Friday, February 29, 2008

The House Between 2.5: "Populated"

In the fifth episode of the second season, "Populated" the temperature rises when Bill (Tony Mercer) finds Travis (Lee Hansen) reading his diary. Before long, tempers flare and something strange occurs: a gaggle of new, strangely inhuman denizens arrive in the house. As the temperature rises to 118 degrees in the house and Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Theresa (Alicia A Wood) struggle to determine the cause, one of the strangers has a message for Arlo (Jim Blanton). Also starring Craig Eckrich as Sgt. Brick and special guest stars Craig T. Adams and Bobby Schweizer. Written by Bobby Schweizer. Directed by John Kenneth Muir. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sy Fy Portal Reviews The House Between: Season One

Hey everybody, Marx Pyle over at Sy Fy Portal has written and posted a lengthy review of The House Between - season one! Check it out! He makes some good points about the sound and low-budget nature of the enterprise, but overall has some really terrific things to say about our independent little show.

Here's a clip:

"Things aren’t perfect, which is no big surprise for such a low-budget series. But, the well-written scripts manage to build a foundation strong enough for the actors and crew to work with. As the series progressed I became more enthusiastic and eager to see the next episode. At the end of the season finale I was disappointed that the ride was over and couldn’t wait to watch the second season.

If you are looking for a well-written science fiction series that has mystery, humor and a touch of horror then you have to check out "The House Between." Warning: The budget is low, but your love of the series will be high."

The House Between Director Notes 2.5: "Populated"

Now for something completely different...

Tomorrow we resume The House Between's second season with an episode entitled "Populated." This is the first episode in the series that I did not write, though Jim Blanton came up with the story idea for "Separated."

As I recall, the idea for "Populated" came about during shooting of the first season, when my lighting co-director Robert Schweizer pitched a great idea on the set. It was simple but perfect:
what if the house kept bringing more people into the house because of some malfunction?

I loved this notion, and I told Bobby to go ahead and write the story, and that I would rewrite it as necessary after he was finished so as to make sure it fit in with the second season story arc. (For instance, Sgt. Brick was not in Season One, nor was he conceived until late in the game for
Season Two, so he had to be added to the script.) Also, if you've been watching the show, you understand that the tone of Season Two is somewhat different than Season One...there was no way Bobby could know that.

I absolutely loved Bobby's idea about the house bringing more people in, because it allowed us to raise some interesting ideas that I wanted to explore on the series, particularly in relation to the hot-button issue of immigration in America. I mean, if there are people suddenly appearing in the house at the end of the universe, are they welcome there? Would our six denizens (Astrid, Arlo, Travis, Bill, Theresa and Brick) feel that the house was theirs, and that these newcomers had no right or claim to be there? And, what would be the impact on the environment of the smart house with an influx of new people appearing all at once? Who would feel threatened by the newcomers? Who might welcome them?

Bobby's story notion is exactly why I love science fiction. As I was saying to Rick, our DP the other day, I believe good science fiction has a responsibility to be about two things simultaneously: "the story" itself (the sci-fi scenario) and the larger -- and hopefully meaningful -- metaphor (about our real life.)

The more I thought about Bobby's idea, the more I liked it. I realized his notion gave us room to discuss issues like security (if we don't know where these people came from, can we trust them?) and also issues of human dignity. Is it ever right to treat other people as "aliens?" Another issue: By turning our backs on those who show up in "our house", what wisdom and knowledge do we risk losing? Could it be the very knowledge that could, someday, save us as a people?

Now honestly I don't have an answer for these "big" questions, I'm just fascinated by them and by the dilemma our country finds itself in today. Believe it or not, I try not to be overtly preachy on The House Between if I can help it, but what I did want in "Populated" was a tale that would gaze intelligently at all sides of the issue, without adopting either a right-wing or left-wing philosophy. It just seemed like
the house at the end of the universe was the perfect place to put the idea under the microscope.

Bobby turned in his story, and to my delight, it was one that skewed towards his favorite two characters, Travis and Arlo. I say "delighted" because I knew that I wanted to position "Populated" fifth in the second season queue, after the two-parter "Reunited"/"Estranged" that focused primarily on Bill and Astrid. I always consider The House Between an ensemble show, so I enjoy stories that give each character something new and interesting to do, and I think Bobby found that with "Populated." I knew it was a different and challenging story to tell, but our fifth slot is always our "experimental" or "off-kilter" slot. Last year, the experiment was titled "Mirrored," and this year, it's called "Populated" I say the show is experimental because the threat is unique; the new characters are unlike any you've seen on the show before, and there's also a mysterious character in the show without an overtly obvious identity. I know who he is; what he represents. I wonder if the audience will?

Here are Bobby's thoughts on conceiving the episode (and appearing in it): "The idea for "Populated" first came up during the filming of season one. We were sitting on the floor of the parlor talking about possible future episodes and started going through the tropes of other television shows. We imagined an episode where new characters are introduced without reason just to add a new dynamic. Then I thought, well what if the House was just overrun by people? I imagined an episode, sort of like a "Trouble With Tribbles," in which twenty or thirty extras just litter the house and the "gang" has to figure out how to get rid of them. Since that was unfeasible, I scaled it back to only a few new residents. These residents needed a reason for coming to the House, though, which is why I started researching population sustainability issues. The work of Thomas Malthus, a turn of the 19th century philosopher, really inspired the trajectory of the episode. Without giving too much away, I wanted to raise issues about sustainability and food-supply, xenophobia, and the symbiotic relationship of the House and its residents. Dave was named for David Ricardo, a contemporary of Malthus who developed theories of labor economies. What's a script without really obscure references?

It was difficult to write the first draft of the episode as I didn't know any of the story arc of season 2, nor that there were new characters. The shooting script was a collaboration with John, and though it was quite a bit different than my original draft, I think it ended up being a very strong episode. As a writer, it was a real challenge to "think like John" because the personality and narrative of The House Between was established so strongly in the first season. Once I got a handle on that the words came more easily. The universe of the series provides a lot of opportunities for creative episodes and I was extremely appreciative that John gave me the opportunity to work with his brain-child.

It was fun to play Dave in the episode, as it was the first time I had appeared on camera without an Outdweller mask. It gave me some perspective on what it was to be an actor--I felt the pressure of memorizing lines (I can't imagine having more than a handful!) as well as the pressure that weighs oh-so-heavy once "action!" is yelled. It was fun to work with Kevin, Phyllis, and Katherine as "pod people." We had to quickly develop a unique group identity as well as individual personalities. We sort of ended up as inquisitive zombies, more interested in the workings of the world and people than eating brains. "Pod power!" I say."

In terms of shooting this episode, I'll be honest: this was my best day. It was so much fun. We had a guest star, Craig T. Adams (of Dr. Madblood fame!), and I really enjoyed working with him. He was a professional who came to the set absolutely prepared and who took direction well. Plus we had Bobby himself as well as Kevin Flanagan in highly-amusing speaking roles. Phyllis Floyd and Katherine Dorn appeared in non-speaking roles and also did wonderful. Also adding to my enjoyment, "Populated" wasn't a life-and-death-"I'm sleeping with your wife,"-and-you "caused the holocaust"-type of show, so-to-speak. The story is important, the story is serious, but after the epic two-parter of "Reunited"/"Estranged" I find "Populated" a welcome change of pace. The House Between must always (carefully) balance the epic and the intimate, and it's nice to get back to the intimate this week.

Also, Rob had most of the crew in make-up this day, and did a tremendous job with the creation of characters we affectionately termed "pod people," or in some cases, "poddies." Also, the central threat of the episode is an up-tick in heat inside the house at the end of the universe. The heat spikes up to 118 degrees in the house before the climax, and this turn of events required that Rob continually "spritz" (or douse...) the cast with water (as sweat...) between takes. I don't think I've ever been so happy torturing the cast as on this day. I loved seeing them sprayed continually in the face, on their necks, on their shirts, etc. with cold water. In one moment I recorded for the blooper reel, Kim and Alicia indulged a fantasy for me and began spritzing each other. Yowza. That's all I'm sayin'.

Also, allow me to relate another funny story about the shoot. There's a scene involving "muffins" in "Populated" (you'll see...). Well, we had a whole tray of muffins waiting in the refrigerator for the big moment, and were planning to use two. I was in the middle of a scene directing and Kim Breeding suddenly came charging into the room with a look of pure terror plastered on her face. "We have rats, John!" she exclaimed. "There are rats in the house!" I couldn't believe it, but stranger things have happened. My old house had bats in it once. So rats...anything is possible, to coin a phrase.

So I asked Kim why she thought we had rats in the house, and she took me to the refrigerator to show me the tray of muffins. Sure enough, the tops of two muffins had been mutilated and torn apart by what Kim assumed were little rat teeth or claws, I guess. I admit, I was horrified: the muffins looked quite abused and desecrated. It looked like some beast had gnawed them to bits.

Then Rick the DP walked by and said nonchalantly that no, it wasn't rats. It was him. He just got hungry, I guess. God knows what he was doing to those muffins, but if he's ever in your house, lock up your baked goods. He's a serial abuser of danish...

Another incident shooting "Populated" - a confrontation between Bill and Travis got so out-of-hand that there was property damage (later repaired at my expense...). Talk about your method actors. The final shot of the scene (before a dissolve) reveals the actual damage (now fixed).

Editing "Populated" was a difficult haul, not because we didn't have ample coverage; not because the episode wasn't "good," not because of performances or story or any of those things. Instead, it was difficult because - as I said above - the story was not The House Between norm, and we were trying to sell a "threat" (extreme heat...) which, besides producing sweat, isn't overtly visual and doesn't have a dramatic personality. Fortunately, my producer Joe Maddrey came up with some brilliant, utterly ingenious notes that helped tie everything together, and bring the story into sharp focus. Kathryn watched the final show with me tonight and said that - again - we hooked her.

So tune in tomorrow for "Populated," and let us know how you like it! Next week is "Distressed," my ghost story.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

RETRO TOY UPDATE # 2: Unreleased Galoob Star Trek Action Figures (1988)

Back on December 14, 2006, in Retro Toy Flashback # 52, I looked at the Galoob line of toys and action figures from Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the time of that post, there was some interest generated in the comments section of the blog for the action figures that were never actually released to the public, specifically those of Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) and the Romulan (seen in the first season finale, "The Neutral Zone" with a flashy new look and Warbird).

A few weeks ago, a gentleman named Greg Peters contacted me with some further information on these toys. He actually owns a pair of these ultra-rare figures. Anyway, Greg was kind enough to send me the scan of his figures. (above). You can see, they are ensconced on Captain Picard cards with no original art, but still -- wow! The Galoob Holy Grail!

Greg also directed me to some background data on the toy line. In Trek Collector (Summer 1993), for instance, it was written in regards to these figures that "Galoob announced additional action figures to the line including the Romulan and acting ensign Wesley Crusher, but these were never released."

Toy Collector also had a piece on Galoob's Star Trek: The Next Generation toys in February 1996. An article by Jean Paul Vaudreuil featured photos of the unreleased "Enterprise starship action playset." Now, does anyone out there own one of those? Send pics!

Monday, February 25, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 49: Earth 2 (1994-1995): "First Contact"

The 1994-1995 NBC sci-fi series Earth 2 commences with a voice-over narration from protagonist, Devon Adair (Deborah Farentino). "My earliest memories of the Earth were stories," she notes wistfully over views of our planet, moving into a description of life on future Earth (and in Earth orbit...) in the year 2192 a.d. Most of the human race has moved to the "stations," a cluster of orbital satellites where life is "ordered, efficient" and "sterile." So much so that a new disease, "The Syndrome" has sprung up among the next generation of children. The Syndrome is caused not by a virus, but by the "absence of what nature can provide," a byproduct, we are informed, of sterile, artificial life.

This has become a personal crusade for Devon Adair because her eight year old son Ulysses is afflicted with the Syndrome. Those who suffer from it don't live past their ninth "Ullie" is rapidly running out of time. Earth science doesn't even acknowledge the presence of the disease...

In "First Contact," the two-hour premiere of the series Earth 2 (created by Billy Ray), the viewer sees Devon Adair engineer an escape from Earth, which apparently is ruled by a totalitarian-style "administration." An escape wouldn't be necessary, actually, if not for the machinations of the malicious government. You see, Devon has already been planning an official voyage to the star system G889 with 250 "Syndrome" families in tow as colonists. A planet in that distant solar system, New Pacifica, is wild, untamed and natural. Just the way Mother Earth used to be. Boasting a "habitability rating of 83," New Pacifica holds the promise of a cure for the Syndrome, but the voyage is not an easy one. To achieve this "second chance," the colonists must go into suspended animation (or "cold sleep") for the unheard of spell of twenty-two years...

But on the morning of the launch, Devon's colony ship intercepts a secret but official news transmission, one that reports the accidental destruction of their vessel upon leaving the station. In other words, the government is planning to kill Devon, Ulysses and all the colonists, rather than allow a colony to spring up (out of Earth control...) on distant New Pacifica. Devon orders an immediate launch to circumvent this eventuality and a search is begun on the colony ship for hidden explosive devices. The colony ship escapes the Stations (and detonates the bomb in space...), and begins the long, quiet journey to that distant world. Unfortunately, the hasty nature of the departure has serious repercussions: the team doctor is not aboard ship during the escape, meaning Dr. Heller - the most junior medical member of the staff - is put in charge. Devon doesn't quite trust her.

Twenty-two years after the daring escape, the crew of the advance ship is awakened from cold sleep during a disaster. Orbit around New Pacifica has been achieved, but something has gone drastically wrong, and the ship begins to buckle under the strain, losing whole cargo sections during flaming re-entry. The crew makes for the life-pods (in a harrowing and well-done action scene that seamlessly blends fine camera-work with beautiful special effects), and heads for the planet surface.

There - in the untamed wilderness - with scant supplies and little time to set up a colony before the families arrive, a new life begins for these pioneers. The series characters in addition to Devon Adair include a cyborg tutor named Yale (Sullivan Walker), a "cold sleep" pilot/jockey named Alonzo (Antonio Sabato Jr.), the colony ship engineer, Danzinger (Clancy Brown), the rookie doctor, Heller played by Jessica Steen (whose chromosomes are "skewed" to the medical arts), Zero - a robotic sentinel, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), and a shadowy government man, Martin (John Gegenhuber). During the first episode, these explorers get a taste of what is to come on their new home. They meet cute-but-dangerous wild animals (with poison claws...), begin to experience strange dreams about their new home, and encounter the indigenous population: mysterious "native" beings called Terrians who possess what seems a primitive culture. As the tag line for the show announced, "This Time, We Are The Aliens."

I remember watching Earth 2 on NBC -- where it lasted just one season and 21 episodes -- back in the mid-1990s and enjoying it well enough. However, watching it again in 2008 I was surprised to see how well the pilot/2-hour episode stands up. The special effects are actually very convincing. I was expecting a terrible CGI-fest because as much as I like the 1995 series Space: Above and Beyond, the space effects there have aged very, very poorly. In that program, greenscreen set-ups were obvious and poorly composited (down to green matte lines) and the spaceships had all the requisite (lack of) detail and realism of 1990s era video games. I guess Earth 2 had a higher budget, because the space effects in the pilot are downright stunning and still pack a punch. The make-up on the Terrians is still very effective (and menacing...) and the only effect which fails is the cute little moppet from New Pacifica, which looks like a gamma-ray mutated Kermit the Frog. Still, a weak effect here or there doesn't ruin the overall spell of a compelling, carefully-crafted production.

Also, the opening hour of the pilot, featuring the escape from Earth and then the crash at New Pacifica, is a model of effective, suspenseful storytelling. One can gaze at the government conspiracy and detect the influence of The X-Files (the big genre series of the nineties...) but that's just a minor sub-plot. Instead, Earth 2 actually gives the viewer something special and relatively unique: A "Wagon Train" series set on another planet. It's a futuristic Western (not unlike Firefly...), about bold explorers settling on a distant world. There are the "Indians" in the form of the Terrians, and on this show, "Back East" is actually solar systems away. The pioneers of New Pacifica must countenance not only the savage natives, but the vicissitudes of nature (storms, flooding, etc.), another convention of the Western. Despite this deliberate and interesting overlay of the Western genre, what impresses most about Earth 2 is that it is markedly devoid of cheesy, familiar and overt "sci fi" touches so often shoe-horned into major television series. The sets are utilitarian (more a child of Alien than Star Trek), the costumes are realistic, not polyester uniforms or space pajamas, and even when there are the expected derivative touches, like a robot named Zero, it is not a cheesy personality who wants to be human, but rather a useful device. In a nice visual joke, the wagon train on hand here is...a Hummer. But not today's Hummer (as on the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica), rather a futuristic (and convincing) variation. What if Lost in Space had taken its premise of planetary exploration seriously, without camp? Earth 2 answers that question. Also, for a nineties production (the dawning age of irony and snark), it is sort of anti-post-modern, all-but devoid of cultural references and allusions. In other words, Earth 2 is a straightforward series about exploration, and one suitable for the entire family.

I also appreciate that this series features no jump gates, star gates, wormholes or warp drives. It sticks to the (current) reality that interplanetary space travel is time-consuming, dangerous and requires human beings to remain in suspended animation for a long duration to survive the trip. In essence, what I'm saying here is that there is a believability factor in the technology and storyline of this 90s series that is commendable ad in some sense, unique. Also, you don't get the feeling watching Earth 2 that it fetishizes hardware (particularly guns - as in one current sci-fi franchise), and nor does it feel the need to constantly preach about contemporary issues of gravity here on Earth. Even the environmental message of Earth 2 is delivered in relatively non-judgmental terms. The vistas on New Pacifica - beautiful natural landscapes - get the point across as well as any character hectoring about wasting resources or destroying the ecosphere..

Finally - and I realize this has been commented on before in other forums - watching Earth 2, you have to wonder about the similarities it bears to a current (and popular) genre series, Lost. In Lost, as you will recall, a plane crashes on a remote and perhaps mystical island, where another "tribe" (The Others) already lives. There, a diverse group of survivors are forced to reckon with the mysteries of the locale and cohere as a group. In a sense, that's also the plot of Earth 2, right? Only it's not an island; it's an entire planet. And think about it: the planet in Earth 2 boasts restorative powers (for Ullie, for instance), just as the island in Lost cures John Locke of his paralysis and frees him from his wheelchair. Similarly, there are multiple groups of survivors in both series, with the "Tailies" on Lost, and the other life-pod survivors on Earth 2. Bickering married couples also appear on both shows in supportig roles, Kim and Sun on Lost and Morgan and his wife, played by Rebecca Gayheart, on Earth 2. Just a thought, but perhaps this one season wonder from the early Age of Clinton was a bit more influential and important historically than I had previously given it credit for.

Which isn't to say that Earth 2 doesn't have weaker moments. Some of the music is over-dramatic and maudlin, and the pilot includes some groaners in the dialogue from time to time (in the first hour, the latter comes in the form of a voice over about Ullie "slaying" his monsters. Ugh.) Also, I like the performances (so far). I haven't seen Farentino in anything lately, but she makes for a strong and intelligent presence here. I know that Devon Adair preceded Captain Janeway by about four months historically, but I appreciate that Adair grows into the role of leader on Earth 2 and doesn't need a "rank" like captain for others to follow her. She's a leader because that's who she is as a human being...and it's something she only begins to realize as the series goes on. This approach feels very natural, and very different from Star Trek.

Watching the pilot for Earth 2, I had the fleeting thought that if I ever had time, I should really go back and watch all twenty-one episodes and really pay attention this time. The only thing that prevents me from doing so (besides how busy I am at the moment...) is the fact that I know the series ends on a down-note with an unresolved cliffhanger. If I end up liking the series as much as the pilot, that would be a real buzz-kill...