Saturday, October 20, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "The Pylon Express" (October 25, 1975)

This is my son’s all-time favorite episode of Land of the Lost, and I understand why.

In “The Pylon Express,” young Holly (Kathy Coleman) unexpectedly enters a pylon and takes a trip through time and space.  She visits the land of Altrusia in the distant past when the Lost City was a thriving metropolis.  She visits an alternate land of the lost, but one possessing a poisonous atmosphere (shaded in violet).  

Holly also meets aliens and creatures great and small, and even returns briefly to 1970s California, her home…where she catches a frisbee in flight.

Best of all, “The Pylon Express” involves a great mystery.  When Holly is about to follow a strange bouncing life-form out of the pylon, she pauses when she sees a note scrawled in the sand.  It reads, simply: “Holly Don’t.”

The message (rightly) gives her pause, and suddenly she sees her little strange friend explode in the poisonous atmosphere.  At the end of the episode, when Holly thanks Will and Marshall for leaving the warning in the sand (on their separate journey on the pylon express), they inform her that they didn’t write it.

If they didn’t write that note, then who did? 

It’s a unique and interesting puzzle, and part of the reason I love Land of the Lost so much.  This episode harks back in some crucial to the great entry "Elsewhen" from the first season, written by Dorothy Fontana, in which Holly met her future self.  That future-self, named Ronnie/Rani informed the girl that there would come a time when Holly would be alone in the Land of the Lost, without her father and brother. 

And of course, that’s what happens, for a time anyway, in “The Pylon Express.”  Similarly, one wonders if Holly’s future self traveled through time to save Holly here, and wrote that note in the sand herself.  But of course, how did she ever survive through her trial in the first place?

Again, I should just pause here and ask you to consider how many kids’ Saturday morning shows from the 1970s involved temporal incursions, alternate worlds, and open-ended mysteries.  As I've always said,  Land of the Lost succeeded by never insulting the intelligence of its young audience.

In addition to this mystery, Land of the Lost is a great Holly-themed episode.  All alone and confronted by terrifying ideas (the loss of her family, and transportation through time and space), Holly’s constant -- and very adult -- refrain is “what would Daddy do?”  This reliance on lessons learned from a parent shows terrific character and maturity, and I’m glad the series allowed Holly to grow up and show good-decision making skills.  In too many episodes, she is relegated to cleaning up the cave or cooking, and it's great that "The Pylon Express" does right by the character.

“The Pylon Express” is such a fun and imaginative show -- and my son enjoys it so much -- because of Holly’s colorful and extended trip through time and space.  The episode takes her to a snowy mountaintop, to the world of that strange bouncy thing (a robot?) and to a terrifying world where a giant machine seems to be absorbing materials from the atmosphere.  It looks like a malevolent vacuum cleaner crossed with the Martian war machine from the Pal version of War of the Worlds (1953).  

Again, none of these realms are explained, just briefly visited.  It’s very…cool, and represents a vast opening up of the Altrusiverse.

Also, very interestingly, this episode suggests that the pylon express will open again in three years or so (when the three moons align in the night sky), which means that the Marshalls --  if they can survive -- have a guaranteed way home.  Of course, as we know from the events of the third season, this does not occur…

Next week: “Nice Day.”

Friday, October 19, 2012

Late Night Blogging: The Worlds of Filmation (1960s Edition)

The Films of 1983: Nightmares

Although originally produced for television, the theatrically-released horror anthology Nightmares (1983) gave the bigger-budgeted Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) a run for its money, at least in terms of quality. 

Where The Twilight Zone movie sought to remake familiar old stories, adding just a few new details and stylistics in the process, Nightmares, directed by Joseph Sargent, lunges full-bore instead into horror territory. 

It does so by exploiting the then-popular slasher sub-genre for one macabre tale (“Terror in Topanga”), and the 1983 obsession with evil computers/technology for another (“The Bishop of Battle.”)  

But commendably, all the tales featured here express something critical about our human nature.  This social commentary is light and non-preachy (which is good), and it focuses like a laser on our foibles.  Two stories concern the perils of addiction, one revolves around spirituality or belief, and another concerns the blowback that occurs when we don’t treat others as we might want to be treated.

Though not without faults, Nightmares is probably a better movie, pound-for-pound than Twilight Zone: The Movie.  In part this is so because Nightmares seems to know and understand precisely what its mission should be: to scare the living daylights out of the audience

Homage and tribute (the motivating forces in Twilight Zone: the Movie) are valid and respectable filmmaker choices on an intellectual or cerebral basis, but at some point, audiences want -- at a basic level -- for a horror movie to consistently scare them. Twilight Zone’s final tale, George Miller’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” accomplishes that task ably, but it’s too little too late

By the same benchmark of generating goose-bumps and screams, Nightmares largely succeeds.  Technically, it isn’t always more than workman-like in its visual compositions, but one can still appreciate that Nightmares wastes no time and no breath on anything but delivering horrific business.

Greetings Earthlings…try me if you dare…”

In Nightmares, the viewer experiences four ‘bad dreams” or macabre tales. 

In the first, “Terror in Topanga,” a suburban wife (Christina Raines) makes a late night run for cigarettes even through a psychotic killer has been reported loose in the nearby Topanga area.

In the second nightmare, “The Bishop of Battle,” a video game arcade jockey J.J. (Emilio Estevez) attempts to beat an impossible video game, “The Bishop of Battle,” by reaching its storied 13th level.  He achieves his goal, but the outcome is not what he might have wished for.

The third tale, “The Benediction, stars Lance Henriksen as Father Frank McLeod, a priest who has lost his faith and re-discovers it, unexpectedly, after a run-in with a malevolent pick-up truck apparently driven by the Devil.

Finally, “Night of the Rat” features a nice suburban family -- the Houstons (Richard Masur, Veronica Cartwright, and Bridgette Anderson) -- unexpectedly battling an over-sized and quite bothersome rodent in their house: a monster rat. 

“Terror in Topanga”

The first story in Nightmares is one based on a widely-disseminated urban legend, and one first reported in 1968.  This story is known as “the killer in the back seat,” and it universally involves a woman who goes out alone at night and comes to learn that there is a killer hiding in her car. 

Many variations of the story involve the woman driver discovering her dark passenger only accidentally, when someone she distrusts (such a suspicious-seeming male gas station attendant…) finds a crafty or unexpected way to notify or rescue her.  In large part, the moral of the urban legend is probably two-fold.

First, and in undeniably sexist terms, women shouldn’t go out alone at night.  And secondly, don’t judge a book by its cover.  That creepy guy with the lazy eye might save your life.

However, “Terror in Topanga” adds a new wrinkle to this familiar old tale by involving a timely vice as the reason of the night-time road trip. Here, Raines’ character can’t make it through the night without a cigarette, and despite the warnings and the danger, she blunders ahead and her path crosses, inevitably, with the psycho-killer.  The particular moral of this story is: don’t smoke.  Smoking will kill you.  And if the cigarettes don’t do it themselves; then the addiction surely will.  Raines’ character puts a fine point on this theme when she notes “Non-addicts cannot understand.”  Indeed.

“Terror in Topagana” is short and sweet, and authentically scary. I’m sure you’ve felt this sensation yourself, but there’s a special adrenaline rush, when you drive out alone at night…when everyone else is slumbering.  Maybe you’ve got to pick up someone at the airport.  Or maybe you just want to be alone and take a drive on a country road.  Regardless, there’s electricity in the night air, and a feeling that you are somehow “alone” and stealing time as the rest of the world sleeps.  “Terror in Topanga” expresses this feeling very well, and then layers in the terror expertly.  First, we learn a serial killer is on the loose. Then we get our red-herrings (like the creepy gas station attendant), and finally, we get the didactic message.  A pack of smokes isn’t worth dying for.

Horror movie fans may note that Urban Legends (1998), also opened with “the killer in the back seat” tale.  If you’ve seen Nightmares, then the Urban Legends opening scenario plays like a moment-by-moment remake…and not necessarily an improvement.

“The Bishop of Battle”

As I’ve noted in my other “films of 1983” pieces here on the blog, malevolent video games and computers were the flavor of the day for blockbuster films in this era.  Movies from Blue Thunder to WarGames to Superman III to Never Say Never Again all featured the thematic and narrative through-line involving dangerous technology run amok. 

In the same vein, Nightmare’s second tale, “Bishop of Battle,” gazes at the video game arcade culture of the day and pinpoints another addict, J.J., and his electronic world.  Unlike Raines’ character in “Terror in Topanga,” however, J.J. is addicted to video games; so much so, in fact, that his grades in school are dropping and he’s on the verge of losing his girlfriend. J.J. (Estevez) even physically looks like a drug addict with his sweaty palms and brow, and red-blood shot eyes. 

J.J.’s addiction leads him to an obsessive, non-stop campaign to beat Level 12 of the “Bishop of Battle,” a video game domain with attack ships, enemy soldiers, and whizzing laser beams.  Eventually, J.J. does win the challenge, but the game strikes back, manifesting its minions and world in our consensus reality. 

The story’s surreal (yet oddly disturbing…) sting in the tail/tale finds J.J. now enslaved inside the video game world, the (controlled) avatar for all future players.  His life is perpetual servitude to the Bishop, and again, that’s a metaphor for addiction.  The habit is your master, here literally and metaphorically. 

“The Bishop of Battle” is likely the best remembered of Nightmares’ four tales, and I submit that’s because at the time of the film’s release it felt like the most cutting-edge story. Video games were a national obsession at that point, and many parents and authorities loudly and publicly wondered if video games could be bad for youngsters.  Like all the best horror tales, “The Bishop of Battle” effectively exploits a contemporary societal fear, whether or not that fear happens to be rational or realistic.

“The Benediction”

Nightmares’ third story feels like an unholy hybrid of Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) and the 1977 Universal movie, The Car.  Here, the ever-intriguing Lance Henriksen stars in what is essentially a one-man show, grappling with the Devil made manifest in…an automobile.   

Whatever the role, Henriksen never fails to hold the screen with his magnetic, powerful presence, and “The Benediction” is further aided by some good photography of the desert locales. 

This story concerns faith, and one man’s “test” of faith, in particular.  Henriksen’s face and eyes -- which carry a lot of expressive, experiential mileage -- allow us insight into this man’s character and past, even when there is precious little dialogue to help the actor out.

It does seem silly, however, that the Devil would choose this particular victim to go after on the isolated highway, considering that Father McLeod has already abandoned his faith.  It seems like the Devil has already won in this case, so why put-the-pedal-to-the-medal and drive the fallen priest back into the arms of a belief system he has already rejected? 

A cleverer ending to the segment might have revealed that God was behind the attacks…masquerading as the Devil.  Sure that surprise would have offended some folks, but it would have made more sense, and lived up to the proverb that God moves in mysterious ways.

Despite the nonsensical nature of the story, one can admire the streamlined efficiency of “The Benediction.”  It’s just one character with a compelling problem, an open highway, and a malevolent pick-up truck.  Horror doesn’t need much more than that in terms of elements to thrive, and so “The Benediction” is worthwhile, especially since Henriksen occupies the center of the drama with such authority.

“Night of the Rat”

Nightmares fourth and final story finds a nice suburban family overcome by a giant rat.  A yuppie dad transgresses badly and kills a giant rat baby, leading the over-sized rat mommy to launch a vendetta against his own child.  In short, this story is about how one’s actions can boomerang back.

I recall that when I first saw Nightmares on VHS in 1983, I felt that “Night of the Rat” was the scariest story of the movie, and therefore the best note to go out on.  However, today the special effects don’t entirely convince, and there are even better giant rat movies from 1983 I could recommend instead, like the outstanding Of Unknown Origin.   The cast here is terrific, undoubtedly, but the final moments disappoint.

Interestingly, both rat films -- Nightmares and Of Unknown Origin -- involve yuppies battling vermin in their perfectly-constructed, perfectly-ordered worlds, a commentary, I would submit, on the flimsy values on which the yuppie (young upwardly-mobile professional) movement was based. 

When your operational premise in life is me first, me second and me third, it’s all-too-easy to throw a monkey-wrench in it.   But again, perhaps that’s the point of both stories.  In “Night of the Rat,” a yuppie who prizes his family treats another family badly, and comes to regret it.  In some senses, it’s a story about empathy, a concept totally missing from the yuppie philosophy.

Nightmares features no wraparound story, no narrator, and precious few explanations about its diverse, interesting monsters (serial killer, video game demon, the Devil, and a giant animal…) The film proves a nice contrast, in that way, to the over-girded, bloated and schizophrenic Twilight Zone: The Movie. 

While it’s true that this anthology didn’t have the Twilight Zone’s monetary resources to rely upon, this movie just hangs in there, plugging and plugging, expertly telling one basic but solid horror story after the other.   It’s a low-budget pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. 

Movie Trailer: Nightmares (1983)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #42: Fringe

A reader, Brian, writes:

“As best as I can tell from your site, it looks to me that you haven't written about Fringe since Fall of 2008. If that's true, is that because you gave up on the show, or is that because you just didn't feel like writing about it any longer? I ask simply because I watched the show early on and frankly was not very impressed, but I gave it another chance a bit later on in its run, and I could not be happier that I did.

If you have continued to write about the show, and I missed it, I apologize. If you continue to watch it and don't feel like writing about it, or simply don't like it, that's fine as well. But if you gave up on it early in its run, I think you owe it to yourself to give it another chance. I think you will be pleasantly surprised. If nothing else, they took your advice and spent an awful lot of time concentrating on the relationship between Walter and Peter Bishop, which you suggested in your earlier pieces.

Thanks for your time, and again, thanks for the great blog and books.”

Brian, thank you for your kind words about my blog and books.  I also appreciate your question, and actually you are not the first person to ask me here about Fringe. 

In correspondences both public and private, several Fringe fans have asked me to take a second look at the series.  When this many people (good-naturedly) ask me to take a second look at something, I weigh the feedback very heavily.

You’re also correct in your belief that I haven’t reviewed specific episodes since 2008.  The reason I stopped originally is because I found the series extremely formulaic, and something of an X-Files rip-off.

That established, I have  indeed decided it is time to give Fringe another  shot (the way I gave Vampire Diaries a second go recently), and see if I can power through the weak first season episodes and get to the good stuff that a number of fans have now mentioned and identified.

In fact, I’m going to make a multi-season Fringe purchase on today.  So hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, there’s Fringe-centric cult-tv flashback in the offing here…

Don’t forget to ask me a question at

The Top Five: James Bond Villain HQs

The Bond films are renowned for their memorable and unique villains.  These villains are often characters with weird physical quirks (like Dr. No’s mechanical hands), and they employ weird and fearsome minions (like Jaws, Oddjob and Nick Nack).  

But no matter how strange the villains or their soldier goons, you have to give it to them for one area of success: they have really great bases of operation.

Since 1962 and Dr. No’s base on Crab Key, the Bond villains have made their homes in some of the strangest and most picturesque locations imaginable.  These headquarters have been underground, in the sky, and even in outer space. 

Without further ado, here are top my five favorite villain headquarters.

5. Whittaker’s House, The Living Daylights (1987). 

The military poseur, Brad Whittaker (Joe Don Baker) – a pretty clear corollary for Oliver North -- owns a gorgeous home in Tangier.  But it’s not just any home, it’s a veritable museum dedicated to war, and the history of war.  The entrance hall features a row of statues that physically resemble Whittaker, but wear the garb and uniforms from various historical conflicts. 

Then there’s Whittaker’s play room, where he has on display several dioramas with miniature soldiers.  Here, he obsessively replays famous battles.   Beneath these displays, Whittaker can open and shut slim automatic drawers (with a handy remote control) filled with state-of-the-art weaponry and ammo.  The film’s climax finds Bond trapped in Whittaker’s diabolical play room, battling (live) antique cannons and 21st century “machine” pistols at the same time.  Although this villain’s HQ is not as vast or as intricate as many in the Bond canon, I have a soft spot for it because I too am a collector (of sci-fi toys, not war toys…), and so I enjoy seeing how Whittaker’s personality is expressed in terms of his “man cave” or surroundings.

4. Piz Gloria in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969). 

Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas) has lived in some great headquarters over the years (in Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Diamonds are Forever, to name a few of the films), but Piz Gloria, a mountaintop “allergy clinic” feels like a nice winter vacation home for the psychopath, maniac, and leader in exile of SPECTRE.  

The headquarters at Piz Gloria is inaccessible except by helicopter (and dangerous mountain climbing…), and boasts a suite of rooms much like a modern hotel. There’s also a gorgeous, multi-windowed “Alpine Room” for taking in the sunset or sunrise.   Beneath the attractive exterior, Blofeld maintains a laboratory for generating bio-weapons. 

Another perk: Save Piz Gloria comes fully equipped with the most gorgeous international beauties you could imagine, including Catherine Schell (Space: 1999).  One of the great Bond action scenes also occurs on the exterior of this mountaintop hideaway, as 007 (George Lazenby) slides across a sheet of ice, mowing down SPECTRE soldiers with his machine.

3. Atlantis in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

This is the headquarters of Stromberg (Curt Jurgen), and a vast complex that can survive underwater (in case of nuclear war), but also rise to the surface occasionally.  Atlantis is to be the castle of a new, underwater fiefdom when its new lord and master Stromberg brings about the destruction of the world.

In terms of design, the tripod-style base is quite imposing.  In fact, it seems to be created entirely for fearsome effect, like a weird metal sea bug or something.  Any future underwater colonies or domes would stand in its shadow, with Stromberg and his monstrous headquarters looming over them. 
Inside Atlantis, meanwhile, Stromberg enjoys a lush office with aquarium windows on all side. Just watch out for the elevator, though: a trap door leads right down to the shark tank.

2. Drax’s Space Station in Moonraker (1979). 

As I’m sure other critics have noted many times, Moonraker is approximately the same movie as The Spy Who Loved Me.  Just substitute Drax (Michael Lonsdale) for Stromberg and an orbiting space station for Atlantis, and voila, instant Bond spectacular. 

In this case, Drax has manned his impressive space station with perfect men and women, “models” who will re-colonize the Earth after he de-populates it using a deadly toxin.  The space station is the most inaccessible of all Bond villain headquarters because it is perched in space, but also capable of defending itself from attack. 

Like Stromberg’s Atlantis, the station was designed to dominate a new breed of man.  The young Adams and Eves on Earth would conceivably look to the sky above and know that their “master” (A God?”) is watching over them…for good or ill.  The space station is a great design, reminiscent of Gerry Anderson’s work, and it’s a shame to see it get blown up at film’s end.

1.Blofeld’s Volcano headquarters in You Only Live Twice (1967).

This base is the prototype or trend setter for all future Bond films.  In You Only Live Twice, Blofeld (Donald Pleasence) operates out of a vast subterranean base inside a dormant volcano in Japan.  The outer walls are impregnable, and entrance can only be gained to the post via a sliding door that resembles a mountain lake.

The interior of this base, replete with monorails, command deck, and a rocket launch station, dwarfs just about any set in the Bond canon.   It’s an amazing creation, and yet one that seems wholly believable, if spectacular.  Blofeld even has a nice piranha pool (and collapsible walkway) leading to his roomy office.

You Only Live Twice is the 007 movie that really established SPECTRE as a world menace capable of interfering with the Eastern and Western super-powers in a big way.  The interior set reflects the grandeur of Blofeld’s vision…and evil.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Star Trek Mego Toy Commercials

Memory Bank: The Battle of the Bonds

The year 1983 was widely termed -- at least in genre circles -- “The Battle of the Bonds,” because Sean Connery was returning to the silver screen as agent 007 for the first time in over a decade (since Diamonds are Forever in 1971).

However, in a strange quirk of scheduling, Connery’s film, Never Say Never Again was set to go head-to-head with Roger Moore’s sixth outing as James Bond, Octopussy.  

Originally, both films were to be released in the same summer, which meant that audiences would have the opportunity to -- head-to-head -- size-up the Bonds and their performances.

Never Say Never Again, however, blinked first, and it was moved back to the autumn of 1983.  This shift left 007 some space at the box office, and Octopussy was a major hit in the summer of Return of the Jedi, Superman III and WarGames.

But I still remember the term “Battle of the Bonds,” and a special "Double Bond" Starlog Magazine cover of the celebrity death match.  There were also heated debates in my middle-school cafeteria about which Bond was definitively the best.

Although I had grown up with Roger Moore, I had discovered the Connery Bond movies on ABC TV reruns and come around to the thinking that while Moore was a heck of a lot of fun, Connery was really tops.

My friends in the sixth grade didn’t agree, and they let me know it. 

I remember them stating that Connery was too old to play Bond (though, actually, Roger Moore is a little older, if memory serves), and that his films lacked the special effects wizardry and humor of the Moore epics.  I responded that Connery was tougher, and that his films had greater virtue in terms of style. 

I would like to think the lunchroom battle was a draw, but I was the only one taking up Connery’s cause, so I probably lost.  I think what finally did me in was an exchange in which I noted that Roger Moore used stuntmen too much.  My best friend promptly replied that Connery only needed stunt people…in the love scenes.


After that point, all was lost.  I occasionally wonder what my friends, all-grown-up, think today, if they happen to even remember these particular conversations.  Did their opinions change?  Or did later Bonds Dalton, Brosnan and Craig supersede Moore in their affections?  I do know that my best friend and I were both huge Dalton fans after The Living Daylights (1987).

In terms of the actual movie battle between Never Say Never Again and Octopussy, I felt that Never Say Never Again won on character, thanks in large part to Klaus Maria Brandauer, Barbara Carrera and Connery himself.  But Octopussy scored higher on action, spectacle, and score.  

In terms of Bond performances, Connery carried the day not because he is a better actor necessarily, but because Never Say Never Again allowed him to (charmingly) acknowledge his age, and he showcased a grace and ease that indeed comes with age.

By contrast, Roger Moore in Octopussy wore his pants hiked-up over his belly-button like a senior citizen and yet still had to play the physically-perfect, non-aging, white dinner jacket version of James Bond.  I have no doubt that Moore could have more-than-adequately pulled off some of the same humor that Connery did in his film, but the Octopussy script simply afforded no opportunity.

Again, my buddies beat me like a drum in arguments over the two films. They insisted Never Say Never Again was dull and lacking in action.  Meanwhile, none of them could stop talking about Octopussy’s (admittedly-brilliant) pre-title sequence involving the mini-plane called an Acro-Star. 

So, in my middle school cafeteria, anyway, Roger Moore won the Battle of the Bonds hands down, and if I’m not mistaken, Octopussy also won out at the box office.  I still prefer Never Say Never Again and Connery’s portrayal, though I freely acknowledge my deep affection for Roger Moore and his 1973–1985 era.

Do you remember the Battle of the Bonds?  And if so, who was your winner? 

Pop Art: Aurora Monsters Edition

Collectible of the Week: Star Trek: Mission to Gamma VI Playset (Mego; 1976)

I recently featured here the Mego U.S.S. Enterprise bridge set from the seventies.  In 1975, Mego also produced a great Star Trek toy to stand alongside it, the rare Mission to Gamma VI playset.

This Mego playset offered a landing party-style adventure for the young Star Trek fan, showcasing a an alien landscape and headquarters.  

As you may recognize, the plastic mold of the giant alien statue or icon roughly resembles Vaal from the second season Star Trek episode “The Apple.”  Still, there are some interesting variations here, namely the miniature “Gamma Creature” aliens, also described in a TV commercial of the day as “Lilliputians.”

This eighteen-inch high playset came with the mountain statue and throne, a platform and a trap door leading down to a subterranean cave  It also included a giant lizard-like glove (or a “glove creature”) meant for grabbing and detaining your Starfleet crew.  The statue’s reptilian mouth was also movable, and the eyes could glow-in-the-dark.  The mountain is an impressive hunk of plastic, even today.

I must confess, however, that it always bugged me that the Gamma Creatures were out of scale with the Mego Star Trek action figures. It would have been a lot cooler if they had been of the same size, and not so cartoonish in design.  They look kind of silly, frankly.

I remember how I purchased a second-hand Mission to Gamma VI playset in 1987 from a small dealer in Nutley, New Jersey.  He sold it to me for fifty dollars, replete with box and also some loose Mego figures of Green Goblin, Iron Man, the Star Trek Neptunian, and the Gorn.  Alas, I no longer own the box.  It got thrown away when I was in college, in 1990, a fact which drives me crazy.  (That was also the span during which I lost my box for the Kenner Imperial Shuttle from Return of the Jedi.)

My second-hand Mission to Gamma VI set was missing the subterranean cave architecture and glove.  So it was really just the Vaal-like mountain, the inhospitable landscape, the platform, and the mini-aliens.  

Still, my son Joel has gotten a lot of play out of it lately, as it remains proudly on display in my office.  When his Decepticons or Renegades need a base, Joel uses the Mission to Gamma VI statue.  He does so, he says, because it looks evil.

This is a relatively rare Mego Star Trek set, and I hear that it is difficult and expensive to come by.  I would love to find one with all the pieces and the box, but I’m not holding my breath.  

Below, you'll find the TV commercial for the Mission to Gamma VI statue.  You'll notice that there it seem to molded in blue or gray, rather than green. 


Model Kit of the Week: Blue Thunder

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Late Night Blogging: Hanna-Barbera (1990s Edition)

Cult-TV Blogging: Brimstone: "Slayer" (December 11, 1998)

The 1998-1999 Fox horror series Brimstone conjures up another strong installment with “Slayer,” an action-packed tale which pits hang-dog, world-weary Detective Stone (Peter Horton) against a merciless Carthaginian warrior from the Punic Wars, Hasdrubel Skaras (Richard Brooks).  

This unusual nemesis can actually “blend into in the landscape,” and he revels in “the slaughter of innocent bystanders.”

The episode commences with a bang when Hastrubel Skaras unexpectedly challenges Stone at a city diner.  The “slayer” punctures one of Stone’s eyes (the windows to the soul, remember...), and nearly sends our protagonist straight back to Hell.  

Naturally, the Devil (John Glover) isn’t too happy about this one-sided confrontation, and suggests to Stone that perhaps he ought to be employing Hanstrubel Skaras to recover the escaped convicts, not the detective.

Using a deadly Hittite blade, the ancient slayer sets out to murder the widows of several police officers in Los Angeles, a violent ploy to make Stone stop hunting him, and even join up as an ally.  The threat is clear: by killing police widows, Hastrubel reminds Stone that his wife, Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk) is also a police widow, and therefore also one of his targets.  

Out-matched, Stone finds himself in something of a tactical conundrum.  If he warns Rosalyn of the threat, he may be leading the (nearly) invisible Skaras right to her.

Given these strategic problems, "Slayer" is the first episode of Brimstone in which we feel Stone is truly up against an enemy he really may not be capable of defeating, and that fact makes for a compelling hour.  

Brooks is great here, too, just as he is in Firefly’s “Objects in Space.”  Brooks brilliantly portrays a loquacious, physically-intimidating villain, one who projects a cunning intelligence.  “Slayer’s” opening scene in the diner is something of a masterpiece as Skaras talks and talks and talks, almost hypnotically.  Watching this scene, I realized that Brooks could sell me anything.  His delivery is mesmerizing, and I love the way he relishes each threat, each insinuation.

The good vs. evil conflict is resolved imaginatively in “Slayer” when Stone determines his enemy’s only weakness.  Hastrubel may be able to blend in with the landscape, but when he moves about, he still creates movement; he still displaces air.  Accordingly, for the final battle Stone sets up candles throughout a Catholic cathedral and then traces Hastrubel’s movement by their flickering.

Amusingly, you may find yourself thinking of James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984), while watching “Slayer.”  

Much like Arnie’s Terminator, the Slayer here goes after the mother of one target, and then kills that matriarch so as to learn the target’s location.  And, when saving one widow, Stone -- wearing a Kyle Reese-like trench coat  --remarks: “Come with me if you want to live,” echoing Reese’s first words to Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton).

Despite such similarities (or perhaps tributes…), “Slayer” makes for a very tense confrontation between a warrior of the past, and a warrior of our age, and in the process allows the audience to ponder how much things have changed in a millennium. 

A thousand years ago, harming the innocent was apparently no big deal. Life was cheap.  In fact, it was a joke to men like Skaras.  But today, soldiers and police go out of their way to avoid hurting non-combatants, at some risk to themselves. A thousand years ago, such mercy was considered a sign of weakness.  On Brimstone, however, it is a sign of Stone’s character and strength.  

Also, a thousand years ago, this monstrous soldier, Skaras, could rely on his dark magic to deceive his opponents. But today, Stone has science on his side, so maybe it's a fair fight.  It’s a great and involving dynamic, regardless.  “Slayer” is such a fun episode because we get to measure Stone against Skaras, and consider who remains the greatest of all warriors.  Not incidentally, we get to ponder the fact that both warriors ended up in the same place: Hell.

Next week: “Repentance.”

The Films of 1983: Blue Thunder

John Badham had a banner year in 1983 as the director of two blockbuster techno-thrillers: War Games and Blue Thunder. 

Both films involve the bugaboo of advanced computer technology, which was, generally speaking, the broad theme of many genre films in 1983.  Films from Superman III and Never Say Never Again to the anthology Nightmares circled around the frightening notion that our technology might run amok, or at the very least fall into the wrong hands. 

Blue Thunder is among the most entertaining of this 1983 techno-bunch, and it pushes the pedal hard on action and spectacular fireworks. Although some of the character dialogue is undeniably clunky, the movie nonetheless accurately forecasts the rise of the modern surveillance state, one fact that makes the film relevant in 2012.  Today, however, the helicopter prototype’s spying capability looks positively quaint.

Certainly, Blue Thunder owes some creative debt to 1982’s Firefox, another film concerning a deadly hi-tech aircraft and a protagonist battling PTSD following the Vietnam War.  Yet the action here is so rousing that it is easy to gloss over the film’s occasionally contrived plot mechanisms or its transparent debt to other cinematic thrillers.

In fact, Blue Thunder was so well-received by audiences of the day that it spawned a TV spin-off (also titled Blue Thunder), a terrific TV knock-off (Airwolf), and a model kit of the titular vehicle, which I owned, built…and cherished.  Wish I still had it…

Although this film is nearly thirty years old, Blue Thunder’s visceral obsession with state-of-the-art aerial combat (over a modern American city, Los Angeles, no less), permits it to hold up much better than WarGames.  Also, the film remains relevant in part because of the strongly enunciated social commentary about man and his machines. 

In short, machines don’t yet boast the capacity for morality, and so man must decide how to use his new toys.  In Frank Murphy -- a veteran who witnessed immorality among men in Vietnam -- the audience gets a hero who represents mankind’s inherent struggle against entrenched power, and power unconcerned with the good of the many, but rather the riches of a few.  Yet despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Murphy won’t let the machine take over, even if that outcome is precisely what big government and big business apparently desire.

In gazing intently at conspiracy and corruption (not to mention the nexus of government and big business government contractors), Blue Thunder in some fashion feels like a product of the 1970s, the great age of conspiracy movies.  But the strong focus on computers and technology also gives it the Video Game Age sheen of the early 1980s. 

In whatever way one chooses to parse the film, Blue Thunder remains a hell of a lot of fun.

“I love morals, and the moral of this story is: If you're walkin' on eggs, don't hop.”

Cop Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) and his rookie co-pilot Lymangood (Daniel Stern) of Los Angeles Air Support test fly a new urban pacification helicopter nicknamed “Blue Thunder,” over the city streets, and while on surveillance or “whisper” mode, learn of a wide-ranging conspiracy involving corruption and murder. 

The makers of Blue Thunder prototype have been making trouble in L.A.’s barrio so the city will requisition more copters to manage the crime problem before the upcoming 1984 Olympics.  This top secret project to create urban mayhem is called Project T.H.O.R. (Tactical Helicopter Offensive Response).  Worse, Murphy’s old nemesis from the Vietnam War, Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) is one of the key conspirators behind the scenes.

Murphy and Lymangood -- or JAFO (Just Another F’ing Observer) -- secretly videotape a conversation about T.H.O.R. from the cockpit of Blue Thunder but soon become fugitives from the police and City Hall.  When Lymangood is murdered by Cochrane’s goons, Murphy steals Blue Thunder and asks his girlfriend, Kate (Candy Clark) to deliver the incriminating videotape to a local news station.

While Kate eludes the police on the ground, Blue Thunder and Murphy are called upon to battle police helicopters, state-of-the-art Air force jets (armed with heat-seeking missiles), and Cochrane’s gun ship…

You're really riding with the angels, sweetheart.

The Blue Thunder screenplay by the late Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby certainly sets up some amazing action sequences, but it’s also clumsy and contrived at crucial points. 

For instance, McDowell utters his character’s catchphrase -- “Catch you later!” -- a whopping three times in the first forty five minutes of the film, thus paving the way for a triumphant turnaround from Murphy at the denouement.  When Murphy blows up Cochrane’s gunship, he says, inevitably, “Catch you later!”  The laborious repetition of the phrase is so contrived and stupid that it’s easy to see the punch line coming.  That established, the audience I saw the film with in the theater in 1983 absolutely loved it, so who am I to complain?

Similarly, there’s a weird scene early in the film wherein Kate, Murphy’s girlfriend, takes a wrong turn on the way to a Sunday family outing with Frank and her son.  She recklessly drives her car into oncoming traffic to get back on course, and, well, let’s just say it’s an egregiously hazardous act, especially with a child on board.  But, of course, Kate’s slightly-crazy nature (not to mention demolition-derby driving skills…) are important ingredients in the film’s climax, so again, we’re seeing a laborious and somewhat clumsy set-up.

You could probably make the same point about all the exposition regarding Murphy’s aerodynamically-impossible “loop” in a chopper.  It gets brought up so many times before the film’s end that we just know there’s going to be a “pay off.”  

Certainly, Blue Thunder is not alone in harvesting seeds like this early in the film, for cropping at the climax. It’s just that the set-ups here are so brazenly transparent.

Yet here’s the thing.  You absolutely will not care.

The film’s final thirty minutes feature jaw-dropping stunt after jaw-dropping stunt, both on the ground and in the air.  And Blue Thunder vets this material with almost no fakery, which is incredible.  As an adrenaline ride, then, Blue Thunder succeeds wildly.  This film also made me realize just how long it’s been since we’ve seen an action movie like this one; one that doesn’t rely, to some unhealthy extent, on digital effects.  The car chase, in particular, is riveting. 

It may not be politically-correct to write this, but there’s a thrill that comes from knowing that movie stuntmen and stunt pilots really performed the actions in question.  Here, some of the helicopter stunts near the ground, and weaving in and around a sewer and bridge system, are downright stunning (and terrifying). As a result, you leave a viewing of the movie feeling exhilarated.

Blue Thunder in action.

And again...

To its credit, Blue Thunder also finds a perfect metaphor for the relationship between man and machine. Murphy wears a clunky-looking wrist-watch that can count up to a minute, or sixty seconds.

As it does so, it displays a very 1980s-style, spiro-graph-looking graphic of a circle moving towards completion.  Murphy utilizes this stop-watch function to test his sanity….several times-a-day.  If he can still tell time, or possess a “feeling” about the reality of time, he’s sure he isn’t going insane. 

In terms of psychology, this timed “sanity test” might be considered a little bit hokey.  In terms of metaphor, it’s actually pretty good.  The watch, like Blue Thunder itself, is a machine that humans can control…if they choose to do so.  

Technology too is a test, then, to be mastered, not something that should be allowed to oppress or control mankind. Murphy understands this fact of life.  He masters his life (represented by the watch) and uses that same determination to master the helicopter, and, finally, make an ethical final decision about it.  If he can master terrifying memories (represented by the Vietnam flashbacks), then certainly Murphy and others can master machines and computers.

Mastering self; mastering the machine.

At its heart, Blue Thunder concerns this idea, that man must rein in and manage his machines, and not vice-versa, or humanity will pay the price.  In addition, however, the film worries about new technologies which could diminish privacy and create a Big Brother-type world where no one’s secrets are safe. 

At one point, Murphy and Lymangood track a motorcycle cop to an assignation with a bored housewife.  They listen in on him making love to her, and then, afterwards, erase the tape, realizing that it is a horrible invasion of privacy.  Again, Murphy acts as the film’s moral barometer.  That motorcycle cop may be a laughing stock, and he may be engaged in a morally-questionable act, but, as Murphy concludes, people deserve to have their “quickies” in peace.  

That’s a silly example, perhaps, of what’s at stake in the modern surveillance society, but like the stop-watch metaphor, it concisely makes an important point.  If we are to remain free, we must have some surveillance free zones where we can simply be….human.  We must have some places to let down and simply be ourselves, without fear of being observed, or worse, blackmailed.

What happens when machines are everywhere, and they see and hear everything?
From an amazingly graphic scene of naked calisthenics (!) early-on to a great supporting performance by Warren Oates as Murphy’s put-upon superior at Air Support, Blue Thunder flies by with almost no wasted energy, and a surfeit of good humor, intrigue and action.  If I had to select one film today, I’d probably choose Blue Thunder over WarGames, in terms of Badham’s oeuvre, in part because of the performances, in part because of the rousing action, and in part because of that gorgeous helicopter, which even today looks like absolute poetry in motion. 

The film’s final scene, which sees Murphy pulp Blue Thunder in a final act of defiance to City Hall, makes perfect sense in terms of the film’s theme and story line.  But I still hate to see the old girl go up in a fireball.  

Of course, It’s the right climactic move for a movie about conspiracies and about concerns over privacy.  But the thirteen year old kid who first saw Blue Thunder just knew there should have been further adventures, with Murphy again mastering the (wonderful) machine.