Sunday, March 31, 2013

Monument(al) Destruction #4: Mars Attacks (1996)


Cult-TV Blogging: Star Blazers (1979) Episode #5



In the fifth episode of Star Blazers (1979), the damaged Argo is dragged into the gravitational pull of the planet Jupiter.  After passing through a layer of dense clouds, the Argo unexpectedly finds a “floating continent” and sets down there for repairs.

Unfortunately a Gamilon fighter base is also secretly stationed on that very continent, and a terrifying trap is sprung.  Wildstar does battle with an enemy fighter, but for Argo to escape the Gamilons, the wave motion gun must be tested for the first time. 

Fortunately, the gun works. 

In fact, the weapon is so powerful and destructive that it obliterates not just the Gamilon base, but the entire floating continent.  Captain Avatar concludes that the ship “used too much power” and must be “very careful in the future.”

Meanwhile, the Gamilons are stunned at Argo’s power, and now the game is truly afoot.

Only 361 days remain until Earth’s destruction…




The Argo’s shakedown or trial-by-fire continues in this episode as the wave motion gun is deployed for the first time.  The power of the thing is incredible, and a little frightening.   Watching this episode, I wondered if that was actually the point.  Much of Japanese genre entertainment features terrifying technological advances, from Gojira’s (1954) Oxygen Destroyer to Star Blazers’ wave motion gun. No doubt, this is a result of the country’s well-founded fear about nuclear warfare.




The implicit question of any such weaponry is, simply: what kind of man does it take to control a technological innovation of such terror and raw power?  In this case, fortunately, Captain Avatar is that man, and he is depicted as wise and eminently reasonable.  His response to the deployment of the powerful weapon is to pull back; to think about the future and the proper application of the device.  He promises to be very careful in the future. This is indeed a reassuring strategy, and again, I  find myself drawn to Avatar.  I like his sense of calm and “centered-ness.”

I won’t make any more comments this week about Argo being able to traverse the distance from Mars to Jupiter without the star drive (after harnessing that incredible power to reach Mars from Earth), since I covered it thoroughly last week.  I will note, however, many of the beautiful images this week, like Argo listing to one side in the rainbow-hued atmosphere of Jupiter, or the white-hot flower and destructive flare of the wave motion gun.  I also love the visuals of Argo skimming the ground and lifting off - its nose ascendant -- as it leaves the floating continent.

Instead, I’ll only note that this animated series has done a good job so far of getting viewers on the side of the beleaguered Star Force.  Although the wave motion gun is a terrifying thing, there’s also a sense of accomplishment and triumph in the destruction of the bad guys.  Although the Argo defeated the ultra-menace missile and survived an engagement with a Gamilon carrier, this is the first instance in which the Gamilons have really taken it on the chin, and had their arrogant confidence shaken.  They were clearly not ready for the Argo to bear so much power, and it’s good to see the conquering aliens rocked back on their heels, at least a bit. 

The Argo, we now see, can at least defend itself on its long journey to Iscandar.  But after damage on Mars and repairs on Jupiter, the great battleship better get moving…

Star Blazers promo

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Monument(al) Destruction #3: Independence Day (1996)


Cult-TV Gallery: Pamelyn Ferdin

In Star Trek: "And the Children Shall Lead."

In Shazam!: "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

In Sigmund The Sea Monster.

As Laura, in Space Academy.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Herculoids: "Mekkor" (1967)



In The Herculoids (1967) segment called “Mekkor,” an army of small flying robot machines land on Azmot and, under the direction of a buried command unit, begin to take out the indigenous opposition. 

Protected by force-fields and armed with freeze rays, these mechanical invaders incapacitate Igoo and capture Tara.   Fortunately, Zot and Zandor find the army’s “hidden power source” -- or the command unit -- and cripple the enemy once and for all. 

When Dorno asks what will become of the dormant machines, Zandor replies: “They’ll stay where they are.  Someday the forest will claim them all…”





Dorno gets a funny line of dialogue in “Mekkor.”  He sees the diminutive alien robots and notes with astonishment: “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

Except, of course, Dorno and the other Herculoids just repelled an invasion by similar small aliens in the previous episode, “The Pod Creatures.” 

Other than that (recent) encounter, he’s never seen anything like these robots before, I suppose.

Once more, “Mekkor” reveals almost no background about its particular story.  Why have the robot aliens landed on Azmot?  Why did they choose this location for an  invasion?  What is there, on that wild planet that they could possibly want or need? 

“Mekkor” might have worked better as a story if a line or two of dialogue established that Azmot is home to some vital material, substance or ore that the aliens need to mine or collect to survive. 

Instead, “Mekkor” depicts another unprovoked, unmotivated attack on Azmot, and another campaign that the Herculoids successfully and quickly repel.  The most interesting aspect of the tale is Zandor’s final line, which establishes the primacy of nature over technology, a recurring theme in this Hanna Barbera Saturday morning program. 

Nature will survive, endure, and even encroach.  Technology will soon become…trash.


The Herculoids Intro

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: Shazam: "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (September 21, 1974)



In “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” the third episode of Filmation’s live-action series Shazam (1974 – 1976), Pamelyn Ferdin (1959 - ) plays Lynn Colby, a girl who has learned that her favorite horse, Beckett, is scheduled to be put down.  Her Aunt Jenny’s last will and testament specifies the horse’s death, and a local rancher Nick Roberts, (John Karlen) -- who was thrown from Beckett on a ride -- is insistent the execution be carried out.  Unless someone can help, Beckett will die before sundown…

Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) encounter Lynn, and with the help of her father, the local sheriff (William Sargent), search for some way to stop the legal death sentence.  At first they try a peaceful demonstration to show support for Beckett, but finally Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) is needed on the case.  After Nick Roberts deliberately injures Beckett when the horse escapes from custody, Captain Marvel swoops in…




“Thou Shalt Not Kill” follows the template of the previous two Shazam episodes to the letter.

Billy and Mentor consult the (animated) Elders, who tell Billy about his upcoming day, and then provide a quotation that will prove relevant and meaningful to the crisis du jour. 

In this case, the Elders tell the teenager that “there’s always a way to work things out by reason rather than by impulsive action.”  Aristotle is the literary/historical figure of the week, and he is quoted by the Elders as having said “Even when laws have been written down, they are not always to remain unaltered.”

Tell that Antonin Scalia, Aristotle.



“Thou Shalt Not Kill,” features two notable guest stars.  The first is child actress Pamelyn Ferdin who, without exaggeration, was the most prominent child actor circa 1969 – 1977, especially in terms of genre appearances.

Ferdin appeared on Star Trek (“And the Children Shall Lead,”) Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and Sigmund the Sea Monster, and was a regular character on Filmation’s Space Academy (1977).  In terms of feature work, Ferdin appeared in such horror films as The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and The Toolbox Murders (1979).  A generation also loves her for her role in Charlotte’s Web (1973) and her turns as Lucy in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and It was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown (1969)



The second guest star this week is John Karlen, who plays the horse-hating Nick Roberts like a psychotic nutcase.  Karlen is also a familiar face to horror fans from his appearances on Dark Shadows and in Daughters of Darkness (1971) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1971).

Both guest performers fully commit to the less-than-inspiring material offered here, and raise the stakes a notch in the process.  Fortunately, Captain Marvel saves the horse, Beckett, (with a stay of execution from a local judge) and nasty Nick Roberts is defeated…and left to twirl his moustache.

Next Week: “Lure of the Lost.”

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cult-TV Flashback: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "No Way Out" (August 24, 1977)



The cult-television Valhalla is populated by programs beloved and despised, old and new, popular and obscure.  One of the most obscure series -- and one of the most highly-sought for an official DVD release -- is the 1977 program Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected.

This horror anthology series ran for just eight episodes from February to August of 1977, and featured William Conrad as the host, in voice-over form only.  The basic premise of the series is that there are twists and turns in our lives, and we often can’t see them coming or prepare for them.  Many episodes feature surprise endings, or ones with unusual “twists.”


Perhaps the most memorable episode of the eight segments is the final one aired, “No Way Out,” written by James Schmerer and directed by Walter Grauman. 

It aired on August 24, 1977, and is set in 1952.  It stars Bill Bixby as a Navy man, John Kelty who is too busy with his career and his hobby -- sailing -- to give much love or attention to his young son.  On the eve of a sea trip with his friend, Richard (Dean Stockwell), John’s wife tries to shine a light on the problem.  “I think that boat’s your real love,” she tells him.  She isn’t really joking, either.

So John and Richard set off on a weekend boat trip, and promptly disappear into the Bermuda Triangle.  When John emerges from a terrifying storm as the sole survivor, however, he discovers that it is the year 1977. 

He has missed the last twenty-five years with his wife and son. Time has passed him by.



At first, John refuses to accept the fact that he has somehow become lost in time, but when he sees a 1977 calendar hanging on a hospital wall, he realizes the truth.  John attempts to track down his wife, only to learn that she has moved on.  She remarried some years earlier, and now seems quite happy, and cherished.

And then -- in an emotionally-wrenching scene – John discovers his son is now grown-up, and a successful cardiologist. 

Worse, John’s son is making precisely the same mistakes in his family life that his father did.  He is not spending enough time with his son and wife, and is focusing entirely on his business.  So -- pretending to be an “old” friend of his father’s -- John tells his adult son: “The circle completes itself, doesn’t it?”  He urges his boy to spend time with his children.  That it is that time, and that relationship that matters.




Finally, John decides to go back to sea, to attempt to find the portal back to his life in 1952.  If only he can get there, he swears that things will be different this time.  He won’t neglect his family…

The episode’s final, shocking moment reveals, alas, that no matter how hard you try…you simply can’t go home again.

To use a rough analogy, “No Way Out” is sort of the Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected’s version of The Twilight Zone’s stand-out episode, Walking Distance.”  In that story, as you may recall, a man, played by Gig Young returned to his home town and found he had traveled back in time to his own childhood.  But, as he learned the hard way, every customer -- every child – gets only one summer.  You can’t run away to the past.  You can only make the present better.

Of course, “No Way Out” concerns not going back, not returning to a cherished time long gone, but rather traveling forward, and the realization that if you are not present in your life – moment to moment – it will pass you by in a flash. 

The episode is a good reminder, as well -- to busy Dads, especially -- that there is nothing more important than spending time with their children while they are young.  John Kelty is occupied by his own wants and needs to the exclusions of his son’s interests.  And yet his son grows up to be a mirror image, making the same mistakes.

The finale of “No Way Out” is unexpectedly dark and grim, and a direct refutation of John’s mantra that “if there is a way in, there must be a way out.”  His failure to pinpoint that way out is, again, an explicit reminder to audiences that you literally can’t make up for lost time.  Time moves in only one direction: forward.  So again, don’t squander the present.

“No Way Out” is by turns intense and tragic.  Kelty is desperate to return home, desperate to get back that which he once failed to value, and his story is a very human one.  We all make mistakes, but “No Way Out” is terrifying because Kelty makes a mistake his life can’t recover from, and which impacts his family.

For fans of seventies sci-fi franchises, this story not only provides a unique variation on Twilight Zone-style storytelling but features a famous toy of the era.  At about the twenty-one minute point, Kelty goes to a toy store in a Califonia mall, and there, displayed (upside down) is a Mattel Eagle One toy from Space:1999 (1975 – 1977).



I’ve covered Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected before on the blog (way back in 2008, I think), and in my book, Terror Television (2001).  The series certainly had its share of stinkers (like “A Hand for Sonny Blue” and the two-parter, “Force of Evil,”) but yet it also boasted some remarkably effective shows, like “The Nomads” and this, its most emotionally-charged entry, “No Way Out.”

I’d love to see this series available on DVD.  It’s a piece of genre history that is too often forgotten, and I think modern audiences would still enjoy “No Way Out,” in particular.

Pop Art: Dune Cover Edition










Collectible of the Week: Tobor the Telesonic Robot (Schaper; 1978)



No, this toy doesn't have anything to do with the awesome space-age robot that appeared in Tobor the Great (1954), although it does share his name.  

Instead, this Tobor was advertised during The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) and thus was promptly added to every child's Christmas wish-list that year.


Tobor, the toy's box reminds us, is "robot spelled backwards."  

Using "u-drive it" technology, Tobor "the telesonic robot" is "under your control."  You can use a "telesonic commander" -- really a conventional wireless remote control device -- to make the robot circle, move forward, circle again, and even "pick up" the robot's "support module."


Tobor the Telesonic Robot runs on three wheels, and is a pretty nifty hunk of black plastic, at least if you grew up in the 1970s and remember the toy. I no longer have mine, alas, and even so, prefer the complexity of something like Milton Bradley's Big Trak.  That toy could be programmed with a keypad to go forward, fire laser blasts, or circle. It could also pull a trailer behind it.  By contrast, Tobor is a kind of glorified remote control car.  But if you collect vintage robots -- which Joel and I do -- he's an absolute must from the disco decade and the age of the Star Wars Craze.

Below, a Tobor TV commercial...

Model Kit of the Week #21: Godzilla


Monday, March 25, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Sci-Fi TV Endings?


A reader named David asks:

“As a lifelong fan of SF-TV, I was thinking if there were any final episodes you would do all over again.  And if so, how would you change them for the better?”

“In short, what are your favorite and least favorite program endings?”

David, that’s a great question.  Ending a long-running (or even a short-running) TV series is a difficult endeavor, and many times creators aren’t even able to properly finish a series at all, because programs are often canceled without warning.

In terms of endings I like, I think that Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Blake’s 7, The X-Files, Smallville, Sapphire and Steel, Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Prisoner are all pretty satisfactory. I can also live with the Twin Peaks and Millennium finales. I did a blog post about series endings a few years back, here.

As far as the “endings” that rubbed me the wrong way, there have certainly been some, and based on my answers a few weeks back about overrated TV programming, you may be able to guess which ones.


I feel very strongly that the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Lost both ended disastrously.  The writers on those series strung everyone along week-after-week, year-after-year with tantalizing bread crumbs and clues, and then couldn’t be bothered to create a final chapter that resolved the narratives in a way that made simple, logical sense. 

This is disturbing because, in both cases, series writers had plenty of time -- on the order of two years, I believe -- to plan and execute for an appropriate ending.

I know people say I pick on Battlestar Galactica too much.  Yet, as I like to remind those folks, if you claim to have a plan on screen every week, and build a story as a serial with escalating clues, you damn well better deliver a knock-out final chapter.  Yet as I’ve noted before, BSG essentially ended with an insulting “God moves in mysterious ways” conceit, while simultaneously hoping for audiences to believe that a technologically-advanced race would live in a society without indoor plumbing, air-conditioning, or refrigeration.  The final episode didn’t pass the smell test, and it didn’t seem true to what had come before.


I also didn’t care for Star Trek: Voyager’s finale, "Endgame."  The series ended with a deadly encounter involving the Borg, and the Voyager making it hope to Earth and Starfleet Headquarters…to be met by fireworks. 

Had I been writing that series, I would have brought Voyager home at the end of season six, and spent the last season telling stories about how the crew could not adjust to Earth; how once you learn and change, you simply “can’t go home again.” 

To wit, the EMH’s rights would not have been assured in Federation space.  Separate assignments would have split Paul and B’Elanna and their new family up.  Chakotay would have been viewed suspiciously, and if accepted back into Starfleet at all, only at a reduced rank.  Seven of Nine would have been treated as an enemy, given the lingering prejudices about the Borg in the Federation. 

So -- all season long --- I would have had Admiral Janeway coming to the slow-dawning conclusion that she had to get her crew back together, steal Voyager, and return to the Delta Quadrant…to explore where none had gone before.  The crew would have realized that Voyager, not Earth, was home.


I supposed I should mention Star Trek: Enterprise and its generally-disliked final episode, "These are the Voyages."   

I’ll be honest, I’ve tried to watch the series again and again, and every episode I watch -- even in the ballyhooed fourth season -- is just god-awful.  I mean unwatchable, god-awful.  I have viewed the final episode -- just to see what the fuss is about -- and I can’t honestly say it was worse than any other episode of the series I sat through.  

And from a certain perspective, the ending made practical sense.  The writers and producers of the series were not just ending Enterprise, after all, they were ending eighteen years of continuous Star Trek on television.  They had a responsibility, I think, to genuflect to the franchise, and its history and legacy as a whole.   I’m not sure the balance between Enterprise/Star Trek was perfect in the last episode, but I’m not debauched by the final episode the way some folks are.

I will soon be watching Fringe from start to finish, and I understand it featured quite a satisfactory ending.  But I’m sparing myself the details, so -- please -- no one provide me any! I already know too much!

Don't forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.  I'm almost caught up!

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Horses



First domesticated by man thousands of years ago, the horse is a fast, balanced, noble animal utilized by our species in battle, in difficult labor, and, notably, for friendship or companionship.  

The presence of a horse in a work of art could symbolize innocence, nobility or freedom.  The Greeks associated horses with war, and some Buddhists with the law itself. In many Native American mythological traditions, the horse is a messenger.

The horse has appeared frequently throughout cult television history.  Most notably, the white horse – symbolizing vitality, resurrection or freedom -- has appeared prominently in the genre.

The most famous cult-television horse (outside the loquacious Mr. Ed)  is likely Silver, the white stallion of the Lone Ranger (1949 – 1957).  In one episode of the series, we learn that Silver was rescued by the Lone Ranger, and in gratitude for its life, became his loyal steed.

One of the franchise’s key catchphrases involves this horse: “Hi-yo, Silver, away.”  In terms of symbolism, a white horse, as I noted above, can represent resurrection.  The Lone Ranger was initially left for dead, before being “resurrected” as a figure for justice in the Old West.  Silver symbolizes that character’s re-birth.

In V: The Final Battle (1984), Mike Donovan (Marc Singer) rode a white horse into battle with a Visitor air-ship.  In this case, the white steed perhaps represents freedom, or the harnessing of nature against technology.

In the first season episode of Millennium (1996 – 1999), “Broken World,” Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) investigates a case in which a serial killer has murdered twenty horses, and is graduating to human beings.  In this case, the horses represent innocence, and the story is an interesting variation on Equus.



The revived Doctor Who (2005 - ) featured a white horse in the Hugo Award and Nebula Award winning episode “The Girl in the Fireplace.”  Here, the white horse represents purity and love. Since the episode involves the Doctor’s romantic relationship with Madame De Pompadour (Sophie Myles), the horse is a reminder that even a 900 year old Time Lord who has seen it all can still love, can still be pure-at-heart.  He walks the horse around (a spaceship) as though he is dragging his own romantic heart around.


Horses of other hues have also appeared in cult-television programming.  In the pilot episode of Star Trek, “The Cage,” Captain Pike (Jeffery Hunter) experiences a fantasy/hallucination in which he is back at home on Earth, attending a picnic in a park with his wife (Susan Oliver) and beloved horse, Tango.  In this case, Pike is suffering fatigue and guilt over a failed mission, and is tired of the responsibilities of starship command.  The horse represents a desire for simpler pleasures, for a more innocent life.

An episode of Shazam! (1974 – 1977) called “Thou Shalt Not Kill” involves Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) attempting to save a horse, Beckett, from unwarranted execution.  Again, the horse represents a brand of innocence.  He is a pawn in man’s world, and is guilty of no crime   Fortunately, Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) saves the day.

Buck Rogers: "Happy Birthday, Buck!"

In “Happy Birthday, Buck” a long-time human captive on the planet Ovion (?) Colonel Cornell Traeger (Peter MacLean) escapes and returns...