Saturday, April 23, 2011

Since April 23, 2005...

...that's how long I've been blogging here about film, television, toys, and nostalgia.

I'm at just approaching the 2,000th post now, which is hard to believe.  It's funny to think about, but this blog has taken me through the birth and ending of my own independent web-series (The House Between [2007-2009]) and other career and personal milestones as well.  In fact, the blog is older even than my four-year old son, Joel. 

The template here has changed a couple of times over the years, but even with small cosmetic alterations, the blog has been a constant part of my daily life for a long time.  I like it that way.  My blog gets me up in the morning and gets me writing. 

Most of all, I'm thankful for all the professional and personal friendships I've made through this writing venue...something that doesn't necessarily happen through solitary book writing, or occasional media appearances. 

And I remain committed to writing here. You'll probably have to drag me away from the keyboard when I'm 103, I wager.

Anyway, a day of "reflection" here on Reflections on Film/TV.  Every year at this time, I like to go back and re-post my very first "blog" entry, from April 23, 2005, just for posterity.  Kind of a tradition:

Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?"

Good questions...

My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir.

Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living.

And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

To let you know a little bit about my work, I'm the author of fifteen published books and several articles and short stories. I live in Monroe, North Carolina and work out of my home office penning books on film and television.

You may (or may not...) know some of my titles. From Applause Theatre and Cinema Books I've written: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002), The Unseen Force: The Films of Sam Raimi (2004), and Best in Show: the Films of Christopher Guest and Company (2004).

McFarland, a publisher here in North Carolina, has published eleven of my books, including award winners Terror Television (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2001), Horror Films of the 1970s (A Booklist Editor's Choice, 2002 and ALA "Best of the Best" Reference Book '03), and 2004's The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television.

I've written about prominent horror directors (Wes Craven: The Art of Horror [1998], The Films of John Carpenter [2000], Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper [2003]) and several TV series studies, including Exploring Space:1999 (1997), An Analytical Guide to TV's Battlestar Galactica (1998), A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television (1999), A History an Analysis of Blake's 7 (2000), and An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond (2001).

I've also written an original (licensed novel) based on the TV series Space:1999 called The Forsaken, from Powys Media, and freelanced for magazines including Cinescape, Filmfax, Rerun, Collectors News, and The Official Farscape Magazine. On the web, my home page is here, and I'm the regular media columnist for the web-zine Far Sector, which features original fiction and great editorials and opinion columns. My column this month "It Boldly Went," discusses the need in our society for a show like Star Trek, and the cancellation of Enterprise. So that's my cv, and that's the experience I bring to the table.

That answers the first question, who am I?. The second question, why am I here? involves pop culture, film and TV. I hope I can utilize this space to discuss, debate and ponder trends in movies and TV programs. I'm open to all subjects - fantasy, horror, science fiction, Bollywood, musicals, you name it. Basically, I just hope to create an ongoing journal about contemporary and classic entertainment...

Friday, April 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Battle Beyond the Stars (1980)

When George Lucas first assembled Star Wars (1977), he pulled together a number of famous film inspirations for his successful pastiche.  These sources included  early space operas such as Flash Gordon (1936), Frank Herbert's epic novel Dune,  and Akira Kurosawa's great film, The Hidden Fortress (1958).

Clearly, there was something canny in this creative approach. 

By re-combining old movie DNA into a new and more technological form, Lucas successfully forged a swashbuckling adventure both recognizable and new; a mythic hero's journey that boasted both a sense of universality and a feeling of individually. 

Ironically, Lucas later sued the makers of the TV series Battlestar Galactica (1978) for undertaking roughly the same endeavor: re-shuffling the creative card deck (with elements of Star Wars, Star Trek, Space:1999, etc.) and coming up with something new and fresh in the process. 

Yet after Star Wars' release and rapid emergence as the biggest blockbuster ever, the outer space movie pastiche actually became de rigueur in the marketplace for a few years, from roughly 1978 - 1980. 

The Black Hole (1979) featured some familiar ingredients from the Jules Verne Captain Nemo story, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  Glen Larson's Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979) combined elements of the popular James Bond film franchise, previous space operas, and even a bit of the 1970s Burt Reynolds persona. 

And last but not at all least, Roger Corman's production of Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) -- finally to be released on Blu Ray and DVD in July of this year -- also mined some of the same territory that had first inspired George Lucas, namely the oeuvre of Japanese director and former painter, Akira Kurosawa (1910 - 1998).  

One of the most influential and admired filmmakers of the 20th century, Kurosawa was an unrepentant formalist,  famous for deploying dynamic film techniques not merely to record or capture action, but to vividly express the feelings behind the action; hot-blooded feelings such as terror, rage, and exhilaration.   So popular was Kurosawa's colorful, exciting approach to film making that the Japanese film import soon displaced Italian neo-realism as the preferred mode of expression amongst American goers of foreign films in the 1950s.

While co-writing the screenplay for Battle Beyond the Stars at the close of the disco decade, celebrated wordsmith John Sayles gazed back at two important earthbound sources, both of them related explicitly to Kurosawa's film canon.  In the first instance, he re-fashioned Seven Samurai (1954) as a space opera.  And in the second instance, Sayles looked also to the American remake of Seven Samurai, the western The Magnificent Seven (1960), to craft his story of warfare and honor. 

Of course, one cannot discount the importance of Star Wars in Battle Beyond the Stars' creative equation either. 

The film's setting is outer space and the primary antagonist, Sador (John Saxon), is armed with a weapon that can destroy planets -- the "Stellar Converter."  That fearsome device clearly harks back to Lucas's Death Star. 

And just as the Jedi Knights of Star Wars subscribe to beliefs related to "The Force," so do Battle Beyond the Stars protagonists, the Akira (nudge, nudge), adhere to the high-minded philosophical teachings of something called "The Varda."

Made on a fraction of Star Wars budget -- a meager 2 million dollars -- Battle Beyond the Stars is also rather famous today because successful filmmaker James Cameron worked on the film as both a production designer and art director, granting the Corman movie a very distinctive and cohesive look in the process. 

But sci-fi fans of the 1970s and 1980s today remember (and honestly, adore...) this Jimmy T. Murakami  pastiche for other important reasons as well.  The film features a rousing score by James Horner (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan [1982], Aliens [1986]), and boasts a good sense of gallows humor to travel alongside its well-developed sense of heart.

When these impressive qualities are combined with the heightened, almost mythic nature of the re-vamped Kurosawa story, the result is pure sci-fi nirvana, and Battle Beyond the Stars remains a perfect, if light-weight, space opera for the silver screen.

"All of our wealth is in our culture..."

Battle Beyond the Stars occurs in deep space, in the far future.  A vicious warlord of the Malmori, Sador (Saxon) plans to seize control of the peaceful planet, Akir, a small world of "stone" and one small "green spot."  

Peaceful Akir possesses "no known defense capacity" and will make for easy pickings should the inhabitants not accept Sador as their new master.  Threatening to annihilate the planet with "the most powerful weapon in the universe," the Stellar Converter, Sador promises to return during the upcoming harvest and conquer the entire planet.

At first, the Akirans are uncertain of how to proceed, but a courageous elder, Zed the Corsair (Jeff Corey) suggests that since the Akirans cannot fight, they must hire mercenaries to fight for them.  He offers his antique ship, Nell, to a young man, Shad (Richard Thomas), so he can undertake just such a quest. 

Aboard Nell, Shad takes off for nearby Hephaestus Station, seeking weaponry and assistance, but is forced to escape from the mad, cybernetic Professor Hephaestus (Sam Jaffe) with no such equipment.  Instead, he teams up with Hephasteus's brilliant and lovely daughter, Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel).  She has never been around other organic creatures before, and decides to help Shad plot a strategy of defense against Sador.

Continuing on his journey, Shad makes several more unusual allies.  These include Cayman (Morgan Woodward), a lizard-man who desires to settle a score with Sador, Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a lonely Earther hauling goods across the solar system and far from home, The Nestor, a bored hive mind, and the legendary gunslinger, Gelt (Robert Vaughn), who just desires a meal and a safe place to sleep.  Along the way, Shad also encounters the brash and impulsive Saint Exmin (Sybil Danning), a gorgeous Valkryie warrior looking to earn honor and glory in combat.

While Cowboy organizes a terrestrial defense force on Akir and falls for a lovely local inhabitant, Lux (Marta Kristen), Shad and the mercenaries engage Sador's hammerhead dreadnought in space, with their lives -- and the future of Akir -- on the line.

"Forms must prey on other forms to survive."

The line of dialogue highlighted above ("forms must prey on other forms to survive") is a perfect and knowing metaphor for Battle Beyond the Stars' storytelling style, approach,, and narrative methodology. 

Indeed, this is a movie that survives, and actually thrives, by preying on other movie forms, namely the Kurosawa film, the Western tradition, and the swashbuckling Star Wars.  In fact, that line of dialogue above might actually be the most efficacious definition of the term pastiche ever put to celluloid.

From both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars takes it central premise: a group of peace-loving locals must hire outside mercenaries to protect themselves from a conquering intruder. 

In Kurosawa's Seven Samurai and Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, the peace-lovers are simple farmers or the inhabitants of a border town, and the invaders are marauders or bandits.  In Kurosawa's film, the mercenaries are ronin (samurai without masters), and in the western film, they are gunslingers for hire. 

All these character types have been transplanted, of course, to a more "cosmic" scale for Corman's production.  The Akir must not defend a simple village, but a planet itself.  Sador is not just a leader of roving bandits, but a warlord capable of destroying  whole worlds if they don't bend to his whim.  And the mercenaries are a motley crew of alien races, each with memorable and unique physical characteristics; each as colorful and dynamic as Chewbacca, Han Solo, Greedo or C-3P0

In each of these three similar tales, there are other commonalities to consider too. In all instances, the visiting defenders are initially greeted with trepidation, if not outright fear, by the local inhabitants. Despite the fact that these soldiers of fortune have agreed to guard the imperiled locales, they are still viewed suspiciously, and as dangerous outsiders.

Soon, the attitudes change, however, and in some incarnations of the tale, a romance even blossoms between a mercenary and a villager. In The Magnificent Seven, Vic (Steve McQueen) and Petra (Rosenda Monteros) become romantically involved, and in Battle Beyond the Stars, Cowboy and Lux commence a similar relationship.

In the many iterations of this story, the wise-man or elder among the villagers – Zed, here – also meets his maker before the action has been completed  Like Obi Wan Kenobi's death in Star Wars, it's a generational passing of the torch; a necessary step in the young hero's journey to maturity.

Perhaps the biggest change evident in the template of Battle Beyond the Stars involves the apparently upbeat nature of the ending. Sador is destroyed and Akir remains free.  And the dead but heroic mercenaries now become part of the planet’s collective memory, gaining a sort of immortality. In the Kurosawa and Sturges films, however, though some warriors survive the climax  there is nonetheless a more melancholy feeling following the final battle. Specifically, there is acknowledgment from the samurai/gunfighters that they did not actually win the war. Rather the farmers/villagers won…because their homes are saved and their lives can continue as before. Without such a place to call home, the warriors are not the real winners, for they still must wander the landscape and seek employment, not to mention real human connection.

In a very real sense, then, Battle Beyond the Stars effectively “preys” on the earlier incarnations of the Kurosawa story and Star Wars, down to many important details.  We get the set-up of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven and the unclouded happy ending of the Lucas film.  I should add, as well, that the film opens with the famous Star Wars shot: a gigantic spaceship passing in front of the camera for what seems an eternity.  In this case, however, the Malmori warship cruises towards us, and then banks sharply, as if taking a hard turn.

Casting is another arena in which we can see Sayles, Corman and Murakami "preying" on previous movie forms. Robert Vaughn, playing Gelt, virtually reprises his famous role as Lee in The Magnificent Seven: that of a world-weary and lonely soldier of fortune who just wants a good night’s sleep and a hot meal. His performance is actually my favorite in Battle Beyond the Stars because it so clearly and blatantly harks back to one of the space opera's earthbound models.

If the character of Gelt and Vaughn's presence serve as a direct reflection of  one movie tradition that gave rise to Battle Beyond the Stars, then Cowboy (Peppard) is the audience's other point of easy identification.  Not only is he a native of Earth, but a movie fan himself.  He offers to show Shad some old movies (Westerns) at one point, and during what seems a hopeless battle even croaks "Remember the Alamo!"  Again, these are highly self-reflexive touches.  In a space movie based on a Western (based on Kurosawa's film...), we actually meet a cowboy who is a movie lover and who knows all the genre's rules and details.  That's important, since he finds himself living a Western transplanted to the final frontier.

The "forms must prey on other forms to survive" conceit here is also ingrained in the actual text of the film.  Not just in "meta" or post-modern references to earlier cinematic incarnations of the tale or in clever casting decisions, either, but in bedrock character traits.

For instance, Sador and the Malmori clearly prey on other forms to survive, both in terms of literal strategy and personal choices. Sador’s hammerhead warship travels from solar system to solar system, taking what the Malmori want and need. And on an individual level, Sador actually steals replacement body parts from other forms to prolong his physical existence. Late in Battle Beyond the Stars, we see him undergo replacement surgery in which he gets a new arm; one that formerly belonged to one of the Nestor.  Clearly then, Sador believes in "preying" on others to survive.

So, story wise Battle Beyond the Stars preys on the movies of the past (Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven and Star Wars) in order to cobble together-- Frankenstein-like -- a new and fresh original. The movie never feels like an incoherent hodgepodge, however, for two critical reasons.

First, and perhaps most importantly, the film's production design is both impressive and distinctive. Every world and alien race in the film merits its own individual look and lighting scheme. This visual facet lends Battle Beyond the Stars a veneer of verisimilitude, or at least cohesion.

In many films made today, we absolutely expect different worlds to bear different and distinctive looks, but we must remember that this is a low budget film of the year 1980.

To see how it could have been done – and poorly at that – one need only gaze at such contemporaries to Battle Beyond the Stars as the equally star-spanning Galaxina (1980).   That movie featured Western elements and otherworldly components, but came off as a cheap space western stranded on a studio back lot.

Not so here. For instance, Sador’s colossal control room is eternally bathed in a palette of cold blue light, perfectly befitting his callous, monstrous nature. And the Malmori ships have the grotesque, monstrous look of space lizards...frogs, perhaps.  There's a real icy, reptilian feel to the Malmori in Battle Beyond the Stars, and it's a result of how the characters are lit; and the way their technology is designed and presented.

On the planet Akir, we see something else.  The villagers all dress in muted shades of Earth-tones, and their homes seem to have grown right out of the ground as if terrestrial trees, or perhaps shells. The visual take-away is that the Akir are literally “grounded” people; ones who derive their strength and power from their sense of community and nature. Everything they have originates with their lifestyle, which is a strength in terms of spirituality but a weakness in terms of practical self-defense.  Again, think of the villagers or townspeople -- salt of the Earth-types -- in the earlier films.  The matte-paintings and visualizations of Akir suggest the same thing of this alien race.

The Nestor are another fine example of this high concept production/art design approach. They are highly advanced creatures who share one consciousness.  Everything from the Nestor costuming  to their control panels is white-on-white perfection, a kind of immaculate look for an immaculate, advanced mind, and one which, incidentally, also allows for the makers of the film to create a little Close Encounters-styled action, since the Nestor ship looks like a radiant white flying saucer or UFO.

You can apply this sense of cohesion of approach even as far as Hephaestus Station. This is a virtually abandoned world in which machines have been forced to cannibalize themselves over the years to continue functioning. Nanelia’s job, actually, is one of constant repair…but without fresh resources. The station miniature itself, as well Dr. Hephaestus's "costume," successfully evoke the idea of a world of no spare parts; one where every scrap of metal and circuitry is harnessed to keep the machines “living.”

The spaceship designs in Battle Beyond the Stars are truly wonderful and original too. Sador commands that vast “hammerhead” warship, and a hammer is a perfect symbol for this villain. His approach is literally to smash or bludgeon his opponents into submission. The frog fighters and Nestor ships I mentioned above, but Gelt too flies a wicked looking, sleek fighter that reflects his direct, no-frills approach to combat. Cowboy’s spaceship is also wonderful a kind of space-going junk-heap or pick-up truck with a Confederate flag decorating one side of the hull. Exactly what you’d expect from a space-going loner and throwback.

The most unique and awesome spaceship design in the film, however,  belongs to Nell. She’s the former property of Zed, and one of the few starships in motion picture history to actually feature breasts and nipples as hull formations.

In Star Trek, the Enterprise is frequently referred to as a "she" or as "her," but Nell makes the connection to the feminine...well, literal.  Nell is clearly a woman in spirit and mind, so the film goes one more step and makes her a female in form or body too, equipping her with large breasts as well as two familiar, up swept nacelles.

Without going too much into as dry a subject as sex roles in Battle Beyond the Stars, it is very intriguing that so many of the most exciting characters in the film are women. Nanelia is a brilliant thinker, St. Exmin a warrior for the history books, and Nell a loyal and devoted friend and also shelter. They each form a critical part of Akir’s defense along with the steadfast Lux, and in this fashion Corman's pastiche does “evolve” beyond the men-as-warrior stereotypes of the earlier films. This is an equal opportunity battle, and so much the better.

The second critical reason that Battle Beyond the Stars doesn't feel like a hodgepodge but rather a unified vision involves the characters' frequent and dramatic recitation of “The Varda,” the Akiran’s spiritual guide. In our culture, many of us would say something like, “the Bible tells us that...,” but in the future world of this film, it is “The Varda” that instructs and offers many insights and words of wisdom. “To fight creatures of violence, you must use creatures of violence. “The Varda says we can take life to save life.” “That which is not organic must not harm that which is,” and so forth.

What the Varda gives the film, impressively, is a strong sense of the Akiran people’s morality. They aren’t stupid peaceniks for the sake of dogmatic ideology, and they aren’t belligerent war mongers, either. They have simply found a way of life that works for them, and which answers for them the many questions of existence and “how to live” best.

In providing the people of Akir this philosophy or guide, Sayles’ script permits the audience to see how valuable the culture is, and what would be lost forever under Sador’s domination. Varda is akin to karma, or something like it, and it is the belief system that grounds and guides Shad through his adventures. We understand how the Varda concerns balance in all things, and helps one maintain composure in times of strife.  The application of the philosophies of The Varda grant Battle Beyond the Stars a strong sense of heart.  We understand, intrinsically, what powers the Akiran people; what they hold onto when times are difficult.

Another human, funny and oddly touching moment in Battle Beyond the Stars involves Sador’s realization that he has lost the war...and his life. He cries out – disappointed – that he will not "live forever." It’s as though Sador has never given consideration to the fact that he could lose a battle. And given his history, as the movie describes it, we can’t blame him. Sador, it is said, never quits and never loses.

Well, all good things come to an end, and all bad things too. But Sador’s strangely innocent and petulant death cry makes the Malmori  warlord oddly sympathetic and easy for us to relate to. Unlike the Akir and their Varda, Sador has no sense of balance or grounding except in conquest. He flies around space with his “hammer,” the Stellar Converter, and bends other worlds to his will. Why? Because he fears death -- as all of us do -- and constantly must take more from others so as to live more. He is a great villain, and the film’s spokesman for an anti-Varda philosophy, certainly.

Even back in 1980, it was clear that Battle Beyond the Stars special effects were a step down from what we saw in Star Wars three years earlier.

Many shots (particularly of the frog fighter ships) are repeated too frequently, and there isn’t as much ship-to-ship interaction in the battle sequences as one might prefer. The sound-effects are direct cribs from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and if you are fans of those shows, you will find this element of the movie extremely distracting.

Yet the battles are aggressively edited, and the detailed miniatures are glorious examples of a bygone art form. What makes the action seem truly epic in the film,  therefore, is the great, evocative score by Horner. The score – along with the general good humor of the film – carry the viewer away in a sense of excitement and fun when things occasionally get iffy.

One thing’s for certain: In the adventure-minded Battle Beyond the Stars, you’ll never suffer the fate that the Nestor fear so dramatically. You’ll never be “bored to death.”

Quite the opposite in fact. Watching this movie again today will likely bring out the kid in you, and make you wish for the Battle Beyond the Stars model kits, action figures and sequels that never arrived.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"There was a time in this country, a long time ago, when reading wasn't just for fags and neither was writing. People wrote books and movies, movies that had stories so you cared whose ass it was and why it was farting, and I believe that time can come again!"

- Idiocracy (2006) 

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen (1948 - 2011)

I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn this evening from my good friend and fellow blogger, the Sci Fi Fanatic, that Elisabeth Sladen had passed away. 

Ms. Sladen is beloved by science fiction TV fans the globe around for her many memorable performances as the Doctor's companion, Sarah Jane Smith, on Doctor Who.  

I first discovered Dr. Who and Sarah Jane when the series aired on WWOR, channel 9 in New Jersey circa 1980.  The first serial I ever watched was "The Ark in Space," featuring Ms. Sladen and Tom Baker, and I was hooked for life.  Sarah remains my favorite of all the Doctor's myriad companions, and I suspect the same is true for quite a few American fans who grew up with the character.

Though petite in size, Sarah Jane was always strong, smart and funny.  She was curious, resourceful and adept at finding trouble.  As an investigative reporter she had a great nose for a story in the tradition of Lois Lane, and she was never anybody's damsel-in-distress.  In the 1970s Sarah and Sladen were both trail-blazers and role models.

No doubt there were companions who were more leggy, or companions who were perhaps more cerebral, but Ms. Sladen's Sarah Jane exuded an unyielding spirit, a strong sense of self, and great charisma. 

In short: the camera loved Elisabeth Sladen...and so did I.

News sources around the world are covering the untimely passing of this sci-fi legend, and the loss is all the more terrible because this remarkable actress was still young, and seemed so very vital.  On such a sad day, I share her family's grief, and again must pause to remember how lucky we truly all are to live in the age we do.  In a real sense, performers such as Sladen experience immortality because we have -- for all our lives -- their works recorded for us on DVD.    We can enjoy Ms. Sladen's performances over and over again, and reflect on the joy, happiness and laughs she gave us on Doctor Who for the last thirty years.

I think that this weekend it's time to see Sarah Jane and Elisabeth Sladen in action again, perhaps in "Genesis of the Daleks" or "Pyramids of Mars," or maybe even in "The Ark in Space."

We'll miss you, Sarah Jane.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CULT-TV MOVIE REVIEW: Special Bulletin (1983)

Many folks of my generation still vividly recall the first prime-time broadcast of the grim TV movie, The Day After (1983).  That landmark tele-film, directed by Nicholas Meyer, gazed at life in the American heartland immediately following a devastating nuclear exchange.

So powerful in imagery and so bleak in narrative, The Day After actually altered the course of real-life international politics.  After watching the TV-movie, President Reagan re-committed himself to peace with the Soviet Union, a strong shift away from the "we start bombing in five minutes"/"Evil Empire"-rhetoric of his young administration.

Although not as widely remembered as The Day After, another TV-movie of 1983 also dealt powerfully with the issue of nuclear annihilation.  On March 20, 1983, NBC aired a startling program from director Edward Zwick entitled Special Bulletin that -- despite a disclaimer -- presented itself as an authentic news broadcast.   In other words, Special Bulletin was the TV equivalent of Orson Welles' notorious 1938 War of the Worlds radio presentation.

Special Bulletin commences innocuously with an advertisement for the (fictional) RBS Network, replete with its catch-phrase, "we're moving up!"  In the middle of the advertisement for game shows and soap operas, the screen goes to static and the title "Special Bulletin" pops up.  Suddenly, we're in a bustling network news room following a breaking story in Charleston, South Carolina.

Specifically, a small tug boat has pulled into the Port of Charleston and is carrying aboard her a group of American terrorists.  After a shoot-out with dock security, a reporter and his cameraman are captured by the terrorists and taken hostages aboard the ship, the Liberty May.  The terrorists promptly request a direct feed to RBS, so they can make their demands known to the world at large.

After very little discussion, RBS agrees to the terrorists' terms. and soon the leader of the group, Bruce Limon (The Thing's David Clennon) speaks. 

According to his wishes, the U.S. will turn over 968 warhead detonators in its nuclear arsenal, or the terrorists will explode a home-made nuclear bomb in Charleston, effectively destroying the city and all of its people. 

Limon, we soon learn from the news reporters,  is a former Pentagon official who is upset at the hard-right shift in American policy to the belief that nuclear war is winnable.  Along with a brilliant physicist, Dr. McKeeson (David Rasche), Limon believes that nuclear blackmail is the only option left to save the planet from itself.  He plans to illustrate "what we all have to fear," should his attempt at unilateral disarmament be rejected.

Without even the smallest hint of fakery or artifice, Special Bulletin structures itself as a real news program of the epoch, right down to communication glitches, infrequent bursts of static, shaky-images and the occasional dopey remark from a reporter or anchor-person.   As RBS news anchors John Woodley (Ed Flanders) and Susan Miles (Kathryn Walker) monitor the crisis, as nuclear terrorism becomes"stark reality," we are asked to follow the story down blind alleys, countenance talking head blowhards, and detect truth in a multitude of conflicting images, all rendered on (appropriately) cheap-looking video.  The presentation of the story is truly pitch-perfect, in large part due to excellent supporting performances by the likes of Christopher Allport, Lane Smith and a very young Michael Madsen.  Nobody show-boats and no one has a really substantive role, either.  These are just "reporters on the street" and interviewees, reacting to events as they unfold.  A perfect ensemble piece.

Occasionally the news anchors in Special Bulletin cut back to the live feed to watch events spiral out of control aboard Limon's ship, but they also consult experts on nuclear technology, and check in with reporters at the F.B.I Headquarters, the Pentagon, and on Capitol Hill.  It's an effective, whip-smart presentation in a mock-documentary-style, and one that reportedly had quite a few Americans (especially in the South) wondering if the film could possibly be the real thing.   I remember that at school the day after Special Bulletin first aired, all of my friends were talking about it and also the film's absolutely take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling.

As Special Bulletin continues into the story's second day and it is confirmed that McKeeson and Limon indeed have an operational nuclear bomb, an evacuation of Charleston commences.  A countdown clock ticks down the minutes till 6:00 pm, the time when the terrorists have threatened to detonate their weapon.  Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, politicians dither about "negotiating with terrorists" and argue about whether an accommodation can or should be reached.

The last fifteen minutes of the film involve a government ruse to appease the terrorists, and a bloody assault by U.S. soldiers on the Liberty May.  The terrorists are put down effectively, but the bomb still ticks down towards destruction.   Then, terror follows short-lived relief.  In the last few moments of the film, something truly unthinkable occurs, and in a weird, unsettling way, Limon's point about the hazards of nuclear weapons is made.  We see exactly what we have to fear in the event of a nuclear exchange.

Today, it's almost impossible to watch Special Bulletin without thinking of the harrowing events we've seen on the nightly news since 2001. 

For instance, the evacuation of Charleston goes poorly, and one local reporter goes into detail about how the city's plans were not detailed enough, and did not take into account traffic congestion and other problems.  This seems very much reminiscent of what our country witnessed during and after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

But in general, what Special Bulletin gets so dead-on accurate is the horrifying sense of chaotic life spontaneously unfolding before our eyes, out-of-control, on the TV as our journalists and "experts" try to play catch-up in a game of TV ping-pong. 

You will remember (all too much, I'm afraid...) this tense dynamic from that horrific Tuesday morning in September, 2001.  I suppose the feeling is roughly analogous to what seem people call the"fog of war:" False reports come to light, and even though we're watching events unfold live, we hesitate to believe our eyes that such a thing can happen here, in the United States.  I still remember listening to radio reports on 9/11 that the National Mall was on fire, and that Air Force One was imperiled.  Neither of those things were actually true, but in the heat of the moment, reporters (and listeners and viewers) believed the reports.  Fact only became plain much, much later (and is, in fact, still debated by many).

Thematically, Special Bulletin boasts two primary concerns.  The first involves the media itself.  How complicit is the media, the film asks, in creating and extending situations like the one depicted here?  In the film, RBS gives over a live feed to the terrorists, an act which gives their demands a national audience, and which spurs panic in the citizenry.  There's something to be said for that argument that had Limon and McKeeson not been given access to television, their plan would have failed rather dramatically.  Or at the very least, the situation would have developed far more slowly, and allowed for a more reasoned response by the government.  The movie explicitly raises a question about the role of the press: is it a witness to this story, or part of the story, or both?

More than that even, the film looks at the way TV networks package and "sell" crises for higher ratings.  Here, a colorful logo -- wrapped in stars and stripes -- pops up that reads "Flashpoint: America Under Siege." The logo even comes with its own dramatic theme song.  Although the news people are undeniably presented as heroic and straightforward in the film itself, there's also an undercurrent here; the uncomfortable feeling that RBS is riding this crisis all the way to the bank, with "exclusive" control of the live feed and a direct line to the action.  At one point, McKeeson points this out to John Woodley, asking why RBS hasn't shared the feed with the other networks.

The end of Special Bulletin delivers a one-two punch  that is hard to shake.  After the nuclear bomb detonates and Charleston is no more, there is a period of mourning -- 3 days to be exact -- on RBS before the media begins to seek news stories elsewhere.   This is, perhaps, the tele-film's sharpest and most incendiary insight.   There's always more grist needed for the mill, and that fact is even more true today, in the age of cable television and the 24-hour news cycle than it was in the 1980s.   We move willy-nilly from crisis to crisis, from Balloon Boy to Sideshow Donald, without taking a breath because we have to be worried about something -- anything -- all the time. 

Don't touch that dial!  America Under Siege, indeed.

The second thematic concern of Special Bulletin involves, pretty clearly, the colossal danger of nuclear weapons. 

The "terrorists" in the film are actually concerned citizens who nonetheless cross the line and can't see how they have let their ideology blind them.   They are hypocrites, threatening to destroy innocent people with nukes because the government can't see how dangerous nukes are to innocent people. 

Long story short, you can't preach peace by threatening force. 

And the government is culpable in all of this too.  Attempting to look strong and resolute, the President and his people first attempt to dismiss the terrorists as hoaxers, and then seeks to trick and manipulate them, finally overtaking them by force.  The government experts never acknowledge or seem to believe Dr. McKeeson's all-too-sincere testimony that he has protected the bomb with an "anti-tamper" device.  The government, essentially, plays a high-stakes game with the city of Charleston...and loses the gamble.

The message encoded in Special Bulletin is that nukes as deterrents or nukes as weapons are much too dangerous to trifle with, for ideologues in any party.  Why?   Purely and simply because the destruction caused by nuclear weapons is immense, beyond our worst imagining.  In Special Bulletin, Charleston is destroyed -- rendered a desert -- and a whole swath of South Carolina will remain uninhabitable for years to come following the detonation.  And that's just the result of one nuke.  Imagine America's arsenal of 968 warheads in action, and the kind of devastation it could render.  This is destruction on a Biblical scale, and we would be fools to forget that fact.  The final scenes of the film, set in a burning Charleston, with reports of "people burned beyond recognition" are the stuff or real nightmares.

One part a critique of the news business as show business, and one part a blunt-faced look at the terrifying power of nuclear weapons, Special Bulletin remains a blazing, unforgettable viewing experience.  As far as mock-documentary films go, it's deftly-presented, and will leave you pondering, among other things, our strange, self-destructive nature.   

Not only are we fully capable of destroying ourselves, it seems.  We actually want front row seats to the show.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Professor

Identified: Guy Williams (Professor Robinson), Lost in Space.

Identified: Russell Johnson, The Professor, Gilligan's Island.

Identified: Professor Goodfellow.  The Super Friends.

Identified: Barry Morse (Professor Victor Bergman), Space:1999.

Identified: Derek Farr (Professor Evans), Star Maidens.


Identified: Charlie Dell (Professor Parsafoot), Jason of Star Command.

Identified: Alan Oppenheimer (Professor Hans Zarkov), The New Adventures of Flash Gordon.

Identified: Daniel Davis (Professor Moriarity), Star Trek: The Next Gen.

Identified: Brent Spiner (Professor Data), ST:TNG: "All Good Things"

Identified: Billy West (Professor Farnsworth), Futurama

Identified: Lindsay Crouse (Professor Maggie Walsh), Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Identified: James Callis (Professor Gaius Baltar), BSG.

Identified: James Marsters (Professor Milton Fine), Smallville.

Identified: Robert Carlyle (Professor Rush), SGU.

Identified: David McCallum (Professor Paradox), Ben 10: Alien Force