Saturday, April 07, 2012

Saturday Morning TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Face to Face" (November 3, 1979)

This week on Jason of Star Command, the Saturday morning Filmation series pulls out a familiar genre convention: “My Enemy, My Ally.”   In this staple of sci-fi television, two enemies must work together to resolve an existential crisis.  It was Geordi and a Romulan officer on Star Trek: The Next Generation’s “The Enemy.”  It was Peter Burke and Urko on Planet of the Apes’ “The Trap.”  Paul Foster and an alien pulled the same trick on UFO’s “Survival,” as well.  Even Land of the Lost saw Rick Marshall and a Sleestak named "S'latch" team-up in "The Hole."

This "My Enemy/My Ally" story universally concerns team work, and more than that, diversity.  A Romulan doesn't believe he can learn anything from a human...but he does, and so forth. Here, the different skill-sets of the people forced to work together prove valuable in overcoming a hurdle.  That hurdle might be a cave-in ("The Trap"), or an inhospitable terrain (the moon in "Survival," or Galorndon Core in "The Enemy.")  

I realize that "diversity" as a concept or virtue has come under heavy fire over the last several years as being "PC," but its merit is obvious in a sci-fi setting: a different (and alien...) background offers a different viewpoint and opinion about survival, and often a different philosophical approach to facing death.  Such qualities are incredibly useful.  It's always better to have more viewpoints and more knowledge, from varying sources, when trying to assure survival. IDIC and all that.

Here, Jason (Craig Littler) and his enemy, Adron (Rod Loomis) are trapped on a planet with a poisonous atmosphere, and must between them share one portable life-support system.  This means that they are literally chained together by the wrists, in a dynamic visual call-back to The Defiant Ones (1958).  

At first, Adron is reluctant to trust Jason, but Jason is optimistic.  “I believe all life is worth saving,” he tells his new friend.  

Finally, Jason gives up his claim on the life support system to help Adron survive, and this softens the alien’s heart.  “It is better to live with brotherhood than hatred,” Adron agrees, noting he must “heal” his conscience after working with the evil Dragos.

Adron also reveals to Jason that Dragos is “amassing” alien power sources so as to invade “the universe,” and that’s where this particular episode leaves off.  Jason and Adron part, and the implication is that Jason is off to stop Dragos' fiendish strategy.

It’s undeniably fun to see the My Enemy/My Ally dynamic re-stated so bluntly on Jason of Star Command, even if the idea is incredibly familiar. 

At least the re-use of  such an old concept gives this installment some philosophical and cerebral heft, so it isn’t just action all the time.  This episode of JOSC doesn't feel as empty as some, as a consequence.

Another nice touch in "Face to Face" is that Adron and Jason are trapped on a “living planet,” one which attempts to kill all invaders, and which starts setting off explosives across the landscape.  At one point, a cave wall comes to life and attempts to crush the duo.  It's one thing to work together in a dangerous environment, it's all together something else when that environment is consciously trying to murder you...

About the only misstep in “Face to Face” is the fact that, once more, Dragos seems to be able to see  and hear everything that is happening to every moment.  How Dragos manages to possess constant universal, inter-dimensional, intergalactic surveillance on his target is a total mystery, and one that the series never explains.

Next week: "Phantom Force."

Friday, April 06, 2012

Thursday, April 05, 2012

CULT TV FLASHBACK #152: Torchwood: "Countrycide" (November 19, 2006)

If Doctor Who met The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), you might end up with something  like Torchwood’s ultra-violent first season episode, “Countrycide,” an early, dramatic and gory high-point in Russell T. Davies’ TV long-running spin-off.

First aired in the UK in late November of 2006, Torchwood’s “Countrycide” was written by Chris Chibnall and directed by Andy Goddard.  The story finds the intrepid Torchwood team heading out to the isolated and remote Brecon Beacon mountain range to investigate a series of unusual missing persons cases. Specifically, seventeen people have disappeared in the mountains in five months -- all within a twenty mile radius -- and there is no pattern in terms of age, sex, or race.

Led by the dashing Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), new recruit Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles), the team doctor Owen Harper (Burn Gorman), computer expert Toshiko Sato (Naoki Moro) and Ianto (Gareth David Lloyd) set up camp in the remote mountains.  Owen stresses how uncomfortable the country locale makes him feel, and in short order, there's good reason for his discomfort.  Before long, the Torchwood vehicle is stolen, and the group is left to fend for itself at a nearby inn, the abandoned "Tap House.”  

There, the group finds skinned, half-eaten corpses, and also one young survivor who warns of monstrous, implacable attackers.  The Torchwood team suspects that the temporal and spatial “rift” which deposits alien life-forms in Cardiff -- a corollary to Sunnydale’s “Hellmouth” on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- has mysteriously expanded to include this area in South Wales.

One by one, the team is captured by monstrous, hooded foes, and soon Torchwood’s best and brightest find out that the brand of evil they now face is all human.  Specifically, the locals celebrate a “harvest” every decade, enthusiastically going cannibal in the process. “We’re food,” Tosh realizes, after gazing into a refrigerator filled with human body parts.
After barely surviving an attack by the cannibals, a shocked Gwen comments that this is all “too much,” that interfacing with dangerous aliens is one thing, but facing the human heart of darkness is something else all together…
Incredibly violent and disturbing, “Countrycide” is the closest thing to 1970s savage cinema (The Hills Have Eyes, Deliverance, Texas Chain Saw) that I have seen on television since The X-Files aired the (later banned from network broadcast...) fourth season episode “Home” in 1996.  Bloody and violent, this British cult series unexpectedly tracks off its predictable course and showcases a riveting drama that eschews the paranormal, the supernatural and the alien.   
From the first sequence of a woman driving alone at night and spying a corpse on a lonely country road, “Countrycide” seeks to terrify, unsettle and provoke.  It largely succeeds, in part because of the tremendously effective location shooting.  Several long establishing shots of the Torchwood team operating under gray, roiling skies -- surrounded by inhospitable mountains on every side -- transmit perfectly the isolation and danger of the locale.  

In addition, the episode frequently cuts to P.O.V. shots from hilltops or through window panes gazing at the team; watching unnoticed as Jack and his friends attempt to unravel the mystery.  Tight-framing is utilized during several tense sequences, and the episode also deploys high-angles to help maintain the sense of tension and anxiety throughout the hour.  The visualization here seems much more adroit than many other early episodes of Torchwood, and it's clear that everyone was on the same page in terms of producing the equivalent of a horror movie.
The horror-based film grammar in "Countrycide" fits perfectly with the horror tropes the narrative dutifully marshals.  The group heads into an area of no cell phone reception (convention #1) and learns that the local police are complicit with the atrocities they find (convention #2).  Later the bad guys cut the power in the inn (convention #3), plunging Jack and company into darkness.  And finally, the episode resolves with a Sam Peckinpah-like slow-motion massacre of the villains (convention #4)  in a location that seems to deliberately recall Straw Dogs (1972). 
In terms of horror movies, I have always preferred the “savage cinema” sub-genre because I find it more realistic than some other styles.  The core idea of the savage cinema is that you are living your normal life when you take a wrong turn (into rural Texas, or the Nevada desert, or the mountains) and end up countenancing a kind of horror you could never imagine.  This brand of horror is grounded in real human desperation and insanity.  “Countrycide” dwells on such notions and at every turn, Jack and his team seem outmatched and unprepared to deal with it.
The Torchwood team's lack of understanding about the cannibals in "Countrycide" represents a great spin on the series’ sci-fi premise.  Up to this point, the mysterious Jack seemed to have all the answers.  He could recognize and diagnose crimes as being the results of certain alien incursions, and always devise an appropriate defense.  But here he’s caught off-guard, and “Countrycide” offers the most dangerous engagement yet for his team.  

Like Leatherface in the Chain Saw movies, the crazy cannibalistic locals of this episode seem unable to relate to people as anything but as a resource to be used up.  “He’s meat” says the leader, of one victim.  “Meat has to be tenderized,” he informs Tosh, looking her up and down…but not as a sexual conquest.  Nope, he sees dinner.
“Countrycide” also boasts a truly wicked sense of humor. An early scene set at a roadside hamburger stand suggests some of the mystery to come, and there’s a droll moment wherein Tosh off-handedly tells a story about a friend contracting Hepatitis from eating a burger at a similar establishment.  The reactions from the team members (all dining on burgers at the time…) is priceless.  

Finally, “Countrycide” works so well within the Torchwood continuity because the engagement with the cannibals boasts strong repercussions for the primary characters.  

Isolated by the Torchwood organization's demand for “secrecy,” Gwen is unable to tell her fiancé about the horror she has witnessed here.  Feeling vulnerable and alone afterwards, she turns to Owen for comfort (and sex...), an act which will have repercussions down the line.  The episode also adds another layer to the puzzle of Jack's background.  Here, Harkness reveals to a cannibal that one of his "skills" is...torture.  Jack Harness, Jack Bauer?
At this point, I've finally caught up with the first three seasons of Torchwood, and by my estimation, the series just kept getting better and better each year.  The third season’s “Children of Earth” is one of the most devastating, emotionally-affecting science fiction TV dramas I’ve seen in a long while.  Early on, however, the show wasn’t quite as sure-footed.  “Countrycide” is a notable exception: an extremely savage and disgusting early installment that explodes the carefully established rules of the series, and reveals, rather dramatically, how even with aliens lurking about, the ultimate enemy remains man himself.  

When you reach “Children of Earth,” the third season, you begin to detect that this idea of man's heart of darkness -- so brilliantly vetted in “Countrycide” -- is not a detour…but rather an intentional destination.

Torchwood Season One Promo

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Pop Art: Fantastic Films Edition

Collectible of the Week: The X-Files Action Figures (McFarlane Toys; 1998)

To coincide with the theatrical release of the first X-Files movie, 1998's Fight the Future, McFarlane Toys manufactured a small line of exquisitely detailed action figures from the film.

Although I have always wished for a more complete and affordable line of X-Files action figures (to include Tooms, the Peacock family, Frank Black, Morris Fletcher, Jose Chung and other high-profile "guest" characters), this movie-based line was certainly a terrific start.

On the back of all the McFarlane Fight the Future figure cards read the following legend: 

"For years, the world has seen reality distorted, facts manipulated and truth hidden.  But there's even more to the story than anyone suspected.  Because no one has been able to see the whole picture until now.  Cherish the past.  Enjoy the present.  Because the truth is coming."

Underneath this warning were featured biographies for the franchise's two stars, Agent Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Agent Fox Mulder (David Duchovny).

For Mulder: "Oxford-educated, brilliant and driven, Agent Fox Mulder was one of the leading investigators in the Violent Crimes division of the FBI, until he requested a transfer to an obscure area of the Bureau known as the X-Files..."

For Scully: "Recruited out of medical school by the FBI, Agent Dana Scully was originally assigned to the X-Files to debunk Agent Fox Mulder's work and report on his finding. Idealistic, intelligent and with strong convictions, Scully soon realized the X-Files contained extraordinary secrets that could not be refuted by scientific interpretation..."

In whole, "Series One" of this "ultra action figure" release included an Attack Alien (replete with club) and the long-clawed, green skinned alien who ripped him to shreds, two versions of Agent Mulder, one in suit and tie, and one in his parka for Antarctica, and two variations of Agent Scully along similar lines.  The characters look very accurate to their appearances on the series/in the film.

I've long considered The X-Files the Star Trek phenomenon of the 1990s, but to finally reach that apex, we definitely need more toys and play sets from the Chris Carter-verse.  And to get those, we need a new film, or a new TV series.

The truth is out there: I'd be in favor of either.


Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Horror Lexicon #8: Welcome to Prime Time! (The Television Set)

Modern horror films boast a unique and not all together comfortable relationship with television. For a generation of movie brat directors like Spielberg, Dante, Carpenter, or Hooper, the television represents, on a basic level, the avenue through which clips of favorite old movies make it into a new generation's works of art. 

In films such as Halloween (1978), Halloween 2 (1981), Gremlins (1984), and Gremlins 2 (1990), for instance, "old" or "classic films" appear in the body of the new work, thus serving as an important reference point to the action.  The appearance of these beloved Hollywood gems could be a simple way of paying tribute to the "greats." 

Or, on a more meaningful level, the productions that appear on the television sets in these horror films could boast a more complicated, inter-textual relationship with the new work.

For example,  in Halloween, little Lindsay watches a horror film marathon that consists of such classic gems as Howard Hawks' The Thing (1951) and Forbidden Planet (1956).  

Both of these classic films, in some significant manner, relate directly back to the theme of Halloween.  In the case of The Thing, a scientist tries in vain to understand the malevolent alien creature, only to realize (with fatal results...) that it is an implacable, nearly unstoppable monster.  Similarly, in Halloween, Michael Myers cannot be diagnosed by science, but instead must be dealt with as a force of super-nature.  He's the Shape, or the Bogeyman. 

Forbidden Planet, of course, concerns "Monsters from the Id" (the human subconscious), and there's a line of critical thought that Michael, in Halloween, represents a manifestation of Laurie's Id.  She wishes for a man to have all to herself (as she sings), and Michael appears in the foreground of the frame almost simultaneously.  Soon he is killing everyone that Laurie knows, setting up a relationship of bizarre exclusivity between them, just as the song portends: "just the two of us."  

In both instances, the nature of the film featured on the TV in the horror marathon relates to what seems to be occurring on-screen.  This idea is even extended (as a wicked joke) in the 1981 theatrical sequel.  After impossibly surviving six point-blank bullet shots, Michael continues to walk...and kill.  On the television: George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead (1968).   

In both Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2 (1990), director Joe Dante uses films playing on TV such as Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) not as reflections of the movie's themes, but as in-text influences on Gizmo's growth as a warrior against the other Gremlins.  Gizmo watches TV (to his owner's chagrin), and begins to imitate the heroic behavior he sees championed by the likes of Clark Gable or Sylvester Stallone.  In this case, movie history affects the shape of the narrative, creating "teachable moments."

Importantly, Dante also highlighted moments from the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) in Gremlins to telegraph the important action of his story.  Very soon, Kingston Falls (like the film's Santa Mira) would become the fulcrum of an invasion by monstrous creatures.

The specific footage seen in Gremlins is from Body Snatchers' climax, during which Dr. Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) warns passersby on a highway (in vain) that the aliens are already here; that the threat has commenced.  Coming where it does in the story of Gremlins, his warning is just as important to unaware Kingston Falls.  The Gremlins have arrived (and the rules governing their behavior have been broken.)

Many of the same horror movie directors have utilized the television as a portal of evil, one that sits right near the family hearth, in the American living room.  

This was the underlying premise of Hooper's Poltergeist, which saw "The TV People" (really ghosts) invade our reality.   In one very funny moment, Mom Freeling (JoBeth Williams) implores her daughter Carol Anne (Heather O'Rourke) not to look at the static on the television set.  She flips the channel to a station playing a violent war movie instead.

This disturbing cinematic imagery, ostensibly, won't damage Carol Anne's "sight" as much as the static.

Poltergest's brilliant last shot sees the imperiled Freeling family kick a "dormant" TV set out of their hotel room, and then a long, slow camera retraction away from the offending appliance. The implication being that the family would be safe so long as it watching.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982) involves television on an even more fundamental, critical level.  Here, a malevolent inventor, Cochrane (Dan O'Herlihy), plans to send a signal across America's television sets that, when transmitted, will kill a wide swath of innocent children as a Halloween "prank."   Once more, TV is an avenue for absolute horror and destruction, a social critique, perhaps of the very form.  Does TV destroy children's minds, literally?

In 1988, director John Carpenter went even further in They Live.  He began to see widespread "brain death" in America and he attributed it, in part, to the pervasive nature of television in our society.  

Here, aliens beamed a hypnotic signal through the nation's TV sets, one that would lull people into a trance so they would not notice when Yuppie aliens began lapping up all the resources, all the wealth, even all the good-looking women.  TV was viewed, literally, in They Live as the opiate of the masses.  And the "sound bytes" of politicians -- hopelessly vapid platitudes -- were part of the "lulling" effect.

In some fashion, Wes Craven's Shocker (1989) built upon Poltergeist's example and introduced a serial killer, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi) who could enter and exit from the "TV world" into different victims' homes.  

The film's final, stunning, tour-de-force chase through cable television programming gave new meaning to the term "channel surfing."  An example of Craven's brilliant eye for "rubber reality," Shocker was perhaps the ultimate in the horror film's commentary on the dangers of television.

In the 1990s, references back and forth between filmmakers became sort of "in jokes" in many horror films. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven featured a clip of Halloween in Scream (1996), and in 1998, the Halloween franchise returned the favor by including a clip from Scream 2 (1997).  Talk about cross-pollination.

In the American remake of Ringu, called The Ring (2002), the film's monster, Samara, emerged from the television -- again a portal for evil and destruction.  

Here, the filmmakers comment on the idea in the War on Terror Age that the suffering of millions can be transmitted to the innocent, and even the innocent are impacted negatively through the mere act of watching.

Probably my favorite television-oriented moment in modern horror, however, comes in the sequel A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987).  There, Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) actually emerges from the television set and kills a fame-seeking girl, Jennifer (Penelpe Sudrow) by jamming her head into the set.  

"Welcome to prime time, bitch," he says, and in some way, both his diabolical bon mot and particular mode of violence seems to presage the coming of reality television, in which TV introduces and then quickly disposes of the likes of Richard Hatch, Omarosa, or Justin Guarini.  They all had their "big break" on the boob tube, and then got spit out.

Horror movies and television have intersected in a number of other films beyond those explored above including Cronenberg's  incredible Videodrome (1983) -- about the total biological blending of man and home video entertainment, Cohen's satirical The Stuff (1985), Demons 2 (1986), Child's Play (1988),  The Seventh Sign (1989) and Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994).

Movie Trailer: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Theme Song of the Week: Something is Out There (1988)

Monday, April 02, 2012

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Blindness

Cultures around the world boast a surprising number of proverbs about blindness.  You can probably recite many from memory.  "Justice is blind."  "The blind leading the blind," etc.  Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that in the annals of cult-tv history, blindness has proven a crucial and oft-repeated trope.

Blindness, of course, is the total lack of sight, and so a number of programs over the years have featured episodes in which heroes must reckon with the loss of perhaps our most valuable and cherished sense.  Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) briefly (and unnecessarily...) experienced blindness in the first season Star Trek episode "Operation: Annihilate."  

Fortunately for him,Vulcans possess an "inner eyelid" and so his sight returned.

In the third season Trek episode, "Is There in Truth No Beauty?" a character named Dr. Miranda Jones (Diana Muldaur) visited the Enterprise.  She had overcome her blindness with the help of a "sensor web," and gone on to achieve tremendous success in her career, notably in mind-linking with a Medusan Ambassador.

The onset of blindness in cult television often exposes the true, hidden nature of a character.  

Colonel Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) goes blind in the Buck Rogers second season episode "The Guardians" and imagines herself an isolated, pitiable person...wandering the corridors of Searcher alone.  We learn from this experience how vulnerable Wilma feels, and that she can't stand the thought of being pitied, or an object of ridicule.  You'd imagine, however, that by the 25th century the blind would not be reduced to the sad fate Wilma imagines.

What else happens when a person loses his or her sight?  Cult television provides some...unique answers.  In Rod Serling's Night Gallery, the episode "Eyes" involves an avaricious, aristocratic character named Miss Menlo (Joan Crawford) who will do anything not to go blind...even steal the eyes of a less-fortunate human being.  

Fate and Con-Ed conspire to play a cruel trick on her, as you may recall.

Blind seers are another staple of cult television programming.  In The fifth season X-Files episode "Mind's Eye" an unfortunate blind woman, Marty (Lili Taylor) could see through the eyes of a killer...even though she didn't want to do so.  As it turned out, she had an unusual connection that particular criminal, a connection that explained their psychic link.

And in Smallville's "Hourglass," an old blind woman named, appropriately, Cassandra (Jackie Burroughs) could see into the futures of Clark Kent (Tom Welling) and Lex Luthor (Michael Rosenbaum).  What she envisioned in Lex's future was a terrifying and apocalyptic vision.

The greatest blind character in cult-tv history, however, is likely Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), chief engineer aboard the Enterprise-D in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994).  

Equipped with his famous VISOR, the blind Geordi could not only see, he could see "more" than so-called normal human beings.  But -- as Geordi reckoned on at least one occasion -- "more" didn't necessarily mean "better."   When affected by the virus in "The Naked Now," Geordi longed for normal, flawed human vision in a tender moment with Tasha Yar (Denise Crosby).  But when he had the opportunity to see his visor exchanged for normal vision in "Hide and Q," Geordi chose to remain blind. 

Geordi was surely a representative of Gene Roddenberry's Utopian vision for "Technology Unchained," a human showcase revealing how high-tech devices could make man's existence much better, -- even a virtual paradise -- down to repairing or minimizing physical handicaps.  The great thing about Geordi was that he was ever much more than his blindness or handicap, and the Enterprise crew never saw him as less than an equal. Most TNG episodes didn't involve Geordi's blindness to any significant degree at all, but instead involved the essence of his human character, such as his discomfort around women ("Booby Trap.")

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Blind

Identified by Will: Miss Menlo (Joan Crawford) in Night Gallery's "Eyes."

Identfied by Hugh: Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in Star Trek: "Operation: Annihilate."

Identified by Hugh: Dr. Bruce Banner (Bill Bixby) in The Incredible Hulk: "Blind Rage."

Identified by Hugh: Wilma Deering (Erin Gray) in Buck Rogers: "The Guardians."

Identified by Hugh: Geordi La Forge (Levar Burton) in Star Trek: TNG: "Hide & Q."



Identified by Hugh: Superman (Dean Cain) in Lois & Clark: "The Eyes Have It."



Identified by Randal Graves: Marty (Lily Taylor) in The X-Files: "Mind's Eye."

Identified by Randal Graves: Jennifer Badger as Vanessa Brewer in Angel: "Blind Date."

Identified by Chris G: Cassandra Carver (Jackie Burroughs) in Smallville: "Hourglass."

Television and Cinema Verities # 13

"I wanted a sense of a timeless, slightly decaying creature that, maybe, only has a limited life cycle of, maybe, four days like an insect.  The alien life form lived to reproduce, and in reproducing took on the characteristics of its last inhabitant and its new host...When Ripley blasts off from the Nostromo with the alien aboard, it's dying, which is why it moves so slowly  She kills it, but it would have died soon anyway.  It's like a butterfly."

- Director Ridley Scott discusses his concept of the titular "monster" in Alien (1979). Interview by James Delson, Fantastic Films # 12, November 1979, page 30.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Cult-TV Blogging: Otherworld: "The Zone Troopers Build Men" (February 5, 1985)

In the second episode of the short-lived 1985 cult series Otherworld, “The Zone Troopers Build Men,” young Trace Sterling (Tony O’Dell) is conscripted into the Zone Troopers, and sent off to basic training.  

His worried parents attempt to rescue him from a life-time of involuntary service, but Trace realizes something important about himself at the 13-week boot camp: the training he receives is valuable.  It changes him.

As the episode opens, Trace is failing at his new school in a small, out-of-the-way agricultural community.  He just can’t get very excited about a high-school exam concerning…corn.  Trace’s low grades result in a “yellow warning,” meaning that the Zone Troopers are free to break into the Sterling house and take away Trace in the thick of night.  

As Mr. Sterling insightfully notes “this culture is not as permissive regarding teens as 1980s America.”


Soon, the sheltered Trace is undergoing rigorous training at the draconian hands (and torch…) of merciless Perel Sightings (Mark Lenard), the equivalent of a drill-sergeant.  But where this new Z.I.T. (Zone Trooper in Training) differs philosophically from his mentor is in weighing the importance of compassion and loyalty.  Perel sees such  qualities as weaknesses, but Trace knows they are strengths.   

On graduation day, Trace demonstrates his compassion – and independence from the Zone Troopers – by refusing to destroy several rebel encampments from the cockpit of his “vampire” air-craft.  He betrays Sightings, but Sightings allows Trace to escape, having learned, perhaps, to respect the young man.

In short, I’ve always considered “The Zone Troopers Build Men” to be one of Otherworld’s finest hours, in part because of the strong presence of Star Trek's Mark Lenard in a significant role, but also because it offers a rather three-dimensional examination of the so-called military mentality.  

Military service is about being part of a hierarchy and following orders, but too often people forget true service is also about becoming a fully-realized, capable individual…one who knows when orders are wrong, and will do something about that fact.  

Trace clearly benefits from the skills he learns in the Zone Troopers, but that fact doesn’t change the truth that the organization – no matter its revered “Hall of Heroes” – takes its marching orders from a corrupt and cruel state.  Trace is able to separate the commendable ethos of the Zone Troopers ("proficiency, pride and prowess") from the unfit command structure that deploys it.

This is undeniably Trace’s best episode in the series because the young man takes responsibility for his actions (and failures in school) and emerges “with a deeper understanding” of what it means to commit to something.  "The Zone Troopers Build Men" is about Trace finally growing up, and about Hal's recognition of that fact about his son.  

Written by Coleman Luck and directed by Richard Compton, “The Zone Troopers Builds Men” also does a fine job of reminding viewers that “this is not the United States.  They don’t look at things the way we do,” as Hal Sterling comments.  

In other words, there is still enough alien about this world to distinguish it from home.  Like holographic tests in high school, and computerized lockers that “talk” to student.  Or a "combat" robot that nearly offs Trace (but which looks kind of ridiculous, and must be hidden with some manipulation of color in the frame.)

All that established, the budget is clearly stressed here.  The Zone Troopers drive contemporary mini-vans, and the vampire aircraft – designed for “psycho terror” campaigns – are clearly pretty flimsy little gliders.  You'd think this army would be better equipped.

On the creepy and oddball side, this episode features a wonderful and bizarre interlude in which Trace is led through a Zone Trooper museum, and there are all of these weird, totally-unexplained wax figures -- heroes of the Unification Wars -- displayed there.  

You get the feeling the creators of the series had some interesting history in mind there, and I love when Otherworld heads off on these unexplored weird tangents.

Next week: “Paradise Lost.”