Saturday, March 10, 2012

Saturday Morning TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Beyond the Stars!"

"Beyond the Stars" is a lot of fun, and a bit stronger than the previous few episodes of Jason of Star Command's second season.  In particular, this episode by Samuel A. Peeples lays the groundwork for a multi-episode arc regarding Dragos (Sid Haig) and his strategy to control the civilized galaxy using a strange discovery.

That discovery is the "star disc," a stone that "contains the wisdom and power of the lost, ancient civilization of the Tantalutions," the greatest culture "ever to exist."  

Unfortunately for Dragos, the Star Disc is damaged and unreadable, except to the galaxy's greatest mind, Dr. Parsafoot.

Accordingly, Drago sends a young, hot shot mercenary -- self-named "Matt Daringstar" (Clete Keith) -- to infiltrate Star Command, posing as a cadet.  His mission: to abduct the good professor and deliver him to Dragos.

Once the professor is captured aboard a seeker by the "cadet," Jason launches a Star Fire to rescue him.  But Dragos releases a "warp dragon" to destroy Jason, an act which leaves Jason stranded in outer space as Parsafoot is delivered to Jason's mortal enemy.

Jason of Star Command is a kid's show, and as such, generally avoids real character development.  Here, however, the episode features not only more of the Jason/Commander Stone rivalry, but effectively involves a deceitful person, Matt, tricking Parsafoot into his custody.

The episode's final scene explains, rather nicely, how the heroically-named Matt Daringstar is actually quite different from a real hero, like Jason.  Jason nearly sacrifices himself to save Parsafoot and Daringstar from the warp dragon, but when given the same opportunity, Daringstar leaves Jason to die.  In his own way, he's a coward.  The message is that real courage is much more than a neat-sounding or colorful name.

"Beyond the Stars!" also does a fine job establishing better the routine at Star Command.  We learn here that Parsafoot is actually a lecturing professor (!), and that he teaches classes on Seeker computer systems from the docking bay.  This is something we haven't seen before, and harks back to the days of Space Academy.

We also see fighters scrambled for battle with attacking pirate warships, but oddly Samantha and Jason are the only two pilots to launch, and neither one is an official member of Star Command.  Certainly, there must be some actual Star Command pilots aboard the station, right?  But the special effects sequence involving twin Star Fire maneuvers is beautifully rendered, and certainly rivals the special effects of Battlestar Galactica, though produced on a fraction of the budget.

As has also steadily become the case, the high-point of this Jason of Star Command episode is a stop-motion animation interlude showcasing a monster, here the warp dragon, a creature that "eats energy," and once unloosed isn't easily controlled.

I just love that Jason of Star Command depicts these fantastical, menacing monsters, and again, I'm pleasantly reminded of the cinema of Ray Harryhausen.  I should also add that these stop-motion alien creatures gives JOSC a distinct look and feel, one unlike any TV contemporary (Space: 1999, Buck Rogers, BSG).  

With "Beyond the Stars!" I was really engaged and interested in what was going to happen to Jason for the first time since the premiere episode of the second season, and I'm counting that as a good sign of things to come.  I hope so, anyway...

Next Saturday: "Secret of the Ancients."

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Films of 1982: The Dark Crystal

"Another World. Another Time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good...until the Crystal cracked. A single piece was lost, a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics..."

-          Voice-over narration from The Dark Crystal (1982)

Thus begins The Dark Crystal, the remarkable Jim Henson fantasy released theatrically in December of 1982. Simply stated, The Dark Crystal is a production of vibrant color, epic scope, and fascinating creations the likes of which the movies had never before witnessed...not in over a hundred years of cinematic history. I count The Dark Crystal as one of the most dazzling films ever made in terms of visuals (equaled only, perhaps, by Cameron's Avatar [2009]).

But what remains so amazing about The Dark Crystal thirty years later is that, unlike the aforementioned Avatar, there's nary a human being in sight as reference or grounding point for this adventure.  Rather, the Henson film transports us to an absolutely alien world, complete unto itself.  This mesmerizing and daring vision arrives under the creative auspices of conceptual designer Brian Froud, production designer Harry Lange, scenarist David Odell, and co-directors Frank Oz and Henson.  Each deserves kudos for going where no film production had gone before.

While the film’s narrative is abundantly familiar -- a textbook resurrection of the Campbell Monomyth, right down to the presence of a “Chosen One” (Jen the Gelfling) selected to undertake a dangerous quest -- The Dark Crystal nonetheless thrives because it transports us to a planet of living forests alongside remarkable beasts and beings such as the Landstriders, the Garthim, Podlings, Crystal Bats, Gelflings, Mystics and, last but not least, the remarkable and disgusting Skeksis.  It is a cinematic world of richness, depth, and much so that the precise details of the admittedly familiar narrative matter little.

Despite The Dark Crystal’s visual lushness, critics were generally unkind regarding the film.  Vincent Canby concluded that the film was without charm as well as interest.”  Meanwhile, a reviewer at the Reno Gazette-Journal, described The Dark Crystal as an “overblown puppet show” while critic Ken Hanke called it “Tolkien with puppets.”

What seems genuinely overlooked in terms of the mainstream response to the film is The Dark Crystal’s unique leitmotif: a kind of yin-and-yang approach to life.  

Specifically, the planet featured in the film is “fractured” into two opposing, extreme camps, Mystics and Skeksis.  Each camp relies heavily on thousand-year old rituals, but finds "no satisfaction" in the rote repetition of them.  And that’s because each side is incomplete, flawed, and even bored.  The Skeksis are rather overtly flawed of course, giant vulture-like creatures interested only in avarice and their own unhealthy appetites.  But the slow and deliberate Mystics are flawed as well -- too slow and contemplative to really live life to the fullest -- and only the “Great Conjunction” can heal the planet and bring the two races together.

In an increasingly postmodern world, it’s easy to gaze at this “fracturing” of wholeness in The Dark Crystal as the filmmakers' comment on the partisan nature of life, where objective reality and scientific fact are themselves subordinate to ideological belief.  

Virtually alone among movie fantasies, The Dark Crystal concerns healing and completeness, and the idea that to be "whole," we must join with and "absorb" the “darker” part of ourselves...even if we don’t want to.  For as bad as the Skeksis surely are, their percentage of the equation cannot be absent in the totality of identity.  What we see embodied in the film, then, is a relatively realistic and integrated view about mankind.  Like these alien creatures, we are not without a dark side, and the dark side even has a place in our gestalt, but we must decide how to harness it appropriately.

I mentioned postmodernism above, and that's because, in some fashion, The Dark Crystal appears to subtly comment on that movement in the arts.  In particular, theorist Jean Baudrillard suggested that society has become so reliant on models and maps that it has lost contact with the real world that preceded those models and maps.  What we see in The Dark Crystal is actually a critique of the models and maps of our lives, here showcased in the religious rituals of the Mystics and the court rituals of the Skeksis.  

As I noted above, these models and maps no longer provide "satisfaction" for practitioners and that is because they are no longer connected to present-day reality.  If The Dark Crystal concerns "wholeness," it is also about interconnectedness; the interconnectedness of man and his environment.    Given this idea, the re-assertion of the old Monomyth story line plays like a restoration of the "modern"  and objective in an increasingly "postmodern" and relativistic world.   Indeed, the straight-forward, unencumbered, distinctively anti-"meta" narrative in The Dark Crystal is like some delicious antidote to PoMo theory.

If postmodernism champions the idea that ethics and truth are subjective, The Dark Crystal rejects that notion, and finds comfort and even the promise of paradise in the idea that universal truths about our connectedness can save the day, and the planet.  The Skeksis and Mystics each dwell in their little, separate, inward-looking worlds, replete with rituals that reinforce their incomplete visions of reality.  In completing his quest and making the dark crystal whole again, Jen actually remakes the world as it is meant to be: a thing of universal beauty.

Hold her to you, for she is part of you, as we all are part of each other.

The Dark Crystal opens as the next "Great Conjunction" of three stars draws near. The Mystics and the Skeksis -- two sides of the same coin but splintered into two "opposite" race -- await this cosmic coming together with vastly different emotions. The Skeksis fear it, for prophecy indicates that a Gelfling will heal the schism caused by the shattering of the Crystal, thus ending the Skeksis reign. In fact, the Skeksis are so afraid of the prophecy that they murdered all the Gelflings to prevent a "Chosen One" from aborting their rule.

On the other hand, the gentle Mystics look forward to their eventual re-unification, and know that if the Gelfling fails now, evil will reign in the land for another thousand eternity of darkness.

On the day that the elderly Skeksis Emperor and his opposite number among the Mystics finally dies, young Jen, a Gelfling, is informed of his role in the scheme of things by his dying master. He sets off on a dangerous quest to find the shard, the missing piece of the Crystal that can heal the land.

His first stop takes him to Aughra's home in the mountains, where he locates the shard and escapes from the grasp of the skittering, clicking, hard-shelled foot-soldiers of the Skeksis, the Garthim

Later, Jen meets the only other surviving Gelfing, a female named Kira and her pet, Fizzgigg. She joins his quest, and together they make for the Skeksis castle, where the Dark Crystal awaits.

But treachery is just around the corner as an outcast Skeksis, the Chamberlain plots for a triumphant return to the new Emperor's Court...

“What was sundered and undone shall be whole - the two made one.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of The Dark Crystal is that every one of the film’s many creations had to actually exist to be filmed. 

By that, I mean the creatures weren't generated by a few deft keystrokes on a computer and then added to a live-action sequence later on.  Instead, these colorful, breathing, wondrous things -- the denizens of this unique world --- had to be designed, built, wrangled and performed. They had to be a real physical presence on the sets. They had to be managed for the camera.  The filmmakers had to contend with putting these creatures out on location in some instances, in the rain and elements.  

By and large, modern digital effects do away with such challenges, and with a lot of traditional movie magic and artistry too.  When you pause to think about the making of this film, you can truly detect what a labor of love The Dark Crystal must have been.  There's ample reward for such labor too.  Whereas digital monsters often appear to (unintentionally) defy gravity, or seem somehow separate from their environs, the wondrous creatures of The Dark Crystal actually appear to inhabit their world, to be affected by gravity, sunlight, water and the elements.  

First and foremost, then, The Dark Crystal must be acknowledged as a state-of-the-art fantasy film, one wherein the visuals are truly breathtaking.  I'm horrified and embarrassed for my profession that so many  critics sought to diminish this ambitious film by writing off the film's creations as mere puppets, or by invoking the specter of Miss Piggy in their reviews.  Talk about not meeting a film half-way, or acknowledging the artistry put up on screen...

Even beyond the special effects, The Dark Crystal contextualizes its hero's journey story in unique fashion, as I've written above.  The creators of the film make a great effort -- both in word and imagery -- to countenance the theme of a world split down the middle, and suffering for that horrible disunion. 

In terms of visualization, we see this theme repeatedly. For when a Skeksis dies (like the Emperor), the same thing happens to his opposite number among the gentle Mystics. A bloody hand on a Skeksis results in a wound on the hand of a Mystic, and so on. 

This is a literalization of the notion that united we stand, divided we fall. And also that an action against an enemy may actually rebound and hurt an ally. In the United States today, we often hear how our citizens are "more divided" than ever; how the Red State vs. Blue State conflict is the prevailing dynamic. Yet what The Dark Crystal skillfully makes clear is that all races on this faraway planet (like all Americans, or all human beings for that matter...) actually share the same fate. As the "angel"-like creature at the film's climax (the reunification of the Skeksis/Mystics) informs Jen, we are all a part of each other.  For better (like the Mystics?) or worse (like the Skeksis).

Delightfully, this unique theme is not treated in a heavy-handed fashion, and instead the filmmakers primarily make their point visually. Again, production design is critically important in any reading of this film. The Mystics - gentle, wise creatures - are adorned in loose fitting robes, and seen in sandy earth tones. Their realm is of the "earth," an abode cut out of stone and clay. They seem to have few possessions and are hence not material creatures. They represent conventional "good" traits like humility, modesty, love of nature and environment.  They are slow, deliberate and poised, but also old and somehow drained, exhausted.

In contrast, the Skeksis represent the dark side of humanity. Greed, avarice, malice. Their territory looks like a strip-mined wasteland, save for the castle. The Skeksis dress in elaborate, ostentatious robes of ornate design and bold color (crimson, gold, purple, and orange) and surround themselves with material wealth: giant hanging tapestries, high-backed banquet chairs, wide cushioned beds, and so forth. These material possessions are so important to the Skeksis that the creatures literally appear hunched over by the weight of their cloaks and the elaborate, bony gear they wear over their spines.

Above all else, these creatures, who resemble nothing so much as giant buzzards, value material possessions. That's why it is the ultimate punishment in this society to be stripped of robes, as the Chamberlain is stripped after his failed bid for leadership.  When shorn of his costuming and place in Skeksis society, Chamberlain is revealed to be nothing but a scrawny, bony creation with bad posture. The clothes make the man (or monster).

The  Mystics and Skeksis are mirror images of one another, and the film showcases brilliantly this idea of reflection.  When the Skeksis Emperor dies...he rots.  When the Mystic leader dies, he transcends.  Where the Skeksis Emperor clings to life, the Mystic...lets go.  Where the surviving Skeksis are all about taking away power from the dying Emperor (thinking of themselves), the Mystics think about honoring he who has passed away.  And yet, again, remember the yin-and-yang.  Both "natures" are essential for wholeness, according to the film.  We need our inner Skeksis as much as our inner Mystic, I suppose you might say.  The Skeksis, for instance, seem to understand the imperative of self-preservation, at least.

One could also make the argument, I suppose, that The Dark Crystal concerns a class society where the rich (the Skeksis) lord it over the poor (the Podlings, who resemble  nothing so much as Russian peasants...), literally draining their vital life energies to maintain their own existence.  If you interpret the film in this fashion, it seems even more relevant and interesting in today's political environment.   The Skeksis are vulture capitalists who are actually vultures.

But thematic insights aside, The Dark Crystal makes full, dynamic use of the rectangular movie frame, and in many gorgeous compositions the camera stands far enough back for the audience to gain a real sense of scale. The view of the Mystics on the march to the Castle -- a sun rise behind them -- is merely one example of the film's fully enunciated ability to capture and evoke a genuine sense of (alien)  place. 

Accordingly, The Dark Crystal is a movie that lives up to the often-utilized adjective, "wondrous." . Aughra's mountaintop residence, replete with a gigantic, metallic, spinning machine of a hundred parts, is a gorgeous bit of arcane design. The notorious banquet scene involving the Skekses is a truly disgusting set-piece, revealing the appetite of these creatures (and setting the stage, a year later, for Jabba the Hutt's appetites, one might guess...). And Kira's beautiful, overgrown forest is a splendid, lively creation...a place of overflowing life, where the very shrubbery itself seems to breathe.

Ultimately, The Dark Crystal succeeds beyond expectations because even in the midst of this utterly alien, utterly convincing landscape, the story speaks to a crucial aspect of human nature. Aren't we all split, in some senses, right down the middle, just like the Skeksis and the Mystics? Hoping for the best, yet often clinging to the worst angels of our nature? 

This is a movie that "crystallizes" that dichotomy in an artistic fashion, and the result is a rare fantasy film of beauty, vision and epic scope.  I fully realize that many fans love the Lord of the Rings films with tremendous ardor, but I'll take The Dark Crystal over that trilogy any day.  For one thing, The Dark Crystal is less noisy (and admirably brief.)  For another, The Dark Crystal features a great villain in the Skeksis (as opposed to an amorphous, floating eyeball..).  And finally, The Dark Crystal miraculously makes us examine human nature when there is not even a human being on screen.

They don't make 'em like The Dark Crystal anymore, especially in the CGI age.  But perhaps they should.

Movie Trailer: The Dark Crystal (1982)

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Purple Rain: Music on Film Book set for release

My newest book, part of Limelight Edition's celebrated "Music on Film" series, will be released shortly, and I wanted to give readers here a head's up about it. 

My first text in the series gazed at  the making of 1984's This is Spinal Tap, and this new edition gazes at another classic rock film of that very year, Purple Rain.

To celebrate the book's upcoming release, the blog Onstage and Backstage, has posted my piece "Four Reasons Why Purple Rain Endures."

Here's an excerpt:

"1. Purple Rain is as close to getting “to know” the real Prince as we’re likely to get.
The artist who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and declared the Internet “dead” in 2010 is an enigmatic, mysterious fellow.  What makes him tick?  From what inner turmoil does his creative genius derive?
Although featuring a heavily fictionalized account of his life, Purple Rain remains the closest we are likely to get to an authentic Prince screen biography.  The film reveals the turmoil in his home life among his parents, and the relationships roiling Prince’s band mates in the Revolution.
At the start of Purple Rain, Prince emerges from smog and fog in silhouette and finally becomes visible…at least for the duration of the movie. This is as clearly as we have ever viewed the man, and his later films, including Under the Cherry Moon (1985) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) assiduously steered away from offering any further biographical detail.
2. The film is multi-faceted in its depiction of an icon. 
We’ve all seen big-screen musical biographies, and most often, they gloss over warts to forge a heroic, larger-than-life portrait of a talent we’ve come to love.  Consider Cool as Ice (1990), or even 8 Mile (2002), both of which failed to capture the real life experience or apparent rage driving performers such as Vanilla Ice or Eminem.
Or consider the superficial, bubble gum Rick Springfield vehicle, Hard to Hold (1984).  By contrast, Purple Rain reveals Prince in all his flawed and human dimensions.  He’s a genius, but he’s difficult.  He’s talented, but he’s demanding.  He’s an iconoclast and a perfectionist, and he’s anchored by nagging self-doubt.
In one of the film’s most famous scene, Prince sits back-stage – sulking in his tent as it were – making funny voices with a hand-puppet.  He comes off as angst-ridden, self-centered, and isolated.  Purple Rain is willing to reveal Prince in all his human shades, even the unflattering ones, and that’s why some critics (including Roger Ebert) listed it as one of the top ten films of 1984."
Check out the rest of the piece at Onstage and Backstage, and also watch a video about the book, featuring a voice-over by yours truly.  And don't forget, you can pre-order the book at, here.

Sci-Tech #5: Batman Edition

"Fishing in the backwaters of popular culture, it [TV] has achieved its first indigenous artistic triumph - it has upgraded the comics.  Historians of culture in the future may well say that television's early attempts at art were smaller-than-life dramas of Chayefsky, Nash, Mosel and Foote, but that the medium attained full stature as an art form with the larger-than-life comic, Batman."

- Robert Lewis Shayon. Saturday Review: "All the Way to the Bank." Saturday Review, February 12, 1966, page 46.

Today, many comic-book and Batman fans casually dismiss the 1966 - 1968 TV series starring Adam West as a "camp" atrocity, but the quotation above from Saturday Review reminds us that the series wasn't always considered in such a negative light.  

On the contrary, many critics and audiences of the mid-1960s considered the series a legitimate and even audacious form of avant-garde "pop art."   

No one had ever seen anything like it.  

For better or worse, Batman might even be considered television's first legitimately post-modern effort: a reversal and rejection of well-established modernism in terms of narrative point of view and attack.

True, our cultural taste in terms of superheroes has changed radically in 2012, as proven by Christopher Nolan's opposite -- but immensely popular -- smaller-than-life approach to the Caped Crusader and his universe.   Before someone gets angry with me for writing that Nolan's approach is smaller than life, consider for a moment his meticulous aesthetic.  Everything in Nolan's universe could be real, whether it is the "Nomex" Bat Suit or the experimental military vehicle that becomes the Batmobile.  

In short, Nolan makes the Batman universe intrinsically believable by skewing all the superhero tech to contemporary reality as we understand and perceive it.  This is Nolan's modus operandi.

The 1960s series adopted precisely the opposite approach, exaggerating Batman's world -- in terms of color, scope and believability -- to such a degree that humor became inevitable (and desirable).

Whether subjectively you prefer the Nolan approach or the Dozier TV approach, it's nonetheless difficult to deny that the Batman TV series boasted  its own...unique vision.  We might not like or approve of that vision (just as we might not like or approve of Nolan's or Tim Burton's vision), but it's there for the appreciation...or denigration.  As with all works of art, it's incumbent on us to at least consider it on its own terms.

Regarding Bat-Tech, the Batman series deliberately developed two running gags of the visual variety.  

In the first instance, the creators of the series made certain that every single item in the Batcave was assiduously labeled.  Of course, on the surface, this labeling fetish doesn't make a whole lot of sense.  We don't label our computers, laptops, microwave ovens, TV sets or other every day tools.  Yet every item in Batman, no matter how obscure, gets (obsessively-compulsively) labeled.  

Thus, in the Batcave, one may find a "Lighted Lucite Map" of Gotham City, a "Bat Analyzer," "Bat Poles," a "Bat Tape Reader" or other strange devices.  Again, surely Batman and Robin would know and remember which device is which inside their own headquarters and even we, as viewers, quickly come to recognize the Bat Poles and other tech.

But the gag makes us laugh.  The ubiquitous labels grab the attention, and reveal to us something important about this hero.  He's not just square-jawed, he's a very straight-forward thinker.  Everything goes in its proper place, and is obsessively organized.  He's a "rules" guy after all, as we see in his constant lessons to Robin.  In "Ring of Wax," he told Robin he "never gambles" and in The Riddler's False Notion," Batman opined that Robin owed his life to "good dental hygiene."   The labels thus fit into Batman's "character" and represent an example of form reflecting content.

Even funnier, every device in Batman's arsenal gets a "Bat" prefix.  Why not just call Batman's computer a computer, instead of a Bat Computer?  On and on, this joke grows funnier on Batman as the writers really pushed the envelope in terms of Bat-centric imagery.  

Bat Tweezers?  Bat Fly Swatters? Anti-Thermal Bat T-Shirts? Anti-Mesmerizing Bat Reflectors? Bat Springs in Bat Shoes?  These items are mentioned and played absolutely straight, and yet we giggle at them.

The second visual joke featured on the series involves a logo, if you will: the bat.  Every tool, it seems, is shaped like one.  Bat Binoculars. The Batphone in the Batmobile.  The Batarang.  

Again, the audience brushes up against this idea of a hero who is, perhaps unhealthily, obsessed with one image.  Is it really necessary to use a boomerang or telephone shaped like a flying rodent?  

Is this "branding" or self-marketing run amok?

I realize the purists absolutely can't stand these humorous touches, but in a very real sense, Batman the TV series mirrors the Batman comic as it existed in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  It's not fair to say that the series isn't faithful to that period in the franchise, only to say that the producers and writers detected a source of humor in how the Caped Crusader was portrayed in the comics, and ruthlessly and effectively capitalized upon it.  

The beauty of the TV approach, as I have always maintained is that children see the program one way (as a straight-forward adventure with great gadgets and colorful heroes, villains and sets) while adults view it on another level all together (as a post-modern, tongue-in-cheek commentary on the superhero/comic-book milieu.)   There's an artistry and maturity to this successful two-track approach, and it accounts for the continued appeal of the series.  But some people will never approve of it because they see the series as making fun of Batman, and thus, by extension, making fun of their affection for the character and his universe.  

Whether labeled or unlabeled, I continue to find the Bat-tech of Batman fascinating as an example of 1960s era "retro future" design.   Computers were huge, colossal things, and visual read-outs never included text you could read...only blinking, winking, gaudy lights that characters could somehow magically interpret.

Once upon a time, we indeed  thought this was indeed how the future might look, and Batman shares this "retro" futuristic approach in common with Lost in Space and certainly Star Trek.  The revolution in miniaturization had not yet occurred, and so these programs evidenced the belief that bigger was always better and more high tech.

It's a shame that Batman is not yet available on DVD or Blu Ray, so we can get a much better and longer  look at the (Not) Dark Knight's array of (carefully labeled...) technical gadgetry.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"End, begin, all the same. Big change. Sometimes good. Sometimes bad."

- Aughra, in The Dark Crystal (1982), to be reviewed here tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Memory Bank: Star Trek: The Role Playing Game (FASA; 1982 - 1989)

I recently signed up to play Star Trek Online and commenced my training as a Starfleet officer of the 24th Century.  I stopped playing after about an hour (and just as I was about to board a Borg ship too...) because I realized the game was very quickly going to become a black hole of lost time.     

Someday, I plan to return...

But Star Trek Online reminded me of an earlier experience of imaginative interface with Gene Roddenberry's universe: The Star Trek role-playing game by FASA (1980 - 2001).

 I was never really a Dungeons and Dragons kid -- though I played it several times in high school -- because I always leaned more toward hard sci-fi and horror than fantasy.  

But a Star Trek role-playing game?  I was so there.

In particular, during my first year at the University of Richmond, my group of friends and I played this role-playing game.  A lot.  We had no car with which to escape from the campus, we weren't allowed to join fraternities until sophomore year, and we were all strapped for cash.   After a few weeks, we'd spent our respective budgets playing Gauntlet (1985) at the student recreational hub, The Pier.  So we had to do something, besides play endless games of Risk.

And remember, when I was in college -- a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away -- the newest, hottest technology was the Fax machine, so it wasn't like we could all surf the net, text friends, e-mail, watch YouTube or do anything cool like that.

Accordingly, FASA's Star Trek was just what the doctor ordered in my dorm room at Thomas Hall.

My roommate became our heroic ship's captain (of the U.S.S. Nassau), I served as first officer, and other pals  played a Vulcan security officer, a Caitian science officer, and an Andorian communications officer, respectively.  My wife, Kathryn -- then my girlfriend -- even joined us for an adventure or two as a protocol officer keeping an eye on our "cowboy diplomat" captain.  

I loved the game (and my role as executive officer) because my roommate wasn't a Trekkie. But he was an ingenious and resourceful fellow, capable of innovative thinking.  I was the one with the encyclopedic knowledge of the Trek universe, so between his ingenuity and my contextual skills, we made a potent command team.

I still own a couple of the modules or "episodes" from the Star Trek game that we played back in the day, including "Where Has All the Glory Gone" and "The Dixie Gambit."  In total, there were twenty or so FASA adventures that Trekkers could enjoy, if I recall, with titles such as "Denial of Destiny," "The Vanished," "A Doomsday Like Any Other," "Return to Axanar" and "The Mines of Selka."   Many of the games were sequels to original series episodes.

The thing that I also enjoyed so much about the game, as I remember, was that many of the stories were set not in the days of the Original Series or The Next Generation, but in the movie era.  As I've said before, the movies, in a very real way, represent "my" Star Trek: the productions I grew up with in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Paramount suddenly revoked the license to FASA's Star Trek game in 1989, just as The Next Generation was really taking off in syndication.  There are reports that this cancellation occurred because of growing discontinuities between the FASA Trek universe, and the canon universe imagined by Gene Roddenberry.

One such continuity apparently involved the depiction of the Klingons and their Empire in FASA.  Still, it seems a shame that the game was canceled just as Star Trek was taking off on television again...

I must admit, I'm pretty divorced from role-playing games today, as a 42 year old, but my understanding is that, like Star Trek Online, they've all moved to the Internet.

There's nothing wrong with that development, but I'll always remember my days at UR with my friends, sitting around in a circle in our dorm room, eating Dominos Pizza, drinking Mountain Dew, staying up too late,and foiling the plans of the Klingons.

Collectible of the Week: Buck Rogers Galactic Play Set (HG Toys; 1979)

By the time Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) aired on NBC, I suppose you could state I was primed to love the show.  I had "grown up" through Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and had seen The Black Hole (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Moonraker (1979).  

But the nice thing about Buck Rogers was that the series, unlike many of those other titles, didn't take itself too seriously.  The program, starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, boasted a great sense of humor, at least during the first season.

Mego released a good-sized line of Buck Rogers toys and vehicles back in the day, but HG Toys also got into the act, recycling and retro-fitting a pre-existing play set as the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Galactic Play Set.  It came complete with "over 35 pieces" and a nice diorama/backdrop.  

This HG Toy set included a "space station with movable ladder, 2 Draconian marauders, 2 starfighters, 8 space commandos, 10 aliens," and "fully detailed figures of Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Dr. Huer, Tigerman, Draco, Twiki and Princess Ardala."

Also present: "a colorful diorama set-up and assembly instructions."

I have fond memories of playing with this particular play set, because I took it on a cross-country vacation with me.  My family traveled (in our new Ford van) from New Jersey to California and back over the span of six weeks.  Space was tight since we were traveling for such a duration and this one of the few toys I was allowed to bring along.  I set it up in camp sites from Lake Michigan to Lake Tahoe.   On days where we seemed to be endlessly driving through desert terrain, I also set up the Galactic Play Set in the back of the van and played with it, though the bumps in the road could occasionally wreak havoc.

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote # 10: Quentin and Ianto

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #4: The Sting in the Tail/Tale

In his landmark book of genre film analysis, James Bond in the Cinema (1981), the great John Brosnan often wrote about "the sting in the tail," that moment near the end of a James Bond film, when the surviving villain gets the jump on 007, and there's one last thrill before end credits roll.  Think of Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd spoiling a perfectly nice cruise at the end of Diamonds Are Forever (1970), for instance, or Nick Nack doing same in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

In the horror lexicon, the sting in the tail/tale is that devilish scorpion strike at the very end of the movie, the turn or twist of the tale towards the unexpected in the final, valedictory moment.  In the horror genre, the sting in the tail/tale is designed to forge a final, spiky crescendo, one that audiences will remember as they file out of the auditorium.  Sometimes the sting in the tail/tale causes a laugh; sometimes a shriek.

The sting in the tail/tale comes in many shapes and sizes.  Often the final "sting" is a development you don't expect, something that ratchets up the terror and changes the very nature of the narrative, even setting up the grounds for a sequel.  

The sting in the tail/tale at the end of AVP (2004) is the birth of the Pred-Alien, for example.  The sting in the tail/tale at the end of Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), is the shocking death of Nancy Thompson's Mom, as Nancy is helplessly driven away in The Freddy Mobile.  

In other cases, the sting in the tail/tale is a moment of high drama and terror ultimately revealed to be a dream sequence (through the auspices of the "Stay Awake" shot.)  

Films including Carrie (1976), Dressed to Kill (1980) and Prince of Darkness (1987) all resolve with stings in the tail/tale that get the blood pumping, but are revealed to be phantasms of the mind, not reality.  

A great play on this aspect of the convention occurs in Phantasm II.  Mike (James LeGros) insists to a terrified Liz (Paula Irvine) that the terror around them is all a dream.  Then the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) appears and punctures that particular balloon.  "'s not!" He croaks.  Fade to Black...

Sometimes, a sting in the tail/tale reveals that a "beloved" character didn't really die (Fright Night [1985]), and sometimes, the sting resolves a lingering question in the narrative.  The great, final sting of John Carpenter's The Fog (1980) is a direct answer to Father Malone's (Hal Holbrook) interrogative about why the vengeful Blake didn't seek revenge upon him.  

Off with his head!  

One of the great sting-in-the-tail/tale endings of film history is seen in another Carpenter film, Halloween (1978). To me, this is one of the most elegant and beautiful stings in film history.  After we see that Michael Myers is still alive, Carpenter cuts to a montage of empty rooms and dark houses...places where Michael Myers already has been during the course of the film.  We don't see him, but the montage is accompanied by the sounds of his heavy breathing.   

This sort of "where's Michael" final sting is so much more effective and inventive than a last jump wherein Michael re-appears, and gets shot in the head.  Instead, Carpenter sort of "universalizes" the terror of Michael.  He could be anywhere now, the montage suggests.

Even in the back seat of your car...

Another sting in the tail/tale ending I admire tremendously arises in Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead (1983).  Here, Ash defeats the Deadites and limps out of his cabin in the woods, only to be pursued -- one last time -- by a horrible, unseen force.  

The orchestration of this P.O.V. attack is remarkable, and audacious. We race (on the camera, apparently...) through the woods, through the very cabin interior, over a fallen door, right into Ash's screaming, protesting face.    

This ending is not only terrifying, it's a reminder of the film's bravura "pummeling-the-audience" aesthetic.

Most often in horror films, the sting-in-the-tail/tale ending is as simple as a killer you believed was dead, popping up for one, final scare before being put down (Scream [1996], The Resident [2011]).

The sting-in-the-tail/tale, in various forms, has appeared in films including (but not limited to...): Carrie (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), Humanoids from the Deep (1980), Friday the 13th Part II (1983), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), Fright Night (1985), Critters (1986), Psycho 3 (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers, Hellbound: Hellraiser 2 (1988), Hide and Go Shriek (1988), Phantasm 2 (1988), Leviathan (1989), Scream (1996), and AVP (2004). 

Terra Nova Gets the Axe

The media is now reporting the cancellation of the time-travel/sci-fi/family drama Terra Nova.

From Yahoo News: 

"The prehistoric drama "Terra Nova" is history on Fox.
The network said late Monday it is dropping the pricey sci-fi series after a single season.
The ambitious series, filmed in Australia with expensive special effects, got a lukewarm reception from viewers despite high anticipation from sci-fi fans. It averaged less than 8 million viewers weekly.
The series followed a family on its journey back to prehistoric Earth on a mission to save the human race. It starred Jason O'Mara and Stephen Lang, with behind-the-scenes principals including Steven Spielberg."
I must confess, I never tuned back in to this series after the dreadful pilot episode. Terra Nova struck me as hopelessly dumb and hackneyed, and yet I always, sincerely, intended to go back to it and give it a second go.  In fact, all the episodes are still safely ensconced on my DVR.   I hate to see science fiction programs cancelled, but also can't help but think, given what I saw, that Terra Nova was a very poorly-conceived standard-bearer for the genre on television.
Also, the news of Terra Nova's cancellation reminds me how totally arbitrary programming choices truly are.  The series was drawing eight million viewers a week on Fox.  On the CW, such numbers would have made it a blockbuster.  On Sy-Fy, those numbers would have been historic.  So, was axing Terra Nova the right call, or was mainstream success/acceptance of it just around the corner?