Saturday, December 08, 2012

Now Available on DVD: Korg, 70,000 B.C. (1974 - 1975)

The amazing WB Archive has unearthed another obscure treasure from my childhood in the 1970s: Korg, 70,000 BC (1974 – 1975).   

This Saturday morning live-action adventure/fantasy series from Hanna-Barbera was created by the late Fred Freiberger and ran for one season on ABC.  The series follows the adventures of a Neanderthal family headed by the hunter Korg (Jim Malinda). The others in his tribe included his wife, Mara (Naomi Pollack), hunter Bok (Bill Ewing), daughter Ree (Janelle Pransky) and sons Tane (Christopher Man) and Tor (Charles Morteo). 

Korg ran from September 7, 1974 to late August 1975.

Burgess Meredith served as series narrator, and at the climax of each story, his gravelly voice gently assured viewers that the preceding tale was "based on assumptions and theories" based on Neanderthal "artifacts" discovered by modern man, since the Neanderthals left nothing else by which to learn about them.

Each episode of this half-hour series usually featured a relatively simple story, and one that seemed to concern family values. Although it is shocking to see prehistoric cave dwellers speaking perfect English (!) in the series, it nonetheless had its share of unique installments.

In one, a wounded Neanderthal from the nearby "River People" found himself going blind after a bad fall. He thus abducted Korg's youngest son, Tor, to lead him home. Korg and Bok followed in hot pursuit to save the boy, but the conflict was resolved without conflict or violence, a staple of Saturday morning television in the 1970s. Understanding was forged and the episode ended on a happy note with the hunter's sight restored as Korg and clan escorted him home.

Another Korg episode, written by Dick Robbins, was shot at Vasquez Rocks, the location of so many Star Trek episodes, including "Arena." In this tale, Korg and his friends faced a "struggle for survival," according to the narrator, "a constant" back in that time.

In particular, Korg and Bok hunt a very fake-looking black bear, and it badly wounds Bok. This causes the great warrior to lose his sense of courage, a sort of prehistoric case of PTSD, so Korg concocts a vision from their God "The Great Unseen One," to restore Bok's strength.

In particular, he must drink the blood of the bear that injured him. The episode culminates with a weird ritual as the triumphant Bok and Korg dance around with the bear's severed head. That sounds awfully un-PC for kid's television, but there you have it.

The subtext of this episode is also fascinating, since Korg, in the coda, comes clean to wife Mara that he invented the vision so as to help his friend. One is left with the notion that this kind of trickery may indeed be the way that man began to conceive "religion."  But it’s oddly subversive, again, for a Saturday morning program.

Although there are occasionally some nice shots of wildlife in the program, Korg 70,000 BC's biggest deficit is that it looks to be filmed in contemporary and familiar Southern California, not a dangerous prehistoric landscape.

That said, the caveman make-up holds up pretty well, and the stories are simple ones, simply told, but relatively engaging if you can get over the sight of Neanderthals speaking Pidgein English. The non-violence is a bit hard to swallow too, especially since these people had not even yet "discovered" the missionary position. So think of this as Quest for Fire…rated G, on Saturday mornings.

Korg 70,000 BC is worth remembering not just because it's a very different kind of Saturday morning TV show, but because it did spawn a merchandising blitz during its day. I remember playing the Korg board game, and there was also a Korg lunchbox available, if I remember correctly.

As a kid I watched Korg religiously, though I was always disappointed that the cavemen didn't fight dinosaurs. Which is probably why I liked Land of the Lost better, even if Korg 70,000 BC took pains to present its material as accurately as possible for kid's television

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Survival Kit" (September 18, 1976)

It’s very rare to come across an episode of Land of the Lost -- in any season -- that I vehemently dislike and judge almost entirely worthless.

But “Survival Kit,” the second episode in the third season catalog, certainly fits the bill.

In this story, an arrogant Cro-Magnon man, Malak (Richard Kiel), whom the Sleestak apparently revere as “The Exalted One,” seizes control of the Land of the Lost’s river and threatens to drown the denizens of the Lost City unless he is continually brought “tribute.”  He also wants a slave to serve him.

The Marshalls see the Sleestak take their “survival kit,” after Uncle Jack recovers it from the Marshalls’ raft at the bottom of the lagoon and Uncle Jack realizes they must retrieve it because it contains medicine that can treat Holly (Kathy Coleman), who is suffering from a terrible fever.

Accordingly, Jack (Ron Harper), Will (Wesley Eure) and Chaka (Philip Paley) visit Malak in his stone home, a structure also never-before-seen in the Land of the Lost, and attempt to trade goods for their survival kit.  Jack treats Malak’s tooth-ache and tricks him with the “magic” of a flash light before Malak acquiesces to his demands and also agrees to release control of the river.  Holly is healed, and Malak is never seen nor spoken of again.

There is so much wrong with this episode, it is hard to know precisely where to start…

But first, let’s get to Malak.  He is apparently a long-time denizen of the Land of the Lost, but in two seasons worth of episodes, there has been no mention of his presence.  One might think his presence is important, since he -- like the Marshalls -- is a human being.  At one point in the episode, Enik reveals that the Sleestak live in fear of the time when the moons align and they must give tribute Malak.  So he has apparently appeared before, and regularly at that.  Yet none of the Marshalls (or Chaka) have noticed Eegah hanging around?  Or made note of his impressive home…which controls the river?

Then, there’s the matter of the titular survival kit.  It apparently sank to the bottom of the lagoon when the Marshalls arrived in the Land of the Lost, but as you’ll remember from the opening credits of the first two seasons, the raft did not land in the lagoon.  It landed on dry land.    Remember the image of the family unconscious in the raft, as Grumpy’s roar awakens it? 

So had did the raft -- on dry land -- sink?

And while on the topic of the survival kit, how is it that Jack recovers it from the lagoon so quickly and easily?  Are we to believe that Lulu is the only critter in Land of the Lost Lagoon?

It’s hard to know which characters gets the worst of this particular story, but my vote would go to Enik (Walker Edmiston), the evolved Sleestak from Altrusia’s distant (but evolved) past.  Here, he misinterprets the Library of Skulls’ wisdom and responds by, essentially, robbing the Marshalls’ temple for “tribute” items.  A man who knows the great sweep of history and who can control time doors is here thus reduced to stealing crockery to appease a bully and cave-man.

By the way, the Skulls in the Library pretty much reveal that Malak is not a god, because Gods would not demand human things…like crockery.  But Enik misses the clue entirely, and acts as stupidly and irrationally as his Sleestak cohorts. 

This episode also reduces significantly the terror of the Sleestak, as they are held at the mercy of a giant brute in a fur loin cloth.  It’s a low-point not merely for Enik, but the entire Altrusian race.  I can’t believe that ten or eleven Sleestak from the Lost City couldn’t overwhelm the guy or his home.

The cheapness of “Survival Kit” is also shocking.  We never even get one full-exterior shot of Malak’s home, which an is important oversight considering that last week (“After Shock”) the Marshalls and the Sleestak were fighting over the only real estate available: the Old Temple.  Only here, suddenly, Malak’s got a man-cave, literally.

All of this may read like nitpicking, but the obvious conclusion about “Survival Kit” is that it is written with absolutely no regard or respect for Land of the Lost history.  Malak surely would have been noticed in years past if he was there, and I can’t believe it is an established Sleestak tradition to kowtow to his demands.  And we know -- from our lying eyes -- that Marshall raft never sank in the lagoon. 

And worst of all, to dramatize this miserable, entirely unworthy story, Land of the Lost must make a fool of the dignified, regal Enik, and even of his menacing fellow-denizens in the Lost City, the Sleestak.

When fans claim that they dislike the series’ third season, “Survival Kit” must be a prime reason why.  There’s absolutely no attention paid to series continuity, detail, or even characters.  It’s a dramatic low-point for a series that had previously made it a point never to talk down to kids.

Next week, another remarkably weak episode, “The Orb.”

Friday, December 07, 2012

The Films of 1983: Never Say Never Again

While watching Skyfall (2012) a few weeks back, I was struck by all the quips about James Bond's (Daniel Craig's) advancing age, and the film's reckoning with powerful idea that "time has passed." The new 007 film clearly recognizes that time waits for no man, and preserves no man.   This thematic strand reminded me that another film in the franchise (at least unofficially) also played with those very ideas once upon a time.

Of course, that film is Never Say Never Again (1983), the return of Sean Connery to the 007 role after an absence of a dozen years.  The film came out during the very year that many media outlets dubbed "The Battle of the Bonds" because Roger Moore's Octopussy (1983) was also released.

In Never Say Never Again, the audience encounters an older, slower -- but still lethal -- agent 007 as he faces both Blofeld's SPECTRE and also the specter of looming retirement.  More than that, Bond must deal with the idea that he is outmoded...a "dinosaur."  And indeed, we get words to that effect in Skyfall as well.  But in NSNA, Bond must recognize that he is, finally, getting old.

At least that's according to the new "M' (Edward Fox), who -- in a great reaction shot -- physically recoils after seeing Bond head-butt an opponent during a training exercise (the pre-title sequence which opens the film.)  He has no taste for such messiness; such brutal improvisation. 

The world has changed...and apparently passed Bond by in the process.  But, as Bond reminds us, in reference to his beloved Bentley, he may be old, but he's still "in pretty good shape."

Perhaps the quality I most admire about Never Say Never Again is its ability to pit an older, but still in good-shape Bond, against a buttoned-down era that seems, well,  drained of life  As Bond's over-worked, under-paid gadgeteer, Algy (Alec McEwen) comments mid-way through Never Say Never Again: "Bureaucrats running the old place.  Everything done by the book.  Can't make a decision unless the computer gives you the go ahead.  Now you're here.  I hope we're going to have some gratuitous sex and violence..." 

This amusing comment may serve a double, subversive purpose.  First, Q's comment works contextually, regarding the "re-activation" of the 00s (and Bond) in the narrative of Never Say Never Again, particularly against the backdrop of the new era of the corporate, computerized 1980s. 

But metaphorically, the line also serves as a pointed jab at the official EON James Bond film line, which had -- during the reign of Roger Moore as Bond -- adopted the apparently official stance that James Bond represents Disney-fied violence; or "violence for the family."

The re-activation of Connery's original, craftier Bond in Never Say Never Again is therefore not merely a breath of fresh air in terms of the movie's PC world; but in terms of a real-life world where the aging James Bond feature film franchise was no longer considered legitimately dangerous or cutting edge. 

After all, audiences at this point had seen Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, Dirty Harry...and more was to come.  The Terminator, Lethal Weapon, Batman and Die Hard franchises were just on the horizon.

Accordingly, Never Say Never Again feels like the most dangerous, edgy, unpredictable Bond film in ages (particularly after the toothless and farcical -- if absolutely enjoyable -- Moonraker [1979]). 

Where the Bond films had long ago reduced main characters to off-the-shelf, familiar types like the General Villain (Goldfinger, Scaramanga, Stromberg, Drax, etc.) and the Soldier Villain (Odd Job, Nick Nack, Jaws, etc), Connery's return film largely restores the humanity and individuality -- and therefore the unpredictability -- to these familiar cliches and stock types.

Spectacular (if fantasy-based) stunt-work is also largely eschewed in Irvin Kershner's Never Say Never Again, in favor of the aforementioned head-butt and a concentration on more grounded, macho and personal fisticuffs (a hallmark of Connery's early, grittier era, back in the 1960s). 

So nobody is dangling from blimps-in-flight over The Golden Gate Bridge here, if you get my drift. Not that there's anything wrong, inherently, with the other approach. It's just a matter of preference, about how you like your 007.

There is also a deliberate, overt focus on sex in Never Say Never Again (particularly in Bond's coupling with the evil Fatima Blush [Barbara Carrera].)  Bond beds no less than four women in the course of the movie, actually.  Again, this is an approach that the official Bond series reversed by the late 1980s, making Timothy Dalton's Bond a one-lady-kind-of-guy (to accommodate in the culture the emergence of AIDS).

In short, Never Say Never Again feels a bit more passionate, a bit more human, and a lot less rote, less predictable, than some of the 1970s Bonds...even though it is loosely a remake of 1965's Thunderball.  

Your Reputation Has Preceded You; Or You Were a Very Good Secret Agent.  Really.

In matters of death, SPECTRE is strictly impartial...
Never Say Never Again tells the story of a wicked gambit on the part of Blofeld (Max Von Sydow) and SPECTRE. 

Using a heroin-addicted American air force officer, Jack Petachi (Gavin O'Herlihy), a villain named Largo (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and Fatima Blush, or Agent 12 (Carrera), steal two American W80 thermo-nuclear warheads during a routine training exercise centered at Swadley's Air Force Base. 

Blofeld blackmails the West (NATO, in particular): pay an exorbitant fee or see the bombs detonated in two days time. 

As one anxious diplomat describes the plot, it is "the ultimate nightmare," this nuclear blackmail. And ironically, this story of loose nukes seems more timely and relevant in the 1980s -- a span when the hawkish, Peace-Through-Strength Reagan decried the "Evil Empire" and jokingly announced that "bombing begins in five minutes," -- than it did in the 1960s, when Thunderball premiered.

Agent James Bond (Connery), 007 -- who has spent most of his time in recent years teaching --  is re-activated and sent out by the officious M to recover the bombs. 

Following a stint at the health farm, Shrublands, Bond heads to the Bahamas, where Largo's yacht, the Flying Saucer, may be carrying at least one of the warheads.  There, Largo executes SPECTRE's plot, code-named "The Tears of Allah," all while deceiving his beautiful girlfriend, dancer Domino Petachi (Kim Basinger), about the death of her brother, Jack.

Now Bond must outwit and outfight Fatima with the help of his CIA buddy, Felix Leiter (Bernie Casey) and discover where the jealous Largo is hiding those warheads.  In doing so, he will require Domino's help...

Shaken but not stirred.
Behind-the-scenes, Never Say Never Again represents Sean Connery's return to the iconic role that made him a star following a dozen-year absence. 

It's an unofficial Bond film as well, one born from producer Kevin McClory's (1926-2006) early efforts with Ian Fleming to first bring James Bond to the cinema in 1959. 

A lawsuit awarded McClory the rights to produce a remake of Thunderball, a story that he initiated, and which was known, over the years as both Warhead and James Bond of the Secret Service.   But because the film Never Say Never Again was unofficial at the time of its successful theatrical release, it could not make use of such official Bond film touches as Monty Norman's world-famous theme song, and the trademark gun barrel opening. 

For some, this is enough to disqualify the effort from serious consideration as a great Bond film.

The title of Never Say Never Again itself arises not from Ian Fleming, but from Connery, who -- after 1971's Diamonds are Forever -- declared that he would never again don the tuxedo, order dry martinis, and carry a license to kill.  So the movie title -- much like Algy's line quoted above -- plays on two amusing levels; both as Bond's declaration to Domino that he intends to retire; and as an in-joke aimed at Connery who, despite protestation, is back as Bond one more time.

Just One More Game for the Rest of the World...

Domination, video game style.

Today, at least one scene in Never Say Never Again stands out as being a legitimate Bond classic. 

At approximately the hour-point of the narrative, James Bond tricks his way into Largo's casino in Nice, France. 

But rather than engage his wily opponent in high-stakes poker, or the oft-seen Baccarat (Chemin de Fer), Bond duels Largo in...a video game.

And it is no average video game, either. 

Rather, Largo has designed and constructed "Domination," a video game battle for ownership of the world itself.  The objective, Largo states, is "power."  Two players battle for territory, for land, while racking up dollars on the big screen.  The left-hand joystick controls two nuclear missiles that can be launched against an opponent; and the right-hand joystick controls missile shields which can block the W80 thermo-nuclear warheads. 

Players target with their lasers small geometric territories that light up on their screens.  The player that hits the territory first is the winner and owner of said territory.

Armchair general...
And Largo -- being a super-villain -- has wired his elaborate video game to deliver electric shocks to the players every time one's defenses are breached, or the enemy gets ahead. 

"Unlike armchair generals," suggests Largo, players of this game will "share" the pain of soldiers in the field. 

This is an important distinction in the world of Never Say Never Again.  Bond is one of those aforementioned soldiers in the field; and knows all too well about physical pain.  But the world of the 1980s apparently has little use for James Bond and his skill-set post-Detente, and the men who deploy him in the field  (armchair generals like "M") have no idea how -- as he states early in the film --  "adrenaline" (another word for pain) provides him an edge in the heat of the moment.

And that's how Bond beats Largo, literally, at his own game here.  

Largo may know better the game he created, of course.  He's holding all the cards (as he's also holding the missing nuclear weapons...) but Bond still has his "edge" in the field to rely upon.  The pain of the electric shocks gives him just the kick he needs to get back in the game (come out of retirement) and fight back for "just one more game...for the rest of the world."

...versus a soldier in the field...
This tense, brilliantly-executed sequence with the Domination video game is the most significant one in the film for a number of reasons.

First, it again reveals Bond out-of-his element in the modern, high-tech world.  This older, slower James Bond  is not part of the video game generation.  We are used to seeing him play and excel at cards, not manage a joystick.  So the game is a metaphor for Bond being out-of-step with the modern world.

Yet 007 soundly beats Largo here -- at the video game -- for the same reasons he ultimately defeats him in the larger narrative: because of his "edge," because the pain (delivered by the electric shocks, in this case) activates his adrenaline.

There's something about being a "soldier in the field" -- some combination of instincts and experience -- that takes over in Bond and refuses to "lose."  Largo -- for all his intelligence and savvy -- doesn't have that same sense of experience, and the game sequence makes this point.

Two video game monsters, side-by-side.
In one truly great and telling visual composition, Kershner even reminds us that Largo is a creature of today -- or the film's day in 1983 --  a video-game villain.  He stands perched beside an old arcade game on which a fantasy-styled monster has been painted, and the point is made by putting the two "creatures" in close-proximity. 

Even Largo's command center -- where Largo spends much of his time -- is highly computerized, consisting of a wall of screens and keyboards.  Largo also has a secret window (another form of viewing screen...) through which he can peek illicitly into Domino's dancing studio. 

Again, he's a watcher, not a doer -- an armchair general rather than a soldier in the field -- and that quality proves his undoing.  He doesn't understand what physical pain and danger can drive a man to do; what they can drive Bond to do.

The idea of video-games and computers taking over the world is one of the "big" ideas of the cinema of 1983, as we have seen from War Games, Superman III, and even the horror anthology, Nightmares.   

The overwhelming fear expressed in these films is that our technology will run amok, and challenge human civilization.  Never Say Never Again is "one of the pack" and it updates Bond for the video game age as much as Skyfall updates Bond for the Drone War Age.

They Don't Make Them Like This Anymore...

In shades of black and white, Bond's space in the frame is squeezed out.

Pretty clearly, Never Say Never Again is a special Bond film for one reason primarily: it acknowledges that Bond is actually a human being who ages, and not an unflappable superhero in a white dinner jacket.   This 1983 film thus allows James Bond to age and evolve -- something the canon Bonds did not permit of this particular hero until the reboots with Daniel Craig. 

This idea of Bond aging (both gracefully and not so gracefully...) adds a layer of real human interest to the narrative.  Bond still has his edge; but it is it sharp enough -- in his mid 50s -- to get the job done?  

That's the movie's big question, and Connery is great here at playing the same man we love and remember, but some distance down the too-short road towards mortality; when he has more yesterdays than tomorrows ahead of him.

And secondly but of equal importance, director Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back [1980] has executed a clever tactic in the visual presentation of Never Say Never Again.  To put it bluntly, James Bond no longer owns the frame.  

Rather, he intrudes into it and his space is intruded upon constantly.

Between a rock and hard place? More limited visual space for 007.
I always say that the medium of film reaches its apex when visual form echoes, reflects or augments film content, and that's precisely what Never Say Never Again accomplishes with tremendous flair.  

Remember, the overriding idea here is that Bond is a man out of step with the "new," high-tech but bloodless world of the 1980s.  He is not the swaggering, cocksure, center-of-the-frame hero of the 1960s.

It's a more dangerous world for the older, less-physically imposing Bond, and so he has to fight for a foothold in it every second.  Accordingly, Kershner provides the audience these moments of tremendous spontaneity and danger, during which Bond must put his instincts (and that adrenaline; that edge...) to the test.  

In other words, Bond is not blocked and framed in Never Say Never Again as he is in the canon Bond films.  He is not an impervious figure of power.  Rather, he's visually jeopardized and threatened, almost constantly.

During a fight, Bond flees...into a slamming door.
For instance, during a deadly, extended fight at Shrublands -- which goes from a weight room, down a flight of stairs and into a working kitchen -- Bond attempts to escape his opponent by hiding, first, and then running away, escaping. 

In a great and laugh-out-loud moment, a female chef flees the tight kitchen as the nemeses fight...and Bond tries to run after her...but the door slams in his face and he has a moment where -- using that edge -- he must improvise.  You can almost visualize Connery's Bond thinking, "thanks a lot, lady..." and then getting on with it.

Again and again, Kershner positions 007 in this unconventional and amusing fashion.  Emerging from behind a tree, even...skulking about.  Or in a tight shot of stark black-and-white shading inside his modern French villa; Bond's available space in the wide-frame "cut off" by the off-screen but nonetheless considerable threat of Fatima Blush.

I noted above that Never Say Never Again is an edgier, more dangerous style of Bond film, and that feeling suffuses the film, thanks to the manner in which Kershner perpetually frames the iconic character.   Bond is a man who is imperiled and affected by what is happening around him in the frame, and must -- by power of his instincts and edge -- forge his own positive outcome.

Furthermore, Kershner contrasts his visual depiction of Bond (fighting for survival and placement in the frame) with his depiction of the colorful, even flamboyant, highly idiosyncratic villains. 

Effortless, dangerous power in the foreground.
Fatima Blush, for instance, is often filmed from a low angle (atop staircases, or looming over Bond, right before her demise), giving the impression of tremendous power and constancy. 

When she detonates a bomb in Bond's hotel in the Bahamas, Fatima does so without even a casual look over a shoulder, and Kershner's gorgeous framing again suggests a villain in total, effortless control of the environs.  

Again, look at that careful, beautiful framing and placement above for just a second.  What you see there is raw, well-established power dominating the foreground of the frame, while chaos reigns -- unimportant -- behind her.

Kershner also permits seemingly spontaneous, apparently unplanned moments from Klaus Maria Brandauer play out for maximum impact.  This villain is a dangerous character, and the actor virtually steals every second he can get in the limelight...and perhaps more too.  This Largo is a power-hungry grabber, a drama queen, a man who solicits attention, and Brandauer goes nuts with the role.

Swapping spit with Largo.
Whether it's delicately blowing a soothing kiss on his electrically-shocked hands after losing to Bond  in Domination, or kissing Domino for so long -- and so passionately -- that a line of spit visibly connects their lips, Largo "dominates" the frame too.

Again, Kershner's patience and unique approach to the performances (particularly with the quirky Branduer) make Never Say Never Again feel more dangerous, spontaneous, edgy and immediate than many official Bond films of roughly the same era.  Where they rigorously adhere to a specific formula and template, Never Say Never Again attempts to explode the formula, presenting a vulnerable, mature Bond who must, again and again, really fight (and improvise) for his life. 

In my book, Brandauer is the most deadly threat to Bond since Goldfinger; an amused sociopath who is drunk with power, and this Bond -- going back to Ian Fleming's literary vision -- seems the most human (at least until Timothy Dalton and Daniel Craig came along...) 

Never Say Never Again suffers a bit from a weak, anti-climactic finale (Domino spears Largo and the whole affair is over...), but otherwise the film must rank as one of the best of all the Bond films.  It showcases another side of the hero, and in defining Bond's "edge" helps us to understand -- finally, after twenty years and a dozen films -- what makes this hero tick; what makes him thrive.

Just as the Bond character was growing stale and old, and distinctly non-edgy, a fifty year old Connery (and a brilliantly-stylish Kershner) provide the hero just what he (and the audience...) needed:  a healthy dose of gratuitous sex and violence...shaken, not stirred.   Skyfall features many callbacks to the Bonds of yesteryear, but it owes the most, in my opinion, to Never Say Never Again.

Valedictory head-butts for everyone...

Movie Trailer: Never Say Never Again (1983)

Thursday, December 06, 2012

2012: Post 1001

Well...I had this crazy goal to post 1,000 times on my blog between January 2012 and December 31st, 2012, and it looks like I achieved that benchmark today, a few weeks earlier than I expected.

I'm not sure the significance of this particular threshold, except that now I'll have to set the bar higher for 2013...

2,000 (or more appropriately, 2001: A Blogging Odyssey)?

Old Klingon Proverb: Revenge is a dish that is best served...often.

1982: Against Kirk.

1989: Against Kirk.

1998: Against the Ba'ku.

2002: Against Picard and the Federation.

2009: Against Spock.

2013: Against Earth and the Federation?

Star Trek: Into Darkness Trailer

So yeah, it's a terrorist madman...out for vengeance.  How disappointing...

Into Darkness?

By now, you’ve all probably already seen the Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) poster shown above.

It reveals a future-o-polis (really London?) in ruins, with a trench-coated villain looming over it. 

Bracketing this menacing figure -- ostensibly the film’s villain -- is the famous Star Trek badge configuration.

Setting aside the perceived (and abundant) similarities to The Dark Knight Rises poster, which many folks have commented on, across the net, I worry about the kind of story this poster portends, especially in connection with the film’s title, and the released “official” synopsis.

I generally refrain from commenting on a film before it is released, because ahead-of-time worries can’t accurately anticipate the true nature of any film.  Any concerns are based on guess work, or speculation and therefore may not reflect the eventual text of the work of art.

But as a whole-hearted supporter of the J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek, which I reviewed positively, here, I must admit that, based on the information we now possess, I do feel remarkably anxious about the direction of the film, and its dissonance with established Star Trek tradition.

We’re clearly not getting a story of space exploration, of new frontiers met. 

We’re clearly not getting a story about The Enterprise resolving a conflict between feuding races, or encountering a new or unknown life form.

No…we’re getting another solitary “madman” villain like Khan, Soran, Ru’afo, Shinzon and even Nero.

This madman is described in the synopsis as an unstoppable, one-man “weapon of mass destruction” and again, that description recalls Khan with the Genesis Device, Soran with his trilithium missiles, Ru’afo with his radiation collector, Shinzon with this Thalaron weapon, and Nero with his red matter.

The synopsis also indicates that this “madman” detonates the Starfleet.  But of course, Nero destroyed the Starfleet in the last movie, didn’t he?

And, if you read between the lines, the new villain in the film appears to be motivated, like Nero, by some desire for revenge.  This time, it is revenge carried out against his own people, in the Federation, on Earth.

Revenge.  Mass destruction.  War-zones.

And last but not least…“darkness.” 

These characteristics are not the main or even ancillary ingredients of the Star Trek franchise, or of Star Trek history, and it concerns me to see a franchise of optimism -- a franchise of “the human adventure is just beginning”-- choosing a voyage into darkness instead of a voyage into discovery, or understanding. 

I’m not saying that conflict is a bad thing, or that drama must be all happy talk. 

But Star Trek has often made it its business to resolve dramatic conflict in ways that are, ultimately, uplifting.

By choosing not to kill an enemy, Captain Kirk opened a doorway of peace with alien races such as the Gorn (“Arena”) and the Melkotians in “Spectre of the Gun.” 

Other episodes involved the Enterprise countenancing destructive creatures, but finding a way to deal constructively with them, as was the case in “The Devil in the Dark” and “Metamorphosis” to name two.

All those stories still had plenty of action, excitement and violence…but they were also inspiring.

A new Star Trek movie could be about interfacing with an alien culture or meeting a strange space phenomena (“Obsession,” “The Immunity Syndrome”) in the way I describe above, and so I find it extremely disappointing and discouraging that in 2013 we are going to get another madman story, another story about revenge, and another story about weapons of mass destruction.

The universe is such a big, mysterious place, and I fail to understand why the franchise must go back to the same story it just told in 2009, with destroyed starships, devastated planets, and terrorist madmen. 

I hope that the underwhelming poster, synopsis, and title are actually only a marketing gambit to sell Star Trek as a blockbuster to general audiences, and not an accurate representation of how the film will play.

I am holding out hope, and will gladly admit my fears were unfounded if they prove to be. 

But my bottom line is that darkness is the last place Star Trek needs to go, because other franchises have been there already…and quite memorably too.

Star Trek is supposed to be about going to new destinations -- where none have gone before -- not imitating all the latest blockbuster movies.  

Let James Bond and Batman own the darkness.  Star Trek is supposed to be about the search for the light.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Memory Bank: Archie Bunker

The 1970s was a strange era for television, even for mainstream network television. 

Two of the most popular characters of the era were very unconventional or non-traditional ones. 

On ABC’s Happy Days (1974 - 1984), there was the Fonz (Henry Winkler): a leather-jacket wearing, motorcycle-riding reformed hoodlum with quasi-magical powers.

And on CBS’s All in the Family (1971 – 1979) and later Archie Bunker’s Place (1979 – 1983), there was Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor), an ignorant, working-class bigot from Queens, NY who spewed toxic malapropisms…and yet was widely beloved by audiences.

I’ve written some about the cultural impact of The Fonz, here

But today, I turn my attention to Mr. Archie Bunker, a character who spawned board games, political buttons (Vote for Bunker!), record albums, and even, on one strange occasion, a toy baby doll (“Archie Bunker’s Grand Son, Joey Stivic.”) 

The TV series also initiated many spin-offs, including The Jeffersons, Good Times, Maude and Gloria. 

Today, Archie’s beloved living room chair is installed like some king’s throne at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

Over the years, All in the Family earned four consecutive Emmy Awards for best comedy series, and across the considerable catalog of episodes, Archie Bunker raged vehemently against liberals, atheists, women, African-Americans, Jews, Puerto-Ricans, Catholics, homosexuals, hippies, democrats, and even blood transfusions. 

In doing so, he often looked like an absolute fool, and his rampant ignorance, while funny, knew no bounds.  Among his wit and wisdom: "No bum that can't speak perfect English oughta stay in this country...oughta be de-exported the hell outta here!"  and "I ain't got no respect for no religion where the head guy claims he can't make no mistakes. Like he's...inflammable."

The question becomes then, what makes this TV character, despite his blustery, bigoted, bullying ways, so beloved by a generation?

It’s a complex question, but in the end it comes down to one fact of life. 

Everyone knows a man like Archie Bunker.

He may be your father or your grandfather.  Or he may be the uncle you avoid like the plague at Thanksgiving dinner.

But we all know a man who is set in his ways, believes certain things to be true (whether they are actually true or not), and expresses ideas that are, simply, repugnant.

Yet here’s the thing:  This guy you know is probably a relative, either by biology or by marriage, and perhaps he has shown you more than a glimmer of kindness or generosity on an occasion or two.  This fact makes it utterly impossible for you to hate him entirely, no matter how much you hate his viewpoint and his mode of expression.

Or perhaps, unexpectedly, you caught a surprise glimpse of your particular Archie Bunker’s (unhappy) childhood, or otherwise witnessed some vulnerability in him.  So suddenly, you understand what makes him tick.

I know that this has happened in my life at least a few times, and so I credit Norman Lear, Bud Yorkin and the late, great Carroll O’Connor for creating such a true “human” character.   I once knew a man who had snide epithets for everyone he met who was even slightly different from himself, and I watched, as he grew old and frail, how utterly afraid and fearful he was of almost everything in his life.  Once I saw and recognized that vulnerability, my opinion of him changed

In contending with an Archie Bunker, it’s not that you want to cuddle a bigot…it’s that you come to see that there is more to the character (or your relative) than those admittedly unattractive, bigoted qualities.  Underneath, there is something deeply wrong, unfulfilled, wounded, or afraid.

So I submit that the popularity of Archie Bunker is a testament, in fact, to how kind and patient most people really are. 

Those he constantly puts down, insults, and demeans are able to do something Archie rarely does...tap into their compassion

This capacity makes them-- the disenfranchised -- ultimately superior to Archie. 

Bunker thinks of himself as the bread-winner and patriarch of his house at 704 Hauser St., but he owes  a lot to the love of his wife, Edith (Jean Stapleton) and to the enduring patience of nearly every person he encounters, from doctors to Catholic priests.

On a related note, perhaps the most frightening people I’ve met in my life are those viewers who watch All in the Family and don’t comprehend that Archie is deliberately an anti-hero.  They actually believe all the things he believes, and are just glad someone told it “like it is” on TV, warts and all.  

That is truly scary.  Compassion for another human being is one thing, and I'm all for it.  But climbing on-board the ignorance train is something else entirely.