Saturday, October 20, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 67: Computer Perfection (Lakeside; 1979)

In recent months, I've highlighted several electronic games from the pre-video game and classic video game era, including the handheld MERLIN, Lakeside's Electronic Intercept and the ever-popular BLIP - The Digital Game (from Tomy). Today I remember another great electronic game from the groovy 1970s, Lakeside's Electronic Perfection. It is billed on the box as "the ultimate playmate" and the same legend notes "IT PUSHES YOU TO YOUR LIMIT."

Avid TV watchers may recognize Computer Perfection (The Electronic Game!) right off the bat because it appeared in a few genre sci-fi series in the 1970s and early 1980s as a "futuristic" prop. In particular, check out the second season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century entitled "Mark of the Saurian." Buck is sick with a fever in this installment of the series, and there at his bedside in the Searcher's sick bay is - you guessed it - Computer Perfection. Personally, I remember playing Star Trek make believe with my friends in New Jersey in 1979, and we decided that Computer Perfection was a perfect bridge ornament, the latest variation on Mr. Spock's hooded library viewer.

Anyway, Computer Perfection is a primitive game system by today's standards. The transparent blue dome acts as "an on/off switch," according to the instructions. Once you lift the blue dome, you can select from four games, and choose from three skill levels.

Game One is "Countdown" (a one-player scenario), in which the object is "to light all 10 lights in the proper order, in the least number of moves" (or presses of the blue game buttons).

Game Two is "Black Hole" (also for one player). The object of Black Hole is the same as Countdown, lighting all the lights in the proper order. The difference: if "you press a button already lit, the computer will turn off all the lights that are ahead of that light, plus the light itself." Got it?

Game Three is "Brain Battle." This is a two player game. The player on the left must turn off all the lights starting with number one; the second player must turn all lights on, starting with number six. All right, now I'm confused...

Game Four is "Light Race" in which the object is a "Race" to turn on more than five lights. It is also for two players.

Okay, it's not exactly Resident Evil 4, but this was 1979, all right?

Listed as being suitable for ages "8 to adult", the back of the box notes that Computer Perfection provides "4 unique ELECTRONIC games..Thousands of variations. COMPUTERIZED SHOW of SOUNDS and LIGHTS."

On the back of the box, the game also addresses the player. "GREETINGS, I am COMPUTER PERFECTION," it states, "the ultimate playmate. Probe my memory to discover the electronic clues that will light my lights in the proper order. Do it as quick as you can and I will keep score. Take too long - I will turn you off. Choose a new game every time or ask me to repeat your last game to improve your score."

Computer Perfection, blue dome and all, has a trusty spot on my office display shelf.

Friday, October 19, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 66: The Six Million Dollar Man (1975)

Before Star Wars, little boys and girls in America played with an array of fantastic toys and gadgets from The Six Million Dollar Man, a TV series that began airing in 1974 on ABC. The series starred stolid Lee Majors as Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut injured during a dangerous spacecraft test. At the behest of Oscar Goldman at OSI, and harnessing the breakthroughs of Dr. Rudy Wells, Steve Austin became "Better. Stronger. Faster." For the (now cheap...) price of six million dollars, Colonel Austin became the world's first bionic man. What a bargain!

Going back over thirty years, I remember that The Six Million Dollar Man was absolutely appointment television for every kid in America. Every week, my sister and I waited on pins and needles to see his new adventures (and those of his spin-off, The Bionic Woman). In particular, we loved the episodes (almost always two-parters...) that saw Steve Austin facing off against an alien robot "Sasquatch." Yep...a Bionic Bigfoot (played by Ted Cassidy!)

Another amazing episode saw Steve Austin battling a probe from outer space. And who can forget the episode that featured William Shatner as a fellow astronaut who came back from space with unusual mental powers...and needed a smackdown from the 6 Mill Man. Steve Austin vs. Captain Kirk!!!!

Before Star Wars (and Kenner) revolutionized the action-figure industry with its line of small-sized (3 inch) action figures, most television and movie related figures were quite large (in the mold of G.I. Joe, a classic), and the impressive Six Million Dollar Man collection was no exception. Steve stood a whopping 12 inches tall, and came with all sorts of bionic accessories. As you can see from the photo of my Six Million Dollar Man, Steve is wearing the trademark red jogging suit he became famous for in the series' opening credits (which showed him running far faster than non-bionic men...), and he has a "scope" in his eye to simulate his bionic orb. You can peer through the back of his skull and see into the distance, as if you are seeing through his mechanical eye. Nice!

My Six Million Dollar Man is resting inside the 20 inch Bionic Transport and Repair Station (sold separately). This is where Steve goes for a tune-up, I presume. It is sort of like a rocket ship and a surgical theater all in one. Today, I can only wish that I had taken far better care of my Bionic buddy and his toys. At one point, I had his boss, Oscar Goldman (who was sold in a checkered 1970s jacket and with an unusual accoutrement: an exploding briefcase), Jaime Sommers, Big Foot and the villainous Maskatron (who could look like Steve or Oscar...). I had Steve's "Critical Assignment Legs" and "Critical Assignment Arms" which were special bionic limbs ("Neutralizer Arm!") for different missions. But the toy I wish I still owned today was Steve's Bionic Mission vehicle, a sort of rocket ship and car combo that the figure could drive. These are rare and expensive on E-Bay today. I loved that toy.

Looking back across Kenner's impressive collection, there were Six Million Dollar Man clothes accessories (space suits and more), a back-pack radio, Jaime Sommers' sports car, and a plastic playset of OSI HQ. Of all the many, many toys, boy do I wish I had kept these. D'oh!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The House Between: Looking Back at Season One

Over at writer Clay Hornik's Bookworm and Beyond blog, the author has written a review of The House Between's first sortie. As you may recall, The House Between is the independently-produced super-low budget (but hopefully super inventive...) online sci-fi series I created last year with the help of producer Joseph Maddrey (A Haunting; Survive This!), and a very talented and committed cast and crew.

The series is designed to emulate the look and feel of genre TV circa 1959-1964 (the era of One Step Beyond, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits), and capture some of the same creepy vibe. The shows are low cost, but well-acted, beautifully shot and lit, and the stories - I believe - are good. We've had strong word of mouth about the episodes and cultivated a devoted cadre of fans (you know who you are! And thank you!). We are currently gearing up for the January 25th 2008 premiere of Season Two. Before then, I'll be premiering a making-of video, and special edition versions of the seven first season episodes, leading up to "Returned," our season two premiere.

Here's here's an excerpt from Hornik's article:

"In The House Between, the danger isn't from something that lurks in the rooms, it's something that lurks in the characters.

And there's a lot lurking in these people, characters like onions, peel one layer away there's another beneath.

...The only negative thing I can say about The House Between is that there won't be any new episodes until next year."

Thanks for watching, Clay, and for writing about the show. I hope you'll stick around for Season Two, which should be bigger and better in every way possible...and which nearly put two or three cast members in the hospital.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Measure of a Man: The Star Trek Mythos and Identity

Ask any group of Trekkers about the enduring appeal and popularity of Star Trek and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. The series is relentlessly optimistic about the future; or the series is a futuristic version of those Hornblower sea-faring novels and thus the height of swashbuckling adventure. Or the series is about brotherhood and the acceptance of diversity, or it it brings up feelings of nostalgia and "Camelot." In terms of drama, of course, one could point to the fact that the original series is especially well-written and uniformly performed with ummatched charm (and even a degree of kinkiness). On a basic level, it is also a science fiction adventure with cool spaceships and monsters...a reason that kids have loved it for for the last several generations. When you are ten years old, nothing beats Captain Kirk battling a Gorn!

However, there is also a philosophical umbrella of unity coursing throughout Star Trek's DNA (and also its later incarnations) that bears some mention. In virtually all the franchise's myriad forms, Star Trek explicitly concerns the psychology of man, and in particular, how the rigors of alien contact and space travel illuminate and bring to the surface all aspects of that psychology. Literally almost every episode of Star Trek deals with the idea and meaning of one aspect of human psychology: identity. For our purposes today, we might define identity as "the condition of being oneself and not someone else" or a "a sense of self that provides sameness and continuity in personality over time."

As much as the new Battlestar Galactica concerns American "War on Terror" politics in space, or Space:1999 is about the technological downfall of 20th century man, a millennial imagining, I believe that Star Trek is quite explicitly - and quite powerfully - a contemplation of all aspects of the human identity. I realize that David Gerrold famously wrote that the final frontier is not outer space; but rather the human soul, and certainly I agree with that sentiment; only narrowed down a bit: the final frontier is but a mirror for mankind; a reflection, a challenge to and for his very identity. For it is "identity," - the very measure of a man (or woman; or Vulcan for that matter) - that is the concept is at the heart of every great Star Trek hour. What does it mean to be a man in the 23rd century? We get many answers in the series, and learn not just about character identity, but species identity too. I believe this came about because Gene Roddenberry was a brilliant and insightful thinker; but also because the 1960s was the era in our history in which psychoanalysis and therapy came out of the closet, so-to-speak, into mainstream American television and film. What Gene Roddenberry's series stated, essentially, is that to conquer the stars (the exterior world), you must first conquer your interior world; the world of human psychology; the mysteries and foibles of your individual and racial identity.

Think about it. In the first pilot, "The Cage" Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey) must see through the illusions of an alien race called the Talosians to determine the identity of Vina (Susan Oliver). More than that, by facing a world of illusions taken from images in his own mind, Pike must determine what kind of man he is: A warrior (fighting Kalars on Rigel), a family man attending a picnic with his wife, or an amoral dealer in Orion Slave Women. Pike's fantasies all force him to question the sort of man he is, but ultimately he arrives at an interesting conclusion: morally he cannot remain on Talos IV (even in a world of fantasy) because the Talosians would use him to breed a race of slaves. That result is immoral to Pike, and his identity as a moral human precludes the acceptance of slavery. Again, individual and "group" (human) identity are core issues here.

The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a more action-packed musing on the same subject. Here, an Enterprise crewman, Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is adversely affected when the Enterprise passes through a barrier at the edge of the galaxy. He begins to develop psionic powers that render him - essentially - a God. So, the question of the episode becomes: when man exceeds his built-in limitations, like mortality and morality - what does he become. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the stated theme of the episode, but "Where No Man Has Gone Before" asks the viewer to accept that man's identity is tied inexorably with the things in life that are difficult. We age, we die, we have to get up and push the warp speed buttons ourselves, or get our own cups of water in sick bay. Gary Mitchell - buoyed by telekinesis - can do whatever he wants without lifting a finger or any other "physical labor." His new identity is thus distinctly inhuman.

"The Man Trap" aired on September 8, 1966, and it is the story of an alien shapeshifter, a salt vampire, the "last of its kind." Dr McCoy, Captain Kirk, Crewman Green, Yeoman Rand, and Lt. Uhura each experience the shape shifter in a different form and in a different way. Physical appearance - an outward symbol of identity - dictates how people are treated, this story reveals Uhura finds herself attracted to the alien when it turns into a tall, attractive African man who speaks Swahili (her language; a common point). This is all a ruse to kill her and extract the salt from her body, but how the creature understands identity is critically important. In particular, the salt vampire likes how McCoy views it: the affectionate, unconditional love of an old boyfriend, "Plum." It senses this is how it will be protected, by manipulating the good doctor's feelings of romantic attraction for an old flame.

"Charlie X," the story of a boy who has been raised by non-corporeal aliens on the planet Thasus, deals with the idea of what it means to be an adolescent boy: to be driven by urges you don't understand and to always feel a little awkward. Kirk also - mostly unwillingly - assumes the identity of father to the lonely Charlie.

In "The Naked Time," a mysterious disease acts on the Enterprise crew like alcohol intoxication and brings to light dark, buried aspects of the crew's various personalities. With emotional boundaries torn down, the crew spirals into chaos at the same time the Enterprise spirals out of orbit towards a planet's surface. We see in this episode that the "identity" we have pinned on each Star Trek character does not represent the whole picture. Spock is not merely a logical alien, but a little boy who couldn't tell his (human) mother that he loved her. Kirk is not merely a leader among men and a great Starfleet officer, but a man of terrible loneliness because his position in the command structure isolates him from others. There is, he laments, "no beach to walk on." Again, the issue here is the face (or identity) we present to the world, and the identity we hide, covet, and keep locked away.

"The Enemy Within" is a classic meditation on human identity and the contradictions therein. A transporter accident splits Kirk into two beings, one "good," one "evil." However, this is no ordinary Jekyll & Hyde story, because what Kirk learns - to his chagrin - is that it is his dark side, his negative self, that retains the power of command; the power of decision-making. His good side seems to possess intellect and compassion, but not will, so again, human identity is dissected and put under the microscope on a Star Trek episode.

In "Mudd's Women," scoundrel Harry Mudd provides a drug to three "homely" women to make them appear as irresistible beauties (so they can be married off to space miners...). Only thing is this: the drug is a fake, a phony. The women on the drug are "high on themselves." As Kirk says: there are only two kind of men and women in the universe; either you believe in yourself, or you don't. So this episode concerns - once more - the notion that our feelings about our identity colors how we see the world...and how the world sees us.

In "What are Little Girls Made Of," Kirk is faced with an android duplicate of himself, one who bears his every memory and ability. But one who can think faster, calculate more effectively and is physically immortal. But man is not a machine, and this episode is about the things that get lost translating "the soul" to a mechanism. Is identity something that can be transferred? Is it hard-wired into our souls? Or is it something so special that no machine can duplicate it?

Other examples:

"The Alternative Factor" - an alien man named Lazarus has been driven to madness and psychosis by the discovery of alternate universes and a "twin" who is simultaneously both him and not him (essentially sharing his identity). To the Enterprise crew, the two men are interchangeable.

"This Side of Paradise" - strange spores on Omicron Ceti III turn the Enterprise crew into mellow layabouts, even Spock (who has the "gall" to make love to a human woman!). Exposed here is the idea that being productive - working - is a core (and indispensable) part of the human identity. No doubt a comment on recreational drugs; perfect for the late 1960s.

"Amok Time" - Spock's identity is subverted again; this time by the Vulcan physiological need to "mate or die" every seven years. The normally logical and thoughtful Vulcan becomes temperamental and rageful over his body's need to go to Vulcan for a pointy-eared booty call.

"Mirror, Mirror" - what makes up our identity? Is it more than just DNA? Is it also the history of a nation or planet? This is the story of an alternate history, one in which humans have become war-like barbarians and the center of a cosmic Empire. The "good" people we know on the Enterprise - changed by some unknown event in galactic history - have set aside principle and morality for conquest and personal gain. But Spock remains the same in both universes, a bastion of goodness and decency (even with the beard).

"Metamorphosis" - an alien "Companion" and a dying human woman meld identities for the sake of love; only to run into human prejudice.

"Return to Tomorrow" - Spock, Kirk and Dr. Ann Mulhall allow three aliens to "possess" their bodies for a time; to make new android forms to house them. The only problem is that these three highly-advanced beings cannot control their emotions and desires when encased in the "flesh" packages of humanity. How much of identity is tied up in our biology? How much in our mind? How much of what we feel is emotion, how much is chemical?

"Turnabout Intruder" - all those things which make Kirk a being "special unto himself," - distinctly another descriptin for "identity" - is landed in the body of a vengeful ex-lover who wants to be a starship commander.

You get the idea. You can view virtually any Star Trek episode out there through this iluminating lens of "identity" and see how the stories of space travel are but a mirror for us to experience all sides of it. The films and later series expand on these ideas. Right off the bat, I remember another Star Trek story in which our heroic, physically fit characters, must deal with the rigors and pains of aging ("The Deadly Years"), a shock to anyone's identity. And there are Next Generation tales that find some characters experiencing amnesia ("Clues), buried memories ("The Schizoid Man") or reverting in age to childhood. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is another meditation on identity, wherein Spock's katra (one might say his identity...) is housed inside McCoy. Until it is reunited with Spock's body, that body is just a shell. In Star Trek: Voyager I remember one of the finest installments was called "Tuvix," about a transporter accident blending the staid Vulcan Tuvok with the more jovial and likable Talaxian, Neelix. What emerged from that transporter platform was a third individual, a new identity separate from the earlier two.

In the various Star Trek series there is example after example of our heroes facing "twins" or "doubles" that confound the crews and make determining identity a difficult task. Spock must determine which version of Kirk is real, which a fake, in "Whom Gods Destroy," and Kirk himself is doubled not just in "The Enemy Within" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of," but Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Riker gets himself a transporter duplicate in one episode of the Next Generation called "Second Chances," Picard meets his "parallel" from the future in "Time Squared," and Janeway and Voyager encounter a duplicate crew in "Deadlock." Data's brother also happens to be his exact duplicate physically, and therefore vexes the crew in "Datalore," "Brothers" and other episodes. Ask yourself, if identity is not the crux of the Star Trek mythos, why so many episodes in which characters must question the identities of their friends. Is it Picard or a formless alien hitchhiker in "Lonely Among Us?" Is it Kirk or Sargon in "Return to Tomorrow?" Is it Bones McCoy or a salt vampire in "The Man Trap?" Is it Geordi La Forge or a Tarchannen alien in the appropriately named "Identity Crisis?"

Consider too that each franchise series involves at least one outsider-type character attempting to define his or her identity. Who are Odo's parents? Is he alone, or - as we learn later - a Founder of the Dominion? What of Data? In "Measure of a Man" Starfleet (and Data himself) must ask the question is he just a toaster, or a living, sentient being? For Spock is "logic" the beginning of wisdom or the end? Again and again, characters must determine "who they are" both in terms of wants and desires, and in how the universe of the Federation defines and views them. Is the EMH a life-form or a program? Is V'ger a life form or just a very advanced machine?

Also, I do not think it a coincidence that the scariest Star Trek villain in series history is likely the Borg. The Borg are scarier than the silver-toothed villains of Alien and Aliens, or the extraterrestrial hunters in Predator. Those outer space creatures may skin you alive or lay eggs down your throat and burst your chest...but in the end, all they really do is kill you. The Borg are much more nefarious and frightening. They take you and "assimilate" you, replacing the colorful identity of the individual with a heartless, colorless hive mind. They take all your knowledge, all your memories, all your humanity and download it for consumption in the collective, but your body keeps walking around - a zombie, a shadow of its former self, because the human identity has been stolen. There can be nothing scarier in a series about identity than a monster who comes along and takes that identity away.

I write about all this today because I've been reading some material about the new Star Trek movie. Generally, I'm very enthusiastic about the project. Every great legend needs to be translated from one generation to the next, and frankly, I think that Star Trek has never been better or more popular than during the Kirk and Spock years of 1966-1991 Sure, we've met new crews, loved the new captains, and encountered new villains (like the impressive Borg), but ultimately, the most human, the most colorful, the most charismatic and most adventurous Star Trek is the original series. Those classic characters deserve a chance to tell their tale to the "next generation" and I'm all for it. This isn't in conflict with my feelings or critiques of remakes for a very simple reason. We've had thirty years of Star Trek continuations already, and what's the next Star Trek movie to give us? Yet another starship? Yet another crew? Yet another Spock-like alien obsessed with humanity? We've been there and done that too often, to varying effect on Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. Also, having Leonard Nimoy aboard the new movie project assures that this will technically not be a remake...but the revitalization the writers have promised, I believe in good faith. So I don't see a downside to a prequel featuring the classic characters. But what I do hope and pray is that the screenwriters have taken the time to gaze carefully at Star Trek lore and see that the franchises' finest stories have always concerned mankind - and our Starfleet heroes - grappling with the essentials of human identity.

TV REVIEW: Reaper: "Charged"

The 2007-2008 season may be remembered as the most uninventive and "meh" broadcast network slate in years. This is doubly so in terms of genre programming. We have Bionic Woman re-booted and full of glitches, plus variations on popular and time-worn themes and TV scenarios. There's the likable but derivative Moonlight (Angel + Forever Knight + film noir), the intriguing but also familiar Journeyman (Quantum Leap + Time Tunnel + Tru Calling), and in the CW's Reaper, we have a...shock! This is a wholly entertaining slacker variation on the 1998 Fox series, Brimstone, about a detective hunting escaped souls from Hell and experiencing a personal relationship with the Devil, there played by John Glover. Here, the Devil is Twin Peaks' Ray Wise, clearly having the time of his life. In Reaper, the guy hunting escaped souls is a harried kid, Sam (Bret Harrison), one learning to cope with the responsibilities of life and dealing with the fact that his parents sold his soul to the devil.

To my utter surprise and shock, Reaper is likely the best, and most confident of the mangy 2007-2008 genre bunch. It is lively, unpretentious, silly and more than fun enough to pass muster. Watching the second episode, "Charged," I realized the series was as much G vs. E as Brimstone, especially in its whacked-out attitude and unusual world view. A better comparison might be this: Reaper is My Name is Earl with the Devil instead of karma. It is comedy as much as "horror," and yet the episode I saw was really, really funny. The series is a perfect example of taking an old idea, putting a new spin on it, and emerging an unlikely winner. Again, no one is more shocked than me...

Again, on plot specifics, Reaper isn't going to win any awards for originality, but during this season, beggars can't be choosers. "Charged," for instance, is the story of an escaped and damned soul, one Arthur Ferry. In life, he was essentially Kenneth Lay, a corrupt "energy trader" with an Enron-type business under his thumb, and the man responsible for several rolling black-outs in California. Still, he wasn't all bad: Ferry donated a lot of money to hospitals and other foundations, and now he's returned from Hell spitting lightning - literally - because his good deeds are being buried. His reputation is such that no one wants to be associated with him or his money. His modus operandi - as in life - is the use of electricity as a weapon.

Going back into history, I remember "Executioner," a Brimstone story that aired on December 4, 1998, about a Hell escapee also using electricity to zap the living. However, the two takes on this tale are completely different. Brimstone (in general), was a series about redemption and repentance, and I view Reaper as a series about growing up and learning to balance life's responsibilities. It's about a Gen Y'er finding his place in life, when school is done, and not knowing exactly where he fits in. Here, Sam is the Devil's highly unlikely bounty hunter. He works at a Home Depot-type home improvement center called the Work Bench and has an insufferable boss named Ted, and a buddy named Sock (Invasion's Tyler Labine) that he has to constantly keep in line lest they lose their jobs. With Kevin Smith serving as a consultant, one can also look at this set-up as Clerks meets Supernatural. It is also a literalization of the proverb that idle hands are the Devil's playground.

Yet what could have been half-assed and utterly ludicrous is instead ingenious and incredibly funny. For instance, the Portal to Hell is located at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- Pandemonium on Earth, for sure. The Devil's dialogue is also delightful and clever. In one great moment, Lucifer runs across Sam watching daytime television and asks perkily, "when's Ellen on?," a joke pertaining to our culture wars and controversy over homosexuality..but who's side is the Devil on? In another moment, the Devil cherily advises a downcast Sam to "turn that frown upside down," advice that makes the Prince of Darkness sound like a modern self-help guru. This material is really sharp, especially since it overturns the preachy, ridiculous "God is my co-pilot" approach of such canceled shows as Joan of Arcadia and The Book of Daniel (2007).

Reaper also boasts its share of witty and wicked visual gags. The ending, which pits Sam and his buddies against the lightning man finds our heroes dressed up in rubber wet suits (and cowls) for the confrontation...which makes them appear utterly ridiculous on dry land. Another moment of sustained comedy arrives early in the hour, as Sam tries to shirk his responsibilities to the Devil and get rid of a wooden box that contains the "vessel" (or weapon) he needs to destroy Ferry. Last week the chosen vessel was a dust buster; this week it is a remote-controlled monster truck, and part of the fun is figuring out how these devices play into the dispatching of each villain. But the running gag involves Sock and Sam trying to ditch the box, repetitiously, and being vexed at every turn. No matter how hard they try to avoid doing their "job" for the Devil, responsibility in the form of the box keeps landing at their feet.

So Reaper is about a twenty-something kid attempting to balance friends with a rotten, low-paying job, while he tries to figure out who he is. Then one day, he finds out this burden is even greater: he's got two rotten jobs, and his boss is Satan himself. That's a good enough metaphor for a season or three surely. After all, haven't we all worked for someone we are sure - absolutely sure - is a demon put on Earth to make our lives miserable?