Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Robot" (October 2, 1976)

This week on Ark II, Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet (1956) fame guest stars as Alpha 1, or “Alphie,” in “The Robot.” 

Samuel has been working on the construction of this highly-intelligent machine for four months, and he puts the finishing touches on Alphie just as the crew stops lake-side in Sector 9, Area 15 to enjoy a picnic.  Unfortunately, Alphie -- like most young children -- is prone to accidents and clumsiness, and Captain Jonah has a difficult time trusting him.

After Alphie snaps off the knobs of the Ark II’s mapping computer, Jonah orders the machine shut down while the team investigates a strange “sickness” in a nearby village.  Alphie begs not to be de-activated, because he believes he can help resolve the problem.  When Jonah won’t acquiesce, Alphie breaks free of restraints, knocks-out Samuel, and heads out into the wilderness to act on his own.

It turn out that Alphie is right.  As the robot learns from a girl named Nestra, all the villagers are suffering from exposure to a toxic gas, one which turns them into vacant, zombie-like sleep-walkers. Alphie discovers the source of the leak in a nearby crevice, but finally must sacrifice his very life to seal it up and save the humans.

After Alphie’s noble act, Jonah realizes he was wrong to harshly judge the robot.  As Ruth notes at one point, “robots make mistakes…but so do people.”

Along with “The Lottery, “The Robot” is likely one of the best and most enjoyable episodes in the Ark II series catalog.   The writers, Len Janson and Chuck Menville, along with director Ted Post, really bring their best game on. 

There’s a real vibrancy to this installment (at least compared to others), in part because there’s more banter between the characters here than in all the other episodes combined.  They joke, tease, laugh, and show real ease with one another.  Who are these people?

Perhaps even more importantly than the new-found esprit de corps, not everyone is nice all the time in this episode.  Jonah is still the good guy captain, but he reveals impatience and temper with Alphie.  That doesn't make him evil, it makes him human.  

Samuel, meanwhile, displays powerful emotions when he realizes that his creation has died heroically.  These are welcome colors that the characters could have used on other occasions too, so that they wouldn’t always seem so perfect…and cardboard. 

Visually, "The Robot" is well-vetted.  The show opens with some new footage of the Ark II at an idyllic lakeside, for instance.  And Robby himself -- shiny and upgraded for his starring appearance here -- makes a great visual anchor for the proceedings.  It’s entirely possible (with apologies to the late Jonathan Harris…) that Robby is actually the best and most versatile guest star in the Ark II stable.  He gives a command performance hero, and his heroic death is actually pretty touching.

As usual, the weakest part of an Ark II episode involves the obligatory jet jumper, the rocket pack that Jonah wears to conduct reconnaissance in every darn segment.  It was interesting to see the jet jumper in action probably four or five times early on, but now it’s just a momentum breaker.  The jet jumper interludes inevitably slow down the narratives.

Finally, Ruth makes a comment in this episode that obliquely involves one of my curiosities about the show.  I’ve oftened wondered about the organization that built the grand Ark II, and whether the vehicle is the only one of its kind.  In “The Robot,” Ruth notes “It’s the only ark we have,” which, on the surface, seems to suggest the Ark II is indeed a one-of-a-kind.  On the other hand, she may simply be referring to the crew.  It’s the only ark this crew has, in other words.  So we almost get clarity, and then we get robbed of clarity...

Next week: “Omega.”

Friday, July 13, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Friday the 13th (1980)

Happy Friday the 13th!

Surveying the eleven-strong Friday the 13th saga (twelve if you count Freddy vs. Jason…) the weight of several really bad entries in this slasher-styled film cycle is a difficult cross to bear.  This is especially true for the occasionally-inspired franchise entry, such as this sturdy and even visually-accomplished 1980 originator from director Sean S. Cunningham and writer Victor Miller.

There’s no doubt that the original Friday the 13th is an exploitation film designed to capitalize on the success and popularity of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978).  But there’s also little doubt that this first entry in the long-lived series is a much stronger film than most people likely remember, at least in visual and symbolic senses.

Although Friday the 13th doesn’t always succeed, particularly because it overuses the stalker P.O.V. shot, other visual flourishes remain impressive, or at least laudable.  In other words, the exploitation here is -- at the very least -- grounded in some solid craft.  And the narrative details and structure as crafted by Miller are both sturdy and simple, thus permitting director Cunningham to shape the visuals in a unique direction.

Today, I want to shine a light on some of the film's more unique and intriguing visual touches, and point out a few reasons Friday the 13th boasts social and cultural value as a work of pop art, and as a product of its time period.

“We ain’t gonna stand for no weirdness out here.”

A group of camp counselors, led by Steve Christy (Peter Brouwer), prepare for the grand re-opening of Camp Crystal Lake, even over the objections of locals like Crazy Ralph (Walt Gorney).

These objections stem from Camp Crystal Lake’s checkered history.  In 1957, camp counselors failed to pay attention when a young boy, Jason (Ari Lehman) drowned in the lake.  Soon afterwards, two counselors were murdered.  Then, some years later, the water in Crystal Lake inexplicably “went bad,” scuttling an attempt to re-open the camp.

But Steve is committed to the cause, and with the help of a sensitive artist and fellow counselor, Alice (Adrienne King) gathers the troops for the big day of the camp’s re-opening.

In short order, however, the curse of “Camp Blood” resumes as a secret assailant begins killing the camp’s new denizens.  The crisis comes to a head during a powerful thunderstorm, and the murderer is revealed as someone who was very close to young Jason…

“God sent me.  You’re doomed if you stay…”

One quality most people forget about the original Friday the 13th is the film’s strong sense of place.  In particular, Crystal Lake is visualized as an idyllic American town, one filled with abundant pastoral and natural beauty.  Early scenes in the film document this beauty, creating an almost Rockwell-ian vision of the surrounding area (actually Blairstown, New Jersey).

This is Friday the 13th?

And this?

And this?

These visualizations serve a crucial purpose, because Friday the 13th largely concerns innocence lost or destroyed. Two camp counselors, while making love, allow an innocent child to die.  Thus while they sacrifice their (Biblical) innocence, Jason loses his innocence…his very life.  At the same time, Mrs. Voorhees (Betsy Palmer) loses her son and therefore her innocence, along with her mind.

The beauty of the natural environs subtly reinforces the film-long conceit of a Garden of Eden-type setting, but one that is now corrupted.  For example, one short scene relatively early in the film reveals a snake inside one of the counselor’s cabins, a snake in the garden, as it were.  The snake is promptly decapitated by a counselor’s machete, putting an end to the threat and thus restoring order.

Symbolically speaking, that moment is intentionally reiterated in the film’s bloody denouement as our final girl, Alice, lops off the head of a more dangerous snake in the garden – the killer -- also utilizing a machete.  The two images connect meaningfully.

In both cases, we get the idea of natural order overturned by the presence of evil (a serpent, specifically...), and then order is restored, even if the respite is brief.

A snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

And then a second snake in the garden gets decapitated by machete.

The Serpent -- the dangerous and murderous invader in the Garden of Eden -- spends much of the film watching and stalking prey, and thus the film frequently repeats one specific composition.  In particular, the camera takes up a position outside while it gazes inside a building (a cabin or a bath house), through a window-glass.  Outside the window is only darkness since the setting is mostly nighttime. But inside the buildings, the characters are brightly lit and attending blithely to their mundane business, unaware of danger.

I wrote about this intriguing composition some in Horror Films of the 1980s, but it’s a significant element of the film’s tapestry.  It reveals not merely the voyeurism of the killer as she stalks her prey.  It also visually constricts the space of the protagonists within the rectangular frame, literally boxing them inside a series of smaller and smaller boxes.  In the tightest, most claustrophobic of those boxes, our heroes go about their business without realizing their world has become limited and closed off by the (invisible) presence of the slasher nearby.

Tight-framing is a regular and de rigueur feature of horror films, but Friday the 13th goes a step further with its relatively ingenious framing technique. Here, characters blindly walk into bloody death, a fact which we, the audience, can recognize and anticipate, but they cannot.  The result of this near ubiquitous staging is that the film becomes more genuinely suspenseful.   We wait, and wait, wondering when the terror will strike, and how it will strike.

Victim in a box #1

Victim in a box #2

Victim in a box # 3

Victim in a box #4
At the same time that the film "boxes in" its victims, the original Friday the 13th also offers wicked sub-textual commentary on the teenagers’ fates because stenciled and stickered camp legends reading “danger” and the like punctuate the Camp Blood's landscape.   Just as the characters are unaware of how their lives have become limited and finite by the presence of the unseen killer, they similarly take no notice of signage which constantly warns them of a threat.  They literally can't see the forest for the trees.

Well, the sign (on right) does say "DANGER."

Well, the sign (upper right) warns "KEEP OUT."

On a basic level, these visual touches make Friday the 13th more intellectually adroit than your average example of the slasher film.  Although the film wants to ape the energy of Halloween, it clearly boasts its own, frequently clever life force as well.

Where Friday the 13th treads even deeper into sub-text, however, is in the explicit connection between man and nature.  The film’s full-on bloody assault occurs under cover of thunderstorm, pounding rain and lightning.  If you watch every Friday the 13th film, you’ll find that this idea recurs more frequently even than the presence of Jason Voorhees.  The “invader” arrives with natural cover, thus with the implicit help, perhaps, of a force beyond the human world.  Is God on Jason (or Mrs. Voorhee's) side in this battle?

Going back to the Jean Renoir short film A Day in the Country (1936) -- an effort based on a story by Guy de Maupassant -- film has frequently connected human nature with Mother Nature.  The Renoir film depicts the tale of a family that vacations near a beautiful lake.  Two women in the family are seduced by burly farm hands that live nearby, and the romantic assignation culminates in an unexpected thunderstorm. 

Have they affected nature with their wanton acts?  Or contrarily, has nature affected them and thus spawned these very acts?

The equation in Friday the 13th is not that different, at least on a basic level. A storm rolls in and it is one that metaphorically "rains blood," according to one character’s dream, recounted explicitly in the dialogue.  

Accordingly, this storm brings with it a vengeful murderer.  

Is the storm thus a manifestation of the killer’s undying rage?   Is it a protest against the unnecessary death of an innocent child?  Or does the storm represent the tears of God, as it were, the fact that a mother’s love has turned to cold-blooded murder?

I’ve often noted that 1980s watchdog groups like the Moral Majority were foolish to protest the Friday the 13th films because, by one interpretation, these slasher films certainly tow the conservative line about human vices and bad behavior.  

One way of  gazing at the film is to consider that those who are negligent -- those who smoke weed, and those who indulge in pre-marital sex -- are punished by a supernatural avenger, the Hand of God, for their transgressions.  Mrs. Voorhees does the actual punishing via machete, but it is God himself – in the form of the rolling thunderstorm – that grants her murderous campaign the cover it needs to succeed.  You can take or leave that interpretation, but it represents one valid reading of the film's text.  As I like to say, in Friday the 13th and it sequels, vice precedes slice-and-dice.

There are other elements of this exploitation film that audiences now tend to forget about because of all the water and bad sequels under the bridge, yet which probably bear mentioning.  For one thing, the film is dominated by imagery which portends doom.  

One such moment involves Moravian Cemetery, the last turn-off on the road to Camp Blood.  In essence, the shot of the graveyard reminds the audience it’s a short commute from the camp to death.  

Secondly, one of the camp counselors -- the Practical Joker stereotype, Ned -- pretends to drown in the lake early on.  His cruel and thoughtless act foreshadows, of course, the motivation behind the murders at Crystal Lake.  He is re-enacting (unknowingly) the moment that killed Jason, and the moment that actually brings about his end.  Thus even his "joke" is portending of doom.

And then there’s Crazy Ralph.  He’s not a subtle guy, even in terms of his wacko, almost cartoon appearance.  But Ralph is undeniably the “Cassandra” of the film: the old man warning the young people about their impending doom. Like the mythical Cassandra of Ancient Greece, he is doomed to know the future and not to be believed.   Within the context of Friday the 13th, he is also, however, a conservative symbol of tradition.  He is the herald (or historian) who warns of danger, and who is ignored by irresponsible, unworried, callow youth.  They believe that tradition and history don’t apply to them; that they are free of those restraints.  Ralph knows this is not the case, but is dismissed as crazy.  

Again, many of these elements have been repeated so often in the formulaic slasher film sub-genre that it’s difficult to look the original Friday the 13th in its original context, before all this stuff – the Cassandra, the storm, the P.O.V. shot – became reflexive and de-rigueur ingredients.  But all these elements exist for a valid reason in Friday the 13th, and generally enhance the film’s sense of anxiety and danger.

Camp Blood?  Take a left at the grave yard. 

Crazy Ralph: The Cassandra Complex.

Did somebody drown here?
Slasher movies still get a lot of guff, even today, for lacking “socially redeeming features,” and many critics treat Friday the 13th as Exhibit A in that argument. The late Roger Ebert wrote, for instance, that the “primary function” of the teenagers in the F13 films is to “be hacked to death.”

On the contrary, I would argue the primary function of the teenager in films like Friday the 13th is to survive.   

While Mr. Ebert -- a personal and professional hero of mine, by the way -- reflects fondly in his review of Friday the 13th Part II on the innocence of his youth (and the cinema of his teenage years in the 1950s), he fails to acknowledge something important.  The cultural context that gave rise to the slasher format is entirely different from the one he nostalgically describes. 

Friday the 13th and its ilk arise from a teen culture that witnessed the Vietnam War played out bloodily on television news. It arises from a generation that witnessed a U.S. President toppled in the Watergate Scandal. It arises from a generation that saw the Energy Crisis, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, America held hostage by an Islamic regime in Iran, and the brutal madness of Charles Manson and his cult. 

The self-same teen generation saw a U.S. President’s Secretary of the Interior, James Watt testify -- straight-faced -- before Congress that America’s natural resources need not be preserved for future generations, since Judgment Day would arrive in this one.  If you also recall some some of the pervasive cultural fears of nuclear apocalypse in the Cold War with the Soviet Union, you can see how America by 1980 had traveled a significant distance from Annette Funicello and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955). 

So why would discerning film critics expect the entertainment of 1980–1985 to be identical to the entertainment of 1950–1955?  The world had changed, and entertainment -- as it always does – changed with it.

The important question to ask, instead, is what kind of entertainment arises out of such a roiling, turbulent cultural context?   At the heart of Friday the 13th...what is it really about?

Consider that in these slasher films, the best and brightest teenagers battle for survival.  Many teenagers die, it’s true, but a handful of the smartest triumph over seemingly insurmountable, nay supernatural, odds. 

Even better, the slasher format -- Friday the 13th films included -- universally champion a very specific brand of hero: the final girl. 

This character archetype is female, obviously, but also smarter, more insightful, and more courageous than her peers of both sexes.  While those peers smoke weed or indulge in pre-marital sex, the Final Girl has instead detected that something in the world is not quite right; that something is off-kilter. While her friends waste time on momentary pleasures, she becomes clued-in to the fact that the world is a dangerous and troublesome place. She starts to "see" the world's dangers (as I enumerated them in above paragraphs...), and devises a life-saving response.

So where critics such as Zina Klapper argue that slasher films champion and actually “induce” violence against women, I’d again argue the contrary point.   Based on the cast dynamics of the Friday the 13th films alone, these movies are equal opportunity offenders in terms of murders, yet pro-woman in terms of survival.  

In other words, the slasher films kill a whole lot of teens of both sexes, but offer, almost universally, one type of survivor: the smart and resourceful female.

This is certainly the case with Alice in Friday the 13th.  She has no recourse but to trust herself -- and her instincts -- on the night of the attack.  No man comes to rescue her, or to sweep her off her feet.  She can rely on nothing beyond her own personal qualities.  Not government (Watergate), not the military (Vietnam), and not corporate interests (Three Mile Island).  

In the end, Alice gets locked in mortal combat with another woman, Mrs. Voorhees, and that's significant too.  How many times in horror movie history have women been afforded the role of primary hero and primary villain in a single work of art?  Sure Mrs. Voorhees is certifiably bonkers, but she is an example of a person who saw something in the world she didn't like and sought to change it.  She is thus the dark reflection of an assertive final girl like Alice.  Accordingly, I can’t see how this movie fits the established party line about misogyny and horror flicks.

Final Girl

Final Monster
When I look back at Friday the 13th, I do see a cheap exploitation film, to be certain.  It's a step down from the artistry and vision of Halloween, for instance.  Yet Friday the 13th undeniably speaks to a specific historical context. Given that historical context I described above, is it so surprising, so morally corrupt that one generation’s entertainment of choice concerns a crucible of survival in which only the clever, the moral, the resolute and the resourceful manage to survive an apocalyptic world that seems stacked against them?  Where evil always resurfaces, even if in a new form? 

Slasher movies don’t make audiences meaner, as Janet Maslin asserted in a column in The New York Times.  They simply take the real world of the 1980s as it already was and demonstrate to teens that they can survive it, given the right skill set. 

Impressively, that skill set is associated not with stereotypical male qualities or even with men at all, but with young, intelligent women.

I can’t legitimately argue that all slasher movies are well-done or social valuable.  Some are dreck.  

But I’ve always felt it was wrong to lump in the first Friday the 13th with the mountains of dreck because it features some visually accomplished moments, a smattering of interesting symbolism, and -- not the least of all -- it conforms to the slasher format’s most noble conceit by reminding kids (and particularly girls) that even if the Boogeyman is at the door (in the form of the Cold War or anything else), they can survive.  

And they can do so with the qualities they already possess in spades, namely intelligence and insight.  

Movie Trailer: Friday the 13th (1980)

Cult Movie Wisdom of the Week

"He neglected to mention that downtown they call this place Camp Blood..."

- Friday the 13th (1980) 

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #10: Do I write about women directors?

A reader, Mary, asks:

“Do you ever write about women film directors?”

That’s a great question, Mary.

One of my favorite filmmakers working in the industry today is Mira Nair. 

In 2006, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books published my director’s study of Nair called Mercy in Her Eyes.  It tracks Nair’s output and artistic development from 1988’s Salaam Bombay to Vanity Fair (2004), with a short chapter on the making of The Namesake (2007). 

Nair is a great and dynamic auteur, a director capable of composing ravishing visuals, as we have seen in Kama Sutra (1997) and Monsoon Wedding (2001) among others.  I particular enjoy her continuing ability to find – and extend – highly dramatic moments that capture the nature of her characters and their lives.  She fashions a kind of visual sensuality through slow-motion photography and other techniques, so that audiences can detect the beautiful but ephemeral nature of human existence.

In terms of the horror genre, my book Horror Films of the 1980s includes reviews of Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)…both of which I assign “four stars,” or my top rating.  Horror Films of the 1990s features a review of Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990), which was interesting, but perhaps not as strong.

To be candid about this matter, the movie business is still very much male-dominated, as I’m sure you realize.  That fact established, I really ought to review some of Bigelow’s cinematic work here on the blog, including the action film Point Break (1991), or the sci-fi epic, Strange Days (1995)…two films I really love and admire.

Thank you for the question.

And readers, don't forget to send me questions, at

Ask JKM a Question #9: What Role Should Format Play in Movie Appreciation?

A reader named Robert writes:

“Last year, The New York Times published an article about a subculture of genre movie fans who, for the sake of nostalgia, prefer watching their favorite films on VHS.  Personally, I'm happy that the days of pan and scanned analog murkiness are gone.  I bought a blu-ray player a couple of years ago, and the first movie I watched on it was THE OMEGA MAN.  The clarity of the picture was startling.  Watching Charlton Heston cruise the deserted streets of downtown L.A., the sun gleaming off the windshield of his car, I felt that the enhanced quality of the film gave rise to a correlating sense of immediacy.  The movie became more impactful, more urgent, and less an artifact of early seventies cinema. 

My question is: to what extent, if any, should format play in one's appreciation of a movie?”

Robert, that’s a terrific question, and one worthy of much consideration and debate, actually.  In all my writing, I seek to be judicious, to offer a balanced appraisal where possible.  So in this case, I’m going to tread the same careful path of moderation.

A lot of us grew up with VHS and “pan and scan” murkiness.  And worse than that, even, many of us also grew up with films we taped off the air in the 1980s that were cut up with commercials, edited for content, and otherwise, well, corrupted.  So clearly, these are not ideal viewing formats.

And yet, I first saw King Kong (1933) on television, interrupted by commercials and edited for content.  I first saw Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956) in the same fashion.  I first viewed Planet of the Apes (1968), cut-up and split over two days on the 4:30pm movie on Channel 7 in New York.

I would not trade the timing or placement of those movie “discoveries” in my life for all the tea in China.  The movies came to me exactly how and when I needed them, and I devoured them all.  Did the inferior viewing format in such cases ruin those movies?

No. Not at all.

Now, by the same token, would it have been better to see the films uncut, cleaned-up, and in their original aspect ratios? 

Yes.  Certainly it would have been.

So I guess you could say I’m not a terrible stickler for format when it comes to appreciating movies.  I dislike VHS mainly because you lose approximately a third of the frame, and the format thus plays havoc with a director’s carefully-vetted composition. It's hard to interpret the imagery of a film when that imagery is so blatantly defiled.  

Yet I am also an advocate for experiencing great films in any way possible, even if there are format drawbacks to take into account and reckon with.

I know the purists will complain – because they always do -- but I believe if you ask prominent movie artists the same question you put to me here, the vast majority would rank their interests in this way. 

1.)    See the movie the way it was meant to be seen (preserving the integrity of the frame, uncut, and without commercial interruption). 


2.)    If you can’t do that, see the movie anyway, in whatever form it happens to be available. 

Personally, I can't fathom movie lovers who would rather see movies on VHS for nostalgia's sake in the era of DVD and Blu-Ray.  However, if a seldom-seen movie is for some reason unavailable in these newer formats, I will, without hesitation, seek out the VHS version – panned and scanned – to experience the film in at least some fashion. 

Bottom line: if I want to see a movie, I’m going to find some way, even an imperfect way, to see it, so at the very least, I will have some first-hand sense of it.

Of course, when we talk about format, we must acknowledge the other argument too, that Blu-Ray is a far crisper and more detailed format than was available decades ago.  Some special effects made in the 1960s actually look worse today on Blu-Ray – visible wires on miniatures and all – so by seeking something “better” in terms of clarity, are we actually denying the filmmaker’s original vision again, only in a different way?

I don’t know, honestly.  The Omega Man was also one of the first Blu Rays I purchased, and I agree with your assessment of its visual qualities.  The film, to my eyes, has never looked better.

But how to reckon with director’s cuts, extended cuts, unrated cuts, and special editions?  Are those formats a legitimate result of a director’s vision too, or just money grabs? 

And, finally, again in terms of personal choice, I find those critics who belabor format issues at the expense of actually discussing the artistic merits of a particular film a bit baffling.  To me (and again, this is a personal choice), it’s like picking up a great book and judging it not by the words, writing, and thoughts inside, but by the binding, the cover, and type font. 

Ultimately film is an art form that expresses human narratives in visual composition and words, and that’s where critical focus should land, not on the minutiae of “format.”   After all, when a lot of these films were initially released, quality was variable anyway because of the specific print, the quality of the projector, the projector's bulb, and even the abilities of the projectionist, to some extent.  So why be excessively snobby about a minute, color differential on a DVD version now?  Is that little thing enough to keep you from experiencing a film you want to experience?  For me -- and your mileage may differ -- the answer is no.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to see – rather than not see -- a film simply because of format issues.   So I think people should just be educated about what, precisely, they are watching, if that makes sense, and tailor responses accordingly.  Don’t review a pan-and-scan VHS and note that the movie looks like a “TV show” because, you must acknowledge, finally, you’re not seeing the full picture, but a cut-up one.   

In a nutshell, my answer is: be reasonable about format when appreciating movies.  Watch what feels right to you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Memory Bank: "Dragon's Domain"

Well, it’s turning into a Space: 1999 day here on the blog, I suppose you could say.  Nonetheless, this afternoon, I want to share some of the memories I cherish from my first viewing of “Dragon’s Domain” in the winter of 1975, when I was just shy of six years-old.

Now, I’ve reviewed “Dragon’s Domain” by Christopher Penfold on the blog before, here, so this isn’t a formal review of the installment’s visual and thematic merits, merely some of my recollections about the episode and how it affected me during that time in my life.

First of all, “Dragon’s Domain” is the Space: 1999 episode that casual watchers seem to most often remember from this Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series.  It’s easy to understand why.  We get to learn more about the main characters’ history on Earth (before “Breakaway”) and more importantly, the episode concerns…a monster.  And one hell of a memorable monster at that.

“Dragon’s Domain” is the story, in part, of the Ultra Probe, an Earth vessel captained by Tony Cellini (Gianni Giarko).  The story is told in flashback by Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we learn how Cellini’s ship – in 1996 -- encounters a grave yard of spaceships in orbit around the planet Ultra, and then loses his crew to a devouring, one-eyed monstrosity: a tentacled spider/dragon-type alien. 

Now traveling through a different area of space all together, the isolated Moonbase Alpha encounters the same space grave yard, and the same monster…thus validating Cellini’s “crazy” story.

On first blush, this Space: 1999 episode probably doesn’t sound far different from many familiar space “monster” stories of the cinema or pulp magazines, yet the presentation and implications of “Dragon’s Domain” have captured my imagination for thirty-five years now. 

In particular, I’ll never forget sitting on the sofa in my basement family room with my parents and watching on TV as the space monster – the dragon – wrapped his dark tentacles around helpless astronauts, male and female, and then drove them into his glowing orange maw. 

If this act of “feeding” wasn’t horrifying enough, then the very next moment surely fit the bill.  The steaming skeletons of the dead were spewed out onto the spaceship deck…human flesh (and internal organs...) totally consumed.

This was my first real experience with something so…horrific. I was a huge fan, even as a child, of King Kong and Godzilla, but this kind of death was something different.  It felt more personal, somehow.  The “Dragon’s Domain” monster had no noble of sympathetic qualities, and didn’t exist, seemingly, on a different scale…towering above us like a dinosaur.  Instead, it was inescapable, hungry, and something that could occupy the same room as any unlucky human soul.  It seemed more immediate, more real, and less fanciful than the other monsters I loved, somehow.

Thus I suspect that “Dragon’s Domain” is the very story that ignited my fascination with horror films, and with the powerful idea of mixing hard sci-fi tech (like spaceships and control rooms) with something more Gothic, or perhaps even Lovecraft-ian.  Before Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997) or Pandorum (2009) caught my eye, “Dragon’s Domain” sparked my curiosity about the darkest corners of the cosmos. 

What might await us out there, in the dark?

But “Dragon’s Domain” fascinated me for other reasons too, as a kid.  At that point, I had also been raised on stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robinson Crusoe, and even Moby Dick.  “Dragon’s Domain,” with its squid-like monster, man alone on a life boat, and central mission of vengeance (on the part of Cellini) tied in directly with these beloved literary tales and translated critical story elements, again, to the final frontier.  There’s something downright mythic about this tale, and even the teleplay acknowledges it, comparing Tony and his “monster” to St. George and the Dragon.

At five going on six, it probably goes without saying that I was really scared by “Dragon’s Domain.”  Yet I was equally tantalized by the things that went unspoken in the episode.  The “monster” didn’t register on any Alphan scanning devices, for instance, which meant that these 20th century, technological men couldn’t really quantify if it was truly dead at adventure’s end, a nice Twilight Zone twist to close out the hour.  This open-ended question tantalized me for weeks and months (and years and decades…). 

Could something exist out there in space that is so different from us that it doesn’t even register on our equipment?  That lives and dies by physical laws we can’t comprehend?

Even more intriguingly, the episode concerned that space grave yard.  Once more, there were a hundred untold stories there; stories of space farers who had come to that unpleasant and inexplicable end.  But where had they traveled from?  Who were they?  We might even ask the same questions of Ultra.  Was the monster from that world, or did the grave yard appear in orbit by coincidence?  What was the surface of that planet like?  Who lived there?  Had they too, been devoured by the dragon?

And speaking of coincidence, how could the space grave yard travel from Ultra to Alpha’s position between galaxies?  Was the monster somehow guiding its “web” to…follow Tony?  All these unanswered questions swirled in my mind, and my response at the time was to “make pretend” further 1999 adventures (with my Mattel Eagle…) that addressed some of these points. 

It was this impulse to understand and continue the story that I credit with my decision, finally, to become a writer.  “Dragon’s Domain” was so tantalizing a mystery, so engaging a tale, so psychologically intricate, that this episode of Space: 1999 evoked the creative, artistic impulse in me, even at six.   One of these days, I must remember to thank Christopher Penfold.

But as a kid, I wanted more; more stories that were open-ended, that offered hints – but not clear-cut answers – about the universe  This is the very thing that continues to draw me to Space: 1999, and to works of art like Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Prometheus (2012).   

In works such as these, there’s the tantalizing opportunity to go deep, to explore possibilities and ideas not spelled out or spoon-fed.  I don't consider a lack of explanation cause for nitpicking as so many fans do.  On the contrary, I look at it as gateway to engagement.  In fact, I now consider this quality a necessary pre-requisite for great art: room for interpretation, based on the hard evidence of a text’s words, and of its visual symbolism.   How boring it is to be told everything of import, or to be led on a leash to just one answer, when a filmmaker can, instead, only hint or whisper life's little verities to us.

The idea of this kind of exploration hooked me at age five, and has kept a hold of me – like a dragon’s tentacle – ever since.

Collectible of the Week: Space:1999 Eagle 1 Spaceship (Mattel; 1976)

Long-time readers of the blog may recall that I’ve featured this particular toy before -- on November 24, 2005 --- but sometimes, you have to return to your “greatest hits” and just hope people will be patient with your idiosyncrasies.

And this Mattel Eagle 1 Spaceship (1976) remains my all-time favorite toy, hands-down.  So today seemed like a good time to highlight again, especially for newer readers.  I’ll probably feature it again in another seven years, so be warned.

In part, I favor this 1970s Mattel toy because it comes from my all-time favorite science fiction TV series, Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977). But in part it is also because the toy is downright colossal: over 2.5 feet long, as the box trumpets. 

Beyond these values, the Mattel Eagle also comes apart into a smaller ship, a combination of the command and engine modules.  This aspect of the toy seems very realistic to the series (or “show accurate,” to use collecting lingo) and the modular design of the Eagle (from SPFX maestro Brian Johnson).   The separated command module resembles some of the incarnations we saw of the Eagles in episodes such as “Missing Link” and “Dragon’s Domain.”

The box for this toy noted: “It’s a space vehicle.  It’s a headquarters and living quarters on Moon Base Alpha! With three 3” characters.” 

In the latter case, that means that this Mattel toy came complete with three intrepid Alphans: Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse). 
As a kid, I remember being deeply disappointed that there was no Alan Carter action figure, especially since he was the character most commonly seen piloting the craft on the series.  Anyway, the figures featured the show’s trademark orange space suits, as well as removable helmets and back/chest packs.

Again this just perfect for pretend play: the Alphans could walk in space, or take their helmets off for planetary action.  Just don’t tell the Prometheus nitpickers I took off their helmets in dangerous situations, okay?

On the nose section of the Eagle, the “module hatch” would open and hold two action figures.  Inside the “carrier” section was the passenger section, replete with computer decals, “weapons rack” and “space crane.”  The weapons rack held four stun guns and one laser rifle. “Both side panels” of the carrier would slide open, allowing you access to the interior sections.

I was given this really awesome toy shortly before my sixth birthday, in 1976, by my Mom and Dad.  I remember that I was sort of depressed because my older sister didn’t want to play with me on a Saturday and I had nothing to do.  My Mom noticed I was down in the dumps.  So she led me into my parents’ bedroom and told me to look underneath the bed.  I did, and there was Eagle 1, ready for action!  The surprise gift made my day…and I’ve never forgotten it, or my Mother’s kindness.  She was always doing things like that for me (and still does, for my son Joel, to this day.)

Then, as my real birthday approached, my Mom and Dad took me aside and told me that my Uncle Glenn, who recently passed away, had also bought me an Eagle One toy.  They asked me if I wanted a second one, or something different.

Well, of course I wanted a second one.  The only thing better than having Eagle One was having an Eagle fleet!

That Christmas season, both Mattel Eagles went to forest planets (my backyard), ice planets (on snow days) and other dangerous environments.  I recruited the giant squid from G.I. Joe’s Sea Wolf submarine to serve as the tentacle monster from “Dragon’s Domain.”

Even after Space: 1999 disappeared from the pop culture horizon and Star Wars (1977) took its place, I kept and cherished and played with my Eagles.

For years, I’ve kept and cared for these ships.  The one you see pictured is in relatively good condition.  Inside the box is the one I really played with, and which is…battle damaged, let’s just say.  I do worry about my “good” Eagle simply because it is getting really old.  In less than four years, it will be a forty-year old toy, which I find virtually impossible to believe. 

Anyway, if you look closely, you can detect yellow glue lines on the toy, apparently from manufacture, at all the seams.  These lines are becoming more pronounced over time.   The hull is also yellowing in spots (the dorsal lattice, particularly…).

That’s okay, though. I’m keeping this toy in my home office until I die.  And then I’m leaving instructions to my son that it should be buried with me (along with the box).  Unless, of course, he wants it, in which case I’ll be happy to pass it on. 

I’m still working on getting him to be a Space: 1999 fan, however.  Right now, Joel is totally into Star Wars and we spend several days a week playing on a forest planet (our front yard) with Astromech, Battle Droids and Pit Droids.

I guess, in some ways, things haven’t changed at all.  Maybe Joel will let me work an Eagle in there, somehow.  But R2-D2 will probably get to fly it…