Saturday, July 21, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "Omega" (October 9, 1976)

“Omega” is one of those more-interesting-than-usual installments of the 1970s Filmation Saturday morning series Ark II.  The reason that this episode is more intriguing than most segments is that it -- like “Robot” or “The Lottery” -- features a specific science fiction concept other than just the one featured in the premise; that of a post-apocalyptic world.  In this case, that concept is a villainous, sentient super-computer, a Colossus for the Saturday morning set. 

Here, the Ark II team runs afoul of perhaps the most powerful nemesis it has yet grappled with: a super computer “built by a society that no longer exists.”  The super computer -- re-activated in a primitive village three weeks earlier -- is called a “checkpoint” device, model “Omega.”  And, in addition to its other functions, the machine can easily dominate and control human minds.  Visually, Omega resembles the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

As the episode begins, a kindly grandfather (played by Harry Townes), realizes that his daughter Diana, portrayed by a very young Helen Hunt, is now under the control of Omega.  Thus, Jonah and his team set out to de-activate the machine and free her from machine enslavement.  Unfortunately, Omega proves so powerful that Samuel begins to fall prey to its commands too.  He rejects Jonah as leader and serves Omega instead.

Jonah attempts to defeat the super computer by executing a series of “chess” moves designed to destroy the device.  Finally, even that strategy isn’t enough, and Jonah himself nearly succumbs to the machine’s wishes.  Finally, it is Adam the chimpanzee – whom Omega has derided as some kind of strange animal – who is able to pull Omega’s plug.

After the computer is defeated, Jonah notes that Omega will never again be able to impose “de-humanizing ideas” upon mankind.  Specifically, he’s referring to the idea that Omega has made all the elders of the local village the slave to youngsters, like Diana.  As Omega reports early on, “young minds are quicker” to accept him.

I enjoyed this episode of Ark II, because drama works better, in my opinion, when heroes are outmatched or over-matched by villains.  And that’s the case here.  The high-tech Ark II crew is nearly defeated by the high-tech machine.  Omega thus proves a powerful and insidious force and infuses the episode with a welcome sense of menace.  I also enjoyed seeing Harry Townes play a crucial role here -- as a fearful would-be-slave of a super computer -- since he played a similar character in Star Trek’s “Return of the Archons” back in the mid-1960s.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Bat-a-palooza: Mego Bat Toys

If you loved Batman as a kid in the 1970s, you really loved Mego, the wondrous and storied toy company that produced action figures, vehicles and play sets for the Caped Crusader during that decade.

In 1972, Mego released action figures of the Dynamic Duo -- Batman and Robin -- as part of its impressive World's Greatest Superheroes line.  And in 1974, Batgirl, Catwoman, Joker, the Penguin and the Riddler were added to the catalog.  But that was just the beginning of the good news for would-be Gothamites.

Before long, Mego released the Batcave, a large-scale toy which closely resembles the Planet of the Apes Village Playset in terms of overall structure, but with the detailing you expected of Batman's subterranean lair.

The box described the Batcave toy as "an all-encompassing play case built to accommodate all the bat vehicles.  There is a secret entrance way for the Batmobile, a landing platform for the Batcopter, and a garage area for the Batcycle.  Included in the case are the Batpole and Batcomputer.  Everything necessary to stimulate your child's imagination towards bold new adventures."

Other great Mego Batman toys included the "shiny and sleek" Batmobile -- the TV series design -- for the action figures, plus a Batcycle for "free-wheeling fun."  The Batcopter featured a canopy you could open up, and a rotor you could spin in order to capture "super foes."  Two other vehicles -- which look like Volkswagen vans -- were also released: a Batlab and Joker Mobile.  Both of these are highly-prized items today.

The holy grail of Batman collecting, however, remains Batman's Wayne Foundation Playset, a four-floor Goliath featuring a working elevator, secret compartments, room to park the Batcycle, and more.  The toy was the Batman equivalent of Barbie's famous townhouse, perhaps, and beautifully-detailed.  It features seven good-sized rooms (supported by yellow pillars), a blue Batcomputer, a landing pad for the Batcopter, and a blue conference table and other furniture.   Boy, do I wish I had one of these in my home office...


As I know you have, I woke up this morning to news of the horrific incident in Aurora, CO, involving a gunman opening fire during a midnight show of The Dark Knight Rises.  Fourteen people in the audience were killed, and more than fifty people have been wounded. A suspect is in custody.  But the bottom line is that something unbelievably horrible occurred there.  My heart, my sympathies, and my thoughts are with the victims.

Bat-a-palooza: The Rogue's Gallery

Bat-a-palooza: Sci Tech # 5: Batman Edition

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

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

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

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

No one had ever seen anything like it.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bat-a-palooza: Movie Trailers

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #12: 250-word reviews?

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous writes:

“It took me almost half an hour to read your review of Prometheus.  Ever consider writing 250 word  or under reviews?”

Thank you, Anonymous, for writing and for asking me a question.

I suppose I should answer in the first case that there are plenty of venues on the Internet where you can find and read movie reviews that are 250 words or less, if that fits your desire. 

And certainly, if you go "by the book," experts do often advise bloggers to write “short” pieces because apparently modern attention spans are short.  I read a book last year that insisted the modern attention span is nine seconds and rapidly diminishing.

Yet I don’t work for a daily newspaper, where space is in short supply. 

And I don’t generally review new movies right after they premiere, so I’m not on a tight deadline either. 

Therefore, I boast a few luxuries that some other reviewers aren’t afforded. 

I can thus write as lengthy or as short a review as I desire. I generally write until I’m satisfied that I have adequately described the nature of the film or program under my microscope. I try not to impose artificial limits on myself if I believe I have something valuable to say, or some valid argument to write.  I'm very big on backing up my assertions about films with examples, photographic and textual, if at all possible.  But making a coherent and provable case, with appropriate examples, takes up space...and words.   I find that I can't say much that is valuable or in-depth in nine seconds, or under 250 words.  Sorry!

Plus, I firmly believe at this point that a good-sized readership seeks out this blog because it offers more detailed movie reviews.

Either that, or people just really like my toy collection…

In other words, this is just what I do, and it seems to resonate, at least a little, with a smart, curious readership that I enjoy interacting with. Without getting defensive about it, I suppose I would ask you, in response to your question: “what do you consider the purpose of film criticism?”  Is it only to describe general, emotional impressions of a film? Or is it to point out, perhaps, something in a film that perhaps you sensed and saw, but were not quite able to enunciate and put a finger on?  If it's the latter, I would like to be your guide in the process of crystallizing those ideas.  I would hope that we can take a journey together in which our individual knowledge informs one another and new interpretations get forged.

In my opinion, life and art are sometimes too complex to reduce to the binary decisions of “yes”/”no,” "see"/"don't see" or "thumbs up"/"thumbs down."  Accordingly, this is the kind of blog I write, and this is also the kind of film criticism I enjoy reading  I understand it took you thirty minutes to read the Prometheus review, but perhaps you might consider the experience good practice for life.  Eventually, you're going to run across a piece of work longer than 250 words (er, like this response...) and have to follow it, understand it, debate it, and reckon with it on its own terms.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Star Trek Parodies

Collectible of the Week: Star Bird Command Base (Milton Bradley; 1978)

One of the greatest of all Star Wars knock-off toy lines came from Milton Bradley in the late 1970s.  The Electronic Star Bird (Milton Bradley) came first, and later the The Star Bird Avenger and The Star Bird Intruder.  The designs for these plastic, interactive starships were fantastic, and the vessels could even come apart and re-form in new combinations, not entirely unlike the Micronaut Hornetroid or the Mattel Eagle One that I covered here last week.

My (now-deceased) grandfather drove me all over New Jersey in 1979 in an effort to find a Star Bird.  We finally found both at Willowbrook Mall in what I believe was a Radio Shack.  He purchased the ship for me at a price of thirty dollars, and then took me to lunch at Roy Rogers.  It was a day I’ll never forget, and which means a lot to me, especially now.

From the same Milton Bradley set comes the Star Bird Command Base, a huge “action control center” for the Electronic Star Bird. 

As the back of the box describes it: “The command base is a fabulous, fun accessory for more great excitement with your Star Bird.  Assemble the strikingly detailed fiber board and action plastic parts.  When you’re done, you have a specially equipped elevator base and control tower.”

Features of the base include:

Anti-invasion laser guns: Set the turret bases into the corners of the tower cap. Mount the anti-invasion laser guns into any two of the bases and you can rotate them to return enemy fire.”

Real working crane and hoist: Fit the working crane and hoist into any one of the four turret bases.  Pick-up the transport vehicle and swing it into the maintenance tunnel.”

Transport vehicle:You’ll have lots of fun with the transport vehicle.  It has four rolling wheels and a special carrier unit designed to hold the laser guns, Star Bird’s escape pod, its power thruster engine, or interceptors.”

Interceptor landing deck: Star Bird’s interceptors sweep onto the Control Tower’s special landing deck.  Rush them over to the main landing platform on the transport vehicle using the multi-purpose carrier.”

Requiring assembly, the Star Bird Command Base is absolutely huge at a height of over 25”.  I had one of these for the longest time, but then in a fit of over-generosity gave mine away to a friend’s child in 1997.  I’ve regretted being so nice ever since. What was I thinking?

Just kidding!

I recently got my hands on the very Command Base you see pictured in this post, and Joel and I assembled it together last week.  He promptly manned the control tower with Zama, Horta, Dard, Brack and other rubber Diener “robots” from the same era.  All the orange, plastic astronauts that actually go with the set, however, have been termed “Under Men” by Joel and can only work under the base, not on the actual tower.  Don’t ask me why.

From the Archive: Star Bird Avenger (Milton Bradley; 1980)

The spaceship you are gazing at is the Milton Bradley Star Bird, or in this case, the second incarnation of the cruiser, the Star Bird Avenger. Featuring "new exciting electronics," this nicely-designed "space transport" features "exciting engine sounds, firing photon beams, battle sounds, and special target!"

The Star Bird (sans the specification "Avenger") was first released by Milton Bradley in 1978, shortly after Star Wars took the world by storm, and my next door neighbor and best friend from West Milford, David, was the first kid in Glen Ridge (and particularly on Clinton Road...) to have one.

The ship was truly state-of-the-art for the time, because if you owned two Star Birds they could electronically duel with one other. Or as the box put it: "Fire your photon beams and hit the alien spaceship. Hear distress signals and sputtering engine sounds!"

In other words, the Star Birds were relatively interactive, at least for the disco decade. In the event you didn't have two ships, the Star Bird also was sold with an "alien target." The box noted: "Attack the special target with the flashing photon beams and Avenger signals your victory!"

The other interesting aspect of the Star Bird was that it was actually several starships housed as one. For instance, mounted on the dorsal rear of the ship was an "escape pod" and cannon, in case of battle damage. Per the box: "Rotating gun turret - rear gun turret doubles as an escape pod. Just release the retainer and go whirling through space."

Also, perched on each magnificent wing of the large star bird stood a small one-man "interceptor" fighter" that could be removed for snub-nosed combat. On the Star Bird, the interceptors were molded in gray. On the re-vamped, Avenger, they were jet black.

The box described the interceptors like this: "Detachable Interceptors. Interceptors fit onto the wing tips. Deploy them for battle action."

Finally, the Star Bird itself could be disassembled to create a smaller fighter by detaching the engine and the cockpit section, and then re-assembling them together without the main hull. ("Removable fighter: detach the front section and add the power thruster engine. You still command photon fire and engine power.")

An added bonus: the cockpit housing could be removed in this mode too and you'd get a third fighter, the so-called "power orbiter." "For the fastest craft in the galaxy," read the description, "release the orbiter from the front hull. Even this stream-lined orbiter controls full power over photon beams and engines."

The primary difference between the Star Bird and the upgraded "Avenger" is the decals that came with the ship. Avenger could be emblazoned with a giant bird of prey on its cockpit section, which was very cool. It was also labeled "Avenger" on both sides of the forward section. Apparently, there was a third version of the ship as well, one called Star Bird Space Avenger. I never actually saw that variant.

I don't know if it is simply nostalgia, but I've always loved the design of the Star Bird. It isn't overly imitative of Star Wars, but rather a very sleek, very unique craft. The Intruder - though much-harder to find these days -- is not quite in the same league, since it is really a variant of the Star Bird design. Even my ten year old mind wondered how the "menacing alien" from another "galaxy" had managed to design a ship nearly identical to the heroic Avenger.

But perhaps that only added to the imagination and make-believe. I remember "pretending" to be commander of the Star Bird, and going on a secret mission behind enemy lines to find out how the aliens behind the Intruder had stolen the superior design of my spacecraft.  Isn't make-believe great?