Saturday, December 22, 2007

Happy Holidays!



Dear friends,

I want to wish each and every one of you a happy and safe holiday vacation as 2007 slips into history. I'm off to start my holiday travels with Kathryn and Joel in tow. Be back blogging soon.


In the meantime, I hope Santa Claus is good to you. (Have you been naughty or nice?) If you should need a JKM blog fix, here's looking back at some of what occurred here in 2007. (Or you could just check out the archives; at right). Hopefully there will be lots of exciting news and events to report in 2008.

In Cult TV Flashbacks:

Angel: "Smile Time"
The Outer Limits: "The Architects of Fear"
Planet of the Apes: "Escape from Tomorrow"
Circle of Fear: "Death's Head"
The Evil Touch: "They"
The Twilight Zone: "Walking Distance"
Space: Above and Beyond
Veronica Mars (Third Season)
The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain"
Kolchak: The Night Stalker: "Zombie"

Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Manos - The Hands of Fate"
Jason of Star Command
Beauty and the Beast: "Once Upon a Time in New York"


In Retro Toy Flashbacks:

Pulsar - The Ultimate Man of Adventure
Star Bird Avenger
Computer Perfection
MERLIN


In Cult Movie Reviews:

Journey to The Far Side of the Sun
2001: A Space Odyssey

and don't forget The House Between at
http://www.thehousebetween.com/ The new season of the online series starts January 25, 2008. Exciting times.

best wishes to one and all,

John K. Muir

Friday, December 21, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 44: Angel (1999-2004): "Smile Time"

I realize that the readership here is divided over the entertainment worlds crafted by Joss Whedon. Some folks hate his series with a passion; some love them wildly. Most of you know where I fall in this debate: I'm a huge admirer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly (and the film version, Serenity). Where I fall on Whedon's second series, Angel is a bit more complicated to explain. In part, that's because Angel itself is a wildly inconsistent series. Each season is very different from the one that precedes it (and also from the one that follows it...) There are some wonderful episodes in the series and some that - for me - just don't really work very well.

I did watch the entire series faithfully during its network run -- every episode -- and was recently given the entire series DVD set as a gift, so I intend to dive back in when I have free time, watch the entire series again, and clarify my thoughts. This is a necessity, I've come to realize, with certain TV series. My first take is not always right. For instance, I originally dismissed Millennium as "serial killer of the week." It was not until half-way through the second season that I realized all the good stuff going on there. Now, I count it as a favorite (and a work of true artistic genius). I could imagine saying the same thing about Angel after a careful re-evaluation. But I'm not there today.

My particular problems with Angel when it aired involved the character of Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter). Loved her on Buffy; hated her on Angel. This is not a swipe at Carpenter, by the way. I'm not commenting on the performance, which was always good. My problem was that the character changed so drastically so quickly and I felt the producers were attempting to impose that change without really earning it. They wanted to turn the vapid, acerbic cheerleader into nothing less than a saint (I called her Saint Cordy by the third season...) And I could never really believe that Angel - a vampire of substance - would fall in love with her. It's not that I don't believe people can change, or that strange events (like encounters with hell dimensions...) can help people grow. Instead, I feel Boreanaz and Carpenter had little romantic chemistry together and that Carpenter was a victim of her own success in the role. She so beautifully played the queen-of-put-downs on Buffy, so indelibly made her mark as that shallow personality in the first three seasons of that series, that - well - I just had a difficult time believing that one person's entire personality could be re-arranged so drastically.

Also, Angel (the series; not the character) changed so deeply from season to season that a viewer could get whiplash. One season, we're doing stand-alone cases; one season we're meeting Angel's son; one season we're fighting the evil law firm, Wolfram & Hart. The next season (my favorite; the fifth season), Angel is actually running Wolfram & Hart. It was like the series was fishing madly for an overriding context which would make it work on the same grand, thematic level as Buffy.

All that established, I also realize there are many enthusiastic Angel fans who also prefer the series to Buffy. I am sure they have good reasons; I just don't share them. I do "like" seasons of the show, and enjoy some episodes more than others.

In my opinion, Angel reached its glorious pinnacle in a kick-ass fifth season of downright compelling episodes. From the birth of a great demonic character called Illyria (played with great skill by regular Amy Acker), to the welcome return of thorn-in-Angel's side Spike (James Marsters), to a stunning, inconclusive Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid-style final episode ("Not Fade Away"), it seemed to me that the series was operating on all thrusters for perhaps the first time in five years. That's why I protested so vehemently when the WB canceled the series. It wasn't so much because of what Angel had been; but because of what it was in the process of becoming.

Which brings me to this episode, "Smile Time," which is absolute, utter genius. Written and directed by Ben Edlund (from a story by Joss Whedon and Ben Edlund), this tale is one of those amazing Buffyverse signature stories. You know the ones I'm talking about: the ones so gloriously conceived and so bravely executed that when you find time to stop laughing, gasping or crying, your jaw just hits the floor at the elegance and audacity of it all. These episodes go by names like "Hush" (the silent episode of Buffy featuring the Gentlemen), or "Once More With Feeling," the musical episode in which the characters sing the things they can't bring themselves to say. "Smile Time" is in that league, and if I were trying to convert anti-Angel folks to an appreciation of the series, this is the episode I would recommend. Especially if a viewer has a finely-developed sense of the absurd.

"Smile Time" finds Angel's gang (working at Wolfram & Hart) investigating a children's epidemic that is mystical in origin. Eleven children have collapsed in Los Angeles, all in front of the television; and all between 7:00 am and 7:30 am. That happens to be the time slot of an "edutainment" puppet show called...you guessed it, "Smile Time." One character populating this series is a big fat purple blob with a horn for a nose, called "the Grumpus" (any resemblance to the Grimace is purely unintentional, we assume...) The Grumpus, by the way, communicates entirely in honks. Anyhoo, the children (all between the ages of 5 and 8) have been found unconscious, but with huge smiles frozen on their faces, and bulging, focus-less eyes.

The episode opens with a deeply disturbing prologue worthy of The X-Files in which a boy staying at home sick, named Tommy vegetates in front of the TV, only to watch as a puppet on the screen approaches the "edge" of the tube and tells him to touch the television. "You don't want to be a bad apple, do you, Tommy?" the Sesame Street-style puppet asks. Tommy doesn't want to be a bad apple, so he touches the TV and the puppet promptly sucks out his life-force. When Tommy's mother walks into the room, she finds her pajama-adorning son on the floor, his little body contorted, his neck twisted at a grotesque angle. There's a gruesome smile etched on his youthful features; his eyes are wide and dead. Yikes! This is a potent and psychically-scarring image, especially for a parent!

Back at Wolfram & Hart, this case is just what Angel needs to take his mind off of Nina, a hot blond woman who also happens to be a werewolf and is spending full moons at the law agency (in a jail cell...) to avoid hurting anyone. She and Angel have begun to develop some romantic feelings, but Angel has been trying to ignore the signals because he fears achieving a moment of "perfect happiness" (read: orgasm), because if he does so...a gypsy curse will take away his soul.

So Angel investigates the studio where "Smile Time" is produced and in a splendidly creepy scene, discovers a dank, secret chamber, a hole in the wall behind a file cabinet that descends into an underworld. There, a fat man (with a towel over his head...) sits silently...a mystery. Above this quiescent figure hangs a weird "nest egg" of glowing light (a repository for the souls of children). It flares suddenly at Angel, and before you know it, our champion - he who helps the helpless - has been transformed into..a tiny puppet.

And this is the raison d'etre for the episode. To turn our stalwart hero into a creation who "has the proportionate excitement of a puppet his size." As much as Angel is embarrassed by the transformation, it also helps him deal with some of his personal issues, especially with Nina. And the scene in which Angel's friends and co-workers first see him in his new form is very, very funny. "Oh my God, Angel..." says Fred, at first sounding disturbed, "you're so...cute."

Even better is the moment wherein Spike, Angel's rival for Buffy's affections (and for the title of Shanshu - vampire with a soul) sees his nemesis in puppet form. "You're a bloody puppet!" Spike exclaims, and then it's on. The two vampires engage in a knock-down, drag-out fight in the lobby, staged by the stunt coordinator as though it is a serious combat between two colossal fighters. Only one of them happens to be made of felt.

After some initial embarrassment, Angel goes to Nina and tells her what has happened. ("Nina...I was turned into a puppet last night," Angel explains seriously), and it is here that the makers of Angel turn truly wicked. In the jail cell, pacing in front of Nina, Angel -- after five frickin' seasons of being the strong but silent and sullen type -- engages in a wonderfully-written, self-reflective monologue about his feelings. The tender, human, emotionally-vulnerable side of the tortured, brooding vampire is excavated here. But all the while, we're watching a puppet emote. If that isn't pure, self-reflexive genius, I don't know what is. Sometimes, it takes a puppet to say what's in a person's heart, I guess.

Soon, it's time to take out the evil soul-sucking puppets at "Smile Time" before they can destroy Los Angeles' entire child population (turns out that pure, innocent life force is a hot commodity in some demon dimensions these days...) Gunn does some research and learns that these demons have struck before ("anyone seen the last few season of Happy Days?" he asks, seriously, by way of exposition). So with Angel's portentous declaration "let's take out some puppets," the group marches into battle.

Again, this moment is splendidly staged and orchestrated. The audience is treated to a Michael Bay-style Con-Air/Armageddon "bad MF"/"hero walk" shot replete with slow-motion photography. Armed for battle, Fred, Gunn and Wesley march toward the camera, looking grim and dedicated. In front of them...down a a little...but leading the charge is Angel...a puppet with a sword braced across his shoulders. It plays as perfect parody of solemn action movies and serves as a great visual joke; one that invites giddy laughter and exposes how silly this cliched and overused shot really is.

Just when you think the episode can't possibly get better, we are treated to a battle royale at the studio between our heroes and the troop of sinister puppets. Among the highlights are a puppet decapitation by sword (and the puppet is a cute puppy!), a volley of "macho" action-movie one-liners ("I'm going to tear you a new puppet hole, bitch!") and a slow-motion dispatch of the villain as the puppet ringleader is sent hurtling across the studio and killed. We see his dying puppet legs twitch.

And as long as I live, I shall never forget the death throes of the Grumpus (after Wesley has ripped out his horn-nose...)....

And did I mention that the final battle occurs only after we've been treated to such puppet production numbers as "Self Esteem is For Everybody" and the educational skit, "Action Math?"

As a writer and creator of my own online series, what I admire so deeply about "Smile Time" is that it punctures and pokes fun at its own serious nature. Angel is a dark, broody, angsty series about "redemption," with a mostly taciturn hero leading a pack of committed supernatural fighters against the dedicated forces of evil. "Smile Time" reveals how - with simply one element altered (our hero as a puppet)...the whole enterprise can be viewed as absolutely ridiculous. This episode serves as a parody of TV shows just like Angel and of the character of Angel himself. It makes me wonder if Con Air wouldn't have been made entirely more palatable if Nic Cage had been a puppet. In some ways, this is the same equation wrought by Trey Parker and Matt Stone in Team America: World Police, only here the joke must sustain forty-five minutes of drama not ninety minutes, and thus never has the chance to get old or tired. (love Team America, by the way...).

There's also a nice subtext in "Smile Time" about how television sucks the life out of your child. It literalizes the old canard from Moms' about how sitting too close to the TV can harm you. Well...Tommy finds out that's true in this story. Television here is depicted as a portal of evil since the hellish soul-sucking procedure is transferred via a hidden carrier wave piggy-backing on "Smile Time," effectively making the boob tube a two-way conduit. Or some such tech talk.

There are so many great lines and great images in "Smile Time," I find it difficult to tag them all. There's a great ghoulish moment involving guest star (and producer) David Fury, wherein we learn a puppet has its hand up his back, not vice versa. There's also a good B-story involving Gunn going through a personal transformation of his own. This subplot echoes the journey Angel takes here, and rounds out the episode, nicely granting the story a certain elegance.

Everything -- from humor to action to scares to character interaction (to subtext) -- is perfectly calibrated in this stand-out episode of Angel. And again, that's not easy to accomplish. To do an episode like this on a well-established series is nothing short of amazing. There must be total trust and total commitment on the part of the actors, the writers, the producers and the director, and it is clear that was present here. "Smile Time" reveals that Angel the series has big fat brass (puppet...) balls.

Final note: I must mention that Drew Massey, the puppeteer behind Greg the Bunny's Count Blah, does an amazing job of making Angel the puppet utterly convincing as an extension of the Angel we grew to know for five years. The pint-sized puppet even broods like David Boreanaz.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 43: The Outer Limits (1963): "The Architects of Fear"

"There is nothing wrong with your Internet Browser. Do not attempt to control the picture. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical..."

Okay, so that's not quite the introduction to the classic horror, science-fiction anthology series The Outer Limits, but it's close. The opening narration to the series (the voice of God termed "the control voice") also informed viewers that they were "invited to participate in a great adventure," one that stretches from "the inner mind" to "the outer limits."

This invitation to the dance for two amazing seasons proved utterly irresistible for many (and prominent series admirers include Stephen King). Shot in gorgeous black-and-white, in shades that can only be described adequately as luscious, The Outer Limits remains one of the most overtly cinematic television programs in terms of visual presentation. Darkness and light, shadow and white hot glare: these are as much critical players in the drama as are the great actors (a stellar cast that includes Cliff Robertson, Robert Culp, Martin Landau, Sally Kellerman and others) and the great storytelling. This is a series that understands the primary principle of film grammar: that how something is photographed is ultimately as important as the object itself. The form of The Outer Limits reflects its content: stark, moody, alternately grim and jarring. In the 1970s, some British television (I'm thinking of Space:1999 in particular), approached and sometimes achieved this level of cinematography, and The X-Files certainly boasted some fine achievements in that terrain. But I'll go out on a limb and say that The Outer Limits is the most dazzling and gorgeously photographed genre piece yet forged for television.

Which is an achievement, because the story-telling (overseen by producer Joseph Stefano) keeps pace with the visuals. The series is famous for its unforgettable "bears," the macabre and terrifying monsters it depicted week-in and week-out. Again, however, the real terror came in the storytelling and presentation of these monsters: stories so rife with suspense and shock that it's hard to believe this was actually TV fare.

Among the unforgettable monsters crafted by The Outer Limits are the Zanti Misfits (insectoid invaders from another world), the alien sand shark (battling Adam West!) of "The Invisible Enemy," and the creepy Venusian that menaced a young William Shatner in "Cold Hands, Warm Heart." But the suspense of "The Hundred Days of the Dragon," a terrifyingly plausible variant on "The Manchurian Candidate," or the claustrophobic, stomach-churning isolation and dread of "The Guests," or the inexplicable and utterly nightmarish surrealism of "Don't Open Till Doomsday" are the most significant reasons to praise and remember this series. This is one of those productions that - for me anyway - is transformative in the finest sense of that word.

Much in the same manner of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits episodes have evolved beyond the 1960s confines and contexts that gave birth to them. Once seen, these unforgettable episodes dwell in the mind and you can't forget them, escape them, or scrub them out. They are no longer merely remote dramas that you passively watch, but in some sense, impressionistic nightmares wired directly to the reptilian portion of your brain. You experience these shows...and the memory of that experience lingers. We've all felt like we've had a "twilight zone" moment, or stepped into the chaotic terrain of the Outer Limits, haven't we? These are the nightmares - scientific and personal - of 20th century America, and I suppose that's why they resonate so strongly and linger so powerfully in the brain. In terms of the anthology format, neither series has really been improved upon, that I can see. The black-and-white photography in both cases contributes some sense of "timelessness" that significantly enhances the creep factor.

"The Architects of Fear" is an early episode of The Outer Limits, and a prime example of the brawny imagination at work behind-the-scenes and the fearlessness (forgive the pun) of the narratives. The episode commences with a montage of pure panic and 20th century angst: the specter of a nuclear attack. Civilians dash about the streets of a bustling metropolis and a missile is seen streaking across the sky. A nuclear mushroom - the enduring and iconic image of terror during the Cold War Era - flashes on the screen suddenly.

"Is this the day?" The Control Voice asks. "Is this the beginning of the end?" The voice continues to meditate on the possibility (or probability?) of man's self destruction, noting that when the apocalypse of nuclear destruction arrives, there will be no time to ask "why." It's a terrifying and grim thought.

And that single thought is the terrifying place where a cabal of very intelligent, very learned men at "United Laboratories" dwell and obsess. They live in that moment, in that instant, in the terror of "what if" and so begin to hatch a misguided plan that they believe will insure the survival of the human race. This was the fourth "scare" about nuclear arms in recent weeks, and so these men, led by Professor Gainer, come to the conclusion that the nations of the Earth must "unite" against a common foe if man is to survive the nuclear age. And furthermore, that it is one of this brain trust who "must submit to the ordeal." As if in explanation of this remark, the camera focuses on something sitting near the good doctor. Beside Professor Gainer sits a chattering, monstrous thing in a box, a beast seen in shadows but heard squealing. It is not just a monster, it is the embodiment of the cabal's fear...calling them to a grotesque and horrible mistake. One that they will all regret..

The men at United Laboratories draw straws in a lottery and Allan Leighton is selected for the "ordeal." Here's the plan: over a few short weeks he will be transformed into a "perfect inhabitant of the planet Theta," an experiment the scientists have also completed on that poor, pitiable thing dwelling in the box. Every organ in Allan's body will be transformed. After a series of surgeries and hormone shots, the complete physiological transformation of a man will have taken place. Why? The earth needs a "common enemy," a "common foe," to unite against. The scientists believe that if Allan shows up at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City...as an authentic extra-terrestial, this "Thetan" thing, the world will panic, frightened by their "scarecrow" and come together to fight the ills of the world. Uniting through terror. Sound familiar?

So these men of science, these respected men of great intelligence, set about concocting the greatest hoax in human history with Leighton as their willing guinea pig. Allan accepts his macabre fate in stride ("can't see how making a fuss is going to help...") but there are drawbacks, even besides his own transformation and eventual death. For one thing, Allan is hopelessly in love with his wife, Yvette (Geraldine Brooks). They have been trying for years to conceive a child and now - just moments after Allen takes the first hormone shot spurring his "Thetan" side - he learns that their problems are gone...that Yvette can (and is...) pregnant. Carrying his child. Suddenly, this symbolic act, this scarecrow-ing of the human race, doesn't seem that important to him. But he sticks with the plan, trying to believe in the mission.

What follows in "The Architects of Fear" is the story of a rational man who - like Brundefly in Cronenberg's remake of The Fly in 1986 - becomes a thing and faces the slow, steady dissipation of his humanity. Unlike that (great) film, here the physical transformation is suggested, not seen. The process is mostly hidden in shadows and hinted at via other cinematic tricks (the careful placement of objects in the forefront of the frame). As the humanity drains away from Allan, he explains what this process has done to him. He no longer possess a human mouth, so he is forced to speak through an electronic voice box, a visual symbol of his separation from his natural species. What Allan says says in this condition speaks to much about the human condition. The pain of the surgeries is gone now, he tells Gainer, and his mind is consumed with one thing: strange dreams of Yvette, the wife he had to leave behind. This is all that's left of Allan's humanity: this spark of love, this connection to another soul. It lingers in him, and nothing about the transformation can take it away.

Allan asks Gainer if their plan can work, and Gainer replies that "millions have soldiers have gone into wars of hate with worse odds." This is true, but Allan's very humanity is the thing that makes the mission fail. And the scientists never accounted for this factor in their equation. Once in space (and bound for a landing at the U.N.) some part of Allan's latent humanity calls to him and either consciously or subconsciously he changes course. He lands his ship not at the U.N. headquarters, but near the lab...near his Yvette. A group of hunters shoot this alien "Thetan" when they encounter it, and a wounded Allan ultimately dies in the arms of his wife. When the "monster" before her shows a familiar gesture, Yvette realizes that this thing - this monstrosity - is her husband. Allan's entire journey has been not about saving the world, but about holding onto his humanity; reconnecting with the wife (and unborn child) he was separated from.

Naturally, Yvette is disgusted with Gainer and the others. She believes that there is no honor in dying for a remote, ivory tower ideal. That such a death means nothing in terms of love and family. "Men like you...playing tricks," she says angrily. "A scarecrow would change everything!" she mocks them.

"The Architects of Fear" ends with the Control Voice acknowledging this mistake and furthermore adding that "scarecrows and magic and other fatal fears do not bring people together." On the contrary, suggests the narrator: a humble attitude, hard-work and sacrifice - like Allan's sacrifice - are the only things that make our world a better place in the end.

Today, we in the U.S. live in a culture of pervasive all-consuming fear. It is a culture in which fear (and anger...) is ramped up at every opportunity. It is a fear of the other, whether that "other" is of a different religion, a different political group, a different race or from a different country of origin. "The Architects of Fear" remains timely and so very vital because it suggests that there are no easy answers to conquering fear. Even a "scarecrow" (like "a war on terror?") can't unite us for long. What can unite us? E
ducation, understanding, compassion, decency....our core human values.. Things that are occasionally in short supply 'round these parts, whether on the wild, wild west of the Internet or in our public and national discourse.

In one sense, "The Architects of Fear" offers the tired old acorn of "egg head" scientists going off and doing something stupid; tampering in God's domain, as it were. But on the other hand, what the story truly and deeply concerns is the dissection of the human organism. Take away our ability to speak, replace our kidneys, transform our skin and replace it with green scales...and still the "human in us" (the soul?) calls out for the things that make human existence special. A wife. A child. A dream for a better tomorrow.

In real life, I don't know how many human beings have been turned into peg-legged Thetans, but I do know that across this globe of ours, "grotesque" mistakes like Allan's story occur every day. They happen under different names, but we might know them as Tuskegee, Chernobyl, or the War in Iraq. Horrors committed under idealistic banners. Atrocities committed as "good deeds," for ideals like liberty and freedom, for empty words like "progress" or under the bailiwick of science. Those ideals feel very, very empty when you a lose a father or a mother, a sister or a brother.


The Control Voice understood that in 1963.

I now return control of your Internet Browser to you. But seriously, watch The Outer Limits. It is available on DVD for purchase at the price of $34.99 -- the whole series! Believe me, that's a steal.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Thanks

I just wanted to write today to say "thanks" to you - all the visitors to this blog -- for making 2007 the biggest year yet at Reflections on Film and Television. I was just checking my stats, and it looks like (with two weeks or so left in the year), we've already surpassed last year's visit total by 15,149. Nice. I'm committed to keeping the blog vibrant and growing, and it looks like at the end of the second full year, we're headed in the right direction. When I started this thing back in April of 2005, I had no idea I'd be reaching so many readers.

But seriously, thanks for sticking with me through Joel's first 15 months,when it has been harder than ever to blog on a regular basis. As we get closer to 2008, I'll begin writing about what we can look forward to here next year. I've got some tricks (and treats...) in store.

You guys are the best!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 42: Planet of the Apes (1974): "Escape from Tomorrow"

In the fall of 1974, the successful Planet of the Apes film franchise moved to network television for fourteen-hour long episodes. Planet of the Apes - the series - featured the continuing adventures of astronauts Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Pete Burke (Jim Naughton), in the far-flung year of 3085 (starting March 21, 3085, if we're to believe the spaceship chronometer...) on a world run by -- wait for it -- intelligent, talking simians.

In "Escape from Tomorrow," the introductory episode written by Art Wallace and directed by Don Weis, we begin with an old man (in a bad wig...) being chased by a child chimpanzee and his pet dog in a rural setting. My first thought watching this sequence was that it was a canon violation (alert! alert!), since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had established that a space plague had arrived on Earth in the late 20th century and killed off all the cats and dogs. It was the death of "beloved pets," in fact, that led humans to enslave apes...which would then lead to the uprising of the gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. This seems like something that the producers of the series should have remembered, since it is a lynch pin of Apes continuity.

Putting aside this sloppy faux pas, the story continues as the old man hears a strange aircraft overhead and then finds the crash site of a spaceship in a nearby field. He rescues two astronauts (Virdon and Burke) but the third (Jones) is dead. When the shaken, disoriented astronauts awaken, the old man explains to the humans that apes rule this planet and that humans (who still have the power of speech here...) are inferior underlings. Alan immediately wants to find a way to return home to his family (a wife and son). He recounts how the ship experienced radioactive turbulence near Alpha Centauri and he ordered Jones to activate the homing beacon. Burke is more defeatist. "This is home now, and you know it," he says. His words, however, carry a double meaning even he is not aware of.

After the Old Man presents the astronauts with a book of pictures from New York City in the year 2505 (another troublesome continuity point that contradicts the movies...), the astronauts realized that they have returned home indeed. That the planet of the apes...is Earth.

As the episode progresses, Alan and Pete meet Galen (Roddy McDowall) a friendly chimpanzee (and member of the ape aristocracy) who possesses a lot of misconceptions about human beings, never having gotten to really know any. Worse, the astronauts face off with Urko (Mark Lenard), the chief security officer in Ape City who wants them dead. Now. Chief Counselor Zaius (Booth Colman) is willing to keep the astronauts alive, if only to learn of their technology and find a way to keep them from influencing the primitive humans of his world. Zaius is worried that the astronauts' love of freedom and independence will transfer to the indigenous humans and foster an uprising.

In the scenes with Zaius and Urko, the writers did something interesting and forward-thinking for episodic television in 1974. They began to develop - from this first episodes - series mysteries that - presumably - would have been solved had the series lasted more than half-a-season. For instance, during a confidential tete-a-tete, Zaius asks Galen "did you ever have a recurring nightmare?" He then launches into a discussion of the fact that other human astronauts have arrived on the planet before (and again - it can't be the characters [like Taylor or Brent] we saw in the original films, because those events occurred in 3978...almost a thousand years after the TV series). "Another ship, Zaius," states Urko, "it's hard to believe." One can imagine that had the series lasted, viewers would have heard much more about these other astronauts and their (apparently-not-very-pleasant) adventures on the planet of the apes. If that had been the case, the series would have been all the stronger for it.

"Escape from Tomorrow" ends with Virdon, Burke and Galen allied and on the run, while Ape forces destroy their spacecraft. Fortunately for the humans, Virdon has recovered a small magnetic computer disk from the ship which - if they can find a computer in this post apocalyptic topsy-turvy world - might help them find a way back to their time. Future episodes involve the triumvirate going from one human province to another, in search of technology that can help them return to the Earth of the past.

The original Planet of the Apes films served as brilliant social commentary on the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s. They concerned (among other things): nuclear war, man's self-destructive nature, and the pitfalls and total hypocrisy of religious zealotry. By contrast, the television series limits its commentary to one fascinating subject: the issue of race relations, of a class society separated by race and species. This is an important point, considering this was the era after the Watts Riots and near the time of the Camden Riots (1971). The Civil Rights Movement was coming to an end for all intents and purposes, and suddenly here's a sci-fi TV show about "species" stereotypes and irrational biases.

"Escape from Tomorrow" is illuminating in the language it utilizes to describe humans, here deemed the "lesser" or "inferior" class. Both humans themselves and the ruling apes make pervasive derogatory comments in "Escape from Tomorrow" that we - living today - would certainly understand as bigoted or as examples of stereotypes. "Humans know their place," one chimpanzee prefect notes, "that musn't change. They'd begin to think they're as good as we are..."

A nearby village, Chollo, is described (by a human...) as "the village where humans are supposed to live," in other words a ghetto.

Galen describes humans as "laborers, farmers and servants" and was always taught to believe that they are an inferior breed. To suggest otherwise is heresy and treason on this world. But Galen is inquisitive and smart and looks past the stereotypes, finally. His experience with Alan and Burke makes him realize that human beings have feelings and dreams and hopes too. He asks Zaius's human serf what it is "like to be human" and then confronts Zaius after he learns that human beings have a history of technical and scientific achievement. "Why Zaius?" He asks. "Why should truth be against the law?"

Galen also suggests that "maybe the world would be better if no creature" was deemed superior to another. This makes him a strong ally for the fugitive astronauts, but his objective, inquisitive nature also makes him a radical and fugitive among his own people.


Another element of the Planet of the Apes series also seems to derive from a timely real life source. Namely, Zaius and Urko engage in a secret cover-up to destroy the spaceship and keep knowledge of the astronauts a secret from the general populace. In other words, the ape ruling class is working against its people (both human and simian). The apes live in a rigidly conservative or traditional society here, one where the status quo must remain intact at all costs and the aristrocracy lives in mortal dread of losing control, of seeing their imposed "natural" order change. "Heresy" and "treason" are common accusations for those who reject ape dogma. The idea of a cover-up and an authoritarian government (it's legal if the president says its legal...) surely reflect the Watergate Era, and Nixon's imperial presidency. All of that was coming to a head in 1974 America as this series aired.

Yet too often on the Planet of the Apes TV series, the storylines and plot details felt uninspired and repetitive. It all usually came down to one of the three heroes captured by the apes and then rescued by the other two cohorts before the hour was up. And yet, I remember this series with tremendous fondness and affection because it had a great deal of value in terms of depicting a society separated by class and race. By putting white humans in the inferior position, the series makes quite a few trenchant progressive points. Ultimately, that's the purpose of good science fiction....to comment on society, and here the set-up is almost Swiftian. On top of these elements, the series features good actors and a well-drawn future world, thanks in part to the costumes left over from the feature films and the occasional use of stock footage (for Ape City exteriors, for instance). I watched this series with Kathryn on DVD not long ago, and we were both a little surprised how much we liked it...and how utterly entertaining it is. I suppose to enjoy the show to its fullest, you must forgive the repetitive, action-oriented storytelling a bit and be willing to see the underlying points. They're present in most episodes (especially the one that finds a gorilla and a human - Urko and Burke - trapped in an underground subway system together...), but also just a tiny resonance in quite a few.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Christmas Shopping? Have A Very Muir Christmas

Hey there movie buffs! If you've got some loose change in your pockets this holiday season, and you're out there buying movie books for someone you love (or even for yourself...), don't forget to check out some of my critically-acclaimed film titles. Since it's never as convincing to toot your horn, I'll let the critics speak for my work.

Lots of critics...

Horror Films of the 1980s. This covers of 300 films from the decade of Reagan. The book was recently recommended by
AMC's Monsterfest Blog on the annual Christmas wish list. Check out these rave reviews at Amazon.com, here and here, And here's what the critics say:

"The author watched hundreds of films, interviewed talents behind the movies and invited guest reviewers and critics to round out the details...Writing is clear, with a personal but expert tone. The 2-column layout facilitates reading the dense text. Can a horror film reference book be pleasurable browsing? This volume does a good job, combining useful information and enjoyable commentaries, and is recommended..." - Booklist

"As readable and entertaining as it predecessor, this tremendous tome of terror is the quintessential concordance to the films of the dead teenager decade...Muir opts for comprehensiveness, covering each of the 300 horror flicks released between 1980 and 1989......Muir's genius lies in his giving context to the films. He offers a time line of events for each year, and his introductory essay documents the 1980s uncertainty that led the genre to become both influential and profitable...With the skill of a Jason, Muir has carved out a niche for himself with this kind of reference work. As fun as the films it documents, it will make readers run screaming for the local video store..." - Choice

"Muir again plunges into the dark, following his Horror Films of the 1970s (McFarland, 2002), named an ALA Outstanding Reference Source in 2003. Appropriate to the so-called era of greed, he has this time added more of everything: films, background, appendixes, and critical analyses. Part 1 provides a concise, overarching summary of the decade's social and political climate; juxtaposed photos of President Ronald Reagan and A Nightmare on Elm Street's Freddy Krueger encapsulate the period's startling contradictions...A time line highlighting noteworthy current events accompanies each year and is followed by ample, witty, well-versed entries on films ranging from Poltergeist and Aliens to Cellar Dweller and Hide and Go Shriek...BOTTOM LINE: The summary in Part 1 would befit a college history lecture; the book as a whole is highly recommended..." -
Library Journal

"Like Jason, Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger, John Kenneth Muir keeps returning to horror films for a little more fiendish fun. In this episode, Muir surveys 300 films of the 1980's, or as he calls it, the "Dead Teenager Decade."...Muir closely examines organizing principles, plot devices, and the use of conventional characters. He looks hard for points to praise, but never lets sloppy work go without comment...Muir weaves contemporary commentary, thoughtful analyses and humor into a true art form. His entertaining guide will find fans in academic and public libraries. " - Gale Thomson

"As his foreword suggests, he pays special attention to the political subtext of the films he covers. He examines Poltergeist as a yuppie dream turned nightmare, while The Stepfather, Parents and A Nightmare on Elm Street are posited as a calculated slap in the face of Republican "family values" propaganda. He also maintains that body image issues surface in a variety of titles from Altered States to An American Werewolf in London to The Beast Within and beyond. Muir spends ample time identifying trends in '80s horror, particularly the slasher film..." - Rue Morgue


Or read the critically-acclaimed predecessor, a multiple award winner (Booklist Editor's Choice; ALA Outstanding Reference, "Best of Reference" 2003 etc.) Horror Films of the 1970s.

Here are some reviews:

"A top notch overview of American horror movies of the 1970s...Muir opens with an entertaining and informative BRIEF HISTORY...Muir's commentaries are well worth reading...an impressive resource for all film collections...highly recommended."-Library Journal.

"Muir is an irrepressible commentator, his comments are sharp and often very wry, and they make this volume very fun - yes, even for non-horror buffs....it's an entertaining analysis. I don't know how many of you go for these films, but if you are interested, this is an excellent study. Muir's sense of humor even makes some of the undesirable ones sound bearable."- Classic Images

"Brilliant and essential guide for the genre enthusiast and casual fan alike, film scholar John Kenneth Muir's comprehensive undertaking is likely to remain the last word on the subject for years to come...it is erudite, incisive and most importantly unassuming...Muir hits all the bases in a beautifully succinct and informative introduction then proceeds to analyze and profile more than two hundred films...seminal..." -Dom Salemi, Brutarian, Spring 2003, Issue # 38.

"...Muir...ventures well beyond the basics where it counts. His academic introduction is actually a pretty good read on its own and uses the art-imitates-life argument as a critical tool to determine how the disco decade spawned a plethora of new horror trends...Perhaps the coolest feature is Muir's extensive and humorous appendix section, in which he offers his Hall of Fame, best movies, recommended viewing and a list of horror film conventions...Good fun for casual fans and hardened intellectuals alike." - Tom Dragomir, Rue Morgue.

"The legendary Cushing stars in many of the films discussed, yet there is more than a retread of his filmography. More mainstream hits (Carrie, The Omen) are here but the book also highlights such lesser known gems as Count Yorga and Sisters, as well as drive-in trash like Squirm and Grizzly. Everything for the devotee is here as each film is given a synopsis, credits and a look at the production. Another bonus is Muir's pithy critiques...An impressive, dedicated and amusing book. RATING: (FOUR STARS) * * * * " - Film Review, May 2003.

"Your reaction to learning of this book's existence may be similar to mine: near pants-wetting....[the book] surely will be referenced by horror fans for years (and decades) to come."- Hitch Magazine # 33, Spring 2003.

"The title of this book says it all and fans of the genre have reason to rejoice. Muir, an authority on horror and science fiction cinema, has finally turned his attention to the decade when the modern horror film genre came into its own...The film descriptions communicate well to the reader, even when the film itself is unfamiliar. Each synopsis gives an overview that makes clear the subject and scope of the film; and his commentary is serious, thought-provoking, and helpful in understanding the meaning and importance of the film...I am aware of no similar reference that covers the same territory as Muir does in this work. It merits consideration on that basis alone, but academic libraries and larger public libraries will no doubt find it to be a useful - and much-used addition to their reference collections." - Kevin Barron, Reference and Service Users Quarterly, Volume 42, Number 3, Spring 2003, page 267,

"The commentary, which can go on for several pages, puts each film in context and discusses style and filmmaking technique. It also explores how topics such as racism, religion and women's rights are represented in films like BLACULA, THE EXORCIST, and THE STEPFORD WIVES, respectively...HORROR FILMS OF THE 1970s is an important reference tool for film collections in academic and public libraries and a must for fans....an Editor's Choice, 2002..."-Booklist

"In his entertaining and scholarly filmography of over 200 films arranged by year, Muir sees the historical and social happenings of the 1970s as giving rise to the unusually high number of groundbreaking horror films of the decade, as well as the routine ones." - AMERICAN LIBRARIES: Best of the Best Reference Sources, The 2003 Reference and Users Service Association of distinguished reference works selected by public and academic librarians, by Vicki D. Bloom, May 2003

"A seminal tome to the horror films of the '70s, this offers up reviews of rare gems, honored classics and offbeat oddities. A must. - The Terror Trap: Books and Scares
.

If horror TV is your bag, there' s my award winner, Terror Television (Booklist Editor's Choice 2001). Here are some reviews:

"....the book he [Muir] was born to write....His analyses are first-rate and based on a wide knowledge of the subject...TERROR TELEVISION is superlative television history." -Big Reel, June 2001

"Muir is well-known in the horror/sci-fi reference field, with previous well-received guides to Wes Craven, John Carpenter and the TV series SPACE:1999...an essential purchase." -Anthony Adam, Reference and User Services Quarterly, Winter 2001.

"Fans and researchers will appreciate the detailed episode-by-episode documentation and even nonfans will be engaged by Muir's informed and opinionated analyses." - Editor's Choice 2001- Booklist, 2001.

"TERROR TELEVISION is a massive 685 page reference guide that documents the history of modern television horror from 1970 to 1999....Muir provides a good format for discussing each series...Not shy to share his views...Muir has obviously done his homework in researching the shows listed in this book...[it] gives an excellent analysis of shows produced during the period of 1970 - 1999...an indispensable volume of useful reference information..."-Chiller Theater, page 57

"...highly readable, extremely literate...the real strength of the book lies in his unflinching opinions. When a show is lousy, he wastes no words showing where it went wrong; when a show succeeds, he skillfully defines the elements that made it rise above the drivel. All film libraries will want a copy of this book..."-Joseph L. Carlson, ARBA, 2002.

How about superheroes? There's my award-winning (New York Public Library Best of Reference, 2005), Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television. Again, I'll let the critics describe the book:

"The over-the-top, first-stop-in-pop-culture maven, McFarland has unearthed another killer-kryptonite jewel. This bounteous reference cornucopia documents 50-plus years of 71 superheroes in film and television, providing both basic and detailed information for films and episodic listings for television shows. This is genre guru Muir's 11th book for McFarland, and he knows the landscape like Aquaman knows Atlantis...Divided into four sections, the text includes a history of film and television superheroes, a conclusion, and numerous fun and quirky appendixes. The bling-bling, of course, is the mondo-hefty Part 2, encyclopedia of shows, each entry of which provides a full origin and history of the superhero, full credits, format, cross-references, episode-by-episode descriptions for the television shows, and critical notes. If you can swing it, get two copies...you'll need them both. Rock on, Muir and McFarland! A Library Journal "Starred" Review." -Libary Journal, May 15, 2004, pages 77-79.

"For years I have wanted a book on superhero movies, and the new 600 + page brick known as THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERHEROES ON FILM AND TELEVISION by John Kenneth Muir goes one better by including TV shows too. From the early days of Adam West camping the cape of Batman to the current Marvel movie bonanza of X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN, this book covers them all...Each title gets an individual discussion and review, with the TV shows often accompanied by detailed episode guides. The book's introduction is a terrific history of the genre, with Muir demonstrating he knows his stuff..." - Rod Lott, Hitch Daily, March 8, 2004.

"Those seeking a highly detailed guide to such colorful crime fighters should discover John Kenneth Muir's 'The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.'...Going back more than 50 years, the author offers a history, episode guide, film description and critical commentary for every entry. Muir also details information on arch-villains, gadgets, origins and super powers."-Lou Gaul, The Burlington County Times, March 4, 2004, page C1-C2.

"* * * * (FOUR STARS/OUT OF FOUR)...The book opens with a succinct history of the subgenre, and notes how various eras have presented comic book figures, on home and cinema screens, from the straight-faced gung-ho action of postwar America through a camp phase of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and a decade of nostalgia, to the 'dark age' of hard-edged cynicism that characterised 1990s' vigilantes...Having written books about Blake's 7, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Space 1999 and the films of John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and Kevin Smith, author John Kenneth Muir is well-grounded in the lore and minutiae of sci-fi and fantasy adventure...This is the first book where all three Captain America movies are featured. Coverage of The Crow is particularly welcome...and [the book] provides the most comprehensive section on The Six Million Dollar Man...I've yet seen in print. Of course Superman, the mainstay of this book's entire subject, demands and gets a suitably expansive chapter-size entry and along with the write-ups for Superboy and Supergirl, this offers the most extensive coverage of DC Comics' veteran figurehead outside of those specialist single-character books." - Tony Lee, The Zone: The Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror and Mystery Website, June 13, 2004.

"There seems to be no end in sight for the dominance of comic-book heroes at the movies. That's why it's a good time to dive into this hefty 600-page-plus compendium of trivia and essays about caped crusader types from the past half century. John Kenneth Muir, whose credits include Horror Films of the 1970s and Terror Television is our knowledgeable guide through this tour of supernatural heroes. Each entry includes a detailed history, cast and credits, TV episodes and live-action and animated film descriptions, as well as critical commentaries and entertaining data on origins, catch phrases, gadgets and arch-villains. There are some great focuses on recurring themes - almost-exposed secrets, lost powers, misfits, crossover shows, etc. - and nice appendixes such as "The Best, Worst and Most Influential Productions...[a] must-have geek reference book." -Animation Magazine: "BOOKS WE LOVE" July 2004, page 6.

"John Kenneth Muir must have had one mis-spent youth. In his 'Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television' he gives superhero fans a good resource to the various movie/TV incarnations of our favorite heroes. Covering animation as well, this book is current up to mid-2003, and reaches back to the early 1950s. His presentation covers comic book and comic book-inspired heroes in an entertaining 'Did you know'/documentary format...Filled with great anecdotal and historical information, the entries are illustrated with a smattering of photographs...I love superheroes. And during the course of this writing I was 'lost' several times in numerous entries. That is the beauty of the book, no matter what information was missed due to space, or time limitations you can enjoy it fully...Buy this book. And wait for the second edition where John Kenneth Muir updates the entries and gives us more delight and comic book/superhero video fodder...Happy reading. May your cape never need dry cleaning!"- Penguin Comics, June 2004.

"John Kenneth Muir's books for McFarland are distinctive because of their authority and effective research. The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television is no different...the detail is mind-boggling." - Classic Images, May 2004.

"...riveting...Muir sandwiches entries on 71 superheroic individuals or teams from the past 50-plus years of broadcast media between a pithy historical overview and back matter that includes a compendium of plot cliches and several "Best/Worst" lists...Where else are readers going to find such depth of detail, not only on such major figures as Superman or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but the likes of Captain Nice, Isis and Saturday Night Live's Ambiguously Gay Duo?...this is a browser's delight." - SLJ August 2004.

"Muir characterizes the superhero genre as a uniquely American myth that he tracks from the early age of straight-faced crime fighters through its camp and nostalgic phases and to more recent incarnations as dark heroes powerful heroines...and re-imagined characters." - C&RL News, June 2004 page 338.

"...the encyclopedia is well-researched and provides a wide array of television and film superhero characters' backgrounds, histories, ways they were perceived by critics, plus valuable facts about the TV shows and motion pictures that will prove useful to library patrons who are researching topics as varied as female superheroes in TV and film to the evolution of superheroes from comic book characters to TV and/or film central subjects. As this work is unique in its subject matter...academic, public, school and special librarians will find this title to be a good jumping off point for patrons when they are beginning research on TV and film superheroes. It will also be a good ready reference tool to consult for a particular fact or piece of data on a specific movie or TV programme that centres on a superhero. It is a valuable addition to any library's reference collection." - Carolyn Frenger, Reference Reviews, Volume 18, Number 6, 2004, pages 49-50.

"This book is to be read and referenced. Hardcore superhero enthusiasts will treasure it...Recommended." -Library Media Connection, Nov/Dec 2004, page 185

"An amazing collection of superhero biographies...detailed." - THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, "Best of Reference, 2005" Selection.

"Muir's encyclopedia should find much use, issued at a time when superheroes have made a strong comeback in feature films and animation...The book is recommended for libraries...and superhero researchers and fans." - ARBA, Volume 36.


Maybe a director book? How about The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi. Here's what the critics say:

"Enter prolific genre scribe John Kenneth Muir, an aficionado and unapologetically hardcore fanboy who's already authored tomes on John Carpenter, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, as well as the indispensable coffee-table crusher Horror Films of the 1970s. Muir's gift for recognizing and interpreting film grammar serves him well once again, and while most of us could immediately (and correctly) identify Raimi trademarks like camera gymnastics and Three Stooges references, Muir digs even deeper to analyze themes and visual hooks that have evolved throughout films as diverse as Army of Darkness, The Gift and Spider-Man...Muir continues to prove himself as one of horror film's more gifted and passionate commentators." - John Bowen, Rue Morgue, August 2004, page 18.

"Muir, author of Horror Films of the 1970s, admires and enjoys Raimi's highly praised work. Examining Raimi's oeuvre, from the cult classic low-budget horror film The Evil Dead (1981) through the mega-hit Spider-Man (2002), he offers lively, behind-the-scenes accounts via interviews with many of Raimi's collaborators. For example, he divulges the trade secrets of Tom Sullivan, the man responsible for the special effects in The Evil Dead, which illustrate the resourcefulness Raimi inspires in his colleagues...Muir shows how signature flourishes (e.g., his "Point of View subective shot") pop up in Raimi's fledgling works yet still thrill when used in Spider-Man. If there is a downside to the nonconformist director, Muir has yet to find it." - Publisher's Weekly, May 31, 2004.

"...Author Muir is a staunch Raimi fan, waxing enthusiastic about each of Raimi's films - they're given a chapter apiece...it's more than a cut-and-paste job; he's interviewed assorted cast and crew and makes excellent use of their recollections. And he writes splendidly. An insightful chapter, for example, on the Raimi film I most admire, A Simple Plan, demonstrates how much it owes to the Cain and Abel story, Macbeth, Of Mice and Men and...The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Chapter by chapter, the book builds a case for Raimi as one of our most accomplished filmmakers...GRADE: A-." - Lawrence Tucker Sci-Fi Magazine, Page 78. July 04.

"With two sections of photographs, including 20 never-before-seen stills detailing the making of the first two Evil Dead films, not to mention an amusing Raimi lexicon...The Unseen Force is in the end a must for the director's enthusiasts. " - Jeremiah Kipp, Fangoria #235 page 79.

"The Unseen Force is a welcome and greatly appreciated contribution to the annals of filmmaking and filmmaker histories."-
Midwest Book Review.

"This is, overall, an excellent book by noted film author John Kenneth Muir. It takes us behind the scenes of every Sam Raimi movie from Evil Dead up to the newly released Spider-Man 2 and is for the most part, a riveting read...The most interesting thing about the study is the depth of detail to which Muir goes using information provided by key principals (where possible) to provide a neat analysis of each movie...the amount of information revealed is fascinating...a must for lovers of Evil Dead...Great for Raimi fans and Evil Dead fans alike with a strong analytical approach to keep prospective film students happy. RATING: 4.5 CHAINSAWS (out of 5)." -
WITHIN THE WOODS: The Evil Dead Appreciation Site

So if you like my blog, chances are you'll like my books too. And the books pay the bills...