Thursday, October 11, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 35: The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain"

In the mid-1970s, Star Trek was a gigantic hit in reruns (in syndication), and accordingly the broadcast networks were once willing to take a risk on science fiction and genre programming despite the ratings failures of high-profile productions like Planet of the Apes (1974) and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). One such program was Bruce Lansbury's short-lived The Fantastic Journey (originally called The Incredible Island), which was a sort of "civilization of the week" series (like Trek, Space: 1999, The Starlost and other early seventies endeavors). One thing that differentiated The Fantastic Journey from those other sci-fi series was that it was determinedly "low tech." There were no spaceships or tricorders on hand (though one character, Varian, was armed with the equivalent of Dr. Who's sonic screwdriver, here a tuning-fork device of sorts), and almost the entire series was set "outdoors" in the wilds of a mysterious island.

Although it ran only ten hour-long episodes beginning in February of 1977, looking back today one can see that The Fantastic Journey featured all the elements that could have made it a huge success. The premise was fascinating and timely. There was a cultural fascination in 1970s America with Bermuda Triangle lore, and that enigmatic "zone" is at the core of The Fantastic Journey. Here, travelers from all different worlds and times become lost in the Bermuda Triangle (thanks to a green fog on the ocean..) and then trapped on a vast jungle island comprising various "time" zones (and thus various civilizations). One day, a character might encounter historic pirates (as in the pilot episode "Vortex," which featured Deadwood's Ian McShane), the next he may be dealing with futuristic civilizations ("Atlantium.") So the format was flexible enough to accommodate all sorts of stories and plot lines.

Also, the characters were interesting and diverse. Representing the audience were two people from 1977, young Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann) and an African-American physician, Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin). On their journey, they encountered a "man of the future" (from 2230), the peace-loving Varian (Jared Martin), and a psychic woman from another civilization with unique mental abilities, Liana (Katie Saylor). With Liana's cat, Sil-El, in tow, this diverse group formed an ad hoc family of sorts, and together sought the zone called "Evoland." This was a legendary realm where, according to myth, wayward travelers could be sent home to their various worlds and time periods.

The third episode of the series, "Beyond the Mountain" introduces the last piece of the character equation: Roddy McDowall's temperamental scientist, Dr. Jonathan Willaway, a man whose plane disappeared over the Sea of Japan in 1963. In this story, the other travelers are engulfed in an eerie red-colored storm and promptly separated. Liana ends up in a paradisaical, luxury villa, where Willaway - a very "strong willed man" - is tended to by subservient humanoid androids. The other characters are cast down into a misty swamp of gnarled trees and fog. The swamp (which looks like Dagobah...), is impressively-presented, having been constructed on a sound-stage and seeming very atmospheric, especially in contrast to Willaway's sunlit world, where the grass is literally always greener.

Before long, Willaway decides he wants to marry Liana and attempts to keep her from searching for her friends, even as his android "son" begins to develop emotions for the lovely woman. Down in the swamp, Scott, Fred and Varian encounter a race of green-skinned humanoids, aliens called "Arujians" (think Indians). Their leader is ill from a "bacterial disease" (malaria), and Varian and Fred heal him. Once recovered, the leader explains that Willaway came to their land, subverted the androids and banished the green-skinned humanoids to the swamp. "He does not think of us as beings of any worth," the leader comments about Willaway, and one can see how the episode's central metaphor is crafted. "Beyond the Mountain" is a comment on, for lack of a better word, "the white man's burden," and here a white westerner has re-located a race of "lesser beings" off their land for his own benefit. Just substitute green skin for red skin, and you get the idea of the symbolism.

It isn't just the relocation of Native Americans to reservations that "Beyond the Mountain" comments on, at least obliquely, but also the very idea of slavery (again - back to the white man's burden). Here, Willaway keeps a society of androids serving him and is unable to countenance the idea that they could be sentient. They are only "an amalgam of simulated flesh and bone," he says at one point. He tells his son, "your marrow is transistorized; your heart is a battery; your veins and arteries are wire filament." This might be another way of saying that because their skin is different than his; they are "less" than human, a belief of slave owners in America a hundred and fifty years ago.

Also, Willaway generally treats his androids (again, think historically: slaves) with what he believes is love and kindness, even though he is still master and they still servants. However, reflecting the dark side of the equation, when challenged by a female android, he warns her that if she misbehaves, he will "take her apart." When the enslaved androids finally rebel against him, Willaway is baffled. "I gave you a beautiful place to live. I even made you my son..." he says, feeling betrayed, unaware that his "children" are ready to chart their own destinies.

So, in the course of one episode, Willaway displaces one ethnic group (the green-skinned swamp dwellers), and enslaves another (the androids). Or as he puts it at the denouement, society and he "do have problems." In the end, with the help of the series regulars, both races are freed, and Willaway is sent packing. Surprisingly, Varian shows mercy to Willaway and allows him to travel with the group. Again, this was the final piece of the character puzzle: Varian, Fred, Liana and Scott are all likable, heroic characters, whereas Willaway (as this episode reveals) is more flawed; and more willing to strike off with his own agenda. He isn't a constant foil (like, say Lost in Space's Dr. Smith), merely a fly in the ointment and wild card. The ending solution, Willaway joining the team, so to speak, works well story-wise and is even believable because Varian is a man from a peaceful future; one where men don't hold grudges or act in petty fashion. He is the series' version of the peaceful and enlightened Spock, and a great character.

In the spirit of Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah," Space:1999's "One Moment of Humanity," Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Offspring," and the new Battlestar Galactica's "Downloaded" this Fantastic Journey episode also involves the idea of an android (or androids, plural) attaining humanity or understanding humanity. Willaway's son in this episode dies (in love with Liana), a "tear" falling from his cheek. Again, this is sort of a de rigueur concept in science-fiction television; done on virtually every series from 1966-1978, probably. Still, it is handled here well enough; though the depiction of the androids (lanky men and women in gold lame jumpsuits with circuit panels on their backs...) reveals the age of the series (thirty years!) and the relative innocence of the genre back then.

The Fantastic Journey has always been one of my favorite mid-1970s American sci-fi series. Logan's Run (the series) pretty much adopted a similar formula later in 1977 (during the fall season), and even Sliders and the oft-forgotten Otherworld (1985) owe something to this show. What I always appreciated most about The Fantastic Journey was the well-developed characters, and the charming interplay between them. The series only lasted ten episodes but it had enormous potential. Not surprisingly, it still boasts a rabid fan base. Probably not a week goes by without someone e-mailing me about The Fantastic Journey at my web site (where I have a "retro TV file" on the show), which I believe is a testament to the solid groundwork that series writers (including Dorothy Fontana) laid down all those years ago. I suppose some audiences would look at the production values of the series today and conclude it is campy (no!!!!), but like every TV series and like every work of art, it is entirely a product of its age and original context. The Fantastic Journey is gloriously 1977 (pre-Star Wars), and fantastic indeed. I'd love to see an official DVD release soon.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: SPACE:1999 - The Alien (1975)

I was five years old when Space: 1999 premiered in syndication on American television in September of 1975. I promptly fell in love with the series (especially after the episode "Dragon's Domain," in which a giant space monster devoured unlucky astronauts and spit out their steaming bones...) I had to have every toy, model, and book related to the series. It became my new obsession and every Saturday night I watched the series on WPIX channel 11 with devotion. Soon, my father had built for me all of the great model kits from the series, including the Eagle spacecraft, the diorama of Moonbase Alpha, the warship Hawk and this toy, the Alien...which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Space:1999.

I don't know why model kit companies used to do this. They'd get a great license like Star Trek or Space:1999 and release all these great kits...and then release an additional kit under the franchise name that was never seen on the show. AMT released, for instance, an "Interplanetary UFO" kit that was never featured on Trek. I just have to say that as a kid this marketing tactic really confused the hell out of me. I kept waiting for the characters on Space:1999 to run into an alien who was driving this groovy hot rod...and they never did.

Now I view "the alien" vehicle as a really fascinating bit of design work and 1960s futurism (at least I think it is from the sure looks that way.) A couple of years, I got a mint-in-box model of the Alien anew and appreciated it more than ever.

Still, it would have been cool if it actually appeared on the show...

Happy Birthday to Joel!

My son, Joel, is one year old today (at exactly 5:18 pm). He is the apple of my eye, and the sweetest child imaginable. I know the blog isn't the place to write lots of personal or family stuff, but Joel has absolutely changed my entire world in the last twelve months; in a variety of amazing ways. He is a jolly baby with an infectious giggle and the trademark tenacity that my wife says marks him as a Muir. He's already run rampant through my office, playing with Qui-Gonn Jinn's light saber, driving the Star Wars van I displayed here a bit ago into a wall, and - this is the cardinal sin - getting his hands on my Space:1999 Mattel 3ft eagle! I got to him as fast as I could, but in no time flat, Joel had disassembled the main engine machinery. No harm done - it's meant to be taken apart.

Since Joel has come into my life, I know without fail that I will have several minutes (if not hours...) of unfettered joy and laughter every single day. Joel and I often sit together and read a talking Star Wars book (from Golden Books). Already, he knows to press the button that shoots the TIE fighters, and the one that sends the Millennium Falcon into hyper drive. Best of all, the other day he looked at my cardboard stand-up of Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek V and said - to my delight - "Da Da!"

Monday, October 08, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 34: V:The Series - "Liberation Day"

"It can't happen here." That isn't merely the title of the satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935, it is the very premise of Kenneth Johnson's excellent 1983 mini-series, V. The story involved alien beings called "Visitors" arriving in force on Earth, ostensibly to offer the hand of friendship.

In their spiffy red uniforms (replete with swastika-style insignias), these brothers from Sirius (actually bipedal reptiles...) promised to cure cancer, end hunger, and improve the technology of the human race. Their real agenda, however, was the takeover of the planet so that they could begin using humans as cannon fodder in their Leader's "great war" on another planet. Oh, and those humans who didn't get to die in battle would be eaten. And did I mention that the Visitors were here to steal our water supply too?

The most fascinating element of V was this powerful underlying notion of a fascist takeover of America; of the way a cowed American populace would willingly (and enthusiastically) surrender its liberties and civil rights because of "fear" and the need for "security." This is precisely what Sinclair Lewis warned against in his book, a misled (but patriotic!) populace blindly following a fascist regime and leader (one who was a far right evangelical...).

To wit, the Visitors didn't come right out and dominate the planet with force; at least not initially. No, instead the Visitors carefully created a national scapegoat - scientists, and then cast those men and women of science as "terrorists" for their beliefs.The Visitors claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy of "scientists" and before long, an enraged American citizenry was railing against those rotten scientists who wanted to ruin everything when gosh darn, those nice Visitors were just trying to help. The Visitors picked scientists because it was scientists who would first detect the "holes" and "gaps" in Visitor reasoning, and possibly expose them.

Clearly, this was a metaphor for the Nazi takeover of Germany before World War II, with scientists substituted for "Jews" as the scapegoat of a population at large. With this initial premise set, V depicted in very compelling terms how various individual Americans would react to a fascist takeover of ship and state. Some people became collaborators (especially people in big business, young picked-on kids, and more than a few voices in the media...); and some people chose to resist, at the risk of losing everything. The original miniseries managed in a breakneck four hours to comment on fascism in America, but also issues such as illegal immigration (it was a Mexican worker, in one instance, who smuggled a family of scientists past a Visitor checkpoint...), outsourcing (the Visitors were taking blue collar jobs...) and the mob mentality. Some of the miniseries' best commentary involved the ways the Visitors deliberately manipulated people with their colorful propaganda; and the series featured terrific poster art of grinning, blond Visitors (read: Nazis) helping the elderly, carrying young kids on their shoulders and extending the hand of friendship, while legends read "THE VISITORS ARE YOUR FRIENDS." Anyone who disagreed with the Visitor agenda was "disappeared" or "converted" in a torturous mind-control procedure.

For those who watched in 1983, V was the next big thing in televised sci-fi, the kind of "event" miniseries that the genre had not seen before. The mini-series was so special an initiative because great care was taken with characterization, plotting, special effects (including a night-time spaceship landing on the roof of the United Nations building), and the clever, meaningful subtext.

The mini-series boasted a good sense of humor too, particularly in a moment that found a red-state high school marching band playing the theme to Star Wars during the arrival of the first Visitor ship at a local chemical plant.

Also, the mini-series was authentically shocking. A genuine water-cooler moment - a cultural touchstone - occurred in the first installment. About half-way through the show, Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), a news crew cameraman, captured on camera the surprising and grotesque dining habits of the Visitors. In ground-breaking (but now dated) special effects, the audience saw a Visitor's jaw literally extend and distend as the alien swallowed whole a squirming, wriggling, very-much-alive guinea pig. Prolonging the terror of the moment, we saw the pig's bulk slowly sliding down the Visitor's throat...going all the way down the esophagus. This was the most freaktastic thing anyone had seen on TV up till that time, and it was the talk of the nation for at least a day or two.

V drew high ratings, which necessitated a sequel that wasn't quite as good (V: The Final Battle), and which substituted dime-store mysticism and elaborately-staged action scenes for much of Johnson's elegant and trenchant social commentary. It too was a blockbuster in the ratings, and NBC promptly ordered a regular series.

Sadly, the series was another step down in quality. The overall story became a soap opera (the series had to compete against Dallas on CBS) and V: The Series soon started to rely on tongue-in-cheek humor to an uncomfortable degree. The budget was drastically reduced too, until the human resistance seemed to consist of about three or four people and a Ford van. Still, the series was extraordinarily entertaining and added some great elements to the mythos, including a fantastic competitor for Diana, Lydia (June Chadwick of This is Spinal Tap fame...) and the biggest wedding in sci-fi TV history: that of Visitors Charles and Diana (nudge, nudge). Another episode airing about half-way through the run killed off several members of the supporting cast in a vicious but brave way, and the series ended with an edge-of-your seat cliffhanger that has never been resolved. The series is a nostalgic blast, but watching the episodes today one can see how the entire franchise was hamstrung by budgetary inadequacies and repetitive narratives. Still, that original miniseries is a genre high point.

Which brings us to "Liberation Day" by Paul Monash, the regular series premiere. V: The Final Battle had sent the alien visitors packing with the creation of a substance fatal to the Visitors, the "Red Dust" (which I always found an ironic moniker: red being the color of communism; and communism being the "antidote" some would claim, to fascism). At the end of the mini-series, the Visitors were either dead (from the Red Dust) or had escaped the planet in their giant motherships. In the last moments of V: The Final Battle, the gorgeous but evil leader of the Visitors, Diana (Jane Badler) pulled a Darth Vader and escaped from the resistance in her TIE fighter...I mean sky fighter.

So "Liberation Day" picks up with Marc Singer's character Mike Donovan going off in pursuit of the reptilian space fascist. After establishing that "she's getting away," there's an aerial dogfight over Southern California which recycles much of the battle footage from the two mini-series. Donovan shoots Diana's spaceship down, and the two adversaries then run around and tussle in the dirt. My wife Kathryn asked me at this point in the episode, why the armed Mike Donovan had not simply shot at the fleeing Diana, instead of chasing her on foot and tackling her. My point: I would have tackled and wrestled her too. Diana may be a space lizard, but she's really, really hot. She makes fascism sexy (which in a weird and effective way, really buttresses the series' main theme: that there is something seductive and appealing - one dares say "Aryan" - about this kind of evil: a gorgeous surface literally masks a dark evil; a human exterior hides a reptile brain).

Flash forward to a year later; the one year anniversary of Liberation Day, to be precise. Diana's mothership is in the hands of the American government, but the corporation Science Frontiers, run by Nathan Bates, has experienced a difficult time breaking Diana's security code and unlocking the secrets of the vast ship. Working on the project is former resistance leader Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant). Mike Donovan is jealous of Julie's friendship with Bates, and worried about his son, Sean, a boy who was "converted" (brainwashed...) by the Visitors in V: The Final Battle.

While Diana awaits trial in government custody, Elizabeth, the Visitor/human hybrid known as "The Star Child" begins to undergo metabolic change. In one scene, a news helicopter approaches Elizabeth and she uses her considerable mental powers to swat it away.

On the day of Diana's trial, Nathan Bates' arranges for the Visitor leader to be shot (courtesy of gun-for-hire, Ham Tyler [Michael Ironside]). Then a switcheroo gets pulled, and Diana is taken to Bates, where he makes a devil's bargain with her. He will provide her with the antidote to the Red Dust so she can survive, but in return she must provide a vaccine for cancer, create a pollution-free fuel, and render Earth crops pest-resistant. As Diana says, she's supposed to cure the ills of the world; but Bates points out rightly that she is already responsible for attempted genocide, not to mention cannibalism. To which she replies, "That's a matter of taste."

By episode's end, Diana has escaped from custody, murdered Mike's Visitor friend, Martin (Frank Ashmore), and reached the Southwestern Tracking Station, where she sends a signal for the Visitors to rescue her. The Visitors send a ship, and before Diana leaves the planet, she learns that the Red Dust has dissipated...and is no longer fatal to the aliens. The episode culminates with a great shot: a beautifully-composed, ominous (and cosmic...) pull back from Earth orbit, past the cratered surface of the moon itself, to a fleet of Visitor warships, just waiting to attack. The words "TO BE CONTINUED" appear on screen.

"Liberation Day" breaks with some aspects of V canon. For instance, in the miniseries all the Visitors spoke with a strange "reverb" in their voices. They no longer do so by "Liberation Day." Also, there's no mention here of the fact that the Visitors are stealing water; that item seems to have been dropped from their agenda and "to do" list.

Besides such discontinuities, "Liberation Day" bears both the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a whole. It picks up on the idea of corporations attempting to take control of assets like Diana and her mothership for profit. Nathan Bates has a real "racket" going, as Martin calls it: he developed the Red Dust that kills Visitors and then sells them the antidote pill. Also, Bates wants Diana alive so he can profit from the cancer vaccine and other advances. He says he wants human beings to profit from the alien invasion, but it is clear he'd rather just line his own pockets. Unregulated, unwatched capitalism and fascism go hand in hand, lest we forget.

The series also gives some small nod to the themes of the mini-series, particularly the "It Can't Happen Here" aesthetic. At one point, Martin (an alien) is confused that Diana is even being given a trial in the first place. On his planet, he says, "justice is swift" (which sounds like a Bushian sound-byte). Mike Donovan's reply is a championing of traditional (and now lost...) American values: "this is a democratic society. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty." That's a quaint notion (like those pesky Geneva Conventions...) that doesn't get heard much in this "War of Terror" age we now live in.

The best scene in the premiere involves the attempted assassination of Diana. The camera work is all hand-held (as if we are watching news reel footage...) when Diana - in shackles - is escorted through a crowd of protesters (carrying signs that read "Death to Diana!") and then abruptly shot by the unseen assassin. Pandemonium breaks out, and the cinema-verite feel of the scene evokes footage we saw of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Even here, in V's least satisfying form (episodic television), one can see that the creators are very aware of the symbolism they are crafting.

The other thing that becomes clear about V: The Series with this initial installment is that it is going to be a very, very kinky show. The Visitors eat human beings whole, and "eating" undeniably suggests a sexual connotation or component when you're talking about eating people. You'd think that a network broadcast series would shy away from that rather naughty interpretation, but the opposite is actually true. The program eventually goes whole hog in this very perverse direction. In this episode, for instance, an escaped Diana is picked up by a redneck hitchhiker in a pick-up truck. He reminds her of the Golden Rule, that he's done something nice for her and so she should do something nice for him. Well, Badler's Diana eyes up the fat cowboy lasciviously (like she's looking at a frigging menu...) and then embraces him. We cut to an exterior high angle of the pick-up truck as it begins to shake, and the cowboy's moans of pleasure quickly transform to screams of horror and pain. Implicit here is that this is an act of fellatio that ends with a new definition of "swallow." By the final episodes of the series, V had gone crazy with this kind of stuff. I remember one episode in particular, and a scene in Diana's bedroom. She orders up for supper two half-naked body-builders, all greased down for the easy devouring.

V: The Series lasted for just nineteen hour-long episodes, and every few years there are rumors of a revival or a continuation. Now would be the perfect time, if you ask me. America has drifted closer to fascism in the past seven years than I would have ever thought possible. Since Bush took office, we've seen government-authorized propaganda ("this is Karen Ryan reporting..."), the war on science (in the suppression of NASA environmental reports and even on Barbara Walter's The View...where the world is apparently flat), the scapegoating of Democrats as unpatriotic (vote for John Kerry and die in a mushroom cloud!!!), not to mention corporations brazenly profiteering off human misery (Blackwater, Halliburton, Enron, Worldcom), plus state-sanctioned torture, and the endless incarceration of people without charges ever being brought. When V was created, it was during another conservative administration (Reagan's) and it served as a parable about how all those terrible things could indeed happen here with just a little push in one direction (a push like, say, 9/11). But it was still science fiction, a leftist fantasy (and warning) about creeping fascism. Today, it really has happened here. Ann Coulter is a Visitor. At the very least, she's reptilian.