Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "One of Our Pylons is Missing." (September 27, 1975)



One of the qualities of Land of the Lost that I’ve always very much admired is the series’ sense of internal consistency, at least during the series’ first two years.

Watching the episodes, even today, one gets the unmistakable feeling that things happen in Altrusia for a reason.  Sure, the forces at work aren’t the governing forces of nature as we know and understand them here on Earth.  The rules are different. But the point is that the rules make a brand of sense, or at least they usually do.

In “One of Our Pylons is Missing,” for example, viewers discover how this unusual lost world is powered.  Chaka (Philip Paley), Holly (Kathy Coleman), Will (Wesley Eure) and Rick (Spencer Milligan) discover a strange hole in the ground where a pylon should be, and find that it leads down -- for lack of a better word -- to the planet core.

But this is no ordinary planet core. Instead, they discover a huge red, glowing mass there.  It is “like a sun,” as Rick notes.  This mass is the main source of energy for all of Altrusia, and the weird “heart” consumes matter, transforms it into energy, and then distributes that energy throughout the land via all the pylons.  It’s a perfect system…if it’s fed and supported.

Unfortunately, Rick, Chaka, Holly and Spot all end up orbiting the giant sun or heart, and are nearly consumed by it.  Spot gets zapped, dragged in, and then absorbed.  Finally, Marshall and Holly give the mass a terrible “heart ache” by reflecting back its absorption ray with their mirror signaling devices. 

I still recall the first time I saw this episode.  It was a Saturday morning in 1975, and we were visiting my grandparents’ house in Verona, NJ.  I sat down to watch the show in the family room, and was absolutely blown away by the visuals, especially the moment where poor Spot gets digested by the giant power source. 

Today, of course, the special effects don’t hold up particularly well.  In fact, they seem kind of clumsy now.  But the important thing is that when I was a kid, the effects successfully showcased a world (and a place) unlike any I had ever seen.  Today, it’s plain that action figures are utilized to depict Holly, Rick and Chaka getting tossed down the hole into the heart chamber.  Worse, the chroma-key effects showing the threesome orbiting the coruscating heart are crude and a little funny, to say the least. 

Still, the idea of the Marshalls finding (unexpectedly) the power source for the Land of the Lost is a great one.  As a child, I loved the concept, especially since there was a dangerous aspect to it.  For a while, it indeed looks like Holly’s goose is cooked.  But this episode fulfilled the promise of exploring a new world, and finding things in that new world that made sense, and were consistent with what came before.  That’s no small deal.

When I watched “One of Our Pylons is Missing” again for this review, I could more also detect the flaws in the story, to be certain.  The first ten minutes of the episode consist largely of the Marshalls’ trying to understand why Chaka is upset.  He keeps trying to explain; they keep trying to translate.  It’s tiresome, and a very, very long scene.

Once the hole opens up and we have our first look at the “master scheme of things” in the Land of the Lost  -- “the most vital part” as Marshall establishes -– the episode picks up substantially.  So I still have nostalgic appreciation for “One of Our Pylons is Missing” because it is one episode I remember watching in first run. But, yes, it could certainly be paced a little bit better.

That said, this was a Land of the Lost episode that absolutely inspired by five year old son, Joel.  After watching it, he quickly transformed his Star Wars Death Star toy into “the heartbeat of the Land of the Lost” and then proceeded to feed it every small, loose toy he had nearby, from game pieces and dice to mini-figures and accouterments.  Then Joel insisted that we overfed it, and had the heartbeat of the Land of the Lost…vomit. Instant mess!

Still, it’s nice to know that -- dated special effects and all -- “One of Our Pylons is Missing” still inspires imaginative and creative play.



Next week: “The Test.”

Friday, September 21, 2012

Late Night Blogging: James Bond Movie Trailers (Roger Moore Era)























James Bond Friday: Licence to Kill (1989)


The sixteenth James Bond film, Licence to Kill (1989) debuted in a brutal summer-time season, a span that scuttled not only Agent 007, but the starship Enterprise (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) too.  The big films of the 1989 summer season were Tim Burton’s Batman, and another action sequel, Lethal Weapon 2, from director Richard Donner.

I’m not exactly certain why it’s the case, but arriving in this particular summer -- along with these specific films -- the long-lived and durable James Bond apparently felt a bit old hat and long-in-the-tooth to some critics and viewers. 

Yet close examination reveals that this perception has nothing to do with the film itself, a venture which presents a forward-looking and new direction for the cinematic exploits of Agent 007. 

In short, the James Bond who appears in Licence to Kill is more serious, violent, human and “real” than in any franchise film yet made, even during the Golden Age of Sean Connery.

Additionally, the film pits Bond (Timothy Dalton) not against a megalomaniacal (but fantasy…) mad-man attempting to dominate the world, but against an enterprising if brutal (reality-based) Colombian style drug lord, Franz Sanchez (Robert Davi).  

Licence to Kill further eschews established Bond tradition by making this “mission” an unofficial one, a personal vendetta.  Bond is bloodied and battered in the film too, not the unflappable, unruffled fellow in the immaculate white dinner jacket and black tie.

In other words, Licence to Kill actually takes plenty of creative chances with its approach, style, and story-line.  It's  an ambitious, era-changing, tradition-shattering type film.

And yet, Licence to Kill was not reviewed in that fashion by many mainstream movie critics.

Writing for Time Magazine, Richard Corliss noted: “In Licence to Kill, the bad guys' hideaway blows up real good too. And there are some great truck stunts. A pity nobody -- not writers Michael G. Wilson, and Richard Maibaum nor director John Glen -- thought to give the humans anything very clever to do. The Bond women are pallid mannequins, and so is the misused Dalton -- a moving target in a Savile Row suit. For every plausible reason, he looks as bored in his second Bond film as Sean Connery did in his sixth.”

This response is baffling to me, since Dalton shows rage, grief, and remorse in this film, a full-range of emotions almost never before expressed by James Bond, at least not all in a single film. And Carey Lowell’s competent, resourceful, funny Pam Bouvier is a pallid mannequin?   Wow…

At The New York Times, Caryn James’ review also indicated that the film represented a familiar, tired story:  “Though ''Licence to Kill'' is his second appearance as 007, Mr. Dalton is still the new James Bond, and the only element in the 27-year-old series that can offer a hint of surprise.”

Clearly, this observation isn’t even remotely true, given the serious, bloody approach to the material, as well as the nature of Bond’s mission, off her majesty’s secret service, and operating alone.  Those seeking a “hint of surprise” would surely find it here: Bond bloodied and angry, not dapper and detached, battling a ripped-from-the-headlines opponent without his trademark license to kill.  Right?

Talked-down by a false media narrative, Licence to Kill disappeared from theaters quickly, the Timothy Dalton 007 era came to an unhappy end, and James Bond was missing from movie theaters until 1995’s Goldeneye starring Pierce Brosnan.  That film -- though admirable -- promptly re-asserted the franchise’s spectacular fantasy elements, kept Bond on the MI6 payroll, and made certain to feature plenty of humor.

But a funny thing happened.   Over the long years since 1989, both Timothy Dalton’s performances as Bond and a general appreciation for Licence to Kill began to grow…radically.   

More than that, however, Licence to Kill is the (mostly) unacknowledged prototype of the mega-popular Daniel Craig era of Bond (Casino Royale [2006], Quantum of Solace [2008], and the upcoming Skyfall [2012]). 

Like Dalton before him, Craig plays an edgier, broodier, more determined (and perhaps self-destructive), human version of James Bond.  And, he’s certainly been seen to go rogue on more than one occasion, also like the Dalton incarnation here.

Derided in its time and lost for a decade, Licence to Kill and Timothy Dalton are now -- very much so -- the fathers of our 21st Century Bond.  

Other than these notes of historical interest, however, Licence to Kill remains one of the best films of the whole Bond cycle because it not only offers the Bond-ian requisites -- spectacular action, beautiful women, and great villains -- but because the film actually boasts a coherent organizing principle, a leitmotif about the meaning and nature of  loyalty.  This well-dramatized concept is what makes Licence to a Kill not just a great Bond film, but a great action film outside the series.  The movie hangs together in a way some Bond films simply do not, and relies on human characters and flaws, not merely spectacle.

“In my business you prepare for the unexpected.”

In Licence to Kill, James Bond and his long-time friend in the C.I.A., Felix Leiter (David Hedison) capture the vicious drug-lord Sanchez in the Florida Keys. After they do so, best man Bond attends Felix’s wedding to beautiful Della (Priscilla Barnes).

An unscrupulous, avaricious prosecutor, Killifer (Evereett McGill) helps Sanchez escape from custody in exchange for a two-million dollar bribe. The escaped drug-dealer then sends his goon, Dario (Benecio Del Toro) to kill Della and bring Felix to him.  At a waterfront warehouse belonging to an affiliate named Krest (Anthony Zerbe), Sanchez feeds Leiter to the sharks.  He leaves a note with the badly injured agent: “He disagreed with something that ate him.”

Bond discovers Della dead and Leiter gravely-wounded, and swears vengeance.  He teams up with a tough pilot, Pam Bouvier (Carey Lowell) to infiltrate Sanchez’s operation in Isthmus City, “south of the border.”

In pursuing this task, however, Bond resigns from Her Majesty’s secret service and becomes, officially, a rogue agent.  This designation hardly stops him, however, and after Bond ingratiates himself with Sanchez’s organization, he begins to use Sanchez’s obsession with loyalty to destroy him.

“Don’t you want to know why?”

Licence to Kill gains much of its narrative and thematic momentum by exploiting two elements of the popular Zeitgeist, circa 1989.  

The first is the story of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel in Colombia.  Pretty clearly, Franz Sanchez is a figure meant to represent Escobar, a filthy rich cocaine dealer who often operated with impunity and compared himself, on one occasion to God (because he could order someone dead…and they would die that day.)

The second inspiration, oddly enough, is Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), a commentary on the “greed is good” aesthetic prevalent on Wall Street at the time, and perhaps today too.  If you combine these two elements, what you see in Franz Sanchez is a man who believes money is God, and that so long as he is rich he can buy politicians, lovers, connections, and the world itself.   He can even -- he believes -- buy loyalty.

Another character, Killifer, also believes “greed is good” when he sells out a good man (Leiter) for personal wealth, a two million dollar bribe he calls a “chunk of dough.”  There’s even a critique and comparison here – especially in the person of Truman Lodge – between wealthy businessmen and drug dealers.  One type doesn’t necessarily seem more unscrupulous than the other in amassing a fortune…one (the drug dealer) just accumulates cash and dispatches enemies...more directly.  But both worlds are cutthroat and play for keeps.

As we quickly detect, Sanchez’s only real loyalty is to accumulating more cash, and yet throughout the film he demands absolute personal loyalty from his ring of associates.  He has made a mantra of loyalty.  “Everyone in my business is 100% loyal,” he boasts.

Few other Bond films surround their villains with such a well-delineated circle of retainers as Licence to Kill does here. There’s Truman Lodge (Anthony Starke), the accountant, a Wall-Street type obsessed with flow-charts and data points, and who sees gigantic dollar signs in every coke deal.  There’s body-guard Heller (Don Stroud), a soldier who has some inkling of what kind of monster Sanchez really is.  And then there’s Milton Krest, an associate who wants to remain under the radar, doesn’t like Sanchez’s “showiness” and who is incredibly cautious.   Widen the circle a bit and there’s also the killer Dario, and Professor Joe Butcher (Wayne Newton), a carnival barker/showman who lets himself be used as a “cover” for Sanchez’s drug-smuggling operation.

The reason that this circle gets more attention than in the average James Bond film is that Bond seizes an opportunity to exploit Sanchez’s character flaw, his obsession with personal loyalty.  Playing Iago to Sanchez’s Othello, Bond drop hints to Sanchez that his people are working against him.  And because Sanchez doesn’t really understand loyalty (and the fact that it is a two-way street, essentially), he believes the lies.  He thinks loyalty is only bottom-up, not top-down.  And because he is not loyal to those around him, it is easy for Sanchez to believe the worst of them.

Bond’s campaign of psychological warfare is what really differentiates this Bond installment from others.  In many Bond films, Agent 007 out-maneuvers his enemies in a variety of ways, but rarely does he utilize the villain’s psychological foible against him as the primary weapon.  Think how few of Bond's "enemies" he himself must kill here.  Sanchez offs Heller, Krest and Lodge himself.  Bond doesn't have to lift a finger. The only "gadget" at Bond's disposal are his words...carefully-selected, carefully-spoken words targeted right at Sanchez's weakest spot.

Licence to Kill's final, fiery moment of conflict even reflect this idea.  Sanchez, awash in gasoline, pauses before he kills Bond...machete still in hand.  Bond asks “don’t you want to know why?”  He means: don’t you care why I betrayed you?  Why I was disloyal?  Sanchez can’t resist knowing the answer to this burning question, and so Bond uses the moment to kill him, to literally burn him up with lighter.  That lighter (Leiter?) is a symbol of Bond's mission, and loyalty to his friend, Felix.  Bond trumps Sanchez's disloyalty with his own sense of authentic loyalty, then.  Friendship beats money, roughly-speaking.


Krest: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.

Heller: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.


Lodge: This is how Sanchez rewards loyalty.



Don't you want to know why?

Bond thoroughly manipulates Sanchez by exploiting his fears of disloyalty, but, uniquely, the film also appears to make some commentary about Bond’s sense of loyalty.  His loyalty to a friend -- to Felix Leiter -- goes beyond all reason, and becomes a consuming, driving, relentless obsession.  Bond’s perceptions about this mission become so out of whack that he scuttles two legitimate investigations of Sanchez, one being conducted by Hong Kong, another by Pam Bouvier, herself.  Bond is not able to step back and “trust” the system, to get Sanchez.  His ego gets in the way.  Like Sanchez, he possesses a flaw.  His emotions (and loyalty) have not allowed him to see the bigger picture.

I suggest this is wholly understandable given the trauma Bond experiences.  When he sees Della dead -- in her wedding dress, no less -- he no doubt remembers the death of his beloved Tracy on their wedding night.   All the buried memories and pain come back, and it is clear that Bond transforms Sanchez into the Blofeld of his memory.  Making Sanchez pay for Della’s death is Bond’s way, also, of making Blofeld pay…again.

But on the issue of trust, Bond learns some lessons from his friends. At great personal and professional risk, Q (Desmond Llewelyn) travels to Isthmus City to assist the rogue agent.  Moneypenny goes against orders to help him, and to help get Q there.  And even though Bond has not been romantically “faithful” to her (by bedding Lupe Lamora [Talisa Soto]...), Pam is an unswerving ally and friend to Bond.  They all support him, and yet they also have a concern for him; a concern that he has lost his sense of perspective.

Late in the film, Bond rights himself -- after nearly killing Pam in a fit of rage -- and becomes aware that his barometer of trust is off.  But the upshot of all this behavior is plain.  Licence to Kill is one of the few Bond films, pre-Casino Royale, that involves a character arc for its lead character.  Bond grows and develops in this film, and he isn’t portrayed as the suave superman, but rather a very flawed and tragic character, whose own psychological foible -- rage – gets the better of him.

Another way to put this is that you get in Licence to Kill absolutely everything you want and expect from the Bond movie experience, and then much more.  This is a movie that better helps you to understand who James Bond is as a person, and it’s difficult to say how that conclusion would be true of a film (that I enjoy) like Octopussy (1983), or A View to A Kill (1985), for example.  There's a brand of intimacy to this film that some of the other Bonds lack.  What gives Bond his licence to kill?  Is it his government's backing?  Or is it his desire to right the scales of justice?

In terms of action, Licence to Kill is pretty terrific, particularly in the thrilling, sustained, climactic set-piece involving Sanchez’s gasoline tankers and a rural highway.  The scene builds and builds, and features jaw-dropping stunts, including a dazzling moment in which a careening truck (on fire) tumbles through the air, above a plane in flight.  Roger Ebert writes well about this great final sequence:

“There were moments when I was straining to spot the trickery, as a big semi-rig spun along tilted to one side, to miss a missile aimed by the bad guys.  But the stunts all looked convincing, and the effects of the closing sequence is exhilarating.”







Beyond the stunts, Timothy Dalton absolutely excels as Bond in this film.  He’s called upon to undergo a series of personal crises here, and gives the audience a fully human Bond who pushes himself to the limits of human endurance, both in terms of injury (as in the finale) and in terms of control over his emotions.  Some people worried that this Dalton Bond was “too sensitive,” but his is -- pretty clearly -- the Bond of the Ian Fleming books.  He smokes too much, drinks too much, and when he lets himself feel his emotions, he’s absolutely off the rails.


A Bond who remembers.

A Bond who grieves.

A Bond who makes mistakes.

A Bond who bleeds.

In some sense, an appreciation of Licence to Kill must finally come down to the qualities an audience desires from a Bond picture.  Does it want to see a spectacular film in which a man of impeccable style, instincts and agility defeats evil with a wink and a joke?  Or a film in which it detects the roiling, conflicted emotions driving a human being to achieve extraordinary things in the face of unbelievable adversity?  

I would argue that Licence to Kill is a superlative example of the second paradigm, and that, additionally, Licence to Kill has become the prototype for 21st century Bond, a film series which champions the very same virtues.

Movie Trailer: Licence to Kill (1989)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Buck Rogers Day: Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center (Mego; 1979)




In 1979, Mego released a whole line of very cool Buck Rogers spaceships and toys, including the Directorate Starfighter (my favorite ship from the show), the Draconian Marauder (known as a Hatchet fighter on the series...), a Land Rover, and a Laserscope Fighter (not a design from the series). So it only makes sense that the same company would market a place to dock these ships, the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center.

Christmas 1980 was the holiday of Buck Rogers for me. I'll never forget going over to my aunt and uncle's house in Summit, New Jersey and opening toy after toy -- all Buck Rogers models and action figures (though, as I recall, this was also the Christmas of The Empire Strikes Back and my giant AT-AT. But that's another story...).

Here, the toy box suggests: "Issue commands to Buck and monitor his flight pattern with this authentic replica of the Buck Rogers Star Fighter Command Center!"

The toy also includes "2 level deck with radar screens and railings," "Cut-out landing and launch pad for Buck's Star Fighter," and "landing control console for use with Mego Buck Rogers 3 3/4 action figures and all other poseable 3 3/4 action figures."

What remains most interesting about this toy is that what you see displayed on the box is not necessarily the toy you get inside. On the box, for instance, the upper deck of the landing pad shows a chair from Star Trek's U.S.S. Enterprise bridge. In the actual toy, a different style chair is molded to the deck.

Also, the 
decals on the box and the decals of the actual set are completely different. I know now that Mego was juggling a number of "space opera" licenses at the time, including Star Trek, Buck Rogers and The Black Hole, so there may have been some franchise confusion. Just a guess.

This just goes to show you that back in the 1970s and 1980s, even great toy companies like Mego weren't necessarily paying close attention to the exact details of their (admittedly wonderful and now incredibly collectible) products. This isn't really an "authentic replica" of the landing bay on the series.

But that's okay, it's still a fun toy.  And as you can see from the photos, Buck's Starfighter Command Center today holds a cherished spot in my home office, even today.

Buck Rogers Day: Galactic Playset (HG Toys; 1979)



By the time Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) aired on NBC, I suppose you could state I was primed to love the show.  I had "grown up" through Star Wars (1977) and Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) and had seen The Black Hole (1979), Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and Moonraker (1979).  

But the nice thing about Buck Rogers was that the series, unlike many of those other titles, didn't take itself too seriously.  The program, starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray, boasted a great sense of humor, at least during the first season.

Mego released a good-sized line of Buck Rogers toys and vehicles back in the day, but HG Toys also got into the act, recycling and retro-fitting a pre-existing play set as the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century Galactic Play Set.  It came complete with "over 35 pieces" and a nice diorama/backdrop.  

This HG Toy set included a "space station with movable ladder, 2 Draconian marauders, 2 starfighters, 8 space commandos, 10 aliens," and "fully detailed figures of Buck Rogers, Wilma Deering, Killer Kane, Dr. Huer, Tigerman, Draco, Twiki and Princess Ardala."

Also present: "a colorful diorama set-up and assembly instructions."

I have fond memories of playing with this particular play set, because I took it on a cross-country vacation with me.  My family traveled (in our new Ford van) from New Jersey to California and back over the span of six weeks.  Space was tight since we were traveling for such a duration and this one of the few toys I was allowed to bring along.  I set it up in camp sites from Lake Michigan to Lake Tahoe.   On days where we seemed to be endlessly driving through desert terrain, I also set up the Galactic Play Set in the back of the van and played with it, though the bumps in the road could occasionally wreak havoc.




Buck Rogers Day: Laserscope Fighter (Mego; 1979)



In 1979, the post-Star Wars, Glen Larson version of Buck Rogers took the sci-fi world by storm.  I was nine year old at the time, and both the feature film and the follow-up TV series on NBC were right up my alley.  

The franchise starred Gil Gerard as Buck, Erin Gray as Colonel Wilma Deering, and Pamela Hensley as Princess Ardala.  The tone of the enterprise was cheeky and knowing, and the special effects, for their day, were absolutely stellar.  Down to the sexy opening credits, the film version played like James Bond in the future, or in space, perhaps.

Accordingly, I was thrilled when I began to see toys from Mego lining the shelves at Toys R Us.  Among the first of these was a spaceship toy with a design you never saw featured on-screen: the “Laserscope fighter.” 

This sharp-nosed space fighter “with simulated lasers and explosions” featured a cockpit for the 3.5 inch Buck Rogers figures.  But more interestingly, it possessed a rear-mounted view screen through which you could track, target, and incinerate enemies.

The box explains: “Look through the view-screen and line up your target, press the switches – see and hear the lasers fire – the target will appear to explode right before your very eyes!”

Also according to the box legend, this Buck Rogers Laserscope fighter featured:
·         Laserscope viewscreen
·         Twin stub wing handles
·         Telescopic focus control
·         Realistic laser sounds
·         Swing-open cockpit
·         Fits any Buck Rogers figure.

Of course, I must confess that when I was generously given the Laserscope fighter as a gift, I was a bit disappointed because I really wanted the Buck Rogers star fighter, a craft which was featured on the show and boasted an infinitely cooler design aesthetic. 

But once I actually got the star fighter for the Christmas of 1980, I could enjoy the Laserscope fighter as a kind of “alternate” ship for the intrepid Buck.  The fighter sort of fit with the universe of the TV series, because Buck often ended up going undercover for the Earth Directorate, flying ships of various designs.  So it was kind of cool to be able to play out that scenario with a ship other than an “official” one.

Also, if I understand my toy history right, the “Laserscope fighter” was also released in Europe, but as a toy from a different Mego license: The Black Hole (1979).  

Of course, the design of the ship doesn’t fit that particular franchise any more than it resembles something you saw on Buck Rogers

Buck Rogers Day: "The Satyr"



"There are strange viruses here on this planet."

- Cyra (Anne E. Curry) warns Buck about the dangers of Arcanus in "The Satyr."

One of the real bright spots of Buck Rogers' abbreviated second season in 1981 remains the episode titled "The Satyr" written by Paul and Margaret Schneider and directed by Victor French.

On first glance, however, this development seems unexpected since the episode's storyline stems from a long-standing and ubiquitous sci-fi TV trope: "the single mother in jeopardy."

In this all-too-familiar genre TV chestnut, a series protagonist encounters a lovely single mother and her child (usually a son) who are being menaced by some malevolent outside force.  The series hero then becomes a stand-in husband/father to the duo, defeats the menace, and -- in a heartbreaking moment -- must say farewell to his new family so that he may continue his episodic adventures romantically unimpeded. 

Examples of the "single mother in jeopardy" convention can be found on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979) in "The Lost Warrior," where the convention is played well as a variation on Shane (1953) and as a commentary on gun control, in V: The Series as "The Wildcats" (wherein Marc Singer's Mike Donovan steps in to save a Mom and her daughter from the Visitors), and on MacGyver, "To Be a Man," which featured the late Persis Khambatta as Zia, the single mother in jeopardy from Russian military forces.

In Buck Rogers': "The Satyr," Captain Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) explores the planet Arcanus, the site of a failed Earth colony while the star ship Searcher is away for ten days on a mission to "sweep" an asteroid belt.

On the planet surface, Buck soon meets Cyra (Anne E. Curry) and her son, Delph (Bobby Lane), the only two settlers who have remained behind on the planet.  Buck soon discovers that the duo is regularly harassed by Pangor (Dave Cass), a half-man/half-goat or "satyr" who seems obsessed with them.  Buck steps in to battle the violent Pangor, but is bitten by the satyr.

Over a period of days, Buck begins to transform into a satyr himself, a creature obsessed with women and wine...and little else.

After being bitten, Buck learns that Pangor is actually Jason Samos, the founder of the Arcanus colony and Cyra's much-mourned husband.  She has been unable to leave the planet behind because she still feels attached to him, despite Jason's transformation into a rampaging monster.

As I've noted above, the "single mother in jeopardy" cliche has been depicted on television many times, but "The Satyr" illustrates nicely how a science fiction program can explore contemporary issues that "regular" dramatic programs either cannot,  or if they do seems too on the nose, like an Afterschool Special.

As my friend and the exemplary blogger Uncle Lancifer of Kindertrauma noted here on a previous Buck Rogers retrospective (for "Time of the Hawk,") this episode of the series sub textually concerns alcoholism; and the effect of alcoholism upon the entire family unit.  This subtext and social commentary actually elevates "The Satyr" above its familiar and cliched premise and makes it one of Buck Rogers' finest hours.
In "The Satyr," Cyra and Delph live a relatively happy life, until Dad -- Pangor -- shows up at their home, demanding wine and violently threatening Mom. 

In one well-staged scene, we watch with Delph through an exterior window as, inside the home, Pangor pushes Cyra onto her back (behind the kitchen table), and threatens physical violence.  He wants more wine, you see, even though, as Cyra tells him, "he drank it all the last time."  The subtext here isn't just violence, but sexual violence, at least in terms of the staging/blocking.

What we get in "The Satyr," particularly in this camera view from the outside-in, is the notion of a child dwelling in a terrifying household of alcoholism and domestic violence, and seeing/experiencing things that no child should.  Worse, the P.O.V. suggests isolation and helplessness.

At several points during the episode, Delph is also policed by his mother not to be too conspicuous, so as not to gain the attention of the alcoholic/Satyr.  At one point, Delph plays "flute grass" and at another point he calls out innocently for his Mom.  In both instances he is quickly "hushed" -- "Don't shout!" --  lest the angry man of the household focus his violent attention upon him.  Half the battle is staying off Pangor's radar as he pursues his vices.

Additionally, the boy, Delph, soon sees himself as his mother's defender, eventually fighting the angry Pangor and telling the beast to "leave my mother alone."   In the homes of many alcoholics, it is indeed the child who eventually becomes the protector of the Mom,or other siblings, and who stands-up to the offending drinker.

As for Cyra, she's dramatized in this episode as the traumatized, exhausted victim of sustained domestic abuse.  She hides bruises on her neck from Buck, and, quite understandably, doesn't like "to be touched."  She also has much trouble letting go of the "good man" who was once her husband, clinging to old photo albums which reveal happier, more romantic days.  Much of the blocking depicts Cyra cowering or retreating.  She is someone who is used to being terrorized and fears being struck.

Cyra also maintains the family home on Arcanus -- despite the danger to herself and her son -- in the misguided belief that somehow Pangor can change.  In fact, Cyra spends her life appeasing the violent satyr.  "If he's supplied with enough [wine]," she informs Buck, "he's content" and leaves the family alone.

At the same time that she must handle Pangor, Cyra worries that the "virus" that affected her husband -- a metaphor for alcoholism -- could affect her son too "when he's a man."  In other words, the cycle of abuse and violence could continue to the next generation.  Yet by keeping Delph on Arcanus, in a terrorized home, Cyra makes it more likely that this will happen to Delph.

This social commentary in "The Satyr" is intriguing by itself, but the episode gains some real unexpected juice and power when Buck actually grows sick with "the virus "and quickly loses his status as the white knight.
Buck sets up house with Cyra and Delph (even teaching the boy to fly his shuttle craft) and then -- just when things are good -- succumbs to the same "virus' and begins to show signs of physical violence like Cyra's previous husband.   In one sequence, Buck tries to hide evidence of his transformation from Delph, ashamed to show his true nature as a "monster" to the boy he clearly cherishes.

Here, the subtext isn't about alcoholism so much as the nature of (some) men in general, and how some women seem to attract these monsters, one after the other. It's something in their individual nature and lack of self-esteem perhaps, and part of a deadly symbiosis involving abuser and victim. "The Satyr" tries to make viewers understand why Cyra stays on Arcanus, imperiled by one satyr after the other, and gives us some insight into the mentality of a perpetual victim.  In this case, Cyra just can't let go of the past and the (vain) dream that Pangor could again become the husband she once loved.

course, Buck -- as our stalwart series hero -- is able to kick the virus and save the day. Still,  it was pretty daring in terms of 1981-era television to create a metaphor for alcoholism and then see the likable series protagonist succumb to that  "disease."  In visual terms, Buck's horns literally start to come out, as he transforms from man to beast.

I am old enough to remember the promotional materials and interviews for the second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  The overall promise by the producers was that Buck would become more recognizably and fallibly human, and less the quipping, boogeying, Burt Reynolds-in-space figure of the first season.  Whether or not that promise was fulfilled entirely is up for debate, but certainly "The Satyr" showcases Buck at his most human and interesting.  He exhibits real remorse when he believes he is responsible for the death of Cyra's husband, Jason, and then must battle his growing "dark side" as the satyr virus takes hold. 

This episode is also intriguing for the way it ties the myth of the Satyr (a wine loving man/goat) to the alcoholism/domestic violence symbolism, and for the implicit "reason" behind alcoholism provided by the show.  Jason had the "pioneer spirit," you see, and had hoped to turn Arcanus into a "garden of Eden."  When that dream failed, he couldn't handle it...and that's when he first acquired "the virus."  Again, this idea fits our contemporary world well.  What leads people to drink?  Failure?  Tragedy?  Loss?  Desperation? 

All of my commentary on this episode no doubt suggests that "The Satyr" is some labored "message" show about an "important" life lesson (see: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Symbiosis.")  But that's not actually the case at all.

Like the best social commentary in science fiction television (from The Twilight Zone to Star Trek to The X-Files to Buffy), this is an episode that plays ably on two levels.  You can watch it just as a gripping, good adventure, or as a story with a bit more relevance and meaning in our own world.  In other words, the metaphor for alcoholism holds powerfully (right down to the blocking of the actors), but you aren't hit over the head with a "lesson."

At the very least, "The Satyr" adds some much-needed depth to an old TV trope.  In this Buck Rogers episode, the single mother was again in dire jeopardy, but it's the nature of  that jeopardy and the source of the jeopardy that make this installment meaningful and unique, even after three decades.

Buck Rogers Day: "The Guardians"



The second season of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century is not generally high-regarded among fans. In its sophomore sortie, the Glen Larson series eliminated the characters of Dr. Huer, Dr. Theopolis and the Draconians, downplayed Buck’s (Gil Gerard) strong sense of fish-out-of-water humor, and moved Buck from sexy secret agent work on Earth to a deep space assignment aboard the Earth ship Searcher. These format changes cast the new Buck Rogers rather firmly in the mold of Star Trek or Space: 1999 with the new series acting as a vehicle for “civilization of the week” stories. 

In that particular format, success or failure rests largely on how well interesting and likable main characters interact with intriguing or convincing alien cultures. The Fantastic Journey (1977), for example, got the former aspect of that alchemy right (the likable main characters), but had a difficult time coming up with good stories, and original alien cultures to explore. In broad terms, this was the very problem with the second season of Buck Rogers. Episodes that involved mischievous dwarves, (“Shgoratchx!), or backwards-aging men spray-painted gold (“The Golden Man”) failed to impress or persuade either mainstream audiences or die-hard sci-fi fans. Some second season episodes were better, including the dynamic “The Satyr” (reviewed here), a show that pinpointed a great “alien” metaphor for alcoholism and its impact on families. 

The subject of this cult-tv flashback, “The Guardians” may not work as effectively as “The Satyr” on a metaphorical level, but I still estimate it’s one of the best episodes of Buck Rogers’ second season, in part because it deploys a tried-and-true Star Trek technique for better developing the dramatis personae.

On Star Trek, an alien disease or weapon was often utilized to examine emotional aspects of the characters that they normally keep hidden. “The Naked Time” or “The Naked Now” are two such notable examples.  In those episodes, a disease that mimicked alcohol intoxication “exposed” the underneath characteristics of our favorite Starfleet officers. The character revelations were sometimes funny, sometimes extremely moving. 

That general idea informs “The Guardians,” only an alien artifact is the catalyst for the character reveals.

Here, Buck and his new friend Hawk (Thom Christopher) investigate a “Terra Class satellite.” Although the exploration of the planet is supposedly “strictly routine,” Buck and Hawk soon hear a distant bell ringing over the wind's howl. They follow the noise and discover that the bell tolls for Janovus XXVI, an old man now on his death bed. This ancient “Guardian” informs Buck that he has been waiting for Captain Rogers for over five hundred years. Now, he must pass on to Buck – “The Chosen One,” an ancient green Pandora’s Box. This jade artifact must be transported to the old man’s unnamed successor and only a person of both “the past and the present” (like Buck) can get it to its destination successfully. 

That night, Buck sleeps in proximity to the jade box and dreams of his life on Earth. In particular, he experiences a vision of his mother, one from the eve of his disastrous mission on Ranger 3. After the box is brought back to the Searcher, it begins to have strangely deleterious effects on the ship and crew. The ship inexplicably goes off course and makes a setting for the edge of the galaxy.

 This trajectory especially concerns Lt. Devlin (Paul Carr), since he is due to be married on Lambda Colony in only a few days. 

When Admiral Asimov (Jay Garner) is exposed to the box, he imagines his crew…starving to death on the long journey in the void from the edge of the galaxy to Lambda. When Wilma (Erin Gray) is affected by the box, she sees herself as a hopeless blind woman wandering the corridors of Searcher alone. Then, in a matter of an hour, Wilma is blinded in real life, and realizes her vision was prophetic. Even Hawk is affected, and he experiences an emotional moment with his dead mate, Koori (Barbara Luna). 

As the Searcher reaches the edge of the galaxy, Buck realizes the box must be passed on to a Guardian, a “saintly figure” seen throughout many cultures and on many worlds. When a Guardian does not possess the box, chaos ensues, and that sense of chaos explains a lot of Earth’s violent history. Buck realizes that the Time Guardian is the very one that they now must seek… 

By and large, Buck Rogers is a pretty light show, a fact which distinguishes it from the original Battlestar Galactica or Space: 1999. There’s often a great deal of humor on Buck, and a tremendous amount of physical action too. In some sense, “The Guardian” showcases how the series could have approached more serious sci-fi storytelling.

 This episode is not without flaws (and the ending looks cheap...), but the crew member visions of people starving to death and going blind are authentically disturbing. I remember watching the program for the first time in 1981 and feeling pretty jolted by Asimov’s vision of a crew dying from hunger…and looking like zombies.  This moment resonates, and is probably the strongest in the show, despite the fact that Gil Gerard, in the vision, hardly looks emaciated...

"The Guardian" also delves into some pretty dark territory regarding erstwhile Lt. Devlin. While Searcher is lost and heading to the edge of the galaxy, he learns that his fiancĂ© on Lambda Colony has died.  She was killed while out searching for him and his lost ship. Again, this bit of drama is just a bit darker than the typical Buck Rogers show, and here it all works well.  A sense of panic and anxiety builds up as "The Guardian" reaches it final act.  

Frankly, the writing for the main characters here is also amongst the best in the series' second season. We learn how heavily Asimov carries the burden of command (imagining a future of starvation, in which he is incapable of helping his crew…), we come to understand Wilma’s fear of appearing vulnerable or being pitied. And we are reminded once more of Hawk’s utter isolation and alone-ness. 

Of all the phantasms featured in "The Guardians," Buck’s may be the least effective. It’s great to meet a Rogers family member, since we know very little of the astronaut’s family history, and yet Buck doesn’t really do or say anything important in this dream.  You’d think Buck might want to warn his Mom about the coming nuclear holocaust…tell her to go into hiding, or something. Instead, she’s the one worried about his mission. 

Buck’s dream is a bit off tonally, though it’s fun to see the special effects from “Awakening” recycled as a callback to the Buck Rogers pilot.   In toto, I would have preferred to see a dream in which Buck revealed some personal flaw, foible or fear.  Like the fact that he was afraid of never again making a meaningful connection with the world around him.  I don't know.  But something other than an idyllic dream of lemonade and small-town Americana.  This dream tells us where he came from, but in a sense, we already know that.  Better to explore how he feels about where he was, or where he is, or where he might be headed.

Like many cult-tv programs, “The Guardians” also imagines an external force as being the guarantor of peace or war in the galaxy. On the original Twilight Zone, the great (and incredibly atmospheric) episode “The Howling Man” postulated that man would experience peace only during those intervals during which he held the Devil captive. Whenever the Devil escaped captivity, world war would occur.  

Likewise, in Star Trek’s “The Day of the Dove,” an alien monster that thrived on “hate” was believed responsible for the violent, war-like aspects of humankind’s long history. 

Here, the Guardians preserve galactic peace, but during the uncertain periods of succession, elements of the space-time continuum “jump” their tracks, and chaos is the result.  In all these situations, "fate" is determined specifically by some agency outside of man's dominion and yet he can  still struggle to rein the situation back in during each crisis.  

Probably the best aspect of “The Guardians” is simply the fact that the episode creates a sense of terror (especially in the scene wherein the box is jettisoned from the ship…but then re-appears aboard her…) without ever focusing on a humanoid villain. There are no bad guys to be found here, at all, only a strange alien artifact that the crew of Searcher, including Buck, doesn’t quite understand. 

This conceit was very much of the Space:1999 playbook: terror is forged because man doesn’t have all the answers, and his curiosity or other emotions only create more danger. It’s nice to see Buck Rogers operate on that more intellectual, spine-tingling level, at least for a short duration. Had later episodes followed this relatively intelligent formula, the second season might today be much better perceived.

I don’t often return to the second season of Buck Rogers today because of some of the really dreadful episodes, but “Time of the Hawk,” “The Satyr” and yes, “The Guardians” reveal how the changes from season one to season two could have truly created an interesting space opera and interesting, early 1980s alternative to Star Trek.   I don't know if the second series was too rushed, it was difficult to find good writers, or there were problems elsewhere that needed to be addressed first, but at least for "The Guardians" everything seems to come together for Buck.    

In this case "opening up Pandora's Box" gave the sci-fi series a pretty visceral and intriguing hour.