Friday, April 03, 2009

Snakes in the Grass and Snakes in the Open: Animal Symbolism in Millennium's Second Season

During Millennium's (1996-1999) first season, haunted behavioral psychologist and criminal profiler Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) faced a slew of bizarre, perverted and deadly serial killers.

In many important ways, these anti-social antagonists reflected aspects of this American life in the 1990s, whether it was the rise of affluent (and essentially segregated...) wealthy "gated" communities ("Weeds"), sexual dysfunction in the New Age of Viagra ("Loin Like a Hunting Flame"), or even a reckoning with new, widely-available technologies. "Wide Open, for instance," involved a serial killer evading high-tech home security systems. Many episodes of the Chris Carter series thus served as dramatic, controversial and valuable social commentary, with the serial killers serving as the very tool which enabled us to gaze in the mirror at the world we had created. I wrote an essay on this topic (Enemies Within) you can review here.

During the second season, Millennium shifted perspective, narrative focus, and tone in many dramatic ways. Some critics had complained that the show in its freshman incarnation was essentially "Serial Killer of the Week," though often these naysayers didn't stop to consider how the serial killers were being used to drive the program's sense of social awareness. Regardless, the resulting change of focus shepherded by producers James Wong and Glen Morgan led to a rather dramatic "opening up" of Frank's world; one that would change the very nature of both the Millennium Group (now rather definitively a cult, right down to secret code words...), and the bizarre threats/crimes Frank would be called upon to investigate.

Gazing back across the second season today, one can see how the series regularly deployed animals -- or animal symbolism -- to fill the didactic role previously held by the human serial killers, though serial killers did appear in some episodes such as "The Beginning and the End," and "Mikado."

Why animals? Perhaps because animals have been vital in the development of mythological systems throughout history, and across virtually every culture that ever existed. In Western societies of the Middle Ages, in particular, animals represented specific traits and could therefore be utilized as symbols to convey moral and religious lessons in works of art. Some examples: animals can represent victims of technology, industrialization or wars. Also, animals sometimes equate with the concept of "purity," existing in a wild, natural state and therefore utterly free of man's sins and vices. Some passion plays and other didactic forms of theater utilized animals to represent specific modes of behavior (human vices, again, for example.)

Considering Millennium's didactic qualities, it was only "natural" then that the drama would marshal animals and symbols of animals to help us understand in the 1990s "who we are."
This shift from serial killers to animal symbols was apparent almost immediately during Millennium's sophomore season, commencing with the second episode in the queue, "Beware of the Dog."

In this tale, Frank Black is ordered by the Millennium Group to visit the remote town of Bucksnort, an isolated burg where a couple of elderly vacationers have been murdered in a vicious animal attack. Upon arrival, Frank uncovers an entire town dreading sundown: the span in which a pack of wild dogs consistently emerge to terrorize the citizens.

What Frank soon discovers is that these dogs, in fact, "represent evil" and are overrunning the town of Bucksnort because the world -- leading up to the Millennium -- is losing its sense balance...in favor of Encroaching Evil. In the New Testament, the apostle Saint Andrew was once called upon to expel demons in the form of dogs from an imperiled city, and that's the role Frank explicitly takes on in this second season installment. Another obvious reference: hell hounds. In Celtic myth, hell hounds are believed to be the Devil's dogs, and similar canine beasts called "cadejo" also turn up in Central American and South American myth.

Also in "Beware the Dog," Frank first meets "The Old Man" (R.G. Armstrong), the Elder leader of the Millennium Group, a figure who warns him "you have no idea about Evil." Though that may be a bit of an exaggeration since Frank's been around the block with Evil quite a few times (he did battle Lucy Butler in "Lamentation"), it is nonetheless a line of dialogue that resonates throughout the remainder of the season. Indeed, Frank frequently finds himself countenancing different mythologies that concern the apocalypse or End of the World...implicitly about Evil. Already, "Beware of the Dog" harks back to The New Testament and Saint Andrew, and to those aforementioned devil dog legends.

Just two episodes later, in "A Single Blade of Grass," Frank again faces a myth of "End Times" and one explicitly connected to animals, or involving animal symbolism. Here, Frank travels to New York City to discover the identity of a corpse found on a construction site. Before long, he is enmeshed in a Native American ritual, one which is meant to forge a contact with the spirit world and spur an Indian version of the Apocalypse.

A sign that this apocalypse has begun in earnest is the return of an...animal; the buffalo, in particular. What the buffalo represents, in terms of abstract symbolism, is that which was "taken" by the white man's colonization of America: both the land and the wildlife. In the final scene of the episode, Frank escapes a ritual involving human sacrifice and -- on the streets of Manhattan -- sees several Buffalo miraculously running by just feet from him. The prophecy was true...the buffalo did return to their home, as the cult believed, but the sign did not mean what they hoped it would mean (an end to white man's dominion). Instead, the buffalo are quickly followed by clowns in a circus...a sign that belief in this legend is foolish, silly, or misplaced. Frank notes the irony, and wonders if the things we wish to come true will do so in the way we would like.

What else did the return of the buffalo represent? One might make the argument that the presence of buffalo in the technological jungle of the Big Apple is a sign -- like the dogs of Bucksnort -- of a word disordered, unbalanced. Of wild-life shattering or violating man's carefully-organized world. If we began to add up these bizarre animal occurrences, a pattern emerges, and we see it in the last episode of the year. But more on that below.

Later during the season, an episode entitled "The Hand of St. Sebastian" also explicitly trades in animal symbolism. The episode begins in 998 AD with a fledgling Millennium Group in Eastern Europe battling evil, divisive forces. One Millennium Group member is shot and killed in a bog.

A thousand years later, Peter Watts and Frank Black exhume his preserved corpse, and emblazoned on his back is a tattoo of the Millennium Group's symbol: the dragon or snake forever devouring its own tail. The Ouroboros. This Gnostic Symbol represents the ephemeral, self-devouring nature of our terrestrial, material existence...a direct contrast to a spiritual life.

More than that even, the Ouroboros represents a cycle, and going back to "Beware of The Dog," the Old Man tells Frank of the "divine life" (a spiritual existence), and about "cyclical systems" of "birth and death." Even before Ron Moore utilized the concept in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, we have an example in science-fiction television of the idea that "this has all happened before and it will all happen again."

This idea of the cycle, captured so beautifully by the snake-image of the Ouroboros is reinforced thematically in an important manner. How so? Well, "The Hand of St. Sebastian" make us privy to two Fin de siècle moments of identical nature, even though they are separated by centuries.

In 998 AD, Millennium Group members face betrayal from enemies within ("the snake in the grass" one says) and enemies outside ("the snake in the open"...the term utilized to describe the Catholic Church). This is the cycle that Peter and Frank unconsciously repeat -- down to identical dialogue -- in 1998 AD. Again, let me make the point: Peter Watts specifically makes note of the snake in the grass and the snake in the open. History repeats. The Millennium Group Members of 998 AD prevented the End of the World; and that's what Peter Watts claims to be doing a millennium later. The two men in the past are balanced with the two men in the present, and the Ouroboros ties them together, explaining that this is a cycle which will repeat forever and forever. Perhaps next in 2998.

One of the most important episodes in Millennium's second season is the two-part epic "Owls" and "Roosters," which depicts a growing schism inside The Millennium Group. Both of the warring factions -- as you can plainly see -- are named after...animals.

The "Owls" are a secular group; a faction of atheists/non-believers who are certain that a scientific, cosmic (meaning astronomical) apocalypse is coming in sixty years. The moniker "owls" is important because, traditionally, Owls represent Evil/Satan in Christian myth. They are associated with a lack of faith. Outside of Christian tradition, by contrast, Owls --- in Greek myth, for example -- represent something else entirely: wisdom, knowledge and scholarship (thus science, secularism). Also, as the episode points out, "Owls" are a symbol of night-time and sleep, which is critical since the "Owls" in the Millennium Group believe it is not yet the dawn of the apocalypse; that we are in a sixty year "night" until that dawn.

By contrast, the "Roosters" in the Millennium Group believe in a Christian, religious apocalypse that will arrive in 2000-2001. They believe it is already the Dawn of the End, and thus -- like "roosters" -- are crowing rather loudly about it. In Christian myth, roosters tend to represent prescience (advance knowledge), reliability, watchfulness and faith. They are also, in some circles, a sign of "spiritual resurrection," and that's an end that this group of devout believers want to "force," in some sense. In China, a red rooster is reputed to ward off flames or fire; while white roosters are known for chasing ghosts. Both of these ideas find resonance in Millennium. The Roosters inside the Millennium cult do indeed want to ward off the fires of the End Times; and, in some sense, we know they are chasing ghosts, since the world did not end at the turn of the century.

Finally, it is impossible to ignore that it is an animal that brings forth the apocalypse in Millennium's season ending two-parter "The Fourth Horseman"/"The Time is Near." The man-made plague called "The Marburg Variant" begins its reign of terror...in chickens. Again, not coincidentally, The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse are often linked with animals, at least according to visions in Ezekial. Given that the "End Times" begins with animal-bred disease on Millennium (a forecast of avian flu?) one can gaze across the breadth of Season Two -- from "Beware The Dog" to "A Single Blade of Grass," to "Hand of St. Sebastian" to "Owls" and "Roosters" -- as ominous forecasts, with the animal allusions as token indicators -- warning signs -- of the impending apocalypse.

I would be remiss, and not entirely truthful, if I failed to note that animal symbolism is merely one (important) facet of Millennium's complex second season narrative structure. Many episodes deal with other important issues of the day, ones highly relevant in the context of the 1990s. "Sense and Anti-Sense" looks fearfully at the Human Genome Project, which began in 1990 and issued a complete genome profile in 2003. "Monster" studies the troubling issue of false accusations of child-molestation, an idea going back to the late 1980s and early 1990s when there was a bit of national hysteria around such accusations. One case in Washington State, circa 1994 had a child pointing the finger of abuse at forty three people -- including a pastor - all of whom were later proved innocent. Not that abuse doesn't occur and shouldn't be punished, only that in such cases one has to tread carefully. That point was made cleverly in "Monster" when Frank himself was accused of being a child abuser by a diabolical child sociopath.

I might note, too that "Monster" did include some rather specific animal imagery/myth: the day care teacher's recitation of a fable called "Henny Penny" (also known as "Chicken Little"), a story that involves hysterical cries that the "sky is falling."

The episode "Goodbye Charlie" involved the hot-button issue of Euthanasia, which Dr. Kevorkian had brought into prime-time with his assisted suicide; performed on an episode of 60 Minutes (November 22, 1998). "The Mikado" involved the new technology of the Internet becoming haven to a Zodiac-type serial killer called "Avatar." Even the incredible, deeply-affecting "Luminary" appeared based on a 1996 best-selling work of non-fiction called "Into the Wild" about a boy who gives up his material wealth for a simpler life in wild Alaska.

Yet, I would argue it is the animal symbols that are truly crucial to a deeper understanding of this season of Millennium in one important respect: the defining and explanation of the Group's nature. The "conspiracy" episodes of Millennium -- the ones involving the Group -- almost all involve animals of some variety. From the introduction of "The Old Man" in "Beware of Dog" to the Group's Civil War in "Owls"/"Roosters" to the fruition of the Group's secret agenda to force the end in "The Fourth Horseman"/"The Time is Now," animal mythology and symbols pervade the narrative.

Whether the animals are meant to reveal nature disordered, reveal human vice, or represent spiritual evil and eternal cycles, "when animals attack" on Millennium, they are -- like the serial killers that preceded them -- showing us who we are.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 85: Batman: The Animated Series 3-D Board Game (Parker Bros.; 1992)


Beginning in 1992, Batman: The Animated Series aired on the Fox Network's Saturday morning line-up. This stellar superhero program ran for several seasons and was nominated for two Emmy Awards (it won once: for Outstanding Animated Program in 1993). In some markets, the popular series even aired in prime time.

I was an aficionado of this incarnation of Batman for many reasons. First and foremost, I enjoyed the fact that it was crafted in the distinctive visual style of the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons of the 1940s. You know: square jaws, big cars, noir fashions...and big, clunky (but gorgeous...) retro-tech.

I also was impressed with the fact that Batman: The Animated series seemed to provide viewers with, well...the perfectly balanced portrayal of Batman. Our hero was neither oppressively, dogmatically dark just for the hell of it, nor ridiculously, mockingly light.

One episode of the series that I enjoyed especially seemed to meditate on this idea of different Batman incarnations. It was Robert Goodman's "Legends of the Dark Knight, a tale in which three children -- while walking the crime-ridden streets of Gotham -- discussed various rumors about the mysterious Batman and his gadgets. Their perceptions of Batman formed the lead-in to several briefer stories of varying styles. There was an "Old Chum," camp version of Batman (genuflecting to the 1960s pop-sensation, replete with over-sized props like a giant metronome), and there was a Frank Miller/Dark Knight style, post-apocalyptic interpretation too. I appreciated how the episode artfully attempted to integrate all variations of the caped crusader mythos before introducing its series star, "the real Batman" of the series: a grim opponent of criminals, but one who existed somewhere between the extreme poles of hard-bitten vigilante and jokey buffoon.

At a yard sale, sometime in the early 1990s, I came across some merchandise from Batman: The Animated Series and one item caught my eye. The Batman: The Animated Series 3-D Board Game seems -- in some fashion -- to be the spiritual heir of the much sought-after 1970s Amsco Cardboard Playsets (Planet of the Apes, Space:1999, The Waltons, The Marvel Universe). So it's right up my nostalgic alley.

In essence, this board game is a 3-D heavy-cardboard recreation of Batman's lair, the Batcave. Or as the back of the box describes the setting:

"Batman has been working night and day to rid Gotham City of crime, and he's fallen asleep at the console of his crime-stopping computer, deep inside the 3-dimensional Batcave. While he sleeps, Batman dreams that the cave has been invaded by the worst criminal riff-raff...bad guys like The Penguin and the Joker...Catwoman and Poison Ivy...The Mad Hatter and Mr. Freeze. His partner Robin has been trying to fight them, but he's in great danger.

You and your friends must help Batman capture the villains and save Robin!


Now just go ahead and discard the cheesy Batman-asleep at his Bat Computer "dream" scenario and what you actually have here is a cool diorama of a very-Fleischer-like Batcave, plus plethora of stylized cardboard characters from Batman's universe. There's Scarecrow, The Riddler and Harley Quinn, among others. There's even a cardboard cut-out of the 1940s-looking Batmobile, big front grill and all.

If you're a Batman fan and remember this animated chapter of the legend fondly, the 3-D Board Game is a pretty cool collectible of early nineties vintage. I've had it kept away in storage for a bit, but I took it out to show Joel this morning. He was mesmerized by the toy, and wanted to drop several of the figures into what he called "the bat dungeon."Joel already knows Batman, Robin and The Joker by name, and today learned about Mr. Freeze. Unfortunately, he took one look at Catwoman and said "Wonder Woman!"

I'll work on him...

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea

"The sea does not belong to despots. Upon its surface men can still exercise unjust laws, fight, tear one another to pieces, and be carried away with terrestrial horrors. But at thirty feet below its level, their reign ceases, their influence is quenched, and their power disappears."
-The Captain Nemo Manifesto (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea)

Frenchman Jules Verne -- revered in some circles as the father of science fiction and futurism -- gave the world the remarkable 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in the year 1869. His long-lived, adventurous and exciting tale of submarines, undersea exploration and a classic anti-hero focuses initially on a strange mystery engulfing the "modern" world of the West.

Specifically the civilized world of 1866 is squeezed in the frightening grip of a “mysterious and inexplicable phenomenon.” Seafaring vessels belonging to various global powers have encountered “an enormous thing,” “a long object, spindle-shaped, occasionally phosphorescent and infinitely larger and more rapid in its movements than a whale.”

Some believe this animal is a Kraken or other ancient sea serpent, one perhaps a miraculous 200 feet in length. But regardless of its origin or exact dimensions, the beast is crowned the terror of the high seas for its anti-social behavior. That behavior consists of wrecking, sinking and scuttling man's best ships.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is told entirely in the first person voice, a format which encourages an affinity for the characters (and a kind of breathless pace, at points...). Accordingly, in the book's second chapter ("Pro and Con"), the reader is introduced to our stalwart narrator: Parisian, Pierre Aronnax, an assistant professor at the Museum of Natural History in France. A great student of the ocean and ocean life, Aronnax believes the notorious sea monster (which has been sinking ships of all nationalities…) is actually a colossal narwhal or other heretofore unseen deep sea creature.

With his loyal servant – the phlegmatic Conseil – in tow, Aronnax boards the frigate Abraham Lincoln captained by Commander Farragut. Their mission: to “purge” the sea monster from the oceans, so it can no longer prove a threat to mankind. The Abraham Lincoln soon departs Brooklyn for the “dark waters” of the Atlantic and a strange rendezvous with destiny.

In Chapter Four, the reader is introduced to another of the book’s protagonists, “the prince of Harpooners,” Ned Land. Land is a Canadian with “an uncommon quickness of hand,” renowned for his skill, audacity and cunning. Ned is forty years old, “strongly built and taciturn, occasionally violent and very passionate when contradicted.” Land is also a confirmed skeptic when it comes to the existence of the sea monster, and he and Aronnax develop a bond of respect and friendship as they debate the possible “organisation” of a beastie that can reputedly puncture the hulls of metal ships. Not long after an encounter with the American frigate, Monroe, the Abraham Lincoln is attacked by the very sea monster in question, and Ned, Arronax and Conseil are hurled overboard into a murky sea.

Our heroes soon find themselves aboard not a sea monster, however, but rather a “huge fish of steel” (of sheet iron, to be precise). This is the highly-advanced submersible called the Nautilus. The vessel is commanded by Captain Nemo (the Latin word for "Nobody," incidentally.) Nemo speaks fluent French, English, German, Latin and French, and counts his allegiance to no country, no nation, no ideology.

Professor, I am not what you call a civilized man,” Nemo soon explains. “I have done with society entirely, for reasons which I alone have the right of appreciating. I do not therefore, obey its laws.”

Although Captain Nemo considers Ned, Aronnax and Conseil prisoners of war, he offers them clemency. He invites the trio to enjoy his hospitality aboard Nautilus…though they may never be permitted to return to land. For Aronnax, this is a fair trade, since he will now have the opportunity to study aquatic life close-up. For Ned – a man of the world – this accommodation is unacceptable, and he becomes obsessed with escape.

One of the most impressive sections of the book arrives next, in particular Verne’s exhaustive, and picturesque description of the Nautilus interior; a description which sheds light, not coincidentally, on the nature of its inscrutable inventor, the opaque Nemo.

For instance, the Nautilus possesses a vast library consisting of 12,000 books. Nemo describes the impressive collection of volumes as “the only ties which bind me to the Earth." The captain's study/drawing room is likewise a testament to man's best nature. And Nemo's appreciation doesn't cease with the written word, either. He has a piano/organ there on which he plays the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner. The same room also doubles as a gallery for the priceless artworks of Raphael, Da Vinci and Corieggo. It is in consideration of these great human achievements that we come to understand something of Nemo's conflicted nature. He both hates and loves his fellow man...

Also, apparently subscribing to the theorem of healthy mind/healthy body, Nemo reveals to his new guests the peculiarities of his unusual diet (which he indulges in a grand, elaborate dining room). Nemo’s nourishment arrives entirely from the sea, and he reports that he is “never ill now.” Eschewing all terrestrial food, his meals consist of “fillet of turtle,” “milk by the cetacea” and “preserves of anemone” among other undersea delicacies.

Nemo does possess one vice, however, from the civilized world of his day: cigars. Not tobacco, mind you, but rather cigars made of sea weed (and rich in nicotine).

In this section of the text (called "The Man of the Seas"), Captain Nemo also declares his “philosophy of life’ so-to-speak. His manifesto begins with the words “The Sea is Everything,” and then continues to illustrate his obsession with the sea: "It covers seven-tenths of the terrestrial globe. Its breath is pure and healthy. It is an immense desert, where man is never lonely, for he feels life stirring on all sides...It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the 'Living infinite."

The sea is also the very place where Nemo can escape all the "isms" that he despises in modern life (nationalism, imperialism, etc.). The quotation that opens this review, in fact, eloquently reveals his zeal and hunger for real freedom and independence, as well as his steadfast belief that it only exists in a realm where man is absent. Make no mistake, this is where the book delves into deliberate social commentary. Nemo has fled a world that - while priding itself on being civilized -- has only constructed more efficient ways to kill and disenfranchise man.

Considering his misanthropic viewpoint, what we get in Captain Nemo is an early model perhaps, of the modern “dark” hero or rather, in Byronic lingo, the anti-hero. In other words, a man whom we find admirable and sympathetic in spite his total and utter rejection of that which society at large has judged to be "virtue."

And indeed, Nemo is attractive (and heroic) in so many ways. He's a genius, an intellectual, a man of able body and more-than able mind. He has renounced man’s civilization because that civilization is -- at least debatably -- corrupt. Though Nemo is immensely rich (he offhandedly tells Aronnax he could pay off the national debt of France without even missing it…), he is not an aristocrat by any conventional understanding of that word. He shuns the company of poseurs and fools and devotes himself entirely to a high and noble purpose: the exploration of a realm that has captured his imagination. Some might see Nemo's universe as exile, but if it is, it's a self-imposed one.

Nemo boasts a dark side too; no doubt. He’s not just the explorer; not merely the inventor; not only a brilliant scientist. Much of his current life (aboard Nautilus) is devoted to vengeance, to waging war against a civilization that he deems responsible for a great sin. What precisely that sin is, Verne does not reveal in detail. However, Aronnax does make brief note, very near the book’s conclusion, that Nemo has a picture of a lovely woman and two children hanging in his study. This is his family…his dead family, perhaps. They were lost, one supposes, in one of modern man’s endless wars.

Nemo strikes back at the world that killed his loved ones (maybe...) by sinking the ships of those governments. These acts are murder, no doubt, and homicide hangs heavy on Nemo's extraordinary mind. His last words (“Enough!”) speak plainly and simply (without histrionics) to the psychic weight he has borne to avenge his family; and there’s also some indication that he sets the Nautilus into a maelstrom (whirlpool) as a sort of bizarre suicide attempt; though the final fate of Nemo and his extraordinary vessel are not revealed in this text. (See: Mysterious Island!)

Once Aronnax and his friends commence their stay aboard the Nautilus, Verne paints us a portrait of a magnificent and thrilling world. After defining the incredible capacities of the Nautilus (which runs on electricity), we are escorted on a miraculous “walk on the bottom of the sea” utilizing early diving/scuba technology. There are great beauties at these “obscure depths” and also great dangers…including giant sea spiders and sharks “strong enough to crush a whole man in their iron jaws.”

Arronax, Conseil and Land encounter dangerous “savages” (Papuans) in one interlude, and Nemo steers the Nautilus to the Lost City of Atlantis in another. The Nautilus braves ice bergs and other dangers on a voyage to the South Pole, and Nemo even plants his personal flag there, in defiance of The State (and all States).

My favorite chapter in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, however, involves an attack by poulps: so-called “giant squids.” A school of these ghastly monsters descend upon the Nautilus in terrifyingly swift fashion, and Nemo is forced to bring his submarine to the surface to combat them. There, on deck (and without much by way of personal protection...), Nemo and his crew (along with Ned) hack at the tentacled, hungry beasts with only harpoons and hatchets. It’s an awesome battle, and one that captured my imagination both as a child and as an adult. In one terrifying moment, Nemo loses a lieutenant to one of the man-eating squids, and it's a horrifying fate.

It’s funny how age changes perspective, but when I was a child my favorite character here was the harpooner, Ned Land (played by square-jawed Kirk Douglas in the Disney film). Ned wanted to escape the Nautilus, and was the most traditionally “American” good-guy character or "cowboy" of the bunch. As a more contemplative adult, however, it is the enigmatic and tragic Nemo who endlessly sparks my curiosity and imagination. The great value of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is the mysterious, ambiguous, and compelling nature of this most singular “Nobody.”

In terms of his history, Nemo was originally conceived (in Verne’s mind) as Polish…a European. However, upon reflection and input from his agent, Nemo was made an Indian…one resisting British Imperialism in his own home country. I don’t know that the character's nationality is that critical today, actually, but in general I love the concept and depiction of Nemo: an educated, disillusioned “man of the world” who leaves behind imperfect society and imperfect man for the wonders of the sea. He takes with him only man’s best; leaving everything else above the waves.

Returning to 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in 2009, I was afraid I would find the work archaic or distancing (because of linguistic and cultural differences), but quite the opposite was true. I found the book immediate, involving and intimate. The things that vexed Nemo about the world are still with us, even today. War and ignorance prime among them. I also felt, again, that I detected the seeds of so many 20th century entertainments in the book's characters and scenarios. When I picture Nemo hacking away at the tentacles of the poulps, I reflexively remember Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) taking out a space "dragon" with an axe in "Dragon's Domain" on Space:1999. When I consider Nemo's obsession with the sea and exploring a new realm, I'm reminded of Hans Reinhardt aboard his conveyance, The Cygnus in The Black Hole. When I fall in love with that amazing technological wonder, the Nautilus, I think of Kirk's love for his beautiful ship of exploration, the U.S.S. Enterprise.

And truthfully, Captain Nemo seems to fit right in with the 21st century world of The Dark Knight. Like Batman, Nemo boasts a unique moral compass, but the course between justice and vengeance is not always an easy trajectory to navigate. Also like Batman, Nemo has countenanced personal tragedy, hides his true identity (taking the name Nemo as cover...) and has a vast fortune at his disposal. Unlike Batman, however, Nemo is a legitimate menace to the world at large. He has advanced technology, the will to use it, and -- most of all -- is powered by righteous anger.

20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remains a wondrous tale, one that has endured the test of time. Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and SeaQuest DSV are certainly "children" of this adventure as they involve highly advanced submarines exploring ocean depths, but again, it is Captain Nemo – and the idea of a righteous avenger – that seems to have come forth most powerfully from Verne's book and also taken hold of our modern culture. I know there is a new 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea movie planned and I must wonder if these are the qualities that will be most heavily accented this time around.

That would certainly be an appropriate course heading, so long as Nemo’s other extraordinary and human qualities aren’t given short shrift for the easy-movie shorthand of angsty-broodiness. I'd hate to see him reduced to being an underwater Punisher, for instance. I mean, certainly Nemo wreaks bloody vengeance against those who have wronged him, but his passion for science, exploration and knowledge make him more than your typical angel of death. Those qualities balance the man, and rudder the fantastic sights and sounds of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea in a very human, very sympathetic source.

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...