Monday, September 03, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Casinos

A casino is a “facility which houses and accommodates certain types of gambling activities” according to Wikipedia.  

It’s a venue, in essence, connected to a human vice, and perhaps that connection helps to explain why the casino is such an oft-seen locale in cult-television history. 

The casino is a place where people seem to lose their moral rudder, and put financial security (and sometimes even personal dignity…) on the line.  That high-risk, low-reward equation offers intrepid writers plenty of material to work with.

An early episode of The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) called “The Fever” (by Rod Serling) aired on January 29, 1960, and prominently featured a casino.  Here, a morally-upright man named Franklin Gibbs (Everett Sloane) scolds his wife Flora Gibbs (Vivi Janiss) about her relatively innocuous gambling at a Vegas casino.  

In short order, however, Franklin finds himself wholly seduced by a malevolent slot machine or “one-armed bandit.”  

Serling reportedly based “The Fever” -- which culminates with a walking, talking Slot Machine -- on his own experience in Vegas.  Here, Franklin can’t turn away from the desire to “win” and he is finally stalked to his death by the ambulatory slot machine.

In 1972, another horror anthology, Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972 – 1973) prominently featured a casino.  

In “Time of Terror” starring Patricia Neal, the Vegas casino at the center of the action is actually a kind of Purgatory, a middle-ground between life and death.  

Neal’s character, Ellen Alexander, learns that her husband has “checked out” of the casino, and furthermore that her own Keno number has been called.  

This means she is heading to the afterlife, and that her husband is, separately, heading back to Earth.  The exit to the casino in "Time of Terror" is a revolving door that leads back to Earth, and the site of the deadly car accident that took Ellen’s life.

In 1978, Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica (1979 – 1980) featured a a casino on the planet Carillon that is actually a deadly trap for the comfort-starved survivors of the Colonies.  

In "Saga of a Star World" the Carillon casino is administered by insectoid Ovions, and it offers games, night club acts, and enough food to feed the starving rag-tag fleet.
But underneath this extra-terrestrial Sin City, the Ovions are secretly capturing revelers, taking them to a subterranean basement, and feeding the humans to their hatching young.  I still remember how terrifying I found this casino trap as a kid in 1978.

In 1979, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 -1981) premiered a story called “Vegas in Space” about a casino on an orbiting satellite, Sinoloa.  There, twentieth-century astronaut Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) could game the casino because all the games are computer-based, and seemed to require no thought at all on the part of the players.  

In 1989, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) broadcast a surreal episode called “The Royale” which finds Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) and Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) trapped in a bizarre casino that had been constructed on a distant alien world.  

The only entrance and exit to this facility -- like “Time of Terror" -- is a mysterious revolving door, seemingly between realities.  

To escape from the Royale, Riker, Data and Worf learned that they must pose as “foreign investors” and purchase the hotel and casino from its current owners.  To do that, however, they have to earn some gambling winnings.

Casinos have also appeared on The Incredible Hulk (1978 – 1981), The X-Files (1993 – 2002), Dark Skies (1996 – 1997), Angel (1999 – 2005) and Smallville (2001 – 2011) among other series.  

In many of these programs, the casino represents a dramatic test for the protagonists, and there is a lot more at stake than money…

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