Saturday, September 08, 2012

Happy Birthday, Star Trek!

Forty-six years ago on September 8, 1966, Star Trek premiered on NBC television.  

A franchise was born, and a legend begun. 

I didn't come along until Star Trek had already ended, in late 1969, but the series remains one of the most important and enduring influences in my life.  

The stories were inspiring, exciting, and often romantic.  Most importantly they meant something

The episodes dealt with issues like brinkmanship (“A Private Little War”), racism (“Let that Be Your Last Battlefield,” “Balance of Terror”), technology (“The Ultimate Computer”), brotherhood (“The Empath”), the value of diversity (“Is There in Truth No Beauty,”) and much more. 

And the resolution of each week’s story didn’t occur simply because of the phaser banks.  The answers to improving the human condition weren’t just about people shooting each other.  Strength was often defined by showing mercy, setting aside prejudice, or just looking at things in a new way.

Consequently, Star Trek is now a philosophy, a way of life, an American institution, a multi-generational “myth” and so much more. Happy Birthday! 

(And today, incidentally, is also the 23rd anniversary of my first date with my beautiful wife.)

Cult-TV Gallery: Brooke Bundy

In Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea: "The Cyborg."

In Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "Death on a Barge."

In Circle of Fear: "Earth, Air, Fire and Water."

In Land of the Lost: "The Zarn."

In Starman: "Starscape, Part I."

In Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Naked Now."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "The Zarn" (September 13, 1975)

The Land of the Lost gets a new resident -- the emotionless and pitiless alien “Zarn” (Marvin Miller) -- in this week’s episode penned by Dick Martin and directed by Bob Lally.

The Zarn is an energy being, mostly invisible, whose presence is accompanied by the unsettling sound of wind chimes. 

What’s even scarier is that the Zarn’s space craft has crashed in the gloomy Mist Marsh, place of fog and gnarled old, dead trees.  And as the Marshalls learn this week, The Zarn can read their very thoughts, though he is repelled by the power of intense emotions.

In “The Zarn,” this stranded alien creates an android in the shape of a human female to observe and study the human Marshalls.  

Because she is created expressly from Rick’s thoughts, Sharon (Brooke Bundy) shares his memories of growing up in Indianapolis.  Holly and Will immediately recognize Sharon is too good to be true, but Marshall is lonely and hungry for adult companionship.  He can’t help but love Sharon.

Rick Marshall’s tunnel vision about Sharon may be a little unrealistic in these circumstances, but this is nonetheless one aspect of Land of the Lost I admire. 

It’s that part of a “kid’s” show that is very grown-up, and features mature plot lines.  Rick’s confession of loneliness is heartfelt and rings true. And yet Holly and Will’s feelings of being shunted aside for the interloper are just as valid.

The alien Zarn himself makes a great addition to this series extensive “creature” list, a new not-quite friend and not-quite foe who -- like the Sleestak -- possesses his own distinctive technology and world view.  

Despite his great knowledge and science, however, the Zarn -- like The Marshalls -- is a prisoner in the Land of the Lost.  

And keeping with the series’ environmental message, the character is something of a loose cannon, one will apply his technology at the expense of Altrusia as we see in the upcoming episode “Gravity Storm.”  The Zarn is out to help himself, in other words, and no one or anything else.

One question raised by the Zarn’s presence here involves the last episode of Season One, “Circle,” which established that balance in Altrusia must constantly be maintained.  So if the Zarn came in, who left?  And how did they escape?  This episode never addresses this contradiction.

Another aspect of this episode that seems dated poorly involves Holly, who is left at the High Bluff Cave to cook dinner for Will and Rick while they explore the Mist Marsh.  Girls can’t go exploring? 

Worse, it is Holly who feels most displaced by the presence of Sharon, another woman.  She’s clearly jealous that someone could jeopardize her standing in the family, and it comes off as catty and kind of demeaning…even though she’s right that Sharon is hiding something.

For a series that stressed Holly’s courage (“Elsewhen”) and dawning independence/maturity (“The Search,”) this re-establishment of 1970s traditional American sex roles feels like a big step back into the prehistoric era.

Next episode: “Fair Trade.”

Friday, September 07, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Magazine TV Commercials

Savage Friday: Southern Comfort (1981)

“Instead of raising the tragic possibility that a subculture might disappear, Southern Comfort explores our anxiety that the dominant culture itself may be divided and destroyed.  [It] seems to suggest that destruction is the price of the desire to use -- rather than understand – another culture.”

-          Jeffrey H. Mahan, The Christian Century, December 16, 1981, page 1322.

“Southern Comfort” is not only a liqueur (a New Orleans original, so-to-speak…), but a turn of phrase that links a storied American region with ideas like relaxation, hospitality, and succor. 

Walter Hill’s 1981 film Southern Comfort plays ironically on the meaning of the term, and forges the director’s second effort -- after The Warriors (1979) -- that involves outnumbered soldiers trapped in harsh enemy territory and forced to fight every step of the way home.

But Southern Comfort is rather steadfastly not the urban fantasy of The Warriors. 

Instead, it’s a blistering social critique as well as a violent action film.  By setting his film in the year 1973 and featuring as his protagonists soldiers from the Louisiana National Guard, Hill crafts a film that, according to Michael Sragow in Rolling Stone, is a “parody of the military sensibility,” “a metaphor for the Vietnam War” and a “study of gracelessness under fire.”

The other films I’ve featured here on Savage Friday have dealt with crime (Bonnie & Clyde [1967]) as pro-social response to a rigged system, and the morality of violence following personal aggression of the most brutal, personal sort (Irreversible [2002], The Last House on the Left [1972], I Spit on Your Grave [1978]).  

Additionally, some of the films have dealt overtly with the concept of what happens to a civilized man when he must, by needs, eschew the boundaries of civilized behavior and act violently (Deliverance [1972], Straw Dogs [1971]).

But Southern Comfort is the first film from the bunch that gazes at violence on a wider, almost institutionalized basis.  Specifically, it looks at the idea of a nation knowingly unloosing aggression and violence on a mass scale, often times by soldiers who are not educated about the nature of the enemy, are insensitive to cultural differences, and who – finally – crack under pressure. 

Can war ever be a moral “right?”  And if so, does it matter who, specifically, a nation sends to war, and how those men wage that war?

These are not easy questions to answer.  And these were not small issues in the days of Vietnam, a war that severely tested American beliefs about its own national might and moral rectitude.  Southern Comfort suggests a home-grown Vietnam culture-clash right here, inside our regional borders, and a so-called “primitive” culture dwelling side-by-side with the more “advanced,” dominant one.    

By making this sustained cinematic battle an intra-American one, so-to-speak -- American National Guard vs. American Cajuns -- Walter Hill allows viewers to see concepts not always readily apparent in the case of foreign wars, where patriotism can overwhelm reason and balance.  In America we cherish and protect our right and responsibility to defend our homes and even our right just to be left alone, the very concepts that the Cajuns wage bloody guerilla war over in the film.  But when we’re the aggressors intruding in the territory of others, our values seem to change.  This film holds up a mirror to that paradox. It is an unromantic, un-idealized view of war and soldiers.  

Notice that I didn’t say negative view.  The approach here is even-handed, revealing how soldiers can be smart and heroic, as well as misguided and out-of-control.  The trenchant idea seems to be that of the Pandora’s Box.  If you release men with guns into an untamed environment, where danger is everywhere, each will respond in his own way.  Some will find and adhere to a strong moral compass.  Others will degenerate into sadistic violence.

Furthermore, Southern Comfort suggests, as the quote from Jeffrey Mahan above observes, that a dominant culture out to “use” a weaker culture is actually the one in danger of being “divided and destroyed.”  That destruction comes about from a moral failure, the failure to contextualize “the enemy” as human, and understand the enemy on human terms.  Specifically, if we use our might just to take resources from others, or to argue for the assertion of our ideology in someone else’s land, we are in violation of our own cherished beliefs and values.  We say “don’t tread on me,” but if someone else has what we want, we tread on them with the greatest military machine in history.

This cerebral argument doesn’t make Walter Hill’s film any less tense or violent, but rather adds a layer of commentary to the savagery.  As critic Diane Hust wrote in “Heavy Symbolism Ravels Film’s Good Yarn” (The Daily Oklahoman, November 12, 1981): “These ‘civilized’ but allegedly trained soldiers fall apart in a blue-green otherworld, and even the likable heroes...have brutal and vulnerable sides that emerge during the ordeal.” 

The idea here is that all soldiers are not created equal, and until the crucible of combat occurs, it’s almost impossible to determine who will thrive, and who will succumb to cowardice, or animalistic brutality.  The film walks a delicate balance, but not everyone agrees it succeeds.  Vincent Canby at The New York Times noted that Walter Hill is “the best stager of action in practice,” but found the film to be “more an exercise in masochism than suspense.”  Yes, in some way, the same argument could be made of every entry in the Savage Cinema genre.

Time Magazine noted (derisively) that in Southern Comforteverything is a metaphor for something else,” but that’s okay with me too.  When vetting extreme violence, I prefer that movies boast and reflect an intellectual point-of-view about that violence.  In other words, the violence becomes palatable and meaningful because we sense it is being applied to convey a point of intellectual merit.

In this case, Southern Comfort reminds us that once war is uncorked, and men are encouraged to rely on instinctive, violent impulses, all bets are off concerning outcomes. It also reminds us how people with guns can, in a moment of impulse spark a conflagration that can’t be controlled.

“Comes a time when you have to abandon principles and do what's right.

In 1973, the Louisiana National Guard’s “Bravo Team” practices maneuvers in the bayou, tromping through nearly forty kilometers of treacherous and dangerous natural terrain.

Soon, the squad becomes lost and realizes it must procure transportation to traverse a river.  Accordingly, Sgt. Pool (Peter Coyote) orders the men to appropriate three Cajun canoes.  Worse, one of the soldiers, Stuckey (Lewis Smith) playfully opens fire on the Cajun owners. 

They don’t realize his weapon is loaded with blanks, and respond with sustained lethal force.  In the first attack, Sgt. Pool is shot down, and the Cajuns begin hunting down “Bravo Team.”

Inexperienced and scared, the reservists make a bad situation worse when they seek shelter at the home of a French-speaking trapper (Brion James), and blow up his house using dynamite.

As the reservists die in the swamp, one by one, the level-headed Spencer (Keith Carradine) and a transfer from Texas, Hardin (Powers Boothe) try to hold their own and maintain some sense of order and control.

They eventually escape the treacherous bayou, but end up in a remote Cajun village in the middle of nowhere…

“Well, you know how it is, down here in Louisiana, we don't carry guns, we carry ropes, RC colas and moon pies, we're not too smart, but we have a real good time.” 

Set in “the great primordial swamp,” Hill’s hard-driving polemic, Southern Comfort shreds typical bromides about “supporting the troops” and gazes instead, in rather even-handed (if googcombat, ill-prepared emotionally, intellectually and even physically in some cases.

Powers Boothe portrays Hardin, one of Southern Comfort’s main protagonists.  He’s a chemical engineer who recently transferred from Texas, and he immediately understands the brand of man he’s now training with.  He calls them “the same dumb rednecks” he’s been around his “whole life.” 

In short order, this descriptor proves tragically accurate. His fellow “soldiers” steal private property (canoes), and open fire – as a dumb joke! -- upon unaware American citizens, the local Cajuns. 

The same “dumb rednecks,” meanwhile, deride the Cajuns as “dumb asses” or primitives.  It’s true that director Hill has on occasion rejected the Vietnam metaphor encoded in his film, but it’s apparent that these soldiers view the Cajuns precisely as some Americans viewed “Charlie:” inferiors who couldn’t possibly pose a threat to modern, technologically-superior Americans.

Again, cementing this Vietnam allegory, the Cajuns in the film boast a strategic advantage because they are familiar with the harsh landscape of their “homeland.” 

Also, they resort to guerilla tactics, deploying deadly booby traps and other hazards against the lost soldiers.  Like the Viet Cong, then, the Cajuns have been underestimated, and prove more resourceful and cunning than the forces of the more technologically-advanced culture. 

This is very much the same dynamic we see in another film Walter Hill produced, 1986’s Aliens.  There, the titular xenomorphs with their underground (sub-level) tunnels (hive) were grossly under-estimated by soldiers packing high-tech weaponry.  They were derided as “animals,” but they executed brilliant battle strategy.  The idea in both instances is the arrogance of military might, and the misapplication of military power.

Much of Southern Comfort finds the Guardsmen lost, confused, and running in circles as the Cajun hunters pick them off one at a time. Making the plight of the Guardsmen even more dangerous and harrowing, they lose their leader early on, in the equivalent of a decapitation strike.  

Also, and again repeating aspects of the Vietnam War dynamic, the Guardsmen are absolutely unable to distinguish allies from enemies, “good” Cajuns from “bad” ones.  They think (literally) that all the enemies look alike and capture and torture one Cajun man they are convinced must be the one that shot the sergeant.   In short, in “alien” territory, the members of Bravo Team are completely cluelessness about the nature of things. Yet this doesn’t stop them from acting aggressively, impulsively and violently.

Roger Ebert writes persuasively about this metaphor, though notes the fact that it is plain early on: “From the moment we discover that the guardsmen are firing blanks in their rifles, we somehow know that the movie’s going to be about their impotence in a land where they do not belong.  And as the weekend soldiers are relentlessly hunted down…we think of the useless of American technology against the Viet Cong.

Tremendous tension is generated throughout Southern Comfort not merely by the presence of the almost invisible, omnipresent enemy, but in the exploitation of another brilliantly-expressed (and, yes… politically incorrect) fear.  This is, simply, the fear that your comrade-in-arms is a redneck idiot who could do something stupid at any time. 

For the most part, and excepting one or two important characters, the members of Bravo Team prove that they are not trustworthy, capable or smart.  It’s a two-front war: battling the enemy, and battling “self.”  This again seems like a metaphor for The Vietnam War, where incidents including the My-Lai Massacre raised questions and concerns about the military’s behavior.

The ineptitude of the Guardsmen is also apparent in the team’s misuse of their resources. They continually waste their limited bullets, so that in the end they can’t even rely on their superior equipment.  Ironically the group is termed Bravo Team according to protocol right up until the very end, yet this group has never been a team, and one senses that this is why things go badly.  There is no camaraderie, no respect, and no trust.  These men are thrown together and have little in common.  Unlike the Cajuns, who work in silent tandem and strike without warning, the Guardsmen blunder and failm except for a few – namely Hardin and Spencer -- who evidence common sense at least.

Southern Comfort shares core thematic elements with John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), though, as I’ve noted above, in a far more militaristic setting. Both films are set in treacherous, difficult landscapes.  Both films involve a diverse group of men who, individually, see things very differently.  And both films pit the “visitors” (or invaders) against another culture with superior knowledge of the landscape.

Southern Comfort adds to the Deliverance equation the dangerous and unpredictable factor of guns, and indeed, lots of them.   This addition changes the central dynamic a bit.  In Deliverance, the “invaders” on the river never actually did anything violent to the inbred mountain folk that attacked them.  Sure, they were insulting “city folks” who thought they knew better.  They didn’t belong on that river, and were rude to everyone they met.  But they didn’t strike back and wage war until their lives were on the line.  Their posture, in terms of violence, was largely self-defense.

In Southern Comfort, by contrast, Bravo Team steals property and opens fire on the Cajuns.  The Cajuns don’t have the luxury of “knowing” the attack occurred with blanks.  All they know is that they are suddenly under siege, on their own land.  The posture is different.  In this case, the Cajuns believe war is being waged against them.  And foolishly, Bravo Team has started that war.

The last thirty minutes of Southern Comfort are hair-raising and terrifying, as Hardin and Spencer survive the deadly traps and gun battles only to reach a Cajun village.  Hill provides a trenchant image of the soldiers’ plight here. They sit on the back of a Cajun transport, the truck carrying them to ostensible freedom. But placed nearby, in a key visualization, are two pigs trapped in cages.  The Guardsmen don’t realize it yet, but they are in as much imminent danger as the trapped animals. 

When the men reach the village and the increasingly fast, increasingly intense Cajun music becomes a near constant on the film’s soundtrack, the locals ominously ready two nooses in the center of town…either for Spencer and Hardin, or for the pigs.  This portion of the film, fostering ambivalence and paranoia, is almost unbearably suspenseful in my opinion.

Again, the soldiers (and the viewers too) have difficulty understanding this “foreign” enemy and discerning its motives.  In that “fog,” we begin to understand why people react fearfully and impulsively when in danger.  In essence, Hill makes us understand how terrifying it is to be in a place far from home, observing customs you can’t understand, and having to make “calls” that could result in your death.  This ability to place us in Hardin and Spencer’s shoes is one reason why the film doesn’t indict all soldiers.  It makes us “feel” their plight, and understand why mistakes happen.  Again, I count the film as pretty even-handed and judicious.  We see both really bad soldiers, and some really good ones.

Finally, the film ends in a frenetic, almost insane flurry of dancing, spinning and slow-motion, graphic violence as the Guardsmen are drawn into more battle, this time of a much bloodier, personal dimension.  The first time I watched this finale, I was literally up on my feet because it’s so damn intense, and because I felt so invested in the outcome.  Again, viewers wouldn’t feel that way if Hill were indicting all soldiers or making an anti-American film.

There’s no comfort at all in Southern Comfort, and that, finally, is the point.  The film effectively captures the “domino effect” that can occur once groups of armed men -- without leaders and without any real common sense, either -- start letting bullets fly.  Gunfire is a threshold that, once traversed, is difficult to come back from. “Survival is a mental outlook,” one character in the film insists.  Indeed, but survival is made exponentially more difficult when the guy in the fox hole next to you is a moron, or you don’t understand local customs, or you’re lost, or you’re out of bullets. 

This is the very crux of Savage Cinema ideas.  In the absence of safety and security, violence is, perhaps, inevitable. But in that situation I certainly hope there are level-headed guys like Spencer and Hardin around.  They fight to survive, but also never lose sight of the concept of civilization. 

Savage Trailer: Southern Comfort (1981)

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Battleship (2012)

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet.…If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”
-Stephen Hawking

Hollywood certainly has squeezed a lot of creative mileage lately from that quote excerpted above, and rightly so.  The idea of malevolent aliens raping and pillaging the Earth -- and wiping us out in the process -- is a powerful and frightening one indeed. 

It works so easily in our current global context, I suspect, because we seem to be developing new and powerful technologies daily, while our wisdom hasn’t necessarily gone hand-in-hand with the “improvements.”  It’s not difficult to imagine a race of desperate, resource-starved aliens casting their eyes upon our beautiful home world, and deciding that we’re ripe for the plucking.  It’s their survival or ours.

To one extent or another, films including Skyline (2011), Battle: LA (2011), and even The Darkest Hour (2011) have all been informed by this notion of alien imperialists looting our beloved Mother Earth and committing genocide against mankind.

This summer’s Battleship -- based on the famous game by Hasbro -- utilizes the same inspiration to generally positive effect.  Here, a distant planet in the “Goldilocks Zone” of its star system sends an advanced military scout team of five ships to assess our planet for invasion and/or colonization.  But its communications’ ship is destroyed in orbit, meaning that the aliens must harness our own satellite technology against us.

Cue the U.S. Navy, which by happenstance is undergoing a battle exercise in the Pacific just as the alien force set-up camp in the ocean. 

With only three naval vessels inside the aliens’ force field bubble and able to intervene in the crisis on humanity’s behalf, the Navy must stop the aliens from sending home a message indicating that the coast is clear for all-out invasion.

Leading the surviving Navy ship -- and quite unexpectedly so -- is untested Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch), a slack, rule-breaking officer who is about to be drummed out of the service for conduct unbecoming an officer.    

Does this insubordinate, unserious loser have what it takes to save the Earth and all-of-the human race?
In broad strokes, that’s Battleship’s narrative. 

And in short, this movie is big, dumb, and, well, fun.  The film’s first few establishing scenes, with a “Burrito Girl” booty run are so breathtakingly stupid you may be tempted to turn off the film at once and watch something else.  But try to hold on.

Because after an egregiously rough first act, Battleship picks itself up, dusts itself off, and offers a compelling tale of human vs. alien combat on the open sea.  Going in, one should understand that Battleship is a generic “blockbuster”-type film, not prone to subtlety or nuance.  But the special effects are extraordinary, and the cat-and-mouse battle between the denizens of Earth and the evil aliens grows increasingly tense and desperate.

Battleship is thus a movie you can fall in love with for at least one night. You may hate yourself the next morning. 

But gee whiz, what a night…

Directed by Peter Berg -- who brought television one of its best dramatic series ever in Friday Night Lights -- Battleship really goes for the gusto here, plucking every string in its overwrought, manipulative arsenal to prime entertainment effect.  There’s an East/West rapprochement (at Pearl Harbor, no less), a paean to soldiers wounded in war, and a twenty-one gun salute to the Greatest Generation.

I must admit, I indeed felt a lump form in my throat form while watching the eighty-year old veterans of World War II take the battleship U.S.S. Missouri out of mothballs to save freedom…one last time.  It’s cheesy as all Hell, but it works. By the time of the Missouri’s up-fit for battle against the evil aliens, I knew the movie had me in its grip.

Treading a bit deeper, Battleship features two qualities that help it land a cut above the Michael Bay Transformers movies.  These are: the depiction of the aliens as only slightly more advanced humanoids than us, and the nature of the decision-making during the crisis.

On the former front, the film -- again like Battle: LA -- pits man against aliens who are just a little bit ahead of us in terms of their technology.  They have a big advantage, but it isn’t necessarily a decisive one.  Once we learn their weaknesses, it’s game on.  Again, one must consider this dynamic a metaphor for the Iraq War.  There, our forces romped easily to Baghdad, but then had to face a homegrown insurgency.  I enjoy how the aliens are presented in Battleship because they seem like authentic soldiers, not just hissable movie villains.  They’re here to do a specific job, not engage in unnecessary brutality, and they are close enough to us in terms of physicality that we can recognize their motives.   They’re completing a mission they've been tasked with; nothing more.

On the latter front, Battleship puts its Navy personnel through the wringer, and again and again asks Hopper to choose between two equally unenviable and difficult options.  At some point, the discussion of the crew surviving the day is off the table. It all comes down to one question: how do we leverage whatever advantage we have to save the planet?  For all its shallow and generic qualities, Battleship asks its main characters to make some pretty tough calls.

I suspect the readership here already knows exactly what kind of film Battleship is.  It’s a film where handicapped soldiers get-up on their (prosthetic) feet and triumphantly walk, where cowardly scientists find the ability to stand up and fight, and where loveable losers step up and accept the mantel of responsibility.  It’s really just a re-purposed collection of all our old familiar war clichés.  And yet, somehow, the movie manages to be entertaining and engaging moment-to-moment, scene-to-scene.

Perhaps part of the reason Battleship succeeds as ably as it does involves lead actor Taylor Kitsch.  Unlike a lot of young actors today, he possesses a unique ability to simultaneously be in the action and comment on the action.  He’s nearly Harrison Ford-esque in this quality.

In other words, Kitsch manages to convey some sense of self and character outside the specifics of the script, thus making some of the (groan-worthy) dialogue somehow less important.  Kitsch effortlessly carried John Carter (2012) this summer, which -- pound-for-pound -- is a much better film, but he performs the same task ably here.  Don’t believe all those stories in the press about Kitsch being in two major bombs this summer and the catastrophe it means for his film career.  This guy is going places (and I fervently wish one of those places happened to be John Carter 2).

As for Battleship2: Sub Search, I don’t think we’ll be getting that sequel anytime soon, and that’s perfectly okay with me.  Battleship is a legitimately entertaining “blockbuster”-type sci-fi film with some downright rousing moments. But not every sci-fi blockbuster needs to be part of a never-ending franchise.

Battleship stays afloat, but I don’t think it would be sea worthy for more than this shakedown cruise.

Movie Trailer: Battleship (2012)

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Mattel Battlestar Galactica (1978 -1979) Toy Commercials

Memory Bank: Battle of the Network Stars (1976 - 1988)

I love the 1970s.  

There’s no other way to say it. It was such a weird and wonderful time, and sometimes I wish I could convey better the nature of the decade to my young son, or even to readers here on the blog who are too young to have lived through it.   

Sure, it’s the decade of Star Wars, Space: 1999, Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, The Spy Who Loved Me, Superman: The Movie, King Kong, Logan’s Run, Alien and many other personal favorites. 

And it’s also the decade of Atari, the Bicentennial Celebration, Mork and Mindy and Saturday Night Fever. 

It’s even the span of Bigfoot and Killer Bees, as I’ve noted here before.

But here’s the underlying factor that I remember so fondly about the pop culture landscape of the 1970s:

It had not yet been fractured, or as I like to put it, “balkanized.”

In the 1970s, cable television was still in its infancy, and the day’s news ran only at 6:00 pm, not on a 24-hour cycle.

We had three major networks from which to choose original new programming…and that was it.

Yes, we had local stations and PBS too, but our choices for televised entertainment were limited. 

The down-side of that limit, of course, is a lack of choice. 

The up-side is that everyone in America spoke the same pop culture language.  Everyone had seen The Twilight Zone, All in the Family, Star Trek, Gilligan’s Island, The Brady Bunch and Mission: Impossible.   

It was a limited universe, to be sure, but a shared one.  Those of Generation X (like me) still speak this brand of short-hand, one consisting of theme songs and memories that all began with the words “remember the one where….”

After those words, you could be talking Trek, The Twilight Zone or even Happy Days.

Looking back, I must conclude that this era of a shared pop culture ended, finally, in the late 1990s when Seinfeld went off the air. That series (and also The X-Files) seem to be the last of a breed.  They were TV series that all of America united to watch, and talked about around the coffee cooler the next day.

Today, you have to tailor your discussion of television (like Walking Dead, Mad Men and Dexter) to the right demographic, a much smaller demographic. I can’t talk to my mother-in-law about Fringe or American Horror Story, for instance.  She’s never heard of either…

Wonder Woman, Mr. Kotter, Howard Cosell, and Barney Miller join forces.
And this is the very reason that weird 1970s relics like Battle of the Network Stars are so entertaining and intriguing to me, even today, in 2012. 

This “contest” program ran on and off -- once or twice a year -- for roughly a dozen years, from 1976 to 1988.  The program was hosted by the incredibly pompous and bizarre Howard Cosell (1918 – 1995), and it brought together the stars of network television for some friendly outdoors competition.

You couldn’t do this kind of thing today.  Now, you’d have AMC, FX, MTV, HBO, Showtime, Fox, The CW, plus ABC, NBC and CBS all in competition. 

It would be Battle of the Network Cluster-fuck. 

But back in the day, a lot of awesome TV stars got together for these periodic competitions on ABC, and the shows were always…amusing to say the least.

I remember, in particular, the games of the year 1978, because they featured the stars of Battlestar Galactica: Richard Hatch and Maren Jensen, as well the Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno. 

William Shatner in the 1983 games.
And last but never least the sublime William Shatner was also a player.

Even at the time, I couldn’t believe I was seeing Captain Kirk and Captain Apollo on the same playing field, essentially.

On the Battle of the Network Stars, the various TV celebrities competed on teams (ABC, CBS, NBC) in events like kayaking, swimming, tennis, the baseball dunk, track-and-field, an obstacle course (?!), and my personal favorite: the tug of war.

I suppose I was about eight or nine when I watched the 1978 show, and to me it was just amazing to see my favorite characters interacting as real life people, instead of as Colonial Warriors or Starfleet officers.

This is how you know I’m a geek. I actually preferred watching Maren Jensen and Richard Hatch compete on Battle of the Network Stars than Nadia Comaneci competing at the Olympics. 

Nadia, after all, never battled the Cylons, Ovions, or Count Iblis.

As cheesy and silly as they were, The Battle of the Network Stars fostered a kind of intimacy with the actors on TV that we don’t really get today, because the entertainment universe is so splintered and so politically correct.  Even unscripted TV show performers of Jersey Shore-ilk appear in tightly-scripted PR appearances devoid of spontaneity and surprises.

On The Battle of the Network Stars, that wasn’t the case. You might see outbreaks of temper and vanity or moments of laughs and unexpected camaraderie.  It was humanizing in a way that today seems positively quaint. 

It’s not quite the same thing as being a game show contestant.  On Battle of the Network Stars, a lot of celebrities let their hair down, and I always thought was pretty cool. 

Below are some clips from the 1978 Battle of the Network Stars

Please revel in them – and in the 1970s -- as I do.  The first clip below features Hatch, Shatner, and David Letterman...

Pop Art: Battlestar Galactica/Marvel Edition

Collectible of the Week: Battlestar Galactica Action Figures (Mattel; 1978)

In 1978, Glen Larson’s Battlestar Galactica premiered on ABC television amid a merchandising and toy blitz from Mattel. 

The toy company released several small-size Colonial ships (and a Cylon Raider…), two large figures and a line of smaller, three-inch figures as well.

Released in the first Mattel figure series were Commander Adama (“the wise statesman,”) Lieutenant Starbuck (“flight leader”), The Imperious Leader (“Sinister Mastermind”), the Cylon Centurion (“evil warrior”), the Ovion (“Insect Enemy”) and Muffit the daggit (“robot pet.”)

The human figures -- Starbuck and Adama -- came garbed with capes and Colonial laser pistols but oddly, their faces boasted no color or facial detail.  The eyes and mouth were left unpainted, giving them a kind of “blank” pallor. 

The Cylon came with a fierce-looking, show-accurate rifle, and the Ovion was garbed in a kind of webby yellow shawl.

The second series of Mattel Battlestar Galactica figures consisted of the traitor Baltar, his robotic number one, Lucifer, a golden Cylon Commander, and a pig monster called a Boray from the episode “The Magnificent Warriors.”

There are two big omissions here as you likely noticed from the above tally. 

First, no Captain Apollo action figure was produced, and this is roughly akin to releasing a Star Wars line without Luke Skywalker, or a Star Trek line without Captain Kirk. 

Secondly, no female figures were produced.  I can understand why no Cassiopiea wasn’t made, given her non-kiddie designation as a“socialator” (prostitute…). But why on Earth wasn’t an Athena figure released?  Athena (Maren Jensen) was a shuttle pilot and bridge officer, for goodness sake.  I can’t think of another 1970s action-figure toy line off-hand (from Mego Star Trek, Black Hole and Buck Rogers to Kenner Star Wars to Mattel Space: 1999) that featured no female characters. 

At the time -- as a nine year-old kid -- the bigger concern for me was the glaring lack of a Captain Apollo figure.  I would sub-in a Han Solo figure, but the hair wasn’t right, obviously, and neither was the costuming.
I have very fond memories of my Granny from Texas, Tippie, buying me several of these Mattel BSG figures (and even doubling up on the Cylons so I could create an army…), and how thrilled I was to have them.  

Today, I still have all my original figures, though they are very heavily played with, and a few mint-in-box.  If memory serves, Lucifer is among the rarest and most prized of the bunch.

Lunch Box of the Week