Thursday, January 28, 2010

Goodbye, Holden...

"I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day."

- J.D. Salinger (1919 - 2010)

CULT TV FLASHBACK #99: The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula

Don your bell-bottoms, cue the stock-footage thunderstorms, and turn up the library archive sound-effects of wolves baying at the full moon. It's time to ride our blogging TV time machine back to that great year 1977. Our destination: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, a Glen A. Larson production that ran for three years on ABC (1977-1979).

This once-popular detective TV series (styled after the popular, long-lived, mystery books by Edward Stratemeyer) starred teen heartthrob Shaun Cassidy ("Da Doo Ron Ron...") as Joe Hardy and Parker Stevenson (later the husband of Kirstie Alley...) as his cleverer brother, Frank.

On the Nancy Drew side of the equation, lovely Pamela Sue Martin portrayed the dedicated part-time sleuth. At least that was the case for the first two seasons of The Hardy Boy/Nancy Drew Mysteries. Then she permanently exited the series, breaking the hearts of pre-adolescent boys across the nation. Concurrent with her departure, Pamela Sue Martin shed her "good girl" image forever by posing nude in Playboy.

Little known fact: I still own that particular issue...

But for this 99th cult tv flashback, I want to direct your attention to the two-part, second season opener of The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the charmingly-titled "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula," which aired on September 11th and September 18th, 1977.

In most of my reviews, I prefer not to use descriptors such as cheesy or camp -- because in time, all programming turns to cheese or camp -- but this series is indeed a very cheesy. It's also rather charming...and innocent. In other words: perfect stuff for kids. Even better: it's perfect stuff for kids with a burgeoning interest in the horror genre.


So, in this particular tale, hapless Hardy Senior -- Fenton Hardy (Ed Gilbert) -- disappears at Count Dracula's castle in Transylvania (on June 4th, 1977...). Weeks later, Joe and Frank go in search of him...in Paris. Then, they run into the lovely Nancy Drew in Munich, and learn more about their father's unusual disappearance. Fenton and Nancy were "comparing notes" on a mystery involving international art thefts. Many of the world's most valuable paintings have disappeared, and Fenton was on the case.

The three amateur detectives concur that all roads lead to Transylvania, where a Dracula Festival is being held at Vlad The Impaler's historic castle. Shooting a rock concert there for ABC is the rock sensation Allison Troy...really the incomparable Paul Williams (who appeared EVERYWHERE in the 1970s, including in Battle for the Planet of the Apes...).

And here (in Part I), Williams performs a great song from one of my favorite movies of all time (and one by Brian De Palma, no less...), 1974's Phantom of the Paradise.

Anyway, the Hardy Boys go undercover as members of a band called "Circus"....which is just a transparent excuse for Shaun Cassidy to sing "That's Rock'N'Roll" ("Come on Everybody, get down, get with it, come on everybody get down, get with it...")

While Joe sings his heart out for costumed revelers, Frank and Nancy Drew separately investigate the creepy caverns underneath the castle; a locale they have been warned about repeatedly. Before long, Frank ends up locked in a dungeon with the apparent victim of a vampire attack.

Soon vampire bats are attacking a night-gowned Nancy Drew in her hotel bedroom (!) and the Transylvania town elders start panicking. Before long, they are on the receiving end of vampire neck bites. Inspector Stavlin, played by Lorne Greene -- a traditional sort-of-guy -- hints that Dracula may be perturbed that his castle is being used for such crass commercialism (meaning Allison Troy's concert, not this two-part Glen Larson episode...).

But deep in the caverns -- behind the ancient Dracula family crest -- a secret chamber awaits. And there, Frank, Joe and Nancy finally learn the truth about vampires, and international art thieves too.

Directed by Joseph Pevney and written by Glen A. Larson and Michael Sloane, "The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew Meet Dracula" is a show I vividly remember from my childhood. I guess I was seven years old when I watched it originally, and, well, what can I say? it had a lasting impression on me.

For instance, I've always recalled the Dracula-"stalking" scenes that dominate this two-part episode. We just see Dracula's stylish boots as the count hunts his prey in the dark caverns. Of course, the villain was filmed in this manner so we couldn't discover Dracula's real identity. But there was always something unsettling (to my young mind, anyway....) about the way those shiny boots came out of the darkness and followed everybody through the catacombs.

And, of course, how can you not love Paul Williams? The performer gets to camp it up here as an egotistical rock star. I love that he sings "The Hell of It" in this episode, because it features nihilistic song lyrics that aren't exactly as kid-friendly as the rest of this landmark Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew endeavor. Anyway, I've embedded the Paul Williams Hardy Boys performance below this review, so you too can share in the joy.

All right, so it''s all too easy to make fun of 1970s costumes and lingo, right... turkey? And vampire bats on visible strings? Han Solo hair cuts? Lorne Greene -- Ben Cartwright -- as the Prince of Darkness, Dracula?

But all snark aside, from 1976-1979, I loved this series. I mean, I loved it. I never missed an episode. The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries had fun stories, featured engaging performances and depicted some great tales about The Bermuda Triangle, King Tut, the Phantom of Hollywood and other weird 1970s era obsessions. I often write about TV series as "time capsules" for their era, and -- my god -- what a time capsule this show is. It's just a whole lot of goofy, 1977-style fun.

And now, before I sign off, may I present Paul Williams on The Hardy Boys...?










Tuesday, January 26, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #98: The Incredible Hulk: "Married" (1978)


Even as late as 1978, superhero television was still attempting to escape the gravitational pull of the campy but highly-entertaining 1960s Batman series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. That watershed ABC series -- undeniably a prime example of colorful, counter-culture pop art -- had so shaded the format requirements for superhero and comic book TV initiatives that a new template -- sans "BAM!" "POW!" and "WHAM" -- was required.

Resourceful and literate, writer/producer Kenneth Johnson crafted that new template when adapting Marvel's The Incredible Hulk comic-book for television. Instead of depending on dynamic super criminals, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, and out-of-this-world swashbuckling, Johnson grounded his new hero, David Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby), in a more familiar, less over-the-top world.

As author Gary Gerani observed in TV Episode Guides Volume 2 (1982, page 64), "he [Johnson] turned to a more intelligent and dramatic approach of a man whose life is upset by the fact that he can become this uncontrollable monster."

Series producer Nick Corea was even more specific about the program's approach: "Any writer who comes in with clones or extraterrestrials, we steer in another direction." (John Abbot, SFX #18, November 1996, page 76).

Today, we happily take costumed and colorful heroes at face value, as part and parcel of the superhero genre. We want to see super villains and super feats. So the superhero stigma once associated with the camp 1960s Batman is finally gone. And in something of a turnaround, we actually gaze at TV's drama The Incredible Hulk -- which rigorously followed a format similar to The Fugitive -- as a bit of a relic; as a time capsule of a different era.

Times change. Tastes change.

Yet The Incredible Hulk ran for four successful years on CBS because of Johnson's dedication to the "human factor." A latter day Jekyll-Hyde story, The Incredible Hulk explicitly concerned the divide between human emotions and human rationality.

Think about it this way: we exist day-to-day by controlling our emotions; by keeping them firmly in check. Yet in the person hood of the raging Hulk (Lou Ferrigno), our impulses are free...unfettered. For David Banner -- living in the last days of disco -- the struggle was an internal one; to manage that provoked Id; to restrain the instinct-based beast inside all of us who wants to react to every challenge, fear, and pain with raw emotion and brute force. Hulk smash!

One of the best and most touching episodes of The Incredible Hulk was the second season opener, "Married" (written and directed by Johnson). A two-hour tale, "Married" originally aired on November 22, 1978, and guest-starred Mariette Hartley as Dr. Caroline Fields.

Caroline is a brilliant psychologist facing her own internal struggle: a terminal disease (like Lou Gehrig's Disease) that has reduced her expected life span to just six weeks.

Our protagonist, David Banner, arrives at Caroline's medical practice in Hawaii to seek her assistance in controlling his "monster," unaware of her own debilitating condition. In particular, Caroline is an expert in hypnosis, and David believes that she could hypnotize his conscious mind into trapping the Hulk within. In other words, he hopes to cage the Hulk with his brain.

Over a few weeks, David and Caroline fall in love...and are married. David tries to cure Caroline's disease, and Caroline tries to cure David of his affliction. And impressively, much of the episode's "action" occurs inside the mind-states of these two individuals.

As David is hypnotized, we see him physically encounter the Hulk in a barren, desert landscape. First, David tries to restrain the Hulk in heavy ropes. But the Hulk breaks out.

Then David tries a cage with steel bars. Again, the Hulk breaks free.

Finally, David attempts trapping the Hulk inside the mental construct of an impenetrable vault. But even here, the beast within him cannot be contained.

Meanwhile, Caroline attempts to use the mind-over-matter hypnosis technique to cure her defective "mitochondria" of the invading disease lesions. She envisions her put-upon cells as an Old West wagon train; and the lesions there as invading Indian raiders surrounding it. When David formulates a new drug (taken from the Hulk's skin sample...) Caroline imagines the drug as the cavalry, coming over the hill. This is all weird and wonderful stuff (and fits in perfectly with the 1970s obsession with hypnosis).

The Incredible Hulk always concerned the ways in which our mind responds to external stimuli. We can choose to respond with rage; or we can choose to respond calmly. We can choose to respond with violence; or peaceably. "Married" is very much on target in terms of the series' overriding themes then, since virtually every major scene concerns the way our brain faces conflict and interprets challenges.

Today -- 32 years later -- "Married" has indeed dated somewhat. No doubt there. There are two worrisome scenes during which Bill Bixby and Mariette Hartley speak in atrocious Pidgeon English (talking about Chinese food...) and then perform bad John Wayne imitations. This is what seemed like witty and romantic banter in the 1970s, I guess, but today's it's just sort of cringe-inducing.

And also, "Married" evidences a big flaw common in many Incredible Hulk scenarios That flaw: the Hulk's presence isn't entirely warranted given the less-than-threatening circumstances.

For example, in "Married" two on-the-make "groovy" swingers (wearing polyester pants two-sizes too small...) pick-up a drunk Caroline and take her back to their bachelor pad (along with a floozy...) for a night of casual sex. David arrives to take Caroline home, and then these two swingers suddenly become violent. They push David around. They pop a champagne cork in his face (!). Then -- all kidding aside -- they violently hurl him from their second-story bedroom balcony...into a glass coffee table, below thus precipitating an appearance by the Hulk. The un-jolly green giant then proceeds to tear the bachelor pad to pieces. It's an impressive-enough action scene, but entirely unnecessary. Not to mention unmotivated.

Why would two relatively harmless guys with sex on the brain suddenly turn egregiously violent? (And destroy their own apartment in the process?) This sort of thing happened a lot on the show: people who you wouldn't expect to immediately turn to violence suddenly become a HUGE threat so that the Hulk can appear and save the day.

But leaving aside these dated elements, "Married" remain an outstanding episode of the CBS series. Perhaps because of the two-hour running time, Caroline feels like a "real" person and not just the guest-star/love-interest-of-the-week. And the relationship she shares with David doesn't feel forced or silly. It's clear that Caroline and Bruce are both suffering terribly, and sharing what little time they have left together eases that pain. That's as good a reason for marriage as any, isn't it?

There's also one incredibly dark moment in "Married." With only two weeks to live, Caroline plays frisbee with a little boy (Meeno Peluce of Voyagers!) on the beach. The scene is much longer than it need be; and focuses a great deal on Hartley in close-shot. There's almost no dialogue. The scene is mostly silent. But inscribed on her expression is the agony and regret of the life Caroline will never experience. She will never be a mother; never have children, as she once dreamed of. This is an issue "Married" raised early on, but then returns to with this unexpectedly sad and restrained moment. I can't deny "Married" is a tear-jerker, either, but then that was a perpetual quality of The Incredible Hulk too: it was, overall, a pretty lugubrious, melancholy show.

What I admire most about "Married," however, are those "dream state" sequences occurring in the desert of Banner's mind; as David and The Hulk face each other down. It may not seem like much of a comic-book-style adventure -- there's no Marvel-style mythology or continuity in place -- but the human drama is nonetheless fascinating.

We don't like ourselves when we're angry. We don't like ourselves when we're bad tampered; when we let our "Hulks" out to roam. The Incredible Hulk's impressive "Married" externalizes and literalizes the idea of the emotional battle raging within each of us, the battle for control with our barely concealed monsters.

Monday, January 25, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

To aggressively analyze and interpret a David Lynch film is to invite agitation. On one hand, many critics suggest the artist's movies are dense and impenetrable; that they are weird just for the sake of weirdness. Therefore, no possible interpretation for what occurs on screen exists, and the interpreter is simply partaking in a wild goose chase. Or worse, being self-indulgent.

Reviewing Lynch's Lost Highway (1997), for instance, one of my favorite critics, Roger Ebert, admitted "I've seen it twice, hoping to make sense of it. There is no sense to be made of it. To try is to miss the point. What you see is all you get."

Yet, David Lynch's films are so abundant with symbolic representation; so rife with abstruse dream sequences; so criss-crossed with narrative alleyways, and so thoroughly dominated by opaque characterizations that they virtually cry out for contextualization and analysis.


To leave such treasure troves of figuration uninterpreted or unexamined is to abandon a half-solved puzzle.

Contrarily, to delve into the mysteries of David Lynch's cinema is to grow nearer the mind (and dream state...) of a most singular American film artist. For me, the temptation to dive in is...well...irresistible.

Sometimes, audiences, scholars and critics have also been willing to take that giant leap of faith and gaze -- unblinking and unbowed -- at the secrets and enigmas presented in Lynch's twisting, tricky narratives. Many of Lynch's productions, such as Blue Velvet (1984), are indeed held in high critical esteem. But at the same time, other Lynch films have not met with the same aggressive intellectual curiosity. Exhibit A: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) a prequel to the popular TV series; a movie produced a year after the program was canceled.

As you may recall, the movie was booed at the Cannes Film Festival, and New York Times critic Vincent Canby suggested "It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be. Its 134 minutes induce a state of simulated brain death, an effect as easily attained in half the time by staring at the blinking lights on a Christmas tree."

Jay Scott at Toronto's Globe and Mail called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me "a disgusting, misanthropic movie," and compared a viewing of the film to "cocaine-induced paranoia."

To many critics, the layered, perplexing Fire Walk with Me is but "as blank as a fart," to quote one of the film's quirkier characters.

Yet taken at simple face value, Fire Walk With Me is a disquieting exhumation of the "underneath" in America. In the film, we encounter homecoming queen and Twin Peaks resident Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). We follow her through her harrowing last week on this mortal coil, and see that this "typical" teenager is anything but.

If the movie feels like a case of cocaine-induced paranoia, that is likely intentional. Because Laura is indeed experiencing a cocaine-induced paranoia throughout much of the movie. She's a junkie (and the film depicts Laura snorting coke on several occasions; as well as participating in a drug deal gone wrong.) Thus the film's lurid, jittery, unpleasant shape perfectly reflects the piece's content. We seem to be viewing the film from inside a drug fever.

Quit Trying to Hold on So Tight...I'm Gone: Laura Palmer as Victim of Incest

David Lynch's films work on different metaphorical layers, and one thematic layer of Fire Walk with Me involves a truly unpleasant topic: incest.

Beautiful Laura Palmer -- the envy of every girl at Twin Peaks high school -- is the victim of incest. She has been the victim of sexual molestation by her father, Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), for several years.

Unable to cope with this monstrous reality, Laura's shattered mind has come to visually re-interpret her father's nocturnal bedroom visits as the home invasions of a swarthy stranger, a monster named "Bob."

Laura informs her psychiatrist, Harold ,that "Bob is real. He's been having me since I was twelve." Furthermore, she notes "he comes through my window at night...he's getting to know me. He wants to be me...or he'll kill me."

And sure enough, one day, Laura arrives home from school early and sees Bob prowling around in her bedroom. As if sniffing her out. It's a terrifying scene: we suddenly register the unexpected intruder in a place of safety and comfort, and almost physically blanch at his presence. Scared, Laura runs out of the house, terrified, only to see not the Evil Bob emerge after her...but rather her beloved father, Leland. He is the Monster of Her Id.

In another disturbing scene, Bob slips inside the Palmer house through Laura's window at night. In electric blue moonlight, he seduces her. In the throes of their mutual passion, Laura suddenly sees that the stranger is actually her father, Leland, and nearly goes mad at the revelation. Again, this is the thing she is trying to bury under mountains of cocaine; in alcohol. The betrayal of a trusted loved one.

How does a the typical victim deal with persistent sexual abuse and incest? According to author Ken Chisholm's article on the subject, "Some of the social maladjustments arising from incest are alcoholism, drug addiction, prostitution and promiscuity." Consider these factors in relationship to Laura Palmer. We already know she is addicted to cocaine. We already know she drinks.

But Laura is also sexually-involved with at least two boyfriends at school: the temperamental Bobby (Dana Ashbrook) and James-Dean-ish James Hurley (James Marshall). She seems to ping-pong back and forth between them. And, as prescribed above, prostitution is part of Laura's life too. We learn in Fire Walk With Me that (as in the series before...), Laura has been selling her body both at One Eyed Jacks and at the film's sleazy Bang Bang Bar.

In other words, a history and pattern of incest leads to self-destructive behavior on the part of the victim. It leads to the destruction of -- and disassociation from -- the healthy ego. This is also evident in Fire Walk with Me. "Your Laura disappeared," Laura informs James blankly, feeling unworthy and undeserved of his authentic, romantic love. "It's just me now," she explains, feeling ashamed and guilty over her behavior.

At one point, late in the film, even Laura's guardian angel seems to abandon her, vanishing from a painting in her bedroom. It's thus clear that Laura blames herself for her father's behavior, and consequently that she views herself as ugly and corrupted. She isn't the golden girl anymore, she's tarnished.

This self-hatred becomes especially plain during the moment when Laura confides in her psychiatrist Harold about "Bob's" visits.

Suddenly, the film cuts to a nightmarish view of Laura as an ivory white crone; one with alabaster skin, yellowed teeth, scarlet gums and blackened lips. She looks like a terrible, corrupted monster: an outward reflection of her low self-esteem. This is how she sees herself.

Later in the film, we see Leland Palmer -- suffering his own personal hell of guilt and shame -- imagining himself in identical terms, right down to the black lips. This is the form of the bad conscience made manifest.

Those who endure incest and sexual abuse also, over time, may experience night terrors, hallucinations or insomnia. Laura is not immune from these symptoms either. She lives through terrifying nightmares, especially ones that involve a creepy painting. On that painting is rendered a half-open door; and in Laura's dream she mindlessly treads though that door into the evil world of the Black Lodge. A place were "garmonbozia" (pain and suffering) is eaten like creamed corn, and her suffering will provide a feast. She is, literally, the Devil's candy. And she knows it.

Laura is aware that she is a moth driven to the flame (a woman consigned to Hell...) and again and again, Fire Walk With Me brings up the idea of fire in connection to Laura. Donna Hayward (Moira Kelly) asks Laura a weird question. "If you fall in outer space, do you think you'd slow down after a while, or go faster and faster?"

Laura's telling answer is that she would go faster and faster...without knowing it, and then spontaneously burn up. No angels could save her...because they're all gone. The world is devoid of angels.

Again, this answer appears to be a metaphor for Laura's increasingly "fast" life (a life made even more jittery and fast by the cocaine): dating two boys; scoring drugs; acting as a prostitute...trying desperately to escape her real life and the sexual abuse.

In the end, however, no matter how fast she goes, Laura will still be consumed by flame; destroyed. The Log Lady (Catherine E. Coulson) tells Laura -- in an important, if brief, scene that "When this kind of fire starts, it is very hard to put out. The tender boughs of innocence burn first, and the wind rises, and then all goodness is in jeopardy."

Once more, you've got to contextualize this remark in terms of the incest: the act which has made the self-loathing Laura change from golden girl to promiscuous drug abuser and prostitute. In the execution of that bad behavior, the first victim is Laura's innocence...her childhood. The second is her goodness (and now she can't even volunteer to feed the hungry in the meals on wheels program...). The third victim...is existence itself. Laura understands this. She realizes she is headed "nowhere...fast."

Another frequent quality of incest victims is a protective impulse; an overriding need to save or rescue younger siblings from the life-destroying behavior that has ruined them. In Fire Walk with Me, Donna goes to the Bang Bang Bar with Laura. Donna drinks alcohol, takes drugs, and seduces a john. When Laura witnesses Donna's craven behavior -- the tender boughs of innocence about to burn -- she is roused to act. Unable to save herself, Laura does the next best thing: she rescues naive Donna. Afterwards, Laura warns Donna cryptically "don't wear my stuff," an indication that Donna has "tried on" Laura's lifestyle. But it doesn't fit Donna; and Laura doesn't want Donna to be like her.

There's No Tomorrow; It Will Never Get Here: The Spirit World in Fire Walk With Me

A central question regarding Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me involves the rogue's gallery in the Black Lodge. This gallery includes Bob, The (backwards-talking) Man from Another Place (Michael Anderson) and the One-Armed Man. They dwell in that sitting room (the velvet-lined room with zig-zag floor). Are they real? Or imaginary? Are they sentient, or symbolic?

Is Leland an all-too "human" sexual abuser? Or is he an unlucky man possessed by an evil spirit? Who do we blame for the incest: the spirit (Bob) or the body (Leland)?

In a sense, it doesn't matter a whit. It is immaterial. When criminals commit terrible acts, they often claim the "devil made them do it," right? Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me may suggest a universe of Hell (in the form of the Black Lodge) and Heaven too (in the form or Ronette Pulaski's and Laura's individual guardian angels), but it never suggests that Leland is innocent.

There may be a "monster" cowering inside him; but there is a monster cowering inside all abusers, isn't there? If evil dwells in the human psyche, then it dwells in the human psyche...and we must combat it. Leland never does that. He murders Teresa Banks, and eventually he murders his own daughter, Laura, because he is so consumed of "the evil spirit." That's what makes him a villain.

That really was something with the dancing girl, wasn't it? What exactly did all that mean?

Encoded in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is a self-commentary on David Lynch's approach to symbolic story telling.

Early in the film, FBI agent Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) and Agent Chester Desmond (Chris Isaak) are tasked by Lynch's deaf FBI chief with the investigation of Teresa's murder. After briefing them in very general terms, Lynch's character then maddeningly introduces the two agents to "Lil" a woman in a red dress wearing a blue rose. He says, in essence, that she represents the case that the men have embarked upon.

Then, in a bewildering moment, the strange Lil dances up to the two agents, grimaces -- revealing a sour face -- and makes a fist.

Then, Lil is never seen or heard from again as a living, breathing, human character. But soon after this scene, Desmond and Stanley interpret her presence. They analyze her facial expressions. They note the color of her dress. They register the presence of the blue rose, and ponder the meaning of her balled fist. On one hand, this is Lynch's oddball humor, acknowledging the Twin Peaks' aficionado's propensity for analyzing every little thing.

But in another sense, Lil -- and Desmond's explanation of Lil -- is the audience's primer to successfully reading or interpreting the figurations of this movie. Following Desmond's example, the viewer is meant to weigh characters and events symbolically. We are supposed to "see" Bob as Laura's "safe" interpretation of her father's criminal, unacceptable behavior. We are supposed to understand the drug use and prostitution as a victim's escape from guilt and shame. Even the passing of Theresa's ring we are to comprehend as a legacy of death, carried from one victim to the next. And the creamed corn? Human pain and suffering as the food of the gods.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
is really The Tragedy of Laura Palmer and the Tragedy of Small Town America. The golden girl -- the cheerleader beloved by all -- is actually a secret victim of sexual abuse...and no one sees it. Or no one cares to see it.

This is the roiling "underneath" that Lynch so frequently expose in his films, and it was never more relevant, perhaps, than in the early 1990s when this film was made. These were the early years after the notorious 1989 Glen Ridge rape case (wherein popular football jocks raped a retarded girl with a baseball bat and broom); these were the years of the Spur Posse. Suburbia's shameful secrets were spilling out into the tabloid culture in creamed-corn torrents.

Perhaps an entire American generation of teenagers was actually fire walking with us; possessed by darkest impulses.

What remains profound about Laura Palmer's tragedy today is that, in the end, David Lynch grants the character a small measure of contentment. The guardian angel she believed she lost during her last, brutal hours on Earth, returns anew (in the afterlife) to heal her pain; even as good Dale Cooper lands a comforting, supportive arm on her shoulder. Our last view of the cheerleader is of Laura smiling.

In life, Laura was relentlessly victimized...her goodness burned away by life's ugliness. In death's sitting room, of all places, peace is finally at hand.

Although this may seem decidedly bleak, it is also Lynch's balancing of the spiritual world. It may be a place of garmonbozia -- death and suffering -- but it isn't populated merely by the likes of Bob and the Man From Another Place. The winged celestial being is there too, the seraph, and that means that forgiveness is at hand.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
isn't misanthropic. In Laura Palmer, there's sympathy for the victim of abuse. Even in Leland Palmer, there's sympathy for the devil. If we do "live in a dream," as one character suggests in the film, then it is also up to us to shape that dream, and always keep Bob at bay.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Questor Tapes Re-Activate!

The San Francisco Chronicle and other news outlets have reported this week that Rod Roddenberry and Ron Howard's production company, Imagine, are teaming to produce a new version of the classic 1970s Gene Roddenberry TV pilot, The Questor Tapes:

"The script, about a robot with incomplete memory tapes who is searching for his creator, was originally written by Roddenberry as a 13-episode TV series, but after disagreements with bosses at America's NBC network the sci-fi mogul abandoned the project.

The production eventually aired as a one-off small screen movie in 1974 - and now Roddenberry's son is hoping to bring "The Questor Tapes" back to life to honor his dad's memory.

Rod Roddenberry says, "My father always felt that Questor was the one that got away. He believed that the show had the potential to be bigger than Star Trek."


Personally, I think this is great news: The Questor Tapes never got a fair shake in the 1970s. Network brass wanted it to look more like The Six-Million Dollar Man than an original series and so Roddenberry stuck to his creative guns...scuttling the show. Although I'd rather see Genesis II re-made, I believe Questor would make for a great new series; especially as we continue to lose quality sci-fi program, seemingly by the bushel full.

Here' a snippet of my review of the original TV movie:


The Questor Tapes is an almost perfect representation of the Gene Roddenberry aesthetic. There is (gentle...) criticism of 20th century industrial/technological mankind here, his "squalor...ugliness...greed...struggles."

Yet this damning view is balanced and tempered by an essential optimism about intrinsic human nature. Our "greatest accomplishment," declares Questor is "our ability to love one another."

Questor is a character much like Mr. Spock or Lt. Data -- an outsider who is nonetheless fascinated by mankind. The perspective as "outsider" permits Questor, Data or Spock to be both critical and positive about the human race, without any of it seeming personal, political or petty. Like Spock, Questor is dedicated to logic, and uses that word (logic) frequently. "Logic indicates the simplest plan is often the best," etc. And also like Spock, Questor is peaceful. He is not programmed to kill, yet he can incapacitate enemies with the equivalent of a "nerve pinch."

But if Questor is a child of Spock, he is also the father of Data. There can be little doubt of that. Questor desires to be human, just like Data, and wants to understand humor. "Humor is a quality which seems to elude me," he tells Jerry at one point. Also, like Data, Questor is a sexual being, and this facet of his personality also conforms to an essential quality of all Roddenberry productions: kinkiness.

To get information out of Lady Helena Trimble, Questor -- an android -- makes love to her. Beforehand, he tells her that he is...um..."fully functional." Next Generation fans will recognize that particular turn of phrase from Data's seduction of Tasha Yar in the first season episode "The Naked Now."

In another scene from The Questor Tapes, Jerry and Questor visit a European casino and Questor learns that the House is cheating, utilizing fake dice. The android is able to beat the cheaters by adjusting the balance of the dice. In the second season episode of The Next Generation entitled "The Royale," Data does precisely the same thing.

The Questor Tapes has aged poorly in a few, minor ways...all mostly visual. For instance, a close-up glimpse of Questor's high-tech interior reveals a rotary telephone cord...not exactly state of the art. And the very idea that "tapes" would carry an android's programming? Well, that is passe, of course too. Even Vaslovik's Information Center is obviously pre-world-wide-web.

Yet none of that matters in the slightest. What matters here, and what grants The Questor Tapes a real "heart" is the relationship at the forefront of the production: the friendship between a human (Jerry) and a machine (Questor). There's funny banter and quiet affection there, and the relationship will remind you (in a positive, not derivative...) way of the long-lived Kirk/Spock friendship. It's different in that Jerry has no authority over Questor: he's a teacher in the subject of humanity, not a commanding officer. Despite the difference, there's definitely charm here...