One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
reader, “jf,” asks me: what TV series are
not yet available in full on DVD that you’d like to see released?
a good question, and here’s a partial list, off the top of my head.
anyone sees a title I’ve missed below, go ahead and add it in the
are actually a lot of cult tv programs still unavailable commercially, even
though we’ve had a renaissance of great “obscure television” releases lately (Ghost
Story, Logan’s Run, and Starman among them).
The Green Hornet
The New People
One Step Beyond
(Seasons Two and Three)
It’s About Time
Journey to the
Center of the Earth
Fantastic Voyage (Filmation; 1968)
Salvage 1 Phoenix Five
The Immortal (Christopher George, not Lorenzo
The Sixth Sense (some episodes available on
Amazon.com streaming under title Night Gallery)
Tales of the Unexpected
(one episode available on VHS under title Force of Evil)
Super Train (pilot episode available on VHS
The Evil Touch
Electra Woman and
Freddy’s Nightmares (a few episodes available on
VHS, and on Region 2 DVD).
“The Drought,” the Ark II goes in search of a time capsule containing a
pre-apocalypse “cloud seeder” to help
avert a deadly drought in the nearby desert.
During the mission, Samuel programs the Ark II to run on voice
control. This proves a poor selection
when the crew’s old nemesis, the scoundrel Fagon (Jonathan Harris) stages a
trap for Jonah and steals the vehicle.
turns out that Fagon and his gang of young “Flies” want the cloud seeder as
well, and now, with Ark II, have the means to get it. Unfortunately, Adam, Samuel and Ruth are all
captured in the village of the time capsule by a primitive witch doctor who
believes that the Rain God is angry with them.
He orders them to be sacrificed in “The
Cave of No Return.”
young Flies want to help the kindly crew members, but Fagon refuses to join
them. Meanwhile, Jonah attempts to
convince Fagon to give up possession of the high tech vehicle because “you can have everything in the world, but
without anyone to share it with, you have nothing.”
helps to free the trapped crew members and show the witch-doctor the error of his
ignorant ways. The Ark II continues on its mission, and this time, Samuel
programs the vehicle to respond only to the voice commands of the vehicle’s
Harris guest stars here as the Ark II equivalent of Harry Mudd,
a selfish, roguish man who proves a constant foil for the good-intentioned Ark
II team. What remains a little baffling
about this episode is that Jonah and the others allow Fagon to attain a
position of authority in the witch doctor’s community. He promises to teach the villagers “irrigation”
methods, but this is a variation of what he promised in “The Flies.” There, he assured Jonah he would educate the
wayward youngsters, but we see in this episode that he did no such thing.
why would Jonah trust him again now?
an old saying: Fool me once, shame on
you. Fool me twice, shame on me. There’s every reason to suspect that Fagon
will remain just as foolish and selfish in the future as he has been in the
past. This is hardly “mission
accomplished” and the unsatisfactory conclusion of “The Drought” only points
out again the kind of amorphous missions that the Ark II conducts. The crew’s goals and rules are not always clear
or carefully established. Accordingly, it
hardly seems like good procedure to leave the untrustworthy Fagon in charge of
an important project.
terms of Ark II technology, this episode introduces the “magnetic force
beam” – a kind of tractor beam – that Fagon utilizes in order to steal the
cloud seeder. He gains the knowledge by
using the Ark II’s technical manual…which looks a lot like a script book.
week, we started enunciating some of the themes that form the bedrock
foundation of the “Savage Cinema” as I’ve been calling the sub-genre. In short, what we found -- with several helpful and insightful reader
comments along the way -- is a thesis that suggests a meditation on violence itself stands at the crux of this form.
isn’t so much that violence is featured on-screen, but that the application of
said violence is the core issue of a savage film’s philosophical argument or debate.
When people descend to violence in these films, there’s often something lost or
re-considered in the fall, as we detected in Deliverance (1972).
other words, there’s usually some didactic
or pro-social purpose for the extreme, taboo-violating violence in the Savage
we continue our study of the Savage Cinema with Sam Peckinpah’s incendiary 1971
Dogs, a brutal, edgy work of art that the late film critic Pauline Kael
once termed “fascist.” The film remains overtly
controversial today -- even more so than
the recent remake -- for its depiction of rape, traditional sex roles, the mob
mentality, and character components that stereotypically imply manhood.
last third of the film is a brutal, sustained, sharply-edited siege on a rural
cottage. In general, the siege (Night of the Living Dead  Assault
on Precinct 13 ) is one of my all-time favorite horror movie
scenarios, and here the siege pits a drunken mob of bullies and rapists against
an analytical, geeky mathematician.
Guess who wins: brute strength or relentless smarts?
central character dynamic and the final, unimpeachable action sequence represent
two reasons I cherish Straw Dogs. I also appreciate the film’s carefully
constructed but oft misunderstood stance on violence.
I see it, Straw Dogs concerns the idea that fighting for a belief is sometimes
necessary…but never pretty or easy.
Violence doesn’t make for “heroes,” but rather affirms the necessity of
civilization and laws in the first place.
have an answer, or I'll have blood!
David Sumner (Hoffman) and his wife Amy (George) rent a cottage in a remote English village where she was raised.There, David works on a grant to study “possible structures” inside
When the greenhouse roof
needs fixing, David hires Charlie Venner (Del Henney), Amy’s old boyfriend, to
do the work…along with a rowdy group of locals.
While Charlie and his
boys work at a snail’s pace on the roof repairs, they also gawk at Amy, and try
to run David off a country road. Then,
the family cat turns up hanged in the master bedroom closet, and Amy begs David
to confront the men.
analytical and calculating mind, David is slow to point fingers or hurl
accusations. Instead, he continues to
collate data, and ingratiates himself with Charlie and the men. Amy thinks David is a coward pure and simple,
and comes to despise him.
When David goes out on
a hunting trip with Charlie’s boys, Charlie sneaks back to the cottage and
rapes Amy. She protests his sexual aggression, but her protests turn to terror
when the other men also show up, and want in on the action. David arrives home, but Amy doesn’t tell him
Soon after the gang rape,
Henry Niles (David Warner) – a local simpleton
– accidentally murders a girl named Janice (Sally Thomsett). When David accidentally hits Henry with his
car, he brings the injured man back to the cottage and tends to his wounds.
But before long a lynch
mob led by Charlie Venner shows up at David’s door, demanding he hand Niles
Realizing that they
intend to kill him, David decides to protect his home…over Amy’s objections.
“I don't know my way home.”
Dogs, Pauline Kael wrote: “The
subject of Straw Dogs is
machismo. It has been the obsession
behind most of Peckinpah’s films; now it is out in the open…The setting, music,
and the people are deliberately disquieting…the goal of the movie is to
demonstrate that David enjoys the killing, and achieves his manhood in that
self-recognition.” (New Yorker,
January 29, 1972, pages 80–85).
suggest this is a faulty reading of the film. Late in Straw Dogs, there are two
instances wherein it is established visually -- and rather definitively -- that David is sickened by violence.
the first instance, he is out hunting, and shoots a bird. After he pulls the trigger, the bird falls
from the sky, and we see David’s saddened reaction as he approaches the animal. He’s clearly sickened by what he’s done.
the second scene, David battles the diabolical Ratman in his house. David beats
him with a fireplace poker, and when the act is done, he looks as though he
wants to vomit. Again, David doesn’t
David’s manhood is actually asserted in another way, as I hope this review will
the movie for Film Quarterly, William
Johnson suggested another interpretation of Straw Dogs: “On the one hand, he does not equate violence
with heroism…On the other hand Peckinpah does not equate violence with villainy
by implying that it could and should have been avoided. Peckinpah is not concerned with putting
labels of right or wrong on the violent actions and reactions in the film. Here, as in his earlier films, he is focusing
on the tension between the individual and the disintegrating forces of society.”
(Film Quarterly, 1972, pages 61–64).
“The disintegrating forces of society” is
one elegant way of describing the failure of law enforcement, organized
religion, parents, and other societal elements to raise men of decency and
compassion, and to protect the common good. In the film, the constable, the bartender, the
local reverend and other forces continually fail to “check” the mob as it grows
ever more unruly. As a consequence, many
of the locals live in a constant state of fear and anxiety.
finally acts violently because an angry mob comes to his door and will not leave
unless he accepts the mob’s dominance. Mob rule is little better than the law of the
jungle, and David has the intellect to understand that fact. So he does something
Dogs is a
film I’ve watched several times, and each time I come away from a viewing with
the sense that two distinct brands of violence are practiced in the film.
kind of violence is invasive and selfish.
It involves burglary, rape, home invasion, and attempted murder. These crimes are broached out of aggression,
anger and the desire to take something, to steal something of value.
up in this violence are feelings such as fear, jealousy, rage, inferiority and
the need for control. The men in the village
fear “the other,” and that’s how they see David. He is merely “the American” and they “take
care of their own,” as they say.
Charlie and the mob thus believe David has “no business” interfering in their brand of justice, and no business
marrying Amy, either.
second brand of violence featured in the film is quite different. It is the violence that a desperate man
resorts to not out of self-defense, but out of the recognition that if he is to
remain civilized – that is, to live in a
civilized society – it is up to him to defend the weak from an angry mob.
in David’s use of violence is the all-important quality of empathy. He realizes that since he hurt Henry (in a car
accident), he has a responsibility and duty to take care of him until he can
get him to a hospital.
in a very real way, Straw Dogs isn’t about a man’s breaking point as the tag-line
for the remake suggests; but rather about a man’s personal rallying point: that individual place where he realizes he’s not
immune or separate from a world of violence, but will certainly be complicit in
it if he doesn’t stand up to defend himself, his home, and his ward.
should probably add, lest I be said to incite violence myself, that Straw
Dogs doesn’t concern abstract concepts such as ideological tyranny or
freedom in the face of a Supreme Court decision you happen to disagree
with. It’s not about standing your
ground when you think, maybe, perhaps, you could possibly be in danger. The film isn’t a justification of violence in
it’s about the idea that if a mob shows up at your door to kill someone, you
have the right and responsibility as a civilized person to prevent that act.
where Ed in Deliverance could not live with the violence he saw on the
river, David Sumner in Straw Dogs reaches a new summit of
understanding about himself. He learns
he has the capacity to commit to
something. This is important self-knowledge. He left America during the Civil Rights
Movement and the Vietnam War because he did not want to commit to a fight. Here, he a fight comes to him, and he commits
self-discovery is less self-affirming.
She finds that her family/town-of-origin issues are deeper than she
imagined, and that though she has adopted the forms and symbols of the
counter-culture (going bra-less, for instance), she has not been able to
actually change her parochial mind-set or belief system.
push comes to shove, she falls back in
with the herd she once sought to escape.
When she feels endangered, Amy turns to a physically-strong man, Charlie,
rather than intellectually-strong man, her own husband, for protection. She stills buy into the myth that to be a man
is to be a bully, a physically-aggressive, violent bully. Amy can’t escape the
beliefs she grew up with, even though she fancies herself “liberated” and “modern.”
Dogs makes a case that David – despite
all of his character flaws – is superior to Amy because, for all his flaws,
he finally demonstrates the aforementioned quality of empathy. When David takes
care of Niles, the village idiot, he notes that the locals must be worried
about the missing Janice. “I know how I’d feel if I had a daughter
missing,” he says with a sense of mercy and fairness. But it is also important to him that Niles –
a simpleton – is not murdered in a fit of drunken mob violence.
David tells Amy that the mob
will “beat” Niles to death, and her response is “I don’t care,” which reveals that Amy is the real coward here, not
David. His response is that he “does care” and that he is not going to
hand over someone to be killed. .
“This is where I live,” he tells Amy. “This is
me. I will not allow violence against
this house.” Here, the conscientious
objector to the Vietnam War finds a cause for personal courage, a cause that
matters to him.
The question in terms of Straw
Dogs and violence is: does the film advocate murder? Does it advocate revenge and violence? My answer is that it does not. At the
end of the film, David declares – with a crooked grin – that he doesn’t know
his “way home.”
This is the case not because
he has been violent; but because he’s achieved self-knowledge that has changed
everything. Until he committed to a
cause, he lived by the precept that he couldn’t commit to a cause. His new self-awareness changes that.
If one can look past the
violence in the film, Straw Dogs can be seen as a battle
in which civilization beats back brutality, and in which intelligence beats
back animal behavior. Finally, for David Sumner, “there’s nowhere else to hide,” and so he
must reckon with himself.His
self-discovery comes through committing to a cause, however, not through
when we think of horror films or horror TV programs, we think of the terrifying
imagery first. And yet, over the years,
some popular music has become virtually inseparable from the horror genre
widely-remembered songs have come – for many
of us -- to be synonymous with their memorable horror associations. Therefore, when you hear these compositions on
the radio as you’re driving to work, you don’t think “that’s my favorite song!” Instead, you think “uh oh, here comes trouble.”
further prologue, here are five pop culture tunes that, if they appear in a
horror flick, portend lot of trouble.
turn up the volume, sure. But check
those mirrors, watch that traffic, and steer clear of any Plymouth 1957 Fury…
1. “The Hokey Pokey.”
This weirdly catchy and child-like dance song boasts a strange history. Some trace the composition back to London in
the 1940s, during wartime. But other
scholars have suggested it actually arises from a song written by sisters in
Bridgewater, New Hampshire, in 1857.
are even some who assert “The Hokey Pokey” goes back to the 17th
story and suggest that the titular term “Hokey
Pokey” refers, in fact, to the magic words “hocus pocus,” thus branding the song with a kind of hidden horror
context to begin with.
the horror genre,” The Hokey Pokey” has been conjured up in at least two
important settings. In Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch
(1998) -- a remake of the Danish film Nattevagten (1994) -- the monstrous
serial killer plays the “The Hokey Pokey” at all of his bloody crime scenes.
terms more relevant to the “hocus pocus” incantation, “The Hokey Pokey” also
appears in the fifth season episode of The X-Files by Stephen King, titled “Chinga.” That episode is set in the northeast (though
in Maine, not New Hampshire) and involves a malevolent doll given life by
ancient witchcraft. “The Hokey Pokey” is
that doll’s theme song of sorts…always playing when the doll is about to
2. “Don’t Fear the
1976 Blue Oyster Cult hit from the album Agents
of Fortune, explicitly concerns death, but also a love affair that
transcends mortality and lasts in “eternity,” just like Romeo and Juliet’s. The song played in the background of John
Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a film about a reaper of sorts, The Shape,
and in the 2007 remake by Rob Zombie.
tragic love affair angle of the song came to the forefront in the ballad-styled
rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” that played over a scene between Sidney
Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) in Wes Craven’s Scream
(1996). The same year, “Don’t Fear the
Reaper” closed the Peter Jackson film The Frighteners, a film about a
ghostly reaper figure.
television, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” appeared in the mini-series adaptation of The
Stand (1994) starring Molly Ringwald, and in episodes of Smallville (“Precipice”
in 2003) and Supernatural (“Faith” in 2006).
recently, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was resurrected for Zombieland (2009).
3. “Mr. Sandman.” This song by Pat Bullard and The
Chordettes first premiered in 1954, but has since become something of a horror
movie and television standard.
there’s a connection in the song to horror to begin with. The Sandman is a mythological figure who can
bring good dreams by sprinkling magical sand into the eyes of slumbering
kids. This kindly spirit, featured in
Hans Christian Anderson’s Ole Lukoje, was inverted and made
malevolent in Der Sandmann (1816), a short story by E.T.A Hoffman. There, the Sandman would collect the eyes of
children who refused to settle down for a good night’s sleep.
horror movies, “Mr. Sandman” became the unofficial love song between Laurie
Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and The Shape, Michael Myers. The connection began when the song appeared
in the first sequel Halloween II (1981), but the song was reprised – briefly – in Halloween:
H20 (1998). “Mr. Sandman” works
so well with the Halloween saga because many film critics have speculated that
the monstrous Michael is actually a projection of Laurie’s sexually-repressed
id. So therefore, Sandman does bring
Laurie a dream…a rather horrible one, in the form of Michael.
television, “Mr. Sandman” has appeared on the incredibly awesome adaptation of Ghostbusters
called The Real Ghostbusters (1985).
My five-year oldson is watching this series right now, and in one first
season episode, “Mr. Sandman, Dream me a Dream,” the song plays alongside a
manifestation of the mythological monster.
Sandman” is also reprised in the TV series version of Stephen King’s The
Dead Zone in “Wheel of Fortune,” and once in the supernatural series Charmed
(1998 – 2006).
Creepers.” Like the other songs featured on this list, even
the title of this composition -- which includes the word “Creepers” -- sounds
Creepers” was written by Harry Warren with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, in the year
1938. In 2001, Victor Salva created a
terrifying horror franchise around the tune with the film, Jeepers Creepers, which involved a monstrous demon, “The Creeper,” devouring
the organs of various unlucky victims.
One unlucky victim, Derry, had his eyes eaten and then assimilated by
the Creeper, which fit in perfectly with the lyric “where’d you get those eyes?”
song recurred in Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003), and was also heard briefly in the
time travel episode of The X-Files: “Triangle,” in 1998.
5. “Bad to the Bone.”
This tune by George Thorogood and the Destroyers will live forever (just
like rock and roll) in my memory as the tune which introduced the killer car in
King’s Christine (1983).
that film’s prologue, audiences witnessed the birth of malicious Christine – a Plymouth Fury – on a factory
assembly line. In short order, this car
-- born bad to the bone – claimed its first hapless victim.
recently, “Bad to the Bone” introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg from the
future in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Here the use of the song was more comical
than creepy, though in 1991 we still associated the Schwarzenegger character
with the villain in the previous outing.
to the Bone” also appeared in the 1983 horror film Slayground, for those who
there are at least two runner-ups on this list that deserve a mention too.
first is John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” which is the theme song of Death
Himself in Final Destination (2000) and reprised in Final Destination 2
(2003). Released in 1972, the creepy aspect
of the song is the real life context: Denver had died in a plane crash in 1997,
Destination’s narrative revolved, likewise, around a plane crash. To this day, I won’t get anywhere near a
plane if I hear this Denver song…
then there’s “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” a tune from a 1957 album by Johnny
Mathis. This tune was revived with
incredibly creepy results for gory The X-Files fourth season episode “Home.” There, the song became the creepy theme for
the inbred Peacocks, and was a harbinger for their presence.
hear that song – like so many others in
this list – and you don’t second guess.
You run like Hell!
“First of all, thank you for the thoughtful analysis and engaging
writing you consistently provide on your blog.
I’ve been following your blog for a couple years now and you have
effectively changed the way I watch movies: I no longer passively watch them,
but actively engage with them as I try to figure out the underlying themes
communicated by the form and style.
I’m excited about the new ‘Ask JKM a
Question feature’ as I’ve had a question bouncing around in my head for a
while. I was born in the eighties and so
90s television has great nostalgic value for me.
Oddly enough, my favorite show of the 90s was
Nowhere Man. I’ve picked up the show on DVD and still
enjoy many of the episodes there.
However it was canceled after only one season, and seems to have been
largely ignored. What is your assessment
of the show? I’m curious to see if I’m
blindsided by nostalgia here.”
Adam, I want to thank you
for your comments about my blog and my writing.
They really made my day. It’s always good to read that others are
enjoying and appreciating one’s work.
Man (1995 – 1996), I remember that TV series fondly, though I have not
seen an episode in over a decade. It
starred the always-great Bruce Greenwood as photographer Thomas Veil, and Nowhere Man aired on UPN Monday nights at 9:00, right after Star Trek: Voyager during
that program’s first season, if memory serves.
Created and developed by
Lawrence Hertzog, Nowhere Man ran for twenty-five hour long episodes and was a
paranoiac’s dream. As I recall the
set-up, Veil’s life was “erased” in the premiere episode (“Absolute Zero”) by a
shadowy conspiracy because he publicly revealed a top-secret photograph called
“Hidden Agenda.” Even Veil’s wife,
Alyson, (played by Millennium’s Megan Gallagher) claimed not to know him.
Essentially, the poor man was cast adrift in
the world, and the only clue he had regarding his total erasure was the negative of
that important photo. But Thomas soon found out
he was up against the sinister cabal known as “The Organization.”
I remember, at the time,
appreciating Nowhere Man’s oblique connections to another favorite paranoia
trip, The Prisoner (1967). There,
the prisoner, Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), was trapped in that bizarre European "village" for
spies and ex-spies; but here Veil (as in lifting the veil...) found himself in an
information age trap where the prison was the global village itself. Also, Nowhere Man featured some elements
of “man on the run” programs such as The Fugitive, or perhaps more aptly, The
Immortal (1970 – 1971).
I also recall that the episodes
were mostly very-well done and anxiety-provoking thanks to accomplished directors such as
Tobe Hooper (“Turnabout,” “the Incredible Derek) and Thomas J. Wright (“Paradise
on Your Doorstep,” The Spider Webb.”) I
also seem to remember that the final episode (“Gemini”) resolved Thomas’s crisis
in a completely surprising and unexpected fashion.
Roger Fulton and John
Betancourt described Nowhere Man as “a passionate defense of the individual in the face of overwhelming
odds,” (The Sci-Fi Channel
Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction; Warner Books, New York, 1997, page
304), and that astute observation squares with my memory.
In terms of context, Nowhere
Man arises out of that amazing time when network television kept attempting to
ape the success of The X-Files (aliens + conspiracies + monsters). What remains so cool about this span in TV history is that many shows
inspired by the success of Chris Carter’s X-Files were actually quite good in their own right, in part because they focused narrowly on just one element of the X-Files equation. I admired Dark Skies (1996), Prey
(1998), Nowhere Man (1995) and Strange World (1999), and was
intrigued by Sleepwalkers (1997).
Probably the worst of the bunch was The Burning Zone (1997), the UPN “disease
of the week” series that replaced Nowhere Man.
The truth is, Adam, I’d love
to watch Nowhere Man in its entirety again. I was not aware that the series had been
released on DVD. Apparently I missed it,
and the set came out in 2006. Now it is
out of print. One way or another, I’ll get my hands on the
series, and write up a cult-tv flashback about it.
Because I haven’t seen the
series in so many years, I don’t feel I can adequately or accurately answer
your question about whether nostalgia is clouding your critical judgment. I
really liked the series a great deal back in 1995. I also remember that the reviews were mostly very
So, if you’re suffering from
nostalgia about the series, I’d say I’m likely infected with the same malady because
all my memories are good.
I hope I’ll get you a better
answer soon. (I’ll start haunting E-Bay
for the series on DVD…) because, frankly, I’d love to watch it from start to
finish all over again.
I've featured other 1970s Mego playsets here on the blog (from Flash Gordon,Planet of the Apes and The Wizard of Oz to name a few...), but this Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise "Action Playset" was the toy of choice for a generation of Trekkie kids.
This mock-up of the U.S.S. Enterprise interior (bridge and transporter room) was a "giant, 24" long command center," "with captain's chair, console, two stools" plus six interchangeable "viewscreen scenes." The set comfortably housed all the Mego Star Trek figures of the era, and, while not very show accurate in terms of design, was nonetheless a great home base for any Starfleet crew.
The coolest aspect of this famous Mego toy, no doubt, is the spinning transporter chamber. You could place a landing party team member inside the chamber, spin a blue wheel, and then hit a red button to beam him down (to the outside of the playset.... Another spin and a touch of the green button would bring him back aboard. Meanwhile, the yellow zig-zag/checkerboard details made it appear as if the crewman's atoms were actually spinning madly about.
It sounds incredibly simple, but this toy feature is really captivating. My son Joel is not yet a devoted Star Trek fan, but he loves to play with the transporter chamber on this Mego collectible.
I remember lots of good times playing with this particular toy as a boy. I still have my original playset, which also features a handle and the capacity to fold up for mobile play. My old one is all ripped up, however, so last year for Christmas I purchased this "repro" of the playset from Diamond Select. All my photos here are of that re-do of the classic toy.
I must have cherished this Mego playset as my favorite of all toys...until in 1976 Mattel released the three-foot long Eagle Transporter toy from Space: 1999, perhaps my favorite collectible ever.
Below, you can check out a 1975 commercial for the Mego U.S.S. Enterprise action playset, featuring the transporter and other features in all their glory...
seen the 70's childrens British television showTimeslip?(If not, I think you probably would like
it, as you like a lot of 60's/70's TV Science Fiction.)"
Chris, I have read
about -- but had not watched -- Timeslip.
For those who may not be familiar with the
series, Timeslip aired in Britain on ITV in 1970 and 1971.
Created by James and Ruth Boswell, the
program involved two children, Simon and Cheryl, who discovered a phenomenon -- an anomaly -- that
permits them to travel through time, to alternate futures and pasts. The series consisted of four multi-part
Given the positive critical reception -- the
series achieved “top 50” status on both SFX and Dreamwatch lists of best
all-time sci-fi series -- Timeslip
sounds like a provocative program that one indeed right up my
alley, as you say, since I love and cherish 1970s British sci-fi TV (UFO
 Space: 1999 [1975-1977], Survivors , Blake's
7 [1978 - 1981], and Sapphire and Steel [1978 – 1981] to
name a few).
Because you asked about it, I’ll watch the
series soon, and either blog the whole thing, or write up a flashback on the topic.
Thanks for the question, Christopher, and
I hope you’ll stick around to read what I think of the show. I'm looking forward to watching it, and the DVDs are already on the way...
This morning, I’m
commencing a new-style post that will be informed and shaped by you, the stalwart and thoughtful readers of this blog.
“Ask JKM a Question” will allow you to
decide -- at least some -- the content
and shape of our online movie or TV conversation week-to-week, so I hope you’ll
you feel inclined or interested, e-mail me a question at my business e-mail, Muirbusiness@yahoo.com, and let me
know in your correspondence if I can use your real name in the posted response. Title your question “Ask JKM a Question” and
then fire it off. I would prefer you use
a real name in the post, and I reserve the right not to post anonymous questions
if they are out-of-line.
much any topic is fair game. Ask me
about a review I wrote, a movie, a TV show, my books, writing, publishing, The House Between, or collecting. It’s your ball.
I'll start us off today with an e-mail question I actually received
This particular reader sent me an e-mail that said -- now paraphrased to omit overt snark -- “Given the widespread critical condemnation
and hatred for Star Wars Episode I, why don't you hate it?"
then: The Phantom Menace (1999). It's not a favorite film, or anything like that. But it's true, I did write it a positive review in my Star Wars blogging series way back in 2005.
is the quality I appreciate most about the film, and which I believe makes it a better -- or at least far more intriguing -- effort than some fans suggest:
The film's Art Direction
and Production Design tell the story. They convey the meaning behind The Phantom Menace in visual terms. Thus, style and form reflect thematic
is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it is actually a film about
life here on Earth in the early twentieth century, particularly the so-called “Inter-Bellum”
or “Inter-War” period between 1918 and 1939.
was a gilded age of Art-Deco-styled architecture and design, and apparent peace and
prosperity in America. Yet if you remember from history what came next, economic ruin was on the
horizon, racism still thrived, and the “phantom menace” of Fascism and tyranny
lurked in the shadows.
carefully-crafted, beautifully-rendered imagery, The Phantom Menace
recreates this very age, but on other planets, and in another time. We’re all familiar with the lived-in look of Star Wars (1977) where
the universe is kind of…junked. But by
important contrast, The Phantom Menace is set at the apex of the Galactic Republic, an epoch of riches and wonders, a span when even the finned, chrome spaceships
reflect the glory of an advanced civilization at its pinnacle.
yet, of course, it is not a perfect Republic, is it? Slavery still thrives in far corners of the
galaxy, and even the noble Jedi Knights turn a blind eye towards this corrupt
institution. And on the rise is wily Senator
Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a man who will deceive the unsuspected advanced society
to achieve a completely despotic, totalitarian state.
short, The Phantom Menace’s story is a perfect metaphor for the
lead-up to World War II and the global fight against fascism in Europe. Accordingly, the rich imagery in the film
explicitly recalls this battle of civilizations. Consider
just for a moment the scenes set on the planet Naboo, a kind of quasi-European state in another solar system.
least twice in the film, we spy a building in the capital city of Naboo that resembles the Arc De Triomphe (or Arc of Triumph) in France. In 1940, Nazi troops invaded Paris, and
marched the pavement of the Champs-Elysees as a sign of strength and domination. In 1944, the Allies liberated the nation from
Hitler’s troops, and on this occasion there was a parade of victory and freedom at the
Arc de Triomphe.
features two similar moments at an Arc-like structure, once at the commencement of the Droid Army/Trade
Federation occupation and then again after their expulsion, during a celebration or parade. If you gaze closely at the
imagery, it’s impossible to deny the significance of these visual allusions or comparisons.
Naboo represents a foreign nation endangered by the outer space equivalent of
an Axis power, then Coruscant clearly represents New York
City of the same age...a popping hub of culture, diversity, and freedom. As you may recall, Coruscant is a
planet-wide metropolis, a city beyond all others. This urban city-scape stretches to the
horizon, and nearly right to the cusp of space itself. In appearance and style, Coruscant conforms
perfectly to the Italian architectural style of “Futurism” popular during the 1930s. In fact, the Futuristic aesthetic -- an always-growing city upon a city upon a
city – was in some corners considered a coded critique of Fascism, and that’s
an idea visually reflected by the depiction of the Republic’s capital.
yet, by the same token, Futurism is seen as stylistically compatible with Art
Deco, a school of design often considered “purely decorative." It therefore
represents the art of a people very satisfied with the social status quo. The form is important for itself (for aesthetics), not for the social message behind it. This description not only describes Coruscant
aptly, but her satisfied people. They don’t
perceive the “phantom menace” in their midst, nor the threat to their very liberty. They're too busy enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.
this is Lucas’s selected thematic terrain: a metaphor in a galaxy far, far away comparing the last epoch of the Republic to the Inter-Bellum period on Earth.
But then Lucas stretches his comparison a step further and connects that period in Earth
history and in the Star Wars universe to the period in which the film was actually made, the 1990s. The Phantom Menace was released at the end of
the Roaring Nineties, a period of genuine peace and prosperity in the U.S., and a time – we now
know – before the gathering storm of the War on Terror.
Lucas was prophetic in describing how American politics would soon change to face a grave and gathering threat. In Lucas's vision, Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) -- a name which features the same number of letters as Clinton -- would see his
leadership and plans for governance stamped out by pervasive accusations of “scandal” from his political enemies and the enemies of progress. Accordingly, Valorum is impeached by the bureaucratic Senate when a vote of no-confidence is held. That's what happened to Clinton too. We were all focused intently on his scandals, and the very public investigation of those scandals, while overseas, terror grew...
of course -- as I’ve written before -- one important though subordinate villain's name in this film is Nute
Gunray. Nute = Newt (Gingrich), the leader of the Republican opposition during Clinton’s Presidency.
And Gunray = Ray Gun = Reagan. So a villain here is Newt Reagan, essentially. You needn't agree with Lucas’s viewpoint or political slant to acknowledge that such an undercurrent is present. And I'm not arguing that Lucas is either right or wrong in his statement, either. I'm merely noting the existence of the pointed social critique. As further evidence, I note that the social commentary in Phantom Menace as I've spelled it out in this essay is consistent with Anakin’s 2005 Bush-esque declaration inRevenge of the Siththat “Either you’re
with me, or you’re my enemy.”
Regarding the film's other lush visuals, I also wrote in my 2005 review that "The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates. But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler'sBen Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment. And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature."
So why don't I "hate" The Phantom Menace? My most important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding
of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with
pictures. And yet surprisingly few films
these days effectively manage this (I think, necessary) feat; to truly deploy visuals
in a manner that makes pictures convey thematic meaning.
The Phantom Menace succeeds
admirably in this particular aspect of its tapestry. The
images convey important thematic information about the film’s narrative, and
how we should interpret that narrative. In other words, the visuals reinforce the comparison the director wants to make, the point he wishes to transmit.
At the very
least, I believe that George Lucas embarked on a complex and ambitious visual
aesthetic in this first prequel. He makes the images of his
fictional world connect to a time of apparent peace and prosperity (but phantom
danger) in our past, and then makes modern audiences understand that we were at a similar juncture in the 1990s. Were our eyes open to the "Phantom Menace" back then, or were we turned inward, mired in accusations of scandal and corruption? If you consider the decade 2001 - 2010, I think you'll have your answer.
rather unfortunate yang to this yin, however, is also encoded, at least
partially in the films visuals. Many character
designs, voices, and characteristics in The Phantom Menace appear, in fact,
based on racist stereotypes that existed and flourished in the Inter-War period.
the money-grubbing Toydarian with his hook-nose is an amalgamation of the
offensive “money mad” Jewish stereotype.
Trade Federation representatives like the Viceroy speak pigeon English and have
– literally – slants in their
eyes. They thus serve as the embodiment of negative
stereotypes about the Japanese.
finally, the much hated Jar-Jar Binks with his Stepin Fetchit, “Feet-Don’t-Fail-Me-Now”
routine is alarmingly representative of the prevailing caricatures of black men
in the media of the same, between-wars age.
not yet convinced that there’s an entirely worthwhile point in creating a universe in
which characters apparently conform to offensive stereotypes from
the Inter-War period. While it’s true
that these characters also hark back explicitly to that specific period on Earth and thus sub-textually remind viewers of that time,
I’m not certain that’s a strong enough motivation to revive racist
imagery. In this case, it's possible that Lucas overreached, or that his artistic conceit flat out failed.
would very much prefer to believe that Lucas’s depiction of such “ethnic” characters in The Phantom Menace points out, again, that The Galactic Republic is not really the Utopian
paradise of equality that many believe it is.
Not only is slavery present in some corners, but certain “pathetic” life forms (to
quote Obi-Wan directly) are looked down up, explicitly…even by the Jedi. Perhaps this is the reason the Republic
falls. There’s some level of hypocrisy
and arrogance there. Also, at least in terms of Jar-Jar and the Gungans, there seems to be a positive message underneath the racist-seeming stereotypes. The Gungans are derided as primitive goofballs by everyone until they mount an army that saves Naboo from tyranny. In this case, the pre-existing prejudice is proven wrong. I wish I had a pro-social explanation for the role that Watto or the Viceroy play in the proceedings.
Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the film I hoped it would be, on the
eve of its release? Not exactly. The film is poorly paced, and Jar-Jar's biggest problem is not that he's an annoying boob, but rather that the CGI artists who created him feel, for some reason, that they must show off, making him catapult and dive like a cartoon superhero when he should move a lot more...subtly. Were he bound more directly to forces such as gravity, he might have seemed more acceptable. And yes, some of the film's dialogue is incredibly wooden. On the plus side, I'd argue that the final light saber duel against Darth Maul is the greatest and most impressive such battle in the franchise, and that Liam Neeson projects enormous dignity and grace throughout the film as Qui-Gon Jinn. Overall, I'd say he's the most likable Jedi Knight in the saga.
From the vantage point of a dozen years later, there is ample opportunity to gaze at the film again now, only without all the original expectations and pre-conceived notions that once surrounded it. There's the chance to consider what the film does well, in addition to those many things it admittedly does poorly. Given that rubric, I can discern, as I hope you might, that –
warts and all – The Phantom Menace possesses more than a modicum of artistic merit. That's why I have no hate in my heart for this prequel. After all, as disappointed fans have proven for a decade, hate only leads to suffering. And we know where suffering leads, right?