Friday, April 11, 2008

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day # 5:

"We're living in deep space, there are so many things we don't understand. We don't know what that alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we've got to try to help each other understand."

-Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) speaks the words of Johnny Byrne in the teleplay for "Force of Life," the ninth episode of Space:1999.

This is one of my all-time favorite Space:1999 quotes, because I believe it says a lot about Johnny's philosophy of life. In essence: we may not understand (as human beings) why things happen the way they do. However, what we do have in times of strife is each other.

This reaching out to a person in pain is a beautiful response to the random, chaotic existence we face as living creatures. Sometimes we don't know why our loved ones contract cancer, or why a plane crashes, or why destiny leads us in one direction or another. But what makes such crises bearable is the warm, supportive hand of a friend, a lover, a spouse, a child, a parent. In the dark and mysterious universe we dwell in, our gift as a species is that we help each other. We're all in the same boat. Or on the same moonbase, at least.

Storywise, I appreciate this quote because it denies viewers answers as to the central threat of the episode (an alien force of life taking over a moonbase tech). On The Next Generation, this quote would have read like this: "We discovered the alien life form was attracted to a tertiary domain of subspace on a symbiotic frequency to our primary sensor array. So we modulated the deflector dish, fired a graviton pulse, and now we never have to worry about it ever again. Full speed ahead..."

But that crap would never happen in Johnny's writing. Sorry folks, he seems to tell audiences, no technobabble to explain what you've just seen. Nothing is going to be spoon fed to the TV audience. Instead he wants us...just think about it. What do we think it means? How do we interpret it?

And again, this goes back to a previous thought of Johnny's. On The Next Generation, the answer to an alien problem is always found in what people "have" (future tech like deflector dishes). On Space:1999 the answer - if there is an answer at all - is in us; in our hearts ('we have to try to help each other to understand"). In this fashion - and what people have never understood - Space:1999 is deeply and truly humanist. It might not be feel-good; it might not reinforce some cheery optimism...but it is human in a way that The Next Generation or Voyager just never is.

Again, the Johnny Byrne approach is more artful because it deliberately mirrors our existence, our own "force of life": how often does technology actually satisfactorily explain or resolve the troubling things in our existence? How often can it explain the motivation of another person? Or the reason a disaster occurs? And why it occurs where it does; and to what people?

No, as fallible human beings we just have to accept that our life - like the life of the Alphans - is dependent, to some extent, on the things we don't know and can't control. Good, honest drama should reflect that. Johnny knew that. This is the reason I return to his work, and Space:1999 again and again. The uniforms and hairstyles may age, but the ideas in the show don't. They seem more relevant than ever. And as a developing storyteller, this is the kind of story I must keep striving to create.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day #4:

"I think this is a universal principle: the rate of a life form's biological development is out of key with the rate of technological development. In a hundred years, we've advanced enormously in terms of technology, but we're essentially the same fearful, passionate, mistake-ridden, aggressive, greedy, ego-driven creature. And there is nothing materially different in recorded history going right back to the Greeks. We are governed by the same kind of incoherent tribulatons today as we were then. We really haven't progressed."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day #3:

"Science is a religion. Science is just another form of belief. It is only modern man who has made the distinction between science and religion..."

-Johnny discusses the role of science and religion in Space:1999.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day:

"[Star Trek] Voyager is the antithesis of Space:1999. I think it's dull and formulaic. It's lost any sense of urgency. My problem is that the characters have so much, but accomplish so f-ing little. Contrast that with the Alphans: they had so little, yet accomplished so much. The Alphans found solutions to their problems in who they are, not what they had. For them, the answer to the dilemma was never firepower or technology."

- Johnny Byrne, 2001, after I asked him about whether he saw any similarities between Voyager and Space:1999.

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 74: Sea Quest DSV (Playmates; 1993)

Sometimes licensing toys or action figures based on TV shows and films is a real gamble, I suppose. In the early 1990s, Playmates acquired the license to something old (Star Trek) and something new (SeaQuest DSV). It had good luck with the former, not so much with the latter. The Star Trek line of figures, ships and play sets lasted into the 21st century, but the SeaQuest line just kind of...sunk. It was scuttled after a year.

Some background: Sea Quest DSV is the story of a state-of-the-art Deep Sea Vessel, Sea Quest, commanded by Nathan Bridger. Set in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Sea Quest was part of the UEO (United Earth Oceans), and would ofte come to the assistance of underwater colonies, battle pirates, ad conduct deep sea rescue missions.

I watched SeaQuest DSV when it aired originally (on NBC). I made Kathryn watch it too, and it bored her to tears. Literally. She would cry when I forced her to watch it. Personally I rather enjoyed much of the first season. I appreciated the cool metallic, hard-tech lines of the sets; the sparse, science-based stories and I'm a sucker for stories set on submarines. When I was a little boy, my favorite of all books (and films) was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. To thi
s day, I still want to harpoon a giant squid like Ned Land or hop a ride on Captain Nemo's Nautilus.

So I was inclined to watch the series, in reality little more than an update of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and it had a decent filmmaking pedigree. Roy Scheider starred and he wasn't known for crap, and Steven Spielberg was involved behind-the-scenes, which assured a strong production budget-wise. And best of all, the lovely Stacy Haiduk (my wife Kathryn's long-lost identical twin...) was on board too playing Lt. HItchcock. And jeez - SeaQuest (set in the year 2018) featured a talking dolphin as a mai character. Who couldn't love that? And did I mention that William Shatner, Mark Hamill, David McCallum and Charlton Heston all guest starred on the series? That was worth a little good will, wasn't it?

Then the show underwent a mysterious but thorough quality-extraction process called "second-season-ism" (see: Space:1999) and suddenly it was a cheesy underwater adventure show with giant crocodiles and people with gills or something. I stopped watching, but tuned back in for the third season premiere out of morbid curiosi. Roy Scheider was gone because he had derided the show as "Star Dreck" or something, and Michael Ironside was now the stern captain of the ship. I have to admit, I thought the t
hird season was a step back in the right direction...but I still didn't watch it regularly. Someday, when I have absolutely nothing to do, I will go back and watch the show again. In fairness, haven't seen any SeaQuest in fifteen years. Maybe it's something Joel will appreciate when he's allowed to see more than Thomas the Tank Egine. If I remember correctly, SeaQuest had a faintly educational smell about it...

But anyhoo, I really dug the action figures from Playmates, and wish more had been made. I love owning an action figure of Stacy Haiduk....I can't help it, it's like a Kathryn voodoo doll. And a Roy Scheider figure seems even more valuable today given the actor's passing. I also have the figure of the genius kid the late Jonathan Brandis played (Lucas?), and the talking Dolphin, Darwin. I got them all cheap: like 99 cents on the clearance rack sometime in the mid-1990s.

Still...look at those spiffy black uniforms. And they came with spiffy accouterments too: walkie talkies, phasers, harpoons, etc. I would have loved to see a Playmates Sea Quest ship bridge or play set.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Mad for MAD

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day:

As a tribute to my late mentor and hero, Irish TV writer and poet Johnny Byrne, I shall be posting here this week some of the memorable thoughts and quotes he shared with me in our interviews over the years. Johnny was more than a science fiction TV writer; actually something more akin to a philosopher in the Age of Global Media. I'd like to see his thoughts find additional relevancy in this Age of You Tube and The New Media. So here we go. This quote reflects Johnny's intense dislike of the phenomenon of political correctness in the Clinton/Bush age, which he felt was practically Orwellian. From 2002:

"In terms of what is happening now, as opposed to 1975, is we're living in an age in which there is a serious spiritual vacuum. Values are having to be artificially created for people to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of worth. We notice that particularly in the all-pervasive global media grasp. Feelings now can be manipulated by global media.

There is nothing to seriously believe in, except personal advancement and personal ambition. There is very little striving for something greater. That's why we have such a very strong downward pressure from political correctness. We're meant to abide by a kind of opaque series of pre-judgments and rules which are almost totalitarian in their severity. It's not enough to do as you're told, you actually have to think as you're told and feel as you're told. These shifting things mean there is a lack of something concrete which people can hold onto and say 'this is the thing.'"

MOVIE REVIEW: The Reaping (2007)

In the tradition of The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Seventh Sign (1988) comes The Reaping (2007), a religious-themed horror flick directed by Stephen Hopkins. Oscar-winner Hilary Swank stars as LSU professor Katherine Winter, who debunks incidences of Biblical "plagues" for a living and finds special pleasure in "disproving miracles."

After solving a case in Concepcion, Chile (a location portrayed by terrible CGI...), a triumphant Winter returns to the States and at the behest of a local high-school science teacher (David Morrissey) agrees to assist a remote Southern town called Haven with...a problem. It seems that the idyllic, off-the-radar town is undergoing a plague of its own (a local bayou turned blood-red), and the superstitious townsfolk blame a shunned twelve-year old girl on welfare for the curse. This strikes a chord with Katherine, because her young daughter was murdered on a missionary trip to Africa. In fact, it was that incident that caused Katherine - formerly a Christian - to lose faith.

On arrival in Haven (motto: What you waiting for? God don't have all day!), Katherine suspects pfisteria as the cause of the bayou's crimson hue. However, before long, other Biblical plagues are visited upon the town. Particularly, (and in chronological order): raining frogs, the death of livestock, an outbreak of boils, and an attack by locusts. Katherine is hard-pressed to explain this series of catastrophic events, but the locals suspect that "there's something unnatural going on."

Ya think?

You can probably write the rest of this synopsis yourself if you've ever seen a horror film. Katherine - a disbeliever who has "lost faith" because of that personal tragedy in her past - is forced to reckon with and re-evaluate her religious beliefs in the face of mounting evidence of the supernatural (and THE PRESENCE OF GOD!). And the tale of an "evil little girl" (like Samara in The Ring [2002]) is actually a smoke-screen for a story about the primacy of the maternal instinct and motherhood. During the climax, there's much fire and light and sound and fury as God's wrath is visited upon the Evil Doers in Haven like shock and awe in Baghdad. The Evil Doers in this case -- spoiler alert -- turn out to be ensconced in a Satanist cult. And they have a most unusual eugenics program going on...

So, basically, The Reaping is kind of like a southern-fried Brotherhood of Satan (1971). Just not that good. The film's best scene involves Katherine, explaining in a well-delivered monologue, a detailed scientific explanation for the ten plagues visited upon Egypt in pre-history (according to the Bible). It's a brilliant recitation of scientific hypothesis - and absolutely believable and plausible to the final iteration. And yet, even in this strong scene, I felt a little let down. Why? Gillian Anderson would have done it better. Seriously, this moment plays like a decent X-Files monologue from Scully. Only problem is that The X-Files countenanced this material every week for years and years...and did it soooo much better. When Swank delivers it, it's petulant regurgitation of fact. When Anderson delivered material such as this to Duchovny, it was virtual sexual foreplay...and immediately rebutted with equal passion and plausibility.

On a script level, The Reaping doesn't really play fair with the viewer either. Throughout the film, Katherine experiences nightmares which might be real, and "dazzling" psychic visions or flashes of events she couldn't have possibly witnessed first hand, but which in an obligatory fashion provide her critical information to solve the puzzle of the plagues. The issue, however, is that the script doesn't include Katherine's reaction to these all-too-frequent psychic interludes. One hallucination finds her walking out on a front porch, walking to an outdoor sink, grabbing a rag, and washing up a little girl's menstrual blood from the child's leg. Then the girl disappears -- like she was never there. Katherine is still holding the rag and standing on the porch. So...does Katherine think she imagined it? Does she think she saw a ghost? Was it real to her? Was it a fantasy? The movie never decides how the character views these flashes (which I suspect were added later, in an attempt to salvage some sense of clarity...). She just walks back into the house and walks around. In this situation, (especially if I were a rational debunker...), I'd say...okay, I'm still holding the rag. There's blood on it. Therefore I did not hallucinate this encounter. What's going on? Or some such thing.

Or maybe I'd just run screaming like a little girl and get the hell out of Haven. I don't know. Toss up.

Anyway, here's how I know the movie never decides what Katherine thinks she sees during these psychic flashes. After the event with the menstrual blood, Katherine gets on the phone with her token black sidekick, and he asks her about what she saw at the house. She instantly changes the subject instead of answering...a blatant cop-out. D'oh! That's not playing fair with the audience. She doesn't even say. "I'm not sure," or "I think I'm seeing things." She just blithely changes the subject, ignoring his question. Come on movie, work with me, all right?

There are some other notable gaps in logic. One of Katherine's long-distance friends is a priest, played by a slumming-it Stephen Rea (what, Neil Jordan wasn't making a movie this week?). He is receiving "signs" (from God or the Devil) that Katherine is in danger. The priest speaks with her on the telephone, and warns her -- in a long dialogue scene -- about a Biblical prophecy which she may be playing a role in (as an ordained minister herself). He gets out a long-winded bit of exposition, highly-detailed and informative, but then - after he finishes - his office catches fire and he burns to death (while Katherine is still on the phone). So the Devil is so powerful he can spontaneously burn up a priest's office and a priest, long-distance (ostensibly from Hell...).

So why didn't he do that before the priest delivered the critical exposition to Katherine, the one person who might stop the Devil's master plan? See, it's one of those movies. You start to think about it...and the whole thing falls apart.

The entire film plays at that level of just-a-little-too-stupid, riffing derivatively on Rosemary's Baby (1968) for its "surprise" ending. There are occasional moments of legitimate visual ingenuity, such as a "locust cam." I really loved that touch, I must admit. Locusts swarm onto the camera lens for a few seconds, and the viewer can't make out what's happening....only witness the crawling bugs moving around. Ewww. Also, I have never seen Hilary Swank look hotter. She's smoking sexy here. Kathryn thought the Oscar-winner's presence would assure a decent thriller, but I have a long, long memory. "Remember The Core, my dear," I said. "Remember The Core..."

Not much else to say about The Reaping, really, except that I'm glad -- at the very least -- it isn't a remake, and that David Morrissey better stop making terrible movies like this pronto (he was also in Basic Instinct 2), or he's going to be associated with cinematic plagues by bad movie lovers for years to come. Another thing: I must wonder what's happened to Stephen Hopkins, who once upon a time directed promising horrors such as A Nightmare on Elm Street V: The Dream Child (an underrated Freddy sequel...), Predator 2 (another underrated sequel), and The Ghost and the Darkness (1996). I guess directing Lost in Space (1998) has finally caught up with the guy.

Here's my closing thought: It might have been interesting (and original, rather than derivative), if instead of this movie concerning a fallen character rediscovering her faith (which we've seen a million times in movies like The Exorcist), Hilary here had just debunked all the plagues and proved that every event had an entirely rational explanation. Why does Hollywood insist that "atheists" always must discover (or re-discover) God? Why can't it ever be the other way around? Why can't an atheist be a hero and an atheist at the same time? (Here's why: to make money, you have to pander to the masses and reinforce - not challenge - established beliefs.) I'm not saying atheists are right in their world view or anything, only that a little variation on a theme might be nice now and again.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston (1924-2008)

Sad times, we live in, especially if we cherish film and television of the past. We lost another great one last night, Oscar-winner Charlton Heston, who passed away at age 84. I'll be the first to admit I didn't often agree with his politics on a whole host of important issues...but ultimately that's immaterial. Heston is legend, and remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. He was to me - quite simply - a God of the silver screen.

The 1970s, at least pre-Star Wars, was surely the golden age of the anti-hero in cinema and television. The majority of heroes on celluloid and the boob tube were angry "little" men like Kojak, Dirty Harry, or Paul Kersey from Death Wish...hardened, cynical men and vigilantes who bent the rules (otherwise known as the law) and who were disdained by society at large but championed nonetheless as heroic for bucking the system and cutting through red tape. Given such "heroes," that's why I'm so glad that - as my young and curious intellect formed - I had other examples to admire: heroes like William Shatner's Captain Kirk, Martin Landau's Commander Koenig, Darren McGavin's Kolchak, and Charlton Heston's iconic science fiction heroes: Taylor, Neville and Thorn.

I don't know -- I could be wildly off base here -- perhaps Heston's roles were those of the "anti-hero" too, but there was something unique and special about this actor; his performances and the parts he selected. Heston's genre roles always put him in conflict with the establishment and society too, but universally against a kind of inimical, anti-humanist society, whether one run by intelligent apes, subterranean mutants, evil (cannibalistic...) cabals, or albino night-dwellers.

This persona worked for me because -- even as a kid -- I knew that Heston had really sharp edges. He played tough, sometimes embittered characters but ones who ultimately - when push came to shove - fought (often to the death...) to do the right thing. He always seemed to play characters who didn't believe in the decency of humanity but because of circumstances was put in the position of defending humanity. He seemed to always play "the truth seeker."

I find something incredibly noble and moving about that aesthetic. If Heston were a typical Hollywood leftist/liberal I suspect this ethos wouldn't have worked. Instead, it's rather amazing to see a right-wing ideologue in the most leftist mainstream genre films of a cinematic age: Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973). A left leaner discovering over-population and cannibalistic corporatism in Soylent Green is preaching to the choir...but right-winger Heston vetting it is a practical revelation. A left-leaner finding out that man destroyed himself with nuclear missiles in Planet of the Apes...same thing. I don't think I'm saying this well, but it's a kind of alchemy. It was and remains perfect casting.

One of my movie critic heroes and seminal influences, the late Pauline Kael said it better and more eloquently than I can. She explained Heston's presence in this manner (in regards to his role in Planet of the Apes):

"Physically, Heston with his perfect, lean, hipped body, is a god-like hero, built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him, because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power - the physical attraction and admiration one feels toward the beauty of strength as well as the moral revulsion one feels toward the ugliness of violence...He is the perfect American Adam to work off some American guilt feelings or self-hatred on." (Pauline Kael, New Yorker: Apes Must Be Remembered, Charlie," "February 17, 1968, page 108.

I know this next statement will read or sound corny, but to my young mind (and somewhere in my arrested adult mind...), I watch Charlton Heston in his sci-fi films and I say: yes, this is what a man is. This is what a man looks like. (God, I sound like I'm quoting Fight Club, I fear.) I realize I'll probably get skewered for that admission, from both sides of the political spectrum, but this is how I feel. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this idea: In Heston's genre performances there is a man who believes one thing (for good reason) but embraces reality and modulates his views, while still being true to himself. He chooses based on the situation at hand, not on his previous belief system. His characters aren't "faith based" in the sense that they believe on Wednesday what they believe on Monday - regardless of what happened on Tuesday. Instead, he deals, he adjusts, but he is still powerful, still an individual, still true to his core self. He isn't a hypocrite, he's a realist and a pragmatist. He is what an American hero used to be like Patriotic...but open to input, even if it flies in the face of old values and tradition.

I have to admit that as much as I appreciate Michael Moore and love his films (particularly Sicko), Bowling for Columbine fell apart for me in the finale when he accosted Charlton Heston. When he went after an old man. Heston was gentleman enough to permit Moore (and film crew...) into his house, and - without preparation - attempted to explain his positions on guns and gun control. He misspoke, perhaps, in a moment of trying to express himself, but Moore's film tried to portray this fumble as racism. I didn't like seeing one of my childhood heroes ambushed, and I don't think that this moment is going to prove - in the final analysis - to be one of Moore's career highlights. I know a lot of viewers who feel exactly the same way: they loved the film until it looked like Moore was making his point at the expense of an old, unprepared man. It just makes Moore look mean-spirited. And Moore never noted in the film, for instance, that Heston fronted films that derided nuclear war and right-wing religious zealotry (Planet of the Apes), big business and environmentalism (Soylent Green), and racial division (The Omega Man). As someone who grew up with those films as practical Scripture, I feel this is a fatal omission, and particularly one-sided.

But I've gotten off track here. It isn't my intent to defend Heston or his right-wing beliefs (which I don't share), only to state my opinion that he was a talent who was more than the sum of his political convictions. He was an icon, and for kids in the 1970s, he was the best game in town. Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man -- these were the screen fantasies of my youth (pre-Star Wars), and there was Charlton Heston, front-and-center defending the human race and human values -- in every damn one of them. He gave me hours and years and decades of enjoyment, fronting those films and I cherish his performances and his memory. I don't have to agree with Hestons beliefs to admire him, and to admire what he accomplished in a long and versatile career.