Saturday, January 07, 2012

Saturday with Sinbad: The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)


"When I started out, the amazing image on the screen was quite rare. Today, spectacular and amazing imagery is so profuse that it's commonplace. The astounding is no longer astounding, because you're inundated on television and on the movie screen with the most amazing visuals."

- Ray Harryhausen, in an interview at Bright Lights Film Journal with Damien Love, entitled "Monsters Inc." (2007)

For a certain generation of filmmaker and film-goer, special effects artist and art director Ray Harryhausen remains a seminal influence. 

Talents as diverse as Tim Burton,  Dennis Muren, Steven Spielberg, Phil Tippet, and Sam Raimi count the gentleman as such, and have honored Harryhausen's impressive career and talent in numerous cinematic tributes and homages across the years. 

What is Army of Darkness (1992), after all, but a twisted appreciation of Harryhausen-esque tropes and techniques?

Harryhausen himself has given the world such memorable fantasy films as Mysterious Island (1961) and Clash of the Titans (1981), but for many Generation X'ers, he is also very fondly remembered for his Sinbad franchise: a troika of adventure/fantasy films (spanning 1958 - 1977) that, in many significant ways, represented the best fantasy game in town for swashbuckling kids in an era pre-Star Wars (1977).  

In the last several weeks, I've introduced my five-year old son Joel to the Sinbad films, and he's become an avid fan.  We're a little bummed, actually, that there are only three Sinbad movies to watch together, so the final "Saturdays with Sinbad" installment here will include a look at arguably Harryhausen's best film in this vein, 1963's Jason and the Argonauts ,just to cap things off in style.

But our topic here today is the first Sinbad movie, entitled The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  Rated G and lasting a scant 88 minutes, this classic adventure film is a collaboration between Harryhausen, producer Charles Schneer and director Nathan Juran. Harryhausen's first color film, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was made on a then-healthy budget of two-million dollars.   Released by Columbia Pictures, the film grossed over six million dollars and was considered a huge hit...and one that led to many further Harryhausen fantasy films in the next decade or so.

Longtime readers of mythology will recognize the name "Sinbad" as having come from Middle Eastern sources.  A Persian, Sinbad the sailor was a mythical sea-goer who countenanced magical and monstrous adventures on the sea and on the land in and around Africa and South Asia.   He was known to have had seven famous trials, or voyages.  In Hollywood, Sinbad appeared in such films as Sinbad the Sailor (1947) starring Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., before becoming the iconic fantasy hero headlining Harryhausen's trilogy.

In The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Captain Sinbad (Kerwin Mathews) returns home from sea to marry lovely Princess Parisa (Kathryn Grant) and seal the peace between his nation and hers. 

Unfortunately, this love affair is disrupted by the diabolical presence of Sokurah the Magician (Torin Thatcher), who needs Sinbad to return him to the island where he was found, and where he lost a magical genie's lamp to a monstrous cyclops.

To assure Sinbad's loyalty, Sokurah uses a wicked spell to shrink Parisa down to the size of a doll, and then informs the sea captain that he can "cure" her, but only on the island of the Cyclops.  Sinbad has no choice but to comply with Sokurah's plan.  With the Princess and his crew in tow, he sets sail for the island of Colossa. 

There, Sinbad and his bride-to-be face challenges from the cyclops, Sakurah's fire-breathing dragon, a two-headed roc, and even an ambulatory skeleton.  To help win the day, Sinbad and Parisa must free the entrapped Genie, who appears to them as a young boy (Richard Eyer) longing to escape his imprisonment.

Short on dialogue and that romantic mushy "stuff" but long on thrilling battle sequences, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a spectacle for the eyes, especially if one is an admirer of stop-motion animation, or "Dynamation" as it is termed here. 

In short order, the filmmakers trot out a variety of impressive mythical giant beasts, and the coordination between the live-action components and the film's animated components remains breathtaking.   I can't imagine the discipline and patience required to painstakingly match the two media, least of all to the accomplished degree on display here; one which affords breath, dimension, life and personality to the creatures, most notably the cyclops. 

Here is the up-and-downside of the Harryhausen special effects techniques as I countenance them.

Pro: the monsters generally move more convincingly than with CGI, in part because they must obey real life gravity -- just as we must -- rather than some computerized approximation of gravity. 

On the negative side, in terms of color balance and integration in the action, CGI -- at least today's CGI -- may get the nod as superior.  In this film, for instance, it's always obvious that the monster and the humans who share the same shots exist in two separate dimensions, a back one and a front one.  This realization takes away from the overall impact of the effects. 

I fully realize that such a conclusion probably reads much like heresy to a whole generation of dedicated film goer, and I once read the memorable phrase (in regards to The Land That Time Forgot [1975] that Hell hath no fury "like a stop-motion animation fan scorned," but it's still likely the truth.  The special effects in this film are amazing and that's why they inspired a generation of fantasy filmmakers, but it's foolish and unnecessary to argue that they surpass something like Avatar, for instance. 

Like all films, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad is a product of its time, and must be judged in the context of its time.  And in its time, it was simply the very best.  That fifty-four years later we have moved on from the stop-motion animation triumphs of Harryhausen in no way reflects negatively on what the film achieved, the impact it garnered, or the fervor it provoked.

What The 7th Voyage of Sinbad still possesses in abundance is...innocence.  This is a a good-humored family adventure in the best sense, immensely enjoyable and appropriate for both parent and child.  There's some fun swashbuckling adventure here, most notably in a climactic chasm swing that forecasts a trademark moment in Star Wars (1977).

There's also a subtle "family" message underneath all the action in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.  In particular, by film's end, Sinbad, Parisa and the child genie have joined forces to form an unconventional family unit.  They have pulled together, and will face the future together.

Watching the film as an adult, I especially enjoyed Torin Thatcher's performance as the evil sorcerer, and Bernard Herrmann's brilliant, pulse-pounding score, which in a very authentic sense also affords breath and life to Harryhausen's fantastic stop-motion creations.

As a kid, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was one of my all-time favorite fantasy films.  Watching it in 2012, I enjoyed it, but it certainly seems a bit simplistic in terms of storyline and presentation.  It is what it is: an entertaining screen adventure and spectacle from an age when such films weren't commonplace.  The high point of the movie likely remains the intense, splendidly-choreographed and executed battle between Sinbad and the skeleton warrior.  But even that triumph was greatly expanded upon in Jason and the Argonauts.

I realize it is probably apocryphal to write such words, but Joel and I really got on-board the Sinbad bandwagon full swing with The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974).  That film -- made during the "new freedom" of the 1970s -- is a little edgier, a little sexier, a little darker, and allows Sinbad to actually be a Muslim, rather than simply an American cowboy hero transposed to the Ancient Middle East, replete with nuclear family.  I first saw The Golden Voyage of Sinbad in theaters back in 1974 as a five year old, so I have an affinity for it as "my" Sinbad, but judging from Joel's reaction, he definitely feels the same way.   The characters are a little better differentiated in Golden Voyage, and the quest (to assemble a golden tablet out of three segments) definitely captures the attention better than the elementary, nay rudimentary, plot of 7th Voyage.

History may record 7th Voyage of Sinbad as the best Sinbad movie because it came first in the cycle, but at this point, I recommend you also give The Golden Voyage a second look.  I'll be reviewing that film right here next week for "Saturday with Sinbad" installment # 2.

Friday, January 06, 2012

The Films of 1982: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial


"I don't think he was left here intentionally, but his being here is a miracle, Elliot. It's a miracle and you did the best that anybody could do. I'm glad he met you first."

- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The biggest movie of the great year 1982 was a modest little story about the unexpected friendship between a gentle little boy...and a lost alien.

Steven Spielberg's E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial shattered box office records on its release and became the highest-grossing film of all time, even beating out George Lucas's powerhouse Star Wars (1977). 

On a personal note, I remember trying to see the Spielberg film three times, and being confronted each time with lines that stretched around the movie theater, and beyond that, around a city block.  Finally, I nudged, bumped and pushed my way into an overcrowded, tiny multiplex auditorium, and there were literally people camped out in the aisles, seated on the floor.  I've never again been in such a crowded, uncomfortable viewing environment, but when the movie started, that questionable environment just drifted away.  The crowded house fell silent as Spielberg's story captured the imagination.

The summer of 1982 was the summer, no doubt, of E.T.

Yet even thirty years after its blockbuster theatrical debut, the emotional miracle of Steven Spielberg's E.T. remains the film's steadfast ability to make a viewer feel young again; to make the audience sympathize with the world and viewpoint of a child, in particularly the world of lonely Elliott (Henry Thomas).  Spielberg accomplishes this miracle in several deliberate and intelligent ways. 

First, Spielberg's film persistently adopts the physical viewpoint of a child, his camera approximating a level roughly, at the mid-riff of an adult.  His camera stays at a child's eye level, in other words, for the majority of the picture.   And yes, the world looks quite different from down there.

Secondly, the screenplay by Melissa Mathison routinely and persistently makes allusion to J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, a well-known fairy tale of perpetual childhood and youth.  Spielberg has often been accused of suffering from the "Peter Pan Syndrome" in terms of his personal fascination with "fantasy" and so-called "childish" material. But here, the story of Peter Pan functions ably on a thematic level, and furthers the director's conceit of making a movie that expresses a child's viewpoint.

And thirdly, E.T. highlights a canny production design that assiduously stresses the importance of friendly "monsters" lurking in modern American pop culture. Spielberg builds a case that a child's "open" mind is the one that can best accept the idea of aliens or the out-of-the-ordinary, or the wondrous.  After all, children are by nature imaginative and trusting, and so can readily accept the notion that what is ugly, or what appears menacing (like the Incredible Hulk, for instance...) can actually be good or heroic.  Spielberg here pioneers the cliche or convention I term "This Boy's Bedroom" (seen also in Tobe Hooper's Invaders from Mars [1986] and recently in J.J. Abrams' Super 8 [2011]) in which a child's internal, emotional, imaginative life is reflected by the toys/memorabilia/hobbies he showcases/displays in his room.

In short, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial -- through this accumulation of carefully wielded film techniques --lands willing viewers back in the bodies and minds of their younger selves, and then depicts a magical, almost timeless tale of cosmic friendship that appeals to our most basic and pure emotions.  It sounds ridiculous, of course, to make such proclamations about "the child within," but in large part, Spielberg's technical choices and selections encourage the idea of awakening that inner kid.

Specifically, in asking us to set aside cynicism and "turn on" our heart lights, Spielberg -- with less sentimentality than he would demonstrate in the later stages of his career -- speaks powerfully in E.T. to the lonely kid inside us all.

"I'm keeping him."

In E.T., an alien spacecraft peopled by pint-sized botanist aliens is forced to leave behind one of the crew on Earth as curious humans approach the forested landing site. 

The stranded and frightened alien escapes from several human pursuers, and makes its way to a small suburban community in California.  There, E.T. befriends a boy named Elliott (Henry Thomas), his brother Michael (Robert McNaughton) and his sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore).

E.T. moves into Elliott's house, evading the attention of Elliott's newly separated mother (Dee Wallace).  Soon, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiotic relationship, experiencing each other's emotions. As the days pass, E.T. plots to construct a communicator so he can contact his alien ship, and arrange for a rescue.  "E.T. Phone Home."

Unfortunately, agents of the government move in to capture and study E.T., even as the alien begins to succumb to an illness associated with his time spent on Earth.  Under the watchful eyes of scientists, E.T. and Elliott are studied, and then E.T. seems to die.

After his apparent death, however, E.T. is unexpectedly resurrected, and Elliott, Michael and Gertie race him to the forest, where his spaceship is returning. 

There, in the woods, two friends must say farewell...


"I'll believe in you all my life, everyday. E.T... I love you."

As the insightful  film scholar Phil Hardy wrote in The Film Encyclopedia, Science Fiction (William Morrow and Co., New York, 1984; page 374), E.T.'s "evocation of childhood is masterful." 

As Hardy also observed: "the film is virtually completely shot from hip height, a literalization of a child's perspective" as is the way Spielberg effortlessly moves from terror through comedy and death..." 

Indeed, Spielberg goes to dramatic lengths to present the world in E.T. as a child might view it, both as wondrous and occasionally terrifying.  As far as the terrifying part goes, E.T.'s pursuers are visually characterized as silhouettes, with swirling flashlights, and jangling keys (hooked to a belt).  These pursuers are designed and visualized to be feared as a monstrous "others" but not recognized as individuals....at least starting out.  They are, as kids would note, "bad guys."

These pursuers are visualized by Spielberg as shadows, mostly, because their motives and personalities are in some way opaque or incomprehensible to children.  These men are symbols of an adult world that Elliott and the others do not understand, and so that's how Spielberg physically represents them: amorphous threats lacking faces. 

Also, one can't fail to note that these figures or darkness and shadow -- with their blinding flashlights and jangling, cacophonous keys -- somehow represent the mysterious nature of science and technology; mysteries somehow antithetical to the organic nature of gentle E.T, a friend the audience is asked to countenance emotionally, not in terms of "what he represents" to men and women in white coats, or in the annals of human history.

Many of Steven Spielberg's films involve broken homes, or the ways that adult lives negatively impact those of children (Close Encounters of the Third Kind [1978], Jurassic Park [1993], and War of the Worlds [2005]), and E.T. follows along the same lines.  Elliott is a sensitive, lonely boy who is having a difficult time because his Mom and Dad "separated recently" and it hasn't "been easy."  When confronted with a mystery in the garden shed, Elliott seeks someone to trust, and notes that his absent Dad -- were he present -- would surely believe his story of a monster/goblin/coyote in the back yard.

Clearly then, Elliott is seeking to find his way in the world alone, and not having much luck with his family connections.  When he befriends E.T., that connection is instant for Elliott.  He and E.T. develop an empathic link, and suddenly know one another totally and thoroughly.   No more mysteries.  No more confusion.  No more capriciousness.  As a kid, don't we all wish for this?  For someone who 'gets' us?

When Elliott (whose give name begins in E. and ends in T., by the way), first speaks to E.T. he suddenly becomes a motor mouth, speaking literally a mile-a-minute.  It's as though he's had to keep his own counsel and feelings to himself for so long that he just can't keep the words from spilling out now.  E.T. is like the (imaginary?) friend who wants to listen, wants to understand, and will never, ever let you down.   Again, he is the kind of friend that kids, especially lonely ones, might dream about.  Discovering E.T. is, in some sense, about wish-fulfillment.

All of this information about Elliott and his isolation from the adult world is sensitively presented in terms of dialogue, but Spielberg's decision to shoot the film from the visual perspective of a child makes the movie all the more heart-breaking and affecting.  We all know remember how, as children, we sometimes felt alone, or small, or confused by our parents' seemingly mercurial behavior.  This movie plays around in that world beautifully and often humorously.  Why exactly can't we call our big brother "Penis Breath" again?

It's quite significant that the one adult man we eventually get to know as a person and not as merely a menacing silhouette, Keys (Peter Coyote), lauds Elliott and his behavior.  He even mentions his own dream from childhood.  "I've been wishing for this since I was ten years old," he says.  He is thus the adult who wishes to be young again.  Peter Pan, all grown up.  Discovering E.T. and Elliott has awakened that child in Keys.  And suddenly, Elliott receives the approbation of the heretofore missing father figure.

That world of children is also excavated in the film by numerous references and allusions to Peter Pan, the story of a boy who refuses to grow up and wants to dwell forever as a child in Never Land.  At first in E.T., Elliott notes that "only little kids can see," E.T., a development which suggests the populace and precise nature of Never Land: only children can get there.  Later in the film, Gertie and her Mother are depicted actually reading Peter Pan, and again there is a discussion about a being/person that only children can see or believe in.

Thus E.T. himself is an embodiment of Peter Pan's child-like milieu.  Like Peter, he can (magically) fly.  And like Tinker Bell, E.T. can come back from the dead if only children wish it to be so.  As Elliott's Mom meaningfully notes, Tinker Bell "thinks she could get well if children believed in fairies."   Here, E.T. comes back to life because Elliott will always believe in him.

What Spielberg gives audiences here is a newfangled Peter Pan story for the 1980s, one in which aliens will come to Earth, perhaps, if we believe in them.  This is the film's ultimate, optimistic destination.  In a beautiful and expressive image, Elliott finds a spaceship at the end of the rainbow.  At the end of childhood and belief (as visualized by the rainbow), there are wonders if only we open our eyes to them, the film seems to state.

One thing I didn't rationally understand (though perhaps intuited or felt...) when I saw this film as a twelve-year old in 1982, is that Steven Spielberg makes his case for cosmic friendship and acceptance by threading pop culture images of friendly monsters and aliens into the film. 

On the TV, This Island Earth (1951) plays in the background, and of course, that's the story of friendly Exeter (Jeff Morrow) and the doomed Metalunans. 

While out trick-or-treating, E.T. encounters Yoda, the Jedi guru of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). 

In Elliott's bedroom, we see quilts and light switches featuring imagery of Marvel's The Incredible Hulk, a "monster" with good intentions and a fearsome physicality. 

In short order, we are also introduced to Lando Calrissian, Hammerhead, Snaggletooth, Walrus Man and other "beings" from the Star Wars (1977) cantina.  There is also much discussion of the Dungeons and Dragons world, where goblins, elves, and other magical creatures exist in the imagination, and act alongside (and against) heroes.

Cumlatively, the idea roiling under the surface of E.T. is that these pop culture influences actually lead children towards an acceptance of what is different, of what might seem terrifying on first blush, but which is actually merely strange in appearance.  Aliens, goblins, and monsters are people too, and to understand them we must look past their two-fingered "sucker"-type hands (another visual reference, perhaps to 1953's War of the Worlds, minus one digit...).  

E.T. purposefully asks audiences to accept that which is alternative or seem different, and judge it not by how it looks.  On the contrary, E.T. and Elliott develop a symbiosis, and so come to understand the feelings of one another.  No matter how different or alien someone may seem, they possess the same feelings that you do.  That too is E.T.'s message.

Some industrious film critics have also compared E.T. to Jesus Christ, and it's easy to see why.  Like Jesus, E.T. is resurrected and ascends to the Heavens, if not Heaven itself.  Like Jesus, E.T. can perform all brands of miracles.  And from both characters (and their respective mythologies) we glean the idea "judge not lest ye be judged."

Despite such a parallel, E.T. gleans its emotional power not from such intellectual comparisons, but from its understanding of friendship, and of the give-and-take, ebb-and-flow that all great relationships must endure.  The end of the film is heartbreaking because it very succinctly understands the simple emotional resonance of having to say "goodbye."

E.T. asks Elliott to return to his home world with him.  Elliott asks E.T. to "stay."  In the end, neither can give up their lives to be with the other, and the friends have no choice but to part.    I remember there was not a dry eye in the house when Elliott spoke his farewell to E .T., and said "I love you."  

"We could grow up together, E.T,"  suggests Elliott, filled with hope, and that's the dream of all children.  Life is always easier with a buddy at your side.  I remember, during my own childhood, having to say goodbye to a dear friend who lived next door to me.  He had lived there for three years or so (from 1979 to 1982, just about) and we had become best friends.  And then one day it was all over because his parents wanted to move.  The difficulty of saying goodbye is one I haven't forgotten.

If you've ever seen E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, images from the film will certainly resonate in your memory.  There are  movies out there about cleverer aliens, or more spectacular ones.  But there have rarely been films about aliens that feel as intimate as E.T. does; or that take us back to that vulnerable passage to adulthood. 

E.T. is a movie about an alien who meets a human kid.  But the secret is the kid already feels like an alien, himself.

And, unless you're very, very lucky, you've probably felt that way about yourself at some point too.

Given that you "don't win in life," as Michael says vis-a-vis Dungeon and Dragons, the closest thing we have to winning on Earth is discovering friends we cherish, and spending time with them.  The enduring magic of Spielberg's E.T. remains that -- in this one instance -- not only "little kids" get to see E.T. 

We all get to see him, and in doing so, we remember a special time in our own lives when his brand of magic seemed possible.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

CULT TV-MOVIE FLASHBACK: Earth II (1971)


Not to be confused with NBC's Earth 2 (1994 - 1995), Earth II (1971) was the failed pilot for a TV series that first aired on American television in late November of 1971.  At that time, Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was still a dramatic influence on genre productions, and Earth II looks and feels a bit like 2001 as a TV series, with much attention paid to space hardware and other technical details.  Additionally, Earth II is very much a political story; one about the need for humanity to grow up and truly consider the pervasive belief that "might makes right; thus we should be mighty," to quote one character.

Earth II opens in the near future as a rocket is launched from America on a "special mission" to carry the components of a space station into orbit.  The U.S. President (Lew Ayres) appears on national television and reports that the space station, Earth II, will be established not as an extension of United States power, but as an independent, sovereign nation with its own government and laws.  Only in this manner, the President believes, can Earth II solve the problems of hunger and poverty on Earth, and devote itself to the problems of all mankind.

Not everyone is so happy, however, to see the revolutionary mission launch.  A saboteur working for the Red Chinese government attempts to destroy the rocket on the pad, but the Coast Guard intervenes and the launch is a success.  The American people vote for the President's space initiative by turning on their lights in the dark of night, as the rocket travels over the continent.  Seventy-one percent of Americans believe in Earth II's mission of peace, a fact which the President -- a "citizen of this struggling planet" -- appreciates.

Some years later, Earth II is established, and has become the independent nation the former President dreamed of, one overseen by administrator David Seville (Gary Lockwood), one of the astronauts who was aboard the first launch. 

As the story proper begins, David welcomes to the station the Karger family, which includes conservative Fred Karger (Tony Franciosa), his wife/photographer Lisa (Mariette Hartley) and their son, Matt.  Fred is far less idealistic about political problems than Seville, and upon arrival demands "debate and decision" conferences for the entire Earth II population of 1,982  citizens regarding a new and pressing problem.  

Specifically, the Red Chinese have launched a nuclear device into orbit, one that is only 150 miles from Earth II.  Fred fears the nearby presence of such a destructive war machine, and believes Earth II should take aggressive steps to neutralize the threat.  David, meanwhile, suggests that to intervene with the Chinese nuclear device is to risk World War III  and also the very pacifist principles of Earth II.  The population votes and  sides with Fred, however, and a mission is launched to defuse the nukes in space.  The problem, of course, is that the Chinese -- if they become aware of the mission -- could detonate the missiles in space, destroying Earth II entirely.

After the defusing mission fails, the nuclear device is brought back to Earth II.  There, Fred demands a second "debate and decision" conference, this time over the issue of keeping the nuclear weapons permanently.  Specifically, he wants the peaceful Earth II to become a nuclear power, so it can no longer be threatened or bullied by forces like China.  Fred's wife, Lisa, vehemently disagrees with him on the issue, and launches the nuclear weapon into space towards the sun.  Unfortunately, the trajectory fails, and the weapon plummets towards the Great Lakes.

With little time available for a rescue attempt, Seville, Karger and the men and women of Earth II race to retrieve the weapon, and prevent the beginnings of World War III.

Although today the special effects in this TV pilot seem somewhat dated, and the overall pace is decidedly slow, Earth II is nonetheless almost revolutionary in terms of its intelligent approach to detailing with global political issues, and how they relate to the well-being of all mankind.  Overall, the plot might be described as the Cuban Missile Crisis in Orbit and indeed, that event is referenced directly in the dialogue.  

More uniquely, however, the plot is set up as a kind of back-and-forth between a Cold Warrior-styled conservative (Karger) and a more idealistic, future-minded progressive, Seville (Lockwood).  Delightfully, neither one is treated as a villain or as a two-dimensional punching bag.  Instead, both point of views are thoroughly explored, and the two men of different stripes learn how to work together for the betterment of all.  In Washington D.C. today, this spirit of cooperation seems to be the very thing that is missing from our debate.  As a people, we now cherish ideological purity, it seems, over compromise. 

Delightfully, when Karger and Seville debate the issues on Earth II's station-wide television broadcast, their words and arguments are instantly measured by a dispassionate computer.

This means that as the progressive and conservative each speak, the machine puts up sub-titles that help to better inform voters about what is being said.

One argument is spoken alongside with the chyron descriptor, "emotional appeal."  Another with the legend: "no evidence of this conclusion."   There's even one that reports the "argument [is] presented in unbiased terms." 

How I would love to see this idea played out in Presidential debates, with the media dispassionately, objectively and accurately noting the emotional and logical fallacies of the candidates as they grandstand, demagogue, and distort facts.  Somehow, I don't think it will happen.  But anyway, it's an excellent idea, and if our mainstream media were doing a good job, something like this computerized "translation" of a politician's words would already be in place.

More intriguing than the amusing chyrons, however is the nature of the debate between Karger and Seville.  Karger believes the Chinese should be confronted powerfully about their illegal action (putting a nuclear device in orbit), while Seville notes that there are already missiles pointed at space all over the Earth, in silos in many countries, and so there's no need to provoke a war simply because of proximity of one device to the station.  It's a battle between a person with too little trust, and a person with too much trust, perhaps. 

The character of Lisa (Hartley), is also portrayed in an interesting fashion. She notes trenchantly that we "cannot carry a stick and live for peace," bringing up the inherent contradiction of "fighting for peace." 

Yet this idealist and pacifist is the first to take matters into her own hands -- overruling the democracy of Earth II -- when it has chosen a path she doesn't approve of; her own' husband's.  Lisa launches the missile towards the Sun because she is not willing to trust in the people -- in democracy -- to decide the way she wants them too.  It's a very interesting depiction of democracy, and the role that hawks and doves each play.

But the conceit that comes through in spades in Earth II is this idea that conservative, progressive, hawk or dove, we can all choose to work together for the common good of the human race.  We won't always agree on how to reach the best solution, but -- by presenting arguments "in unbiased terms" -- we can choose a little from each philosophy, and then step forward into the stars.   Alas, I fear that even today this is not possible, since so many people in Washington D.C. and the heartland view political opponents as mortal enemies to America, not as fellow Americans who just happen to think differently.  I mean, I can't imagine what many modern Americas would think, even, of a sovereign space station in orbit.  Look at how the U.N. has been demonized over the last forty years, for example.  A sovereign space station, one truly independent of American control, would likely be viewed as a threat by many of our countrymen.  And yet, truly, we must make a crucial decision about space: is it to be the frontier of our best angels, or our worst demons? 

Earth II may be slow going at points, but it struggles with this idea in grand, intelligent and illuminating ways.  If we are ever to reach the Star Trek era of the United Federation of Planets and acceptance of all life forms, we must first come to accept that even here on Earth, we do not think alike. 

In terms of logic and internal consistency, Earth II is generally pretty strong, but with a few notable lapses.  For instance, no guns are allowed on the station (not even toy guns), and hence there are no security personnel on the station, as it were.  This (poor) decision means that there is no one present to stop Lisa from launching the nuclear device, and nearly causing World War III.  I understand that the station is all about "peace," but look what lax security and oversight nearly causes.  A station -- even one of peaceful means -- needs security personnel. 

Also, there's a tense scene near the end of the pilot during which Seville, Karger and other technicians work madly and quickly to defuse the Chinese nuclear bomb as the light of the sun threatens to melt several control leads.  A character named Capa (Scott Hylands) flies a shuttle pod to slow the rotation of the station to prevent passage towards the sun (and increased temperatures), but it's tough to understand why he didn't just fly the pod in front of the bay hatch where the work is being done, thus blocking the star's heat in that fashion.

If you're a fan of such productions as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), and Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) you'll find much to enjoy and appreciate in Earth II.  Like those other programs, it's about the space program in the near future, not the distant age of the 23rd or 24th century.  Accordingly, mankind is as much a threat to his continued survival here  as are the hazards of space travel. 

Personally, I've always enjoyed this idea tremendously and feel such efforts showcase a realistic side of man as a species.  We are capable of great achievements -- technologically and philosophically -- but we still have some growing up to do.  It's a race, I think, to see which part of the human equation takes the lead.  Will we become space pioneers of a new age, or introverts locked down on Earth and doomed, eventually, to self-destruction?

I would have loved to see Earth II run for a few seasons to kick around that idea.  Instead, I'll have to settle for this memorable pilot, which is now available at the Warner Archive.  I recommend you watch it, but with the caveat that you'll see something paced more like Kubrick than Lucas.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week



"You could be happy here, I could take care of you. I wouldn't let anybody hurt you. We could grow up together, E.T."

- E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Collectible of the Week: Planet of the Apes Village (Mego)




For kids of Generation X (my generation...), there's one toy company that stands above the rest and absolutely remains a thing of legend:

Mego. 

In the 1970s, Mego held the Star Trek, Planet of the Apes and Marvel and D.C. superheroes licenses, and created some absolutely amazing toys that have now become prized collectors items. 

Growing up, I absolutely loved Planet of the Apes.  I avidly read the magazines and comics from Marvel, and played with the action figures and play sets from Mego.  As a kid in the 1970s, I could find many of these toys cheap at garage sales.  I still remember the time I purchased a boxed POTA tree house and Forbidden Zone play set for one dollar a piece. 

Best. Saturday. Ever.

One terrific and much beloved Mego Planet of the Apes toy from this era is the Planet of the Apes Village, a "giant 3 foot play set, headquarters for all Planet of the Apes 8 inch action figures." 

Truth be told, this play set is highly reminiscent of Mego's Batcave play set, but what the heck.  It's still cool.

The Planet of the Apes village folds down into a small carry case, and also opens up into this huge diorama of Ape City as seen in the 1968 film starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall.  There's a "secret entrance" to Ape City, plus plenty of accouterments.  These include a "laboratory table" (for dissecting humans, no doubt...), a flip-up "weapons bench," a "capture net and carry pole," a "detention pen," "3 control sticks" and "3 rifles."

When fully assembled (with a green mat bridging the two ends,) the play set is a pretty impressive thing, but I love the fact you can fold it up and carry it with you so easily.   

The play set itself is made up of laminated cardboard, decorated with some expressive art from the Apes saga (including vistas of the Statue of Liberty and Ape City itself). 

I'm not sure how much kids of today would love this retro play set, but for me the Planet of the Apes village just absolutely takes me back to the disco decade, and some great times spent in the company of Zira, Cornelius, Zaius, Urko and the rest.



Cloned from a Mutual Zygote #1: Zardoz and the God of Sha Ka Ree

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

CULT TV FLASHBACK #147: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Satyr" (1981)


"There are strange viruses here on this planet."

- Cyra (Anne E. Curry) warns Buck about the dangers of Arcanus in "The Satyr."

One of the real bright spots of Buck Rogers' abbreviated second season in 1981 remains the episode entitled "The Satyr" written by Paul and Margaret Schneider and directed by Victor French. 

On first glance, however, this development seems unexpected since the episode's storyline stems from a long-standing and ubiquitous sci-fi TV trope: "the single mother in jeopardy."

In this all-too-familiar genre TV chestnut, a series protagonist encounters a lovely single mother and her child (usually a son) who are being menaced by some malevolent outside force.  The series hero then becomes a stand-in husband/father to the duo, defeats the menace, and -- in a heartbreaking moment -- must say farewell to his new family so that he may continue his episodic adventures romantically unimpeded.   

Examples of the "single mother in jeopardy" convention can be found on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) in "The Lost Warrior," where the convention is played well as a variation on Shane (1953) and as a commentary on gun control, in V: The Series as "The Wildcats" (wherein Marc Singer's Mike Donovan steps in to save a Mom and her daughter from the Visitors), and on MacGyver, "To Be a Man," which featured the late Persis Khambatta as Zia, the single mother in jeopardy from Russian military forces.

In Buck Rogers': "The Satyr," Captain Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) explores the planet Arcanus, the site of a failed Earth colony while the star ship Searcher is away for ten days on a mission to "sweep" an asteroid belt. 

On the planet surface, Buck soon meets Cyra (Anne E. Curry) and her son, Delph (Bobby Lane), the only two settlers who have remained behind on the planet.  Buck soon discovers that the duo is regularly harassed by Pangor (Dave Cass), a half-man/half-goat or "satyr" who seems obsessed with them.  Buck steps in to battle the violent Pangor, but is bitten by the satyr. 

Over a period of days, Buck begins to transform into a satyr himself, a creature obsessed with women and wine...and little else. 

After being bitten, Buck learns that Pangor is actually Jason Samos, the founder of the Arcanus colony and Cyra's much-mourned husband.  She has been unable to leave the planet behind because she still feels attached to him, despite Jason's transformation into a rampaging monster.

As I've noted above, the "single mother in jeopardy" cliche has been depicted on television many times, but "The Satyr" illustrates nicely how a science fiction program can explore contemporary issues that "regular" dramatic programs either cannot,  or if they do seems too on the nose, like an Afterschool Special. 

As my friend and the exemplary blogger Uncle Lancifer of Kindertrauma noted here on a previous Buck Rogers retrospective (for "Time of the Hawk,") this episode of the series sub textually concerns alcoholism; and the effect of alcoholism upon the entire family unit.  This subtext and social commentary actually elevates "The Satyr" above its familiar and cliched premise and makes it one of Buck Rogers' finest hours.
In "The Satyr," Cyra and Delph live a relatively happy life, until Dad -- Pangor -- shows up at their home, demanding wine and violently threatening Mom. 

In one well-staged scene, we watch with Delph through an exterior window as, inside the home, Pangor pushes Cyra onto her back (behind the kitchen table), and threatens physical violence.  He wants more wine, you see, even though, as Cyra tells him, "he drank it all the last time."  The subtext here isn't just violence, but sexual violence, at least in terms of the staging/blocking.

What we get in "The Satyr," particularly in this camera view from the outside-in, is the notion of a child dwelling in a terrifying household of alcoholism and domestic violence, and seeing/experiencing things that no child should.  Worse, the P.O.V. suggests isolation and helplessness.

At several points during the episode, Delph is also policed by his mother not to be too conspicuous, so as not to gain the attention of the alcoholic/Satyr.  At one point, Delph plays "flute grass" and at another point he calls out innocently for his Mom.  In both instances he is quickly "hushed" -- "Don't shout!" --  lest the angry man of the household focus his violent attention upon him.  Half the battle is staying off Pangor's radar as he pursues his vices.

Additionally, the boy, Delph, soon sees himself as his mother's defender, eventually fighting the angry Pangor and telling the beast to "leave my mother alone."   In the homes of many alcoholics, it is indeed the child who eventually becomes the protector of the Mom,or other siblings, and who stands-up to the offending drinker. 

As for Cyra, she's dramatized in this episode as the traumatized, exhausted victim of sustained domestic abuse.  She hides bruises on her neck from Buck, and, quite understandably, doesn't like "to be touched."  She also has much trouble letting go of the "good man" who was once her husband, clinging to old photo albums which reveal happier, more romantic days.  Much of the blocking depicts Cyra cowering or retreating.  She is someone who is used to being terrorized and fears being struck.

Cyra also maintains the family home on Arcanus -- despite the danger to herself and her son -- in the misguided belief that somehow Pangor can change.  In fact, Cyra spends her life appeasing the violent satyr.  "If he's supplied with enough [wine]," she informs Buck, "he's content" and leaves the family alone.

At the same time that she must handle Pangor, Cyra worries that the "virus" that affected her husband -- a metaphor for alcoholism -- could affect her son too "when he's a man."  In other words, the cycle of abuse and violence could continue to the next generation.  Yet by keeping Delph on Arcanus, in a terrorized home, Cyra makes it more likely that this will happen to Delph.

This social commentary in "The Satyr" is intriguing by itself, but the episode gains some real unexpected juice and power when Buck actually grows sick with "the virus "and quickly loses his status as the white knight. 
Buck sets up house with Cyra and Delph (even teaching the boy to fly his shuttle craft) and then -- just when things are good -- succumbs to the same "virus' and begins to show signs of physical violence like Cyra's previous husband.   In one sequence, Buck tries to hide evidence of his transformation from Delph, ashamed to show his true nature as a "monster" to the boy he clearly cherishes.

Here, the subtext isn't about alcoholism so much as the nature of (some) men in general, and how some women seem to attract these monsters, one after the other. It's something in their individual nature and lack of self-esteem perhaps, and part of a deadly symbiosis involving abuser and victim. "The Satyr" tries to make viewers understand why Cyra stays on Arcanus, imperiled by one satyr after the other, and gives us some insight into the mentality of a perpetual victim.  In this case, Cyra just can't let go of the past and the (vain) dream that Pangor could again become the husband she once loved.

course, Buck -- as our stalwart series hero -- is able to kick the virus and save the day. Still,  it was pretty daring in terms of 1981-era television to create a metaphor for alcoholism and then see the likable series protagonist succumb to that  "disease."  In visual terms, Buck's horns literally start to come out, as he transforms from man to beast.

I am old enough to remember the promotional materials and interviews for the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The overall promise by the producers was that Buck would become more recognizably and fallibly human, and less the quipping, boogeying, Burt Reynolds-in-space figure of the first season.  Whether or not that promise was fulfilled entirely is up for debate, but certainly "The Satyr" showcases Buck at his most human and interesting.  He exhibits real remorse when he believes he is responsible for the death of Cyra's husband, Jason, and then must battle his growing "dark side" as the satyr virus takes hold.   

This episode is also intriguing for the way it ties the myth of the Satyr (a wine loving man/goat) to the alcoholism/domestic violence symbolism, and for the implicit "reason" behind alcoholism provided by the show.  Jason had the "pioneer spirit," you see, and had hoped to turn Arcanus into a "garden of Eden."  When that dream failed, he couldn't handle it...and that's when he first acquired "the virus."  Again, this idea fits our contemporary world well.  What leads people to drink?  Failure?  Tragedy?  Loss?  Desperation?

All of my commentary on this episode no doubt suggests that "The Satyr" is some labored "message" show about an "important" life lesson (see: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Symbiosis.")  But that's not actually the case at all. 

Like the best social commentary in science fiction television (from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to The X-Files to Buffy), this is an episode that plays ably on two levels.  You can watch it just as a gripping, good adventure, or as a story with a bit more relevance and meaning in our own world.  In other words, the metaphor for alcoholism holds powerfully (right down to the blocking of the actors), but you aren't hit over the head with a "lesson."

At the very least, "The Satyr" adds some much-needed depth to an old TV trope.  In this Buck Rogers episode, the single mother was again in dire jeopardy, but it's the nature of  that jeopardy and the source of the jeopardy that make this installment meaningful and unique, even after three decades.

Theme Song of the Week: Bring 'Em Back Alive (1982)

Monday, January 02, 2012

The Cult-TV Faces of: Dinosaurs


Identified by Will: The Twilight Zone: "The Odyssey of Flight 33."


Identified by cute or kill: Dr. Who: "Invasion of the Dinosaurs."


Identified by Will: Valley of the Dinosaurs


Identified by Will: Land of the Lost: "Tag Team."


Identified by Will: Dinosaurs.



Identified by Anonymous: Land of the Lost (1991).


Identified by Will: The X-Files: "Quagmire."


Identified by Anonymous: Dinobot in Beast Wars.


Identified by Will: Star Trek Voyager: "Distant Origins."

10


Identified by Chris G.: The dinosaur children of Dinosaur Train.


Identified by Will: Primeval.


Identified by Will: Terra Nova


Sunday, January 01, 2012

Happy 2012!


Let's hope the world doesn't end, all right?  There are still so many movies and cult-tv shows to review...

Happy New Year!