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.

The Most Dangerous Computers in Cult-TV History

Some years ago, a dear friend presented me with a coffee cup inscribed with this legend: “To err is human. To really screw things up you need a computer.” 

Many times over the years, I’ve been reminded of that quotation while watching episodes of cult television programming. The trope of the "villainous super computer" is now extremely well-established in horror and sci-fi, so today I decided to present my choices for the most dangerous of this TV computer bunch.

The selections range from mildly dangerous (#7) to most intensely, world-destroying, time-freezing dangerous (#1).  In addition, I’ve also added a few examples of human-friendly computers below, so no one will accuse me of being rabidly anti-computer.

7. “Goodfellow’s Effort Eliminating Computer” or “G.E.E.C,” from The Super Friends (1973 – 1974).  This colossal computer was created by the kindly Professor Goodfellow for a noble purpose: to free mankind from the yoke of physical work and hard labor. 

The giant machine was programmed to handle everything from manufacturing to transportation to other routine business matters. Unfortunately, when mankind doesn’t work, drive and meaning disappear from life and mankind suffers.  Fortunately, the Super Friends realize that “it’s good for people to work, or they won’t have purpose.” 

In the end, however it is a mouse that destroys the Goodfellow computer not a superhero, thus proving that machines are not infallible.

6. “The General,” from The Prisoner (1967).  In this episode of the short-lived British series, the imprisoned Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) learns that some of his fellow villagers are being mysteriously educated by a mysterious and sinister force.  Unraveling the puzzle, he learns that the education system – Speed Learn -- is actually an insidious form of mind-control, shepherded by a super computer known as “The General.” 

Programmed with vast stores of knowledge, the machine can apparently answer any question about history, mathematics or any other subject.  It's a veritable high-tech Oracle of Delphi.  At least, that is, until crafty Number Six asks the General a one-word interrogative: “why?” 

The General promptly and accommodatingly short-circuits.

5. Checkpoint Devices Model “Omega.”  In the Ark II (1976) episode “Omega,” the intrepid crew of the Ark II discovers that a nearby village recently re-activated a super computer from the pre-apocalypse era. 

This giant, monolith-like device can completely control human minds, particularly the minds of the very young.  Seizing control of the children, Omega orders the youngsters to enslave their parents and grandchildren and put them to work in the fields.  Soon, Ark II personnel Ruth and Samuel fall prey to Omega’s anti-social mind directives, while Jonah attempts to defeat the computer in a life-sized game of Chess...the only method of de-activating it. 

When that gambit fails, it’s up to the talking chimpanzee (!) Adam – a life form that Omega has denigrated as inferior – to stop the computer from taking complete control of the village.

4. “Will Operating Thought Anologue,” or WOTAN, from Doctor Who: “The War Machine.”  In this early era tale from 1966, the First Doctor (William Hartnell) matches wits with a super computer called WOTAN, which has concluded that mankind is a mortal danger to the safety of the planet, and accordingly sets out to create ambulatory war machines to eradicate this threat.  

Like “Omega” in Ark II, WOTAN boasts the unusual capacity – for a machine anyway – to hypnotize human beings.  It uses this insidious power to begin transforming the human race into mindless slave labor…for the manufacture and construction of more mobile units. 

In the end, the Doctor is able to re-program the evil computer and save the Earth…again.

3. The M-5, from Star Trek.  Invented by Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) “the M-5 Multitronic System” is installed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the second season episode “The Ultimate Computer.”  The ship maintains only a skeleton crew to oversee the machine while it assumes total control.  

At first, all seems well, until M-5 begins to act…independently.  Without orders, it begins shutting down life support on parts of the ship, and then it opens fire on an unmanned freighter, the Woden (no relation to WOTAN).  All attempts to shut down the computer fail, and when a (red-shirt) ensign attempts to pull M-5’s plug, it incinerates him.  

The key to M-5’s erratic behavior involves the fact that it has been programmed with Dr. Daystrom’s “memory engrams.”  This development means that machine is as psychologically unstable as its creator.  Unfortunately, there’s a catastrophic downside: The Enterprise is scheduled to go into a war game simulation against four other warships, the Hood, Potemkin, Lexington and Excalibur.  The M-5 characterizes the game as a real battle situation, and sets out to destroy the Starfleet vessels…and all those aboard her.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes it’s time to make an appeal to M-5’s human side, and that’s precisely what he does.

A runner-up from Star Trek might be the society-controlling Landru from “Return of the Archons,” which erases human individuality and creates a collective known as “The Body.”

2. “Alex 7000,” from The Bionic Woman: “Doomsday is Today.”  This machine -- and apparent blood relative of the Hal 9000 -- is the invention and child of a pacifist named Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres).  

As the two-part episode by Kenneth Johnson opens, Cooper makes an announcement to the world that he has invented a “cobalt bomb” which can destroy the world.  Worse, he plans to use this doomsday device if any nation on Earth attempts to deploy or even test a nuclear bomb.  This is his (admittedly strange…) way of assuring peace.

A small Middle-Eastern country violates Cooper’s terms, leaving Alex 7000 to fulfill the doctor's orders and…destroy the Earth.  The world’s first bionic woman, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) attempts to de-activate Alex 7000 in the computer’s vast subterranean complex, but he is capable of defending himself with laser beams, machine gun fire, mines, and other devices. 

1. “The Guardian of Piri.”  This alien computer from Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) -- not unlike a more advanced model of the G.E.E.C. – was initially created to relieve the physical and mental burdens of the people of the distant world of Piri.

Unfortunately, in making their lives “perfect,” The Guardian succeeded only in destroying its own creators.  The Guardian locked Piri in a static bubble of time (because perfection must last forever...) and then transformed the humanoid denizens of the world into near mindless catatonics with no physical needs or desires. 

When Earth’s errant moon passes into range of the Guardian’s influence, the deadly machine attempts to make the Alphans’ life perfect too, putting the humans next in line to suffer the same fate. 

Only Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) resists the hypnotic call of the Guardian.  He saves his people by destroying the Guardian’s sultry servant (Catherine Schell), another “perfect” machine.  As the Alphans return to space, they see that life has returned to Piri, the Guardian’s hold over time itself also destroyed.

Other dangerous computers appeared in the Quark episode: “Vanessa 38-24-36” and in The X-Files episodes “Ghost in the Machine” and “Kill Switch.”

Despite the examples above, we must remember that cult-TV computers are our friends too.

Among the more benevolent were:

“The Old Man in the Cave.”  In this fifth season Twilight Zone episode (1964) set ten years after a nuclear apocalypse, one handful of survivors owes  its very survival to the always-correct advice of the Old Man in the Cave, an unseen stranger.  They don't realize until the episode’s climax that the “old man” is actually a benevolent computer.  They repay its kindness and loyalty by hurling stones at it and short-circuiting the poor machine. 

In one of the most nihilistic endings in cult tv history, these ungrateful survivors soon die...after eating contaminated food that the Old Man in the Cave had warned them not to consume.

“Orac.”  This super computer designed by the scientist Ensor was brought aboard the Liberator at the end of the first season of Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981).  Possessing, at times, human qualities such as stubbornness and pride, Orac is capable of interfacing with every computer in the galaxy possessing a “tarriel cell.”   Orac can even predict the future, it seems, on some important occasions. 

Orac is rendered functional by use of a small rectangular key, and also possesses a thirst for knowledge which equates, sometimes, to endangering the very rebels it works with.  Orac alone survived the series’ final massacre on Gauda Prime, in the episode “Blake.”

“The Turk.” In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 – 2009), Sarah, John and Cameron at first believe that the computer “The Turk” is an early version of the destructive computer network, Skynet (on TV and in T3 a “worm” on the Internet, not an actual computer system). But in fact, the Turk is a “brother” artificial intelligence to Skynet, and one with the capacity to help the human race.

Other "good" cult-tv computers include SID on UFO, and Dr. Theopolis on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.