Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Captain Nemo and Me

"The Earth does not want new continents, but new man..."
-Captain Nemo (20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Chapter 18).

For me, life really got good when I first experienced 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea.

Or at least -- I'm not ashamed to admit it -- when I first viewed the classic 1954 Disney cinematic adaptation of the great Jules Verne book.

When did this happen, exactly? Well...er...I don't remember exact dates, alas, but I believe I first encountered 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea sometime in the early 1970s, when I couldn't have been more than three or four years old. I can't remember if I saw the film on television or at a theater revival. But I was positively entranced.

It was that movie, in fact, which absolutely ignited my love of films (and other visual media...) that feature:

a.) exploration (of either the ocean realm or outer space...).

b.) monsters and horror (in Sea represented by a hungry giant squid...).

c.) amazing, fantasy/high-tech conveyances (in this case, the advanced and gorgeous submarine, Nautilus).

Gazing back, I can see clearly now how experiencing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at a very young age prepared me for what was to come. From Land of the Lost, Star Trek, Space:1999, The Land That Time Forgot, At The Earth's Core, Planet of the Apes, King Kong, and Godzilla, to Alien, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, The Black Hole and other treasures of my childhood (and indeed, my adulthood). I also have very fond memories of being a boy -- perhaps of six years?-- and listening to my father read chapters of Verne's book before lights out and bedtime.

Today, I stand over the dangerous precipice of age 40. If anything has pushed me closer to the chasm called "old age," it's caring on a daily basis for a rambunctious, energetic two-year old son who is a delight in every way...but who rarely sleeps through the night. And who likes to wake up at 4:30 am.

Last week, he was up and ready to start his day one morning at 2:52 am.

I love my boy Joel more than life itself. He has an amazing way of making me feel both old and young simultaneously. Old...because I need the sleep. Young...because the entire world is a wonder, an adventure, a brand new - and inviting - experience for him. I look into his excited eyes as he makes the Batplane "shoot flames out the back," or as he shows me the contrails created by his Klingon Bird of Prey (which he asks for by name...). I see how he picks up absolutely everything from the world around him (including the theme song for Transformers...), and I can't help but reflect a bit on my own happy youth so many yahrens ago.

Anyway, this post is just my long-winded, overly-sentimental way of saying that in 2009 -- the year I turn 40 -- I'm going to focus some energy here on the productions of my youth that I loved so much. Productions that, perhaps, will hold value for Joel too in the years and decades ahead.

A good place to start that journey is....Starship Invasions.


Kidding.

It's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. In particular I wish to study one of my longtime heroes, the inscrutable, tragic Captain Nemo. That old, mysterious submarine Captain has lived quite the life on film and television, so I'll be blogging here about his many adventures; from the original Verne book, to the 1954 Disney movie, to Mysterious Island (1961), to Captain Nemo and The Underwater City (1969) to the very Star Wars-inspired miniseries, Return of Captain Nemo (1978).

Don' t worry: I won't stop blogging my regular stuff (movie/tv reviews, Dollhouse, cult shows, etc.), but much as I blogged a series on director William Friedkin last year, I want to dive under the surface of Captain Nemo's intriguing world this year and see what we can excavate.

The Nautilus is boarding, so hurry...(just keep your hands off the hull when it's electrified...). First up: the book. If you've got a copy, dust it off and start reading...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Echoes"

This week on Dollhouse, the Fox series pulls a "Naked Time" and infects the Actives and employees of the top-secret Dollhouse facility with a plague that releases long-held inhibitions (by breaking down natural barriers in the hippocampus...).

In Star Trek's classic (and oft-imitated) "The Naked Time," a similar disease (which acted like alcohol intoxication) allowed us to learn of Christine Chapel's secret love for Mr. Spock, Kirk's loneliness and isolation as Captain, Sulu's inner swashbuckler, and Spock's deep regret at never being able to tell his human mother he loves her. These emotions and revelations excavated new and believable aspects of the characters.

On Dollhouse...all the characters just act...silly. Topher walks around his lab in his underwear. De Witt gets a bad case of the munchies. And the Actives experience brief flashbacks of traumatic experiences (in Iraq, and memories of a rape, respectively). The same type of outbreak occurs on a local college campus, making all of the student body transform into "wacky time bombs."

Frankly, I can't imagine why a writer would do a story such as this (and I've used it myself; see The House Between's "Mirrored") if he/she didn't have something more imaginative and revelatory to say about the series' dramatis personae.

I'll be honest: the aspects of "Echoes" that are supposed to be funny and revealing...are flat-out awful. The humor doesn't work in the slightest, perhaps because the actors don't really know who these characters are yet, and the material they're given doesn't provide the slightest bit of real illumination or insight. A useful writer's tool to expose characters' inner selves (a disease showing hidden traits...) is instead used for cheap jokes. What a bust...

But...(and this is a big but, so to speak...), "Echoes" is by no means a total disaster. "Echoes" does provide us some important information about Echo's history with a malevolent corporation (and Dollhouse sponsor) called "Rossum," and it shows us (both in flashback and present circumstances) how, precisely, De Witt recruits "Actives." Apparently, people like Caroline and this week's guest character Sam, are offered a "way out" when caught in a jam with the law. De Witt makes them "an offer" they can't refuse: five years of service, then out. This is another piece of the larger Dollhouse jigsaw we can fit together now, and it's rewarding that the series is assembling the larger puzzle.

We also can't ignore the fact that Echo spontaneously breaks out of her imprint this week and begins to experience the memories of her real personality, as Caroline. That's a huge development, and one that seems to indicate we'll soon be seeing Dushku actually playing an actual character, and not just a series of "assignments." In fact, next week's episode "Awakening" looks like it could break this whole story wide open.

I'm looking forward to "Awakening" and still crossing my fingers that Dollhouse finds some solid character ground on which to build. It has five episodes left this season...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Director's Notes: "Exposed"

A bit of an odd scenario this week on The House Between, as the series rockets towards a finale. "Exposed" started out one way, and ended another way, in part because of shooting difficulties, setbacks and delays at our location. To be more specific: line dancing,

Regardless of the background details, "Exposed" remains a sort of "Man Who Cried Wolf" story. In this circumstance, that man crying wolf is my duplicitous alter-ego, Dr. Sam Clark. In "Exposed" Sam returns to the denizens with a handful of revelations, surprises and warnings. Given the group's previous experience with Sam, each person is understandably reluctant to believe his incredible tales.

Which may be bad for the denizens in the long run...


There aren't many genre antecedents or tributes to report this week (though I did have the incredible joy of crafting one special effects homage to Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants...). Instead, "Exposed" is almost entirely "mytharc" material that answers long-standing questions (and raises many more, based on my THB notebook of future episodes.directions/revelations).

“Exposed” marks the final series appearance of Sam and our recurring villains, the Outdwellers. Originally, I had intended not to feature the Outdwellers again at all this season, but I realized that they are an important ingredient of the overall story and that their two episodes (“Visited” and “Estranged”) are among the most popular with some fans, so it seemed right as we close down shop to have them appear one last time. This way, they have at least a token presence in each season.

As for Sam Clark, I always intended to bring the bastard back for more dastardly and deceptive behavior. In the original version of “Exposed’ he came back and pulled a nasty trick that was so believable, so shocking, it would have knocked your socks off. We didn’t film that...we ran out of time.

Anyway, “Exposed” moves fast, offers a dozen twists and turns, reveals a ton of secrets and then raises new, deeper questions. It leaves several characters shattered and hints at the upcoming final chapter. It’s not the story it started out to be, but it serves as an interesting “prologue” to our last show. It airs here tomorrow.

Guns, Gangs and Ultra-Violence

A few weeks ago on the blog, I had the pleasure of reviewing author Stephen Tropiano's exhaustive study of censorship and film history, entitled Obscene, Indecent, Immoral and Offensive: 100+ Years of Censored, Banned and Controversial Films.

Now, by arrangement with the book publisher, Limelight (an Imprint of Hal Leonard), I can present readers of this blog an excerpt from the text.

I selected Chapter 4, sub-titled "Guns, Gangs and Ultra Violence" for the sneak peek. Among other things, this chapter gazes at the controversies surrounding such films as Bonnie & Clyde (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969) and Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971).

Here's the link to the entire chapter, which makes for fascinating reading. Again, this is a book that I wholeheartedly recommend to readers interested in film history, and the history of censorship in America. If you like what you see, you can order the book through the Limelight/Applause site here.

Theme Song of the Week # 48: Logan's Run: The Series (1977)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Crabtree Legal

Lee Hansen -- Travis Crabtree on The House Between -- is the subject of an exclusive interview over at the series fan site, Quantum Imprimaturs. I think this is Lee's first official interview on the web series, and it's very illuminating.

Here's a taste:


There seemed to be an effort in the second season to soften or “humanize” Travis. I see this in regards to episodes like “Populated,” “Distressed” and “Ruined.” What do you feel about this trend?

I like it in the sense that gives another dimension to Travis. That he isn't a two-dimensional character that is predictable. Travis and the others are human beings and John writes it like that to give the viewers something to reflect upon. There are little bits of Travis, Bill, Astrid, Theresa, Arlo, Brick and even Sange and Sam in all of us.

In “Populated” it seemed like Travis was really lonely, and just wanted to have some friends. What was it like playing a more vulnerable Travis?

I don't know if Travis was more vulnerable, but it was nice to see him have a little fun that didn't involve someone getting stabbed or emotionally hurt. Travis, in a way, was trying to recapture some of what he left behind, not knowing that Vitality summoned them to help fix the house and not cheer up Travis.

Monday, March 23, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Starship Invasions (1977)

Just between you and me, I was an indulged child. Not spoiled, necessarily...merely indulged. One of my father's frequent refrains when I was growing up was "I wish I had a mother like you."

Didn't you just know it from seeing my toy collection?

Well if you didn't realize it before, you'll know for certain after I reveal the fact that my loving, devoted parents actually took me to the movies (older sister-in-tow) to see the Canadian-made disaster, Starship Invasions (1977) during its very limited theatrical engagement.

(LITTLE KNOWN FACT: Since I saw it in the theater with my entire family, the Muirs represented almost 90% of the film's entire box office return.)

Anyway, this was the disco-decade era of Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), I was in the second grade, and I loved with a passion everything outer-space related. Movies, TV shows, books, toys, games...you name it.

My parents supported me in my obsession with the final frontier and so -- when a movie titled Starship Invasions landed at the local theater -- we hopped in the car and went to see it. My parents didn't check reviews, they didn't hem and haw. We just went...

Alas, the movie had barely begun before my enthusiasm and anticipation drained away. The first scene involved a pudgy Canadian farmer being abducted by aliens in funny black hats.

Once aboard the alien ship, the hick (who resembles Elmer Fudd...) was seduced by a naked alien siren, and my Mother was poking my Dad in the ribs with increasing concern. "Ken...Ken!!" What kind of movie was this?

Well, in short, Starship Invasions is a terrible, rotten, stinky B movie. Even as an eight year old kid, I recognized that fact almost immediately. Still, it was awesome that my parents took me to see it...

Written and directed by Ed Hunt (no, not Ed Wood...), Starship Invasions stars a slumming-it Christopher Lee as Captain Ramseses, the nefarious leader of a cabal of renegade aliens and captain of a flying saucer that resembles a hubcap.

As Ramseses explains to his dedicated crew early in the film, their sun is currently experiencing "a dangerous phase" (no, not puberty...) and might explode at any moment. In fact, Ramseses wears a big boxy alarm clock device on one wrist to monitor the sun's status.

When it flashes red, that means his sun has just gone supernova...

What's so funny about this scene, besides Christopher Lee's slow, precise enunciation of the word "super nova" (apparently for the hard-of-hearing in the audience...), is that he is delivering exposition to his own people, who would surely know by the time they reach Earth in their flying saucer, that their planet is in jeopardy and their star unstable. And really, wouldn't it be more helpful if Lee's clunky watch warned him that the sun was soon going to go nova, rather than telling him after the fact?

Whatever.

With his own world threatened, Ramseses needs to find a new home planet on which to hang his silly black hat. Following the abduction of the fat, dopey farmer and the extraction of Elmer Fudd's "sperm cells" (yuck!) by the super-hot naked alien woman, Ramseses declares that humans are actually the parent race of his own species. Still, he's going to kill them all and take the planet.

To commence his evil plan, Ramseses lands his saucer on Earth, at the underwater pyramid base of the "Intergalactic League of Races." The peaceful aliens working there declare "all peace to you, galactic brother" as a common salutation, and work peacefully to safeguard "the civilization, progress and evolution" of worlds like Earth, according to their "Galactic Treaty."

But Ramseses will have none of these namby-pamby ways. After visiting a "Relaxation Room" where he gets to choose between companionship with a sexy redhead, a blond or a brunette (like he's selecting frigging ice cream flavors...), Ramseses kills all the aliens on the base, and prepares to launch "project genocide."

That brilliant plan entails an alien saucer shooting a minuscule lightning ray at Earth, one that spurs a "suicide epidemic" among the humans (as announced on the cover of TIME Magazine...which is tastefully decorated with an illustration of a slit wrist...).

Only, the death ray also sometimes spurs homicide too...thoroughly mucking up the issue.

Only one friendly alien saucer survives Ramseses' vicious betrayal, but is damaged in a battle of the UFOs. The crew thus seeks out human scientist Allan Duncan (Robert Vaughn), to help repair the craft. Duncan is a family man and dedicated UFO expert, one who believes that flying saucers are "damaging" to human self-esteem because they point out that others "are more advanced" than "we are." Allan recruits his friend Malcolm -- who happens to be a computer expert -- and together they board the alien ship to fix it up for battle with Ramseses. The survival of the human race hangs in the balance...

Although Starship Invasions works hard to accurately reflect the details of the UFO abduction experience by featuring alien medical exams (and alien curiosity about human reproduction...) as well as the concept of missing time, the movie remains unintentionally hilarious. For instance, when plotting to take over the underwater alien base base, Ramseses and all his fellow aliens from the Planet Alpha (in the Orion Constellation) arm themselves with tiny little "finger guns" that slip over their digits and are attached to the wrist by old-fashioned, curly telephone cords. Excellent!

Furthermore, Christopher Lee and his cohorts did not have to learn a stitch of dialogue for their scenes together, because no dialogue was recorded. Instead, all the dialogue involving Lee as Ramseses is "voice over" only, and then described in the story as ESP communication between the aliens. This is either inspired or ridiculous. Or both.

It's also rather amusing that the humans of Starship Invasions are not convinced of the reality of UFOs, since aliens of all persuasion make no attempt to hide themselves or their crafts. Saucers brazenly strafe highways and fields in broad daylight, glow by night as they hurtle towards heavily populated cities, and even crash into skyscrapers. Saucers land in suburban backyards too, and on city streets at the foot of public buildings.

The piece-de-resistance in Starship Invasions, however, may be the ludicrous scene set in a grocery store. Here, Duncan's young daughter, Diane, is affected by the alien suicide ray and takes out her pre-adolescent rage...on a helpless tomato in the produce aisle. For years after this movie, whenever my sister and I visited a supermarket produce row together, we'd eye the tomatoes venomously in honor of this moment...

Most of the film's flaws stem from a low-budget or poor execution, but the script is no great shakes in the logic department either. Specifically, a League saucer is shot down by the U.S. military in one scene. Early in the scene, it is established that the aliens aboard that endangered craft can view the military radar room on their view screen. But they do not detect it, apparently, when a missile was launched by the very crew they were just observing. Not paying attention?

The dialogue is pretty lame too. Even the telepathic dialogue. To hear the immortal Christopher Lee bellow the line "we need a human female" via ESP is a camp hoot. I also liked the entreaty from Duncan's wife (Helen Shaver) that she needs more togetherness with her occupied man. "I'm interested in UFOS too," she says, "but we've got to have time to ourselves." Words to live by, indeed.

Pretty much everything about Starship Invasions is textbook dreadful. From the ridiculous android "costume" (which looks appears to be a snowsuit glued to a welding helmet), to the movie's creepy obsession with inter species sex ("so...they shined a light on you and put you with a naked woman?" a police officer asks the fat farmer incredulously...), everything about this movie just...reeks.

But, of course, I had to see it again for nostalgia's sake. I first saw Starship Invasions long, long ago -- in 1977 -- and now I've finally seen it again, in 2009. I mentioned to my mother yesterday that I was planning to watch it last night, and she remembered the details of the movie chapter and verse. I asked her if she wanted to see it again, for old time's sake. Her answer was a polite shake of the head. "No."

She'd already indulged me once, I suppose. And where Starship Invasions is concerned, once is definitely enough.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Man on the Street"

So, this is the Dollhouse episode that's designed to knock our socks off, engage our minds and hearts, and launch the mythology of the fledgling series into the stratosphere.

My reaction? Well, allow me to quote Joss Whedon's own knowing words (from his sharp, clever teleplay for "Man on the Street"). He has indeed "played a bad hand very well."

What I mean by that remark is simple. Conceptually, Dollhouse is intriguing, cerebral and creepy in a good way. It boasts some social relevance and pointed commentary (about the way our society views women; or even the human body...). But emotionally, the series doesn't resonate yet. It's as hollow as Echo herself. Or, to put it in the phraseology of Boogie Nights: the series is good technically...but it lacks passion.

It seems to me that Joss Whedon is giving his absolute all to make a flawed series (and premise) worthy of his participation; worthy of the lineage of the Whedonverse (namely Buffy and Firefly). To that end, "Man on the Street" does indeed help the situation. It's a better-than-average installment, judging by the episodes so far. It's a good episode. It indeed opens up the "mytharc" of the series, revealing that there are at least two "double agents" working the situation (one against Penikott's character, Ballard, one working with him...). Also, this episode makes the important notation that there is not merely one dollhouse in operation but over twenty worldwide. And that though their business may be "fantasy," they have a darker purpose.

This is indeed fascinating and tantalizing stuff; an epic opening up of the Dollhouse saga that grants it a sense of urgency and importance. And I enjoyed these elements. A lot. But in the end (unless Echo is herself operating outside of her imprints as the double agent inside the dollhouse...), she is still a "Buffy" (a larger-than-life hero) who doesn't even know she's having an adventure. She doesn't remember last week's episode. She doesn't remember the lessons of last week's episode. Thus she can't grow. Or learn.

And where's there no learning, there can be no emotional attachment. Yes, yes, Whedon is giving his damn finest effort, playing a bad hand exceptionally well, but he's still crippled by a difficult, if not impossible premise that limits the emotional availability of his great lead (Dushku as Echo).

If you read this blog on a regular basis you know that I'm a huge admirer of Whedon, so it gives me no joy to point out just how problematic this series is. Even a good episode like "Man on the Street" doesn't quite get the job done. Not the way Buffy did. Or Star Trek did. Or X-Files did.

But to quote Boogie Nights again: I'm going to keep trying if you keep trying, Joss Whedon. I'm going to keep watching...

Friday, March 20, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008)

This 2008 "adaptation" (meaning "re-imagination") of Jules Verne's long-lived literary wonder Journey to the Center of the Earth opens with a big fake CGI bug depicted in extreme close-up.

This shot is followed quickly by gliimpses of a big fake CGI tyrannosaur chasing a hapless human.

And this moment is followed, alas, by a big fake CGI shot of a gigantic, volcanic fissure, as the unlucky human attempts to navigate it.

We go from these hideous, artificial-looking (3-D?) special effects moments to something worse. A cutesie-poo montage of balding star Brendan Fraser, as he makes silly faces in his bathroom mirror.

Yep, that's why I want to see a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth: to see Brendan Fraser doing shtick while brushing his teeth...

It was during this ridiculous and unnecessarily "comic" scene (just moments into the movie...) that I realized Jules Verne must be spinning in his grave.

As I'm spinning in irritation and disappointment.

I know, I know. There will be readers who castigate me for disliking a movie that was "made for children." My only answer to that is that children enjoy good movies too, and this re-invention of Journey doesn't fit the bill. It's 100% crap.

By comparison, the 1959 adaptation starring James Mason (my review here) was a family film suitable for children, but also a supreme cinematic entertainment; one that took the premise, characters and adventure seriously. It had a brain, a heart and a sense of curiosity. The new Journey has only...set-pieces and Hollywood shmaltz.

This Journey to the Center of the Earth tells the story of down-on-his luck vulcanologist Trevor Anderson (Fraser), whose brother Max disappeared ten years earlier while trying to prove the existence of "volcanic tubes" leading to the center of the Earth. When Max's teenage son Sean comes to stay with Trevor for a week, they uncover Max's journal...written in the margins of a paperback copy of Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth. With the help of a hottie mountain guide, Hannah (Anita Briem) in Iceland, Max and Trevor embark on a journey...guess where?


Like most blockbusters made today, Journey to the Center of the Earth's problems begin with the script. In this case, the screenplay is juvenile, unserious, over-the-top in terms of sentimentaility, and pedantic. Even a ten year old viewer may wonder at the coincidences the writers stack up like piles of tyrannosaur poop. Most significantly, that vulcanologist Trevor Anderson (Fraser) discovers his dead brother's journal on the exact same day that the seismic readings in Iceland would permit for a journey to the center of the Earth. Talk about lucky...these readings allegedly match just once a decade!

Or how about the fact that 13-year old Sean gets cell phone reception on the ocean at the center of the Earth? I can't even get cell-phone reception in my parent's neighborhood, and it's not hundreds of meters beneath the surface last time I checked.

Some of these trespasses would be less obvious, or perhaps even forgiven, if the film looked great. But it doesn't. This Journey to the Center of the Earth is bright and colorful, but every new set-piece looks like a gaudy amusement park ride. There's a ridiculous mine-car sequence (shades of Temple of Doom...) that actually adopts the angles and look of a roller coaster ride. And don't even get me started on the scene in which Trevor and Sean pick up sticks and begin batting flying fish like baseballs (this, after a dialogue exchange about going to batting cages early in the film...).

And because a film these days isn't a success if it doesn't generate a franchise, Journey to the Center of the Earth ends with a brazen bid for a sequel...pointing to Atlantis as the next adventure location. Argh!

This movie irks me on so many levels I can hardly begin to enunciate them all. Let me just focus on the gall...the gall of the creators. To craft a movie called Journey to the Center of the Earth -- and yet not make it an adaptation of that great work -- can only be described as supreme hubris. The creators happily took the name and a central idea (a journey beneath the Earth) and left out everything else. That's tantamount to fraud.

This would be like going to see a film entitled Star Wars only to learn that a character in the film is reading a paperback novel called Star Wars but you won't actually be seeing Han Solo, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker or any other characters associated with Star Wars. Instead, the movie will just adopt a few of Star Wars' great concepts...and title.

It's troublesome that the book title would be re-used here for a "new" story, but even more galling that the writers thought they could craft a better story with the title Journey to the Center of the Earth than Jules Verne did.


If you're looking for evidence of how dinosaurs, fantasy and dopey comedy don't mix, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a perfect example. And it proves, pretty conclusively I assert, why the new Land of the Lost is going to be terrible. Because as bad as Brendan Fraser is in this film, he's still an infinitely more appropriate lead than Will Ferrell.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 70: Mercy Point (1998-1999)

Created by Trey Callaway, Milo Frank and David Simkin, the futuristic science fiction medical-drama Mercy Point was basically Star Trek meets M*A*S*H, a sci-fi narrative concerning surgeons with hands like Gods...but feet of clay.

These surgeons and physicians of the far-flung year 2249 AD, much like the wartime emergency medics of the Korean War era 4077, also had to contend with their unconventional location: in this case, a space station near Jericho Colony (population: 50,000) and lodged inside the mysterious realm of outer space called The Sahartic Divide.

Mercy Point -- a deep space medical facility -- was sometimes known as "the first stop for anything coming into the [solar] system and the last stop for anything leaving."

Mercy Point Hospital was governed by the interfering, bureaucratic ISC (Inter-Species Council), and administrated by chief-of-staff De Milla (Joe Spano). But the talk of the sector was talented alien physiologist Grote Maxwell (Joe Morton), a brilliant doctor whose ingenuity and inventive solutions to problems made him a local legend. Maxwell was born to poor gas miners, and his mother died of lunar pneumonia when he was just fifteen years old. Maxwell had not talked to his father and siblings for years, as the series began, and in fact, was searching the sector to locate them and repair the breach.

The lovely and committed Dr. Haylen Breslauer (Maria Del Mar) served as Mercy Point's no-nonsense director of medicine. Lonely but caring, Haylen began to develop romantic inclinations towards Grote Maxwell as the series developed. She also had to contend with her half-sister, Dru (Alexandra Wilson), who was assigned to the facility as a Mercy Point resident in the first episode of the series, "New Arrivals." Haylen had spent much of her adult life bailing the irresponsible Dru out of problems, so she wasn't exactly pleased to see her little sister arrive on the front-lines of the final frontier. She was one tough boss too...

Meanwhile, Dru had a lot to prove, both to to herself and to her big sister. As an irresponsible youth, Dru Breslauer had bottomed out on 'Crobes (an insidious, addictive microbial symbiotic life-form known for granting humans a "high" before causing cramps, dementia and eventually death...). After a friend died during a 'Crobes overdose experience, Dru turned her life around, got into medical school and turned her life around. She also developed a relationship with another Mercy Point doctor...

...C.J. Jurado (Brian McNamara), the adventurous, womanizing director of "extra-vehicular medicine" on the station, which meant that he would often take jaunts to damaged spaceships in futuristic ambulances called "med crafts." As the series opened, C.J. was dating a by-the-book military officer, Kim Salisar (Salli Richardson), but the unexpected arrival of Dru Breslauer threw the relationship into chaos. C.J. seemed to be a character always headed for trouble. In the unaired, 25-minute pilot, for instance, he was decapitated while searching for a shuttle's black box and had to be "re-capitated" by Grote. In the actual series, C.J. combated a murderous alien in an airlock in "No Mercy," and was wounded and nearly killed. In "Battle Scars," those wounds nearly led C.J.'s brain to sink into his spine, but he was saved by an experimental procedure at the last minute.

Mercy Point's resident alien was Dr. Batung (Jordan Lund), a lizard-like alien constrained to a kind of wheel-chair device since the gravity on his home world was vastly different. Batung -- a tailed, tentacled creature -- did not understand human beings well and was known for being haughty and difficult. As Mercy Point's Spock, Maya or Worf, Batung would sometimes offer inscrutable Shenn wisdom. One such nugget was "the greatest of competition is always within ourselves," from "Last Resort."

The last major character on UPN's short-lived series was ANI (Android Nursing Interface), a gorgeous nurse and "Simbot" played by the gorgeous Julia Pennington. The other nurses were jealous of the perfect ANI, but she didn't seem to mind, as her programming didn't allow her to recognize sarcasm, jealousy or other negative emotions. In the first episode, "New Arrivals," it was ANI who held the key to curing a deadly computer virus that had leapt out of computers and begun to infect human brains.

Recurring characters included Dr. Rema Cook (Gay Thomas), a psychologist who undergoes a brief bout of on-screen horniness with a much-younger paramedic (not that there's anything wrong with that...) and Nagnam (Haig Sutherland), a friendly alien orderly who is utilized mostly as comic-relief.

Mercy Point
ran for just seven hour-long episodes in 1998-1999, and the various stories involved, by and large, diseases and cures that involved the integration of alien and human communities. Dru had to detox a teenage 'Crobe addict (called a 'skeezer') without parental consent in "Battle Scars." A dying alien historian named Jeel shared an experimental blood transfusion with a sick human boy named Clayton Kelly (suffering from "Thalanemia") in "Last Resort," and so forth.

Overall, the approach was serious and somber, but not saccharine. Although the series waded into the emotional conventions of life-and-death medical dramas, it was also "true," in a sense, because a last-minute cure was not always found. A teenage gymnast had to deal with the (permanent) loss of her legs in one episode. A teenage boy who dreamed of being a writer died of his disease in another story. Another episode saw a threatened fetus removed from a pregnant mother (with a weak heart...) and transferred for the duration of the pregnancy into an exterior, artificial womb device. In one tale, a pilot died after a magnetic storm on her ship, and her husband was able to relive her final moments through a memory sub-plot involving a young paramedic who was plagued by a perpetual erection after sexual intercourse with an illegal pleasurebot.

Where Mercy Point also succeeded was in taking the conventions and ideas of the medical drama and transferring them to deep space, with a futuristic bent. For instance, the station was equipped with a talking computer named Hip (after Hippocrates...), who could verbalize a patient prognosis after a quick scan (and holographic display of internal organs.) The doctors "scrubbed" in sonic decontaminators, utilized laser scalpels and could put patients in cryo-stasis while they puzzled after a cure. When the situation warranted it, the doctors would operate in Zero-Gravity surgical theatres, replace broken limbs with "bio-prosthetics" and even perform "mem-prints," memory downloads from dying patients. In some situations, holographic technology was utilized to bring in family members for consults and last goodbyes with patients on the space station. One story even involved a parasitic alien who was a "viral bomb." If surgery was not successful, "pyro-cleansing" would occur, meaning that the alien -- and the doctor (Dru) - would be incinerated to prevent contamination.

During its short time on the air, Mercy Point even featured a mini-story arc of sorts. Over the course of three episodes ("Second Chances," "No Mercy" and "Battle Scars"), someone was murdering alien patients on the station, and Dr. Maxwell was framed and investigated for the crimes. During the emergency, the station was segregated into human and alien sections, and the "great experiment" of Mercy Point nearly came to an end. The real culprit was an alien who was upset with the idea of human influence on his species and the notion of integration. Since Mercy Point represented the "integration of humans with aliens," and since Maxwell represented Mercy Point, the plan was to discredit him.

The sci-fi series also featured some nice attempts at continuity. Dru's history with the 'Crobes came up in episode four, "Second Chances," and the de-tox of the future-goth kid happened two episodes later. Also, a disease called HSS (Home Sickness Syndrome) reared its head in several episodes ("Last Resort" and "Battle Scars".) Series creators were clearly attempting to build a new but detailed universe from the ground-up, and on some fronts, were rather successful in doing so.

In one episode, Mercy Point Hospital is described as a "fish bowl," and that's good shorthand for the areas where the series tends to fail. Sometimes, you feel like you're watching a fishbowl. The sets are claustrophobic and you never really get a chance to visit with these doctors during their off-duty hours to get a more thorough sense of who they are outside the job. Space is vast, but Mercy Point had the tendency to feel cooped up. Even additional establishing shots of the station, visiting ships or speeding med crafts would alleviate this problem, but all the effects shots on the show are oddly truncated. You never even get a really good, prolonged look at the exterior of the facility. Footage from Starship Troopers (1997) is utilized in the unaired pilot, which also featured John De Lancie in the Joe Spano role.

Some critics also complained about the "soap opera plotting" of Mercy Point in 1998 yet - oddly - the same critics today laud Battlestar Galactica (2005-2009) for the inclusion of the same soap opera elements (like substance abuse, family rivalries, and inter-crew romances/break-ups...). Others worried that the show was in danger of becoming "The Disease of the Week...in Space," a complaint which may have had some legitimacy, especially if the series had continued longer.

Mercy Point wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but the short-lived series deserves some credit for the breadth of its ambition (not to mention the good performances by Morton, Del Mar and others...). I mean, this is an outer space series airing in the Age of Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Babylon 5 and there is not an honorable warrior race or space battle to be found anywhere. There's little by way of tiresome Empire-building/politicking sub-plots either. Taken as simply M*A*S*H in Space, Mercy Point was certainly a unique and intriguing experiment. It's far less insular and therefore far more approachable than 1990s era Star Trek. Which means, at times, Mercy Point is just what the doctor ordered...

The series in not currently available on DVD.


Monday, March 16, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Who Can Kill A Child? (1976)

There's an old saying in Hollywood warning actors not to work with animals or children.

If you happen to find yourself in a vintage 1970s-era horror film, however, you should amend that proverb a bit. May I suggest: don't piss off animals or children?
Because they will have vengeance, and there will be blood....

Case in point, the rather remarkable Who Can Kill A Child? (1976), a tense, Spanish-made genre gem. Like all great films (and great horror films) Who Can Kill A Child? reveals something important about the times in which it was crafted, a context which also gave rise to other child-centric horrors such as It's Alive (1973), The Exorcist (1973), and The Omen (1976).

As David Frum, the notable conservative scholar wrote in How We Got Here, The 70s: The Decade That Brought You Modern Life (For Better of Worse): " It's hard to remember an era when American popular culture was as nervous of children as in the 1970s." (page 106).

Frum further points out that the number of births dropped to its lowest level since the Great Depression in the year 1974. This was despite the fact that the baby boomer generation -- a huge generation -- was now of child-bearing age.

So what the hell was occurring in America during the 1970s to turn innocent children into icons of fear, anxiety and terror? Well, a recession and gas/energy shortage made children an expensive proposition, to start with. Plus, there was the contentious war for sexual equality (characterized by the controversy around the Equal Rights Amendment...). One front in that war concerned reproductive rights. The latest salvo was the Roe v Wade decision by the Supreme Court

Also -- especially where horror movies are concerned -- it is virtually impossible to separate the idea of "children" from the idea of "tomorrow." Kids are an explicit and recognizable representation of the future...our shared legacy. If something terrible happens to the children, the future becomes grim. If the children turn evil, again our outlook is desperate. If the children happen to turn against adults for a valid reason, then we have failed totally, and our civilization is doomed.

These notions are at play in the unsettling Who Can Kill A Child?, which depicts a British married couple, biologist Tom (Lewis Fiander) and pregnant Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), as they countenance true horror. The couple decides to take a vacation on the remote island of Almanzora, a place where "very few tourists ever go." It's a four hour boat ride from the mainland to Almanzora, and though the island "certainly looks peaceful," nothing could be further from the truth.

At first the island appears deserted, but before long, Tom and Evelyn learn from a shattered, lone survivor that all the adults are dead. Worse, the islanders were killed by their maniacal children; tykes who suddenly and inexplicably turned homicidal a night earlier. Before long, Tom and Evelyn are fighting for their lives as roving bands of murderous children block their escape route at every turn.

"Its as though they thought we - the adults - were their enemies," Tom realizes (a bit too late...).

On Almanzora, Tom witnesses a multitude of horrors, all while protecting his expectant wife. He sees a violent pinata game involving an elderly man strung up by his feet, a circle of giggling children, and a sharp sickle. He also sees the grisly aftermath of several massacres, including a beating death, and a vaguely sexual attack inside the island church. Finally, Tom and Evelyn -- now going into labor -- take their final refuge in a police station. The children arm themselves, and Tom finds a machine gun....

He's left with an unenviable choice. For...who can kill a child? Another important question: if our children rebel against us, could we, would we and should we fight back? As the film's climax reminds the viewer, making the terror identifiable, "There are lots of children in the world..."
Who Can Kill A Child? is the sort of horror film that gets under your skin through stealthy but effective means. It opens like a routine travelogue, as we follow Tom and Evelyn through the apparently mundane experience of their foreign vacation. The hotel at Benavis is booked, so they're sent to a house in the "old part of the city." They settle in, get directions to the beach, and then purchase rolls of film. That night, Tom and Evelyn enjoy fireworks and share an intimate (and well-written) discussion about Fellini, death, and the future in their rented bedroom. Nothing earth shattering at all...just ominously normal and "human." These moments establish the characters as real, but not in heavy-handed or soap opera fashion. It simply feels like we've gone abroad with them for a few days. Tom and Evelyn are likable and easy to relate to, a fact which serves the movie well.

Once we reach the island with Tom and Evelyn, the horror mounts. In little, clever bursts at first. For instance, there's a portentous moment early on (before the nature of the children is revealed...) in which Tom sees a little boy fishing on a pier. Tom tries to peek under the lid of the boy's fishing basket to see what he's caught, but the boy won't permit it. He shoots Tom a murderous, aggressive look. We never actually find out what's under that lid, but the moment is disturbing, and your imagination takes flight.

Other moments are crafted with more than a modicum of skill. There's an absolutely brilliant shot featured deep in the third act, an awe-inspiring reveal over one character's shoulder and head...to a background mountaintop populated by "watching," unnoticed children. The move in question is a simple camera pivot, but one perfectly executed.

Or notice the manner in which the camera doesn't move at all during a critical juncture, as a central character slips slowly and inexorably out of lower right-hand corner frame for the last time, making the death all the more significant and powerful. And the director appropriately moves to hand-held, immediate camera-work during the siege in the police station, which ramps up the anxiety.


When Who Can Kill a Child's narrative calls for bluntness, we get that too, with shocking and egregious results. Late in the film, Tom is confronted with a barricade of children, three or four rows deep. They won't budge and just stand there, smiling at him. After a moment's hesitation, Tom opens fire with a machine gun, bloodying and murdering his youthful opponents. The gun fire is like a slap in the face...we're not used to such screen violence leveraged against children.

Even that spiky moment is superseded by a final, high-speed, nail-biting confrontation on a pier, with an attempted escape in a row boat. Children launch an ambush from the pier, jumping off and attacking Tom in the boat with ferocity and velocity. He frigging beats them back with a wood board, a knife, and any other weapon he can find, and the movie doesn't shy away from revealing the bloody results of the massacre.

Of course, I don't encourage violence or even the depiction of violence against children, but horror should be about the shattering of societal taboos and movie decorum. And horror is also - indeed - about nightmare scenarios rendered real, and asking the viewer to identify with "what it would be like" to face them. Who Can Kill a Child is both taboo-shattering, and identification-provoking, and by my reckoning that makes it a great bit of genre cinema. You'll be shocked at what you witness, yet at the same time, you may want to slap Evelyn silly when she refuses to reckon with the "reality" of the situation that the children on the island are homicidal.

The film's ending is comparable to Night of the Living Dead, with a slow-to-adjust society failing to understand the nature of the enemy and making a bad mistake. In a strange way, the movie is also a kind of "revenge of nature flick," like Day of the Animals or Hitchcock's The Birds...only with kids instead of animals. And of course, it's harder to shoot down a giggling child than a grizzly bear or pecking bird, right?

Who Can Kill a Child? is not perfect. The film mis-steps badly by opening with a nine minute, documentary "atrocity reel" about real crimes committed against children across the globe. We see starving children in Africa, murdered children in Pakistan, and young victims of the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. These scenes are true and appalling and powerful, but I question their necessity in a horror film. They start the movie off with a gruesome, unnecessary heaviness, which, in some senses, undercut the very ordinariness of the travelogue and the slow-escalation of horror that follows. Essentially, they make the movie less effective because they telegraph the point of the narrative before the very narrative has begun.

The images in the mini-doc are powerful, but unnecessary. The director makes his point (about the world's cruelty to children...) without them all-together. In the body of the film proper, Evelyn sees footage on a camera shop TV of children dying in the Philippines. A shop owner says "the world is crazy. In the end, the ones who always suffer are the children." Message transmitted and received. The graphic imagery at the beginning is therefore just heavy-handed overkill.

Also, non-horror fans might rightly complain that Tom and Evelyn have apparently been born without the gene that allows them to sense the warning signs of incipient danger. This is something horror aficionados (like myself), willingly accept...because what fun would it be if Tom and Evelyn did recognize the danger and abandoned the island in their boat before the horror escalated? Horror fans will willingly (and happily) suspend disbelief, but non-genre fans may be screaming at the film's characters to get off the island NOW!!!.
Who Can Kill A Child? also shares much in common with the Children of the Corn franchises of the 1980s and 1990s, yet I should be absolutely clear: it's also a better-made scary movie than any one of them (even the '84 original). After watching this film, you may even want to amend a second proverb.

Forget "never trust anyone over 30." How about, "never trust anyone under 12?"

Sunday, March 15, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "True Believer"

Now that's more like it!

"True Believer" is an engaging, tense and intriguing installment of Joss Whedon's young series Dollhouse. It's also a vast improvement over last week's tedious "Gray Hour."

In this episode, our Active protagonist, Echo (Dushku) infiltrates a creepy fundamentalist cult (The Children of the Temple...) in Pleasant, Arizona. The twist in the tale, as it were is that Echo doesn't realize she's an infiltrator. Instead, she is an authentic "true believer," a blind religious fundamentalist who believes that she has experienced a revelatory vision of cult leader Jonas Sparrow...when it's really just an imprint.

Echo (as Esther Carpenter) is unaware that her unseeing eyes are actually miniature cameras and that she is recording images (for ATF agents...) of everyone she encounters in the cult compound.

Even better, there's a twist mid-episode concerning Echo's sight, one she misperceives as a "real" miracle.

I don't want to spoil the many surprises, but like "Target," this episode of Dollhouse packs more twists and turns into an hour than might rightly be expected or hoped for. Your assumptions about characters and events keep changing and the result is a fun, roller-coaster of a show.


I also feel that this is the first episode in a while in which Joss Whedon has remembered that it isn't the plot that's important to viewers hoping to connect with the series, but the characters and their mysterious natures. Here, several characters back at the Dollhouse (in a B story...) reveal tantalizing new shades. Victor, for instance, experiences a so-called "man reaction" (read: erection) while in proximity to Sierra in the communal shower. This is troublesome because in the "Doll" state, Actives are supposed to be total innocents. Another troublesome fact is that someone inside The Dollhouse is deliberately (and violently...) working against Echo. And, the last shot of the episode tells us that Echo knows it. Or at least senses it...

I also enjoyed the intellectual subtext of "True Believer." Echo visits a compound of smiling, empty-headed cult members who lack "will." The members of the cult are Sparrow's puppets; his pawns.

And how, exactly, is that unlike the Dolls at the dollhouse? They too are beings without will, to be manipulated by others. In each place (the cult and the Dollhouse), the blank slate is cherished as a return to innocence, a "new beginning," a return to the "Garden," to put it in religious terms. But what we're really talking about here is layers of control.

Fascinating stuff, and a legitimate, interesting comparison (and critique).

Next week's Dollhouse is the segment that's supposed to blow the lid off the series' mytharc and really kick the show into high gear. I'm crossing my fingers that's the case.

Can't wait...

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Director's Notes: "Switched"


What would it really feel like to walk around in someone else's shoes for a time?

What it would be like for a man to be...a woman? Or vice versa?

That concept is at the core of this week's House Between episode, "Switched."

Much like the ideas underlining "Addicted," the story behind 3.4 "Switched" goes all the way back to the second season of The House Between.

In particular, there was the possibility that, because of our shooting schedule in 2007, we would have time to shoot an eighth "bonus" episode. I had put out a call for stories, and gotten great and inventive responses from Jim Blanton ("Separated"), Bobby Schweizer ("Populated"), Joe Maddrey ("Caged") and also composer Mateo Latosa, who devised the story concept underlining "Switched."

Ultimately we shot my "Distressed" as the bonus season two episode (2.6), and Mateo's "Switched" got tabled until season three. Till now.

As you can probably guess from the title, this tale involves...a switch. Or many switches, as the case may be. Specifically, I'm referring to "Body Switches" the likes of which you would see in Star Trek's classic "Turnabout Intruder," wherein Captain Kirk and Janet Lester trade corporeal forms. Other sci-fi series have also played with this genre convention over the years, from The X-Files ("Dreamland") to Buffy the Vampire Slayer ("This Year's Girl"/"Who Are You?")

Still, I mostly had in mind Star Trek, and to that end I designed special visual effects to specifically resemble "Turnabout Intruder," arranged some Trek-style rock-the-boat moments, (when the camera tilts and everybody sways...) and had Mateo compose an incredible Trekkish musical cue for the teaser climax. I feel giddy every time I hear that cue...it's awesome.

But despite these deliberate tributes to a favorite and beloved sci-fi series, I also wanted to make certain that "Switched" carried some real heft and meaning behind the switches, much like we used the alternate universe tale ("Separated") to excavate unseen facets of our characters. So here, the body switch concept has lasting repercussions...ones that lead us right into the final two episodes of The House Between ("Exposed" and "Resolved.")

To the cast's everlasting credit, every single actor threw themselves into their performances, collaborated, worked hard, and did a fantastic job. If Bill, Theresa, Arlo, Brick, Travis and Astrid had to walk in one another's shoes for "Switched," than Tony, Alicia, Jim, Craig, Lee and Kim had to do the same. God, I love these guys!

Tonally, "Switched" is entirely different from anything we've ever done on The House Between. This has been a season of ambition...for better or worse. Every story has been quite different from the last, from setting up almost a new pilot with "Devoured" to going deep into character in "Addicted" to crafting a horror movie for "Scared" to the catharsis and transformational nature of "Switched."

Only you -- the viewer -- can tell me how we did, ultimately. But I do know this: I'm exceedingly proud of the cast for going in "Switched" where they've never gone before...and where they weren't always comfortable or safe going. They are truly a spectacular and talented bunch.

"Switched" premieres tomorrow!"

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

CULT TV MOVIE REVIEW: Night Slaves (1970)

Night Slaves (1970) may just be the dullest, cheesiest, most deeply silly TV movie of the seventies. And remember, I've seen Killdozer. It's a long, difficult slog through 75-minutes of ridiculous melodrama.

Directed by Ted Post, Night Slaves (written by the late, great Jerry Sohl) depicts the emotional journey of a man named Clay Howard (James Franciscus). He is disenchanted with his hot wife, Marjorie (Lee Grant), who is having an illicit affair with Clay's lawyer, Matt Russell.

One day, Clay is involved in a car accident and must undergo emergency surgery. The doctors implant a metal plate in his skull during the operation (though -- miraculously - they don't have to shave his head to do so...). Afterwards, Clay's surgeon recommends a vacation, one with "no pressure at all."

So Clay and Marjorie head off together to not-very-scenic Eldrid, California, a dusty old town that advertises itself as "a bit of the Old West." Translation: it's a studio back lot.

Clay soon notices that everyone in Eldrid is suspiciously sleepy, much like the audience of Night Slaves. He soon learns the reason.

By night, the townspeople including - dear god! - Sheriff Leslie Nielsen, turn into hypnotized zombies and are "herded like sheep" onto trucks and transported out of town to perform menial tasks for Noel (Andrew Prine), an alien life form who has taken the human form of the village idiot. Noel's space craft suffered "internal damage" while in flight and now Noel steals "four hours a night" from his human servants.

And here I thought Wal-Mart had atrocious labor practices...

Because of the metal plate lodged conveniently in his head, Clay is immune to Noel's dictatorial work orders. Instead, he falls immediately in love with the alien leader's only crew member, a naive technician named Nailil (Trish Sterling). Nailil shows Clay her damaged spaceship, as well as a selective invisible force field which she can pass through, but which Clay cannot. It blankets the town and prevents egress during the nightly work shift.

Even though they've just met -- and for a grand total of maybe an hour -- Clay and Nailil fall madly in love with each other. So when Noel's spacecraft plans to lift-off at 5:30 am one morning, Clay means to shed his Earthly form and be on board it...

Flaccidly paced, directed and performed, Night Slaves is an extremely tepid interspecies romance. Personally, I'll take combatants/would-be-lovers Angie Dickinson and Lloyd Bridges in Love War over Franciscus and Sterling here. They share no chemistry and it's not even remotely believable that the cynical Clay, so "unhappy on the treadmill" would drop his defenses in a mysterious town long enough to fall in love with...an alien. With the central romance generating no feeling whatsoever, Night Slaves is simply unconvincing.

I'm not totally clear on the details of Noel and his alien nature, either. He says he comes from a "psychokinetic race," one of "pure mind." He has taken human form to oversee the laborers, but his spaceship is clearly corporeal in nature, which baffles me. I mean, he needs humans to do metal work for him. Now explain to me why a formless alien would build a ship he can't repair himself? It sure is lucky he happened by Earth, a third-world sweatshop for free labor, I guess...

More importantly, without any corporeal form, how do Noel and Nailil actually fly their dinky white space ship? Don't they have to push buttons?

And would a 20th century man -- especially an attractive, athletic sort like James Franciscus - really want to surrender physicality to be forever with a "pure mind?" I mean, you can't have intercourse if you have no body to do it with. And Trish Sterling's character is super hot in the body department, but not much in the "pure mind" category, if you catch my drift.

Devoid of interesting locations, special effects, make-up or production values of any and all variety, Night Slaves is a laborious waste of time. When the climax arrives and Nailil and Clay run together through a meadow and embrace each other in slow motion, it descends to total camp.

"I'm sorry you were subjected to all this," Neil the alien declares near Night Slaves' finale.

Apology accepted.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Another Glimpse of The Final Frontier



So, while everyone was out seeing Watchmen this weekend, I was at home editing (madly...) the fourth episode of The House Between's third season. .But -- even with my brain in an editing program -- I knew there was a new Star Trek trailer burning up the old Internets.

So, after having watched the new trailer about a gazillion times, here are my thoughts:

1. The more I see of the Abrams re-imagination, the more sold I am on Pine as Kirk. And conversely (and rather unexpectedly...) the less sold I am on Quinto as Spock. For one thing, Pine has a good voice for Kirk. Quinto for Spock? Not so much.

2. It looks like the plot is going to involve Star Trek's version of the Death Star, a "doomsday"-type weapon capable of destroying an entire planet. Now, we've seen planet killers on Star Trek before (V'Ger, the Genesis Device, the "ribbon"/nexus, Nomad, Spinrad's "Doomsday Machine" and the space amoeba of "Immunity Syndrome" to name just a few...), so I hope this isn't too much of a retread. Then again, if this universe's Kirk is going to quickly develop some captain credentials with Starfleet and the Federation government, saving an entire planet is a good start, no?

3. Not even a glimpse of Leonard Nimoy. Boo. Come on, J.J....throw the longtime fans a bone.

4. The moment when Kirk takes the center seat of the U.S.S. Enterprise for the first time gives me goosebumps. If I get that feeling from a trailer -- and without it being Shatner -- then the movie must be doing something right. On the other hand, maybe it's just the portentous score...

5. "Fire everything!" Well, this re-boot is really going for the throat in terms of action, isn't it? Which, honestly is the way to sell a very expensive outer space movie to the masses. Even Gene Roddenberry had to sell Star Trek as an action-vehicle to NBC back in 1966 when he crafted the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before." Of course, Star Trek is also supposed to be valuable social commentary, and this trailer reveals nothing of that franchise aspect. Will it be present, or is this a Star Trek simply going to be eye candy, not brain candy?

6. "James T. Kirk was a great man. But that was another life." That's a line of dialogue that should have been avoided at all costs, especially if Pine proves disappointing in the role of a lifetime.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse: "Gray Hour"

Our Favorite Active, Echo (Eliza Dushku), goes on an "engagement" imprinted as a master-thief in this week's Dollhouse, titled "Gray Hour." The job involves stolen art, and a secret vault rendered penetrable for a brief span by a security update 'gray hour.'

Unfortunately for Echo and her fellow thieves, a mysterious cellphone transmission from Alpha -- a remote wipe -- transforms her back into innocent, skill-less Echo in mid-assignment
. Which means that Topher, De Witt and Sierra at the Dollhouse facility must scramble to rescue Echo from the locked vault before security guards capture her.

In her "blank slate" persona, Echo is understandably confused to find herself far from the safety the Dollhouse womb, and Topher reports that she might undergo "extreme sensory overload," meaning Echo could become either passive or "Carrie at the prom."

Unfortunately, Echo doesn't really go either way, and the episode -- to adopt the lingo of the writers themselves -- becomes "one giant anticlimax."

"Gray Hour" features a terrific plot device (an Active wiped in mid-assignment), hints at the capabilities of the season's "big bad," Alpha (who has apparently developed technology far beyond even Topher's genius level...), and offers some interesting background information about the Actives, particularly that -- even wiped of memories -- they possess "instinctual survival tools," meaning that the strong will flock to the strong, and so forth.

There are many such good concepts at work on this series, and even underscoring this very episode of Dollhouse...so how come I don't like it better? Especially four episodes in?

Perhaps the answer rests with the dramatis personae: the characters -- usually Joss Whedon's strong suit. But Ballard (Penikott) is a cliche -- the dogged cop. De Witt (Williams) is a cold fish, and, if not a villain, at least playing her cards so close to the vest that we can't read her. And Topher (Kranz) is glib, arrogant, irritating and over-the-top. However -- most critically -- in terms of Sierra and Echo, it is extremely difficult to sympathize or identify with a blank-slate.

Dushku is a good actress. Perhaps even a remarkable one. To the extent that she manages to exude shades of Echo's "core" personality from week-to-week while "imprinted" with different characters is a testament to her talent. But it's simply not enough to make a viewing of Dollhouse feel...I don't know...intimate. Instead, the series feels distancing, not inviting...which makes it the exact opposite of Firefly or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Since there are no compelling characters to undertake this journey with, there's some kind of emotional void marring Dollhouse. That void gets filled with action scenes that aren't that well-staged, quips that aren't that funny, or philosophy that is tantalizing...but also maddening, since it is tossed out in the form of minuscule bread crumbs.

I'm still being patient, and I still detect the glorious potential of the series. I love the idea that an individual maintains some sense of identity or self-awareness, even without memories...but I just really, really want to see the execution of the episodes improve.

A lot.

An episode shouldn't feel like a "giant anti-climax." If you hint at "Carrie at the prom," you better deliver Carrie at the prom. And if Echo as a "blank slate" is so helpless that she can't handle herself in a crisis...why are we following her? Why is she an interesting heroine? Why is she worthy of our time and attention?

I hope we find out. Soon.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Longest Running Superhero TV Show in History Is...

...Smallville.

Derided back in 2001 as Kal-El's Creek (or Clark's Creek, or Dawson's Cape), Smallville -- this sturdy re-imagination of the Superboy mythos - has certainly established itself as a real survivor.

After all, Smallville was one of the few network shows to successfully make the jump from the now defunct WB to the CW. It has also survived the competition: a big-budget movie resurrection of its main character in 2006's Superman Returns.

Smallville has even survived -- and flourished -- after the departure of main characters/actors, like Michael Rosenbaum's Lex Luthor and Kristin Kreuk's Lana Lang.

Now renewed for a landmark ninth season, Smallville has lasted an impressive duration, one greater than Batman (1966-1969), Lois and Clark (1992-1996), The Adventures of Superman (1951-1958), or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003).

The only bailiwick in which the series hasn't witnessed much good luck is in the creation of a spin-off to replace it. Mercy Reef, the Aquaman re-imagination...sunk without a trace.

In all, this is a surprising turn of events for a superhero TV series that The Washington Post derided as "pandering to the WB''s adolescent audience" and Variety termed "one more semi-soap opera about beautiful teens with self- esteem problems."

And don't forget, the series was even criticized/protested early on for the fact that images in the pilot (of Clark Kent strung up in a Kansas corn field...) reminded some people of the Matt Shepard murder that occurred in October of 1998.

My opinion of Smallville? Well, the ubiquitous Dawson meme simply isn't true...it just happens to be a good (and really easy...) joke. I suspect most of the people who make that particular complaint haven't actually watched the show. At least not lately. Sure, the first season was a weak, "Freak of the Week" circus that seemed more like a (bad) knock-off of The X-Files than Superman.

However, by the third season, the series had established its own identity, and established it well. Which doesn't mean there aren't still some really terrible episodes you have to contend with (particularly one with a vampire sorority, and another with Lana unexpectedly possessed by a 17th century witch...) But these ridiculous moments are often mitigated by great, portentous ones (like the apocalyptic vision of Lex Luthor in the Oval Office, in "Hour Glass.")

It's also difficult to accuse this durable series of disrespecting Superman lore since it has lovingly paid tribute to the actors who made the character and his universe so memorable on film and television (with guest stars including Terence Stamp, Margot Kidder, Dean Cain, the late Christopher Reeve, and Wonder Woman herself, Lynda Carter).

Smallville also creatively incorporates many aspects of the mythos, from Zod and Jor-El to The Fortress of Solitude, to the Phantom Zone, and the larger DC universe (including Cyborg, The Flash, Green Arrow and Aquaman).

I suppose my bottom line is this: I can (usually...) view Smallville without pain and suffering, which I honestly can't say for any iteration of the popular Stargate SG:1, which I find truly cringe-worthy. I'll take Smallville over Stargate any day. I feel the same way about Smallville over Supernatural. Or Ghost Whisperer.

Although that's like being voted the nicest inmate in prison, as I am wont to say.

Regardless, I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and so without snark, I congratulate Smallville for its great success and longevity on network television.

And I can't help but wonder: does this mean my Smallville action figures are actually worth something?

UFO: "The Cat with Ten Lives"

In "The Cat with Ten Lives," three UFOs approach the moon, but retreat once interceptors approach. Three more UFOs appear i...