a fanatical and devoted fan base who was sorry to see it go, and one can only guess that such devotion is based on the series’ potential rather than what it actually achieved. Indeed, there are little glimmers of greatness here, in Blackthorne’s performance, in the hints of a “larger” mystical world, in Bob’s back story, and so on. I realize I will anger the faithful with this review (and I am still picking shrapnel out of my ass over my negative reviews of Supernatural and Ghost Whisperer). But the blunt fact of the matter is that if The Dresden Files had aired in 1992, before the world knew The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Millennium, the new Doctor Who and other wondrous genre series of today, it would likely be championed as an excellent genre series. But those other efforts – rife with comedy, horror, pathos, wit and irony - only reveal here what’s totally and completely absent; the essential elements that keep The Dresden Files from feeling truly magical.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 30: Jason of Star Command (1978-1980)

"Danger hides in the stars. This is the world of Jason of Star Command, a space-age soldier of fortune determined to stop the most sinister force in the universe: Dragos, master of the cosmos. Aiding Jason in his battle against evil is a talented team of experts, all working together in the secret section of Space Academy. Jason of Star Command!"

"The time: the distant future. Man has reached the farthest stars, but has also uncovered dark and mysterious galaxies. And as Star Command heads into the unknown, danger lies in wait..."

-Opening Voice-Over Narrations from Jason of Star Command

Created by Arthur H. Nadel, Filmation's live-action venture Jason of Star Command is a sequel of sorts to the Saturday morning series, Space Academy, which ran on CBS in 1977 (and which I've blogged about; check down the page on the right...). Growing up, I was always more a Star Trek kid than a Star Wars kid, and it's funny how these twin Saturday morning, live-action productions from the disco decade reveal the influence of each franchise. Space Academy is a series about a group of cadets exploring the stars and making contact with alien beings. Those alien beings often start out as hostile, but differences are inevitably worked out peaceably. The various episodes are morality plays set against the background of space exploration. It's Star Trek for kids.

Whereas the later series, Jason of Star Command is more clearly influenced by the swashbuckling, action-packed tone of Star Wars. Here, a dashing hero, Jason (Craig Littler) and his compact robot, W1K1 (or "Wiki") battles an evil space tyrant, Dragos (Sid Haig), Jason wears a Han Solo-style black vest and many of Star Wars' bells and whistles are in evidence, meaning flashy laser beams and space explosions. Jason is described as a 'soldier of fortune,' just like Solo was called a 'mercenary,' yet Jason appears the most benevolent, stable and unselfish "soldier of fortune" in the cosmos. (He doesn't hire himself out to competing organizations, and as far as I can tell, doesn't take jobs for money either). But to an eleven year old kid, the handle "soldier of fortune" sounded really, really cool.

Watching the two opening chapters of Jason of Star Command, "Attack of the Dragonship" and "Prisoner of Dragos," it was also clear to me that the serial nature of Jason of Star Command (at least in the first season), as well as the cliffhanger-type climaxes featured there, actually granted the series something in common with an older genre antecedent: Flash Gordon. Even some of the characters are similar in type, the dashing, athletic hero (Jason/Flash), the evil tyrant (Dragos/Ming the Merciless), the scientist (Professor Parsafoot [Charlie Dell]/Dr. Zarkov). That's not to accuse Jason of being a rip-off or anything, only a notation that this Saturday morning series fits into a certain sci-fi tradition, which is more clearly derived from the Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon/Star Wars school than the Star Trek/Forbidden Planet school (which, honestly, I tend to prefer).

Jason of Star Command re-uses Space Academy sets (interiors of the Academy, including the command center), miniatures, and costumes too. The fanfare that accompanies the first appearance of a malevolent alien ship, bent on attacking the Academy, is culled from the Filmation stock library, and was utilized in episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series. These "stock" elements, when combined with new miniatures (like Dragos' impressive dragonship and Jason's Starfire fighters), new sets (Dragos' dungeon, the bridge of his ship, etc.) grant the impression of an elaborate and impressive production. That there are familiar, well-liked actors present in supporting roles (Sid Haig as Dragos, and the late James Doohan as Commander Canarvin) also adds an element of class to what was clearly designed to be a children's program, and an exciting one at that.

The story: Out of the darkness of space, Dragos - "master of the cosmos" - launches a surprise attack on Star Command, the one organization in the galaxy that he feels can prevent his plan for galactic domination. "Attack of the Dragonship" opens with an impressive shot of the Space Academy coming into the firing range of an alien ship. During the surprise attack, Captain Nicole Davidoff (Susan O'Hanlon) is trapped in one section of the Academy, and Jason and his new companion, the miniature droid W1K1, rescue her. He does so by first throwing himself through a doorway (in slow-motion), which - when it shatters - is disappointingly flimsy; looking to be made of balsa wood.

Unfortunately, the second attack from Dragos arrives in short order, and Commander Canarvin, on a planetary expedition, is captured. Jason launches a Star Fire fighter and uses Canarvin's ELS (Emergency Locator Signal) to retrieve him. After Canarvin is safely returned to base (a dangerous space operation utilizing life-support belts), Jason is captured by Dragos and learns that he has sent back not the Academy's beloved commander at all, but a deadly "energy clone" whose mission is to lower the Academy's defense shields, rendering it vulnerable to enemy attack. Worse, Dragos produces an energy clone of Jason, and plans to send him back to the Academy as well. Jason is able to get a message through to Nicole in the nick of time...

When confronted with Dragos, a maniacal, bearded despot sporting a gold helmet, a red cape, black gloves and shoulder pads, Jason is heroically defiant. "Never on all the planets of the galaxy has evil won out over decency and freedom," he declares. "It's a lesson that tyrants like you have yet to learn."

So basically, Jason of Star Command is the old "good vs. evil" in space, with colorful villains, interesting sidekicks like the wind-up toy W1K1, and a hero that we all wanted to be like when we grew up: heroic, decent, and able to pilot a really cool spaceship. There's much here by way of smoke effects, alien costumes (Dragos' minions), and outer space battles, and as a kid I absolutely loved it all. Today, I appreciate the production values (particularly the miniature effects), consider the school which this drama arises from (Flash Gordon), and wonder, truly, how much of this stuff is buried deep in my psyche. I remember watching this series religiously as a kid (I was nine when it aired). But, even back then, this Star Trek kid still preferred Space Academy. Still, I'm grateful to have this series on DVD now (like the recently released Isis and Space Academy, and Land of the Lost), because I will always believe that Saturday morning ventures like those of Filmation and the Kroffts represent the "gateway" to science fiction literature, and more adult films and television. My son Joel is ten months old, too young for any of these shows (and definitely too young for Veronica Mars, according to my wife...). But one day, I will pop these discs in the DVD player, and I hope that they will capture his imagination the way they did mine.

Also, as a friend pointed out to me not long ago, a lot of Jason of Star Command is rather interesting because it seems so much of it got re-purposed into Glen Larson's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century in 1979, a remake of that popular character. There, Buck worked as a secret agent (soldier of fortune?) for the Directorate, much how Jason operates out of Star Command. Both men had robot sidekicks, one named wiki and one named Twiki. Buck's enemy was the Draconian Empire, commanded by an Emperor named Dracos; Jason's enemy was the similarly named Dragos. Both men were accompanied by a competent female officer of high rank, one who could handle herself in a fight, and who wore tight, form-fitting costumes, whether it was Wilma Deering or Nicole Davidoff. Again, this is sort of the Flash Gordon brand, but it's fun to note the numerous similarities. Jason of Star Command and Buck Rogers: this is "where" sci-fi TV was in the late 1970s.