Monday, September 30, 2013

Television and Cinema Verities #88


["Nightmare at 20,000 Feet"] touches another universal in the human psyche, and that is the fear of flying. Buried somewhere in all of us when the going gets rough up there is: If God meant us to fly, we’d have wings. Why are we up here? We’re in the wrong part of the world. We should be on terra firma. That’s the only explanation I can come up with that makes that particular episode as popular as it is..."

- William Shatner discusses the endring popularity of his Twilight Zone segment, "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet."

Ask JKM a Question: What ever happened to....


Instead of answering a specific reader question this week, I'm going to tell you about an interrogative that I frequently receive via my e-mail account.   

I have persistently been asked this question since I first began blogging in 2005:

“What really happened to Katie Saylor?”

Who is Katie Saylor, you ask? 

Well, to those of us of a certain age, she is a movie icon and sex-symbol of the mid-1970s. 

She starred in Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973), and Supervan (1977), and she played Liana on the short-lived cult-TV series The Fantastic Journey (1977), which I have blogged about frequently.

But here’s the apparently enduring mystery: Katie Saylor departed that sci-fi series before it ended, and did not appear in the final two Fantastic Journey episodes “Riddles” and “The Innocent Prey.”   Her role in "Turnabout" appears...abbreviated.

Legend has it that Ms. Saylor was diagnosed with a terminal disease while making the series, and immediately left to tend to her health.  This may, however, be mere internet rumor.

Other accounts suggest that Ms. Saylor lived until 1991 -- more than a dozen years later -- when she then, actually, passed away.

I have also read rumblings on the Net since recently that she is alive and well, and that she merely chose to leave Hollywood behind.  

I don’t believe in prying into a performer’s personal life, or into the details of a family tragedy (if that is what this mystery concerns...), but I can absolutely attest to the fact that I am frequently asked “whatever happened to Katie Saylor?"  

And alas, I have no answer.

So if anyone does know -- and would be willing to provide some evidence that I could share on line -- I’d be very gratified to see this matter resolved. 

Judging by the frequency of the question, I’d say that a lot of people of my generation love, adore, and remember Katie Saylor, and cherish her small and silver screen work to this day.  I have always felt she created a strong character on The Fantastic Journey, and one whose empathic/psychic abilities didn't come across as annoying or irritating, as was often the case with Counselor Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation's early years.

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Balloons


A balloon is a flexible bag which, when pumped with a gas such as helium, inflates. Although we commonly associate balloons with the festivities of birthday parties or carnivals, hot-air balloons are also a notable mode of transport around the world.

In cult-television history, balloons of both types have appeared frequently. 

Regarding the former variety, the post-apocalyptic Saturday morning TV series Ark II (1976) featured an episode titled “The Balloon” in which coded messages (for help) were transported via the objects.

In 1994, an “evil” balloon appeared in the second season The X-Files episode “The Calusari.”  A pink balloon (dragged by an invisible supernatural entity…) leads a little toddler to his death at an amusement park.  The boy wanders onto the railroad tracks, and an oncoming train runs him down. 


In terms of hot-air balloons, they have proven vital in terms of storytelling.  Perhaps their most famous and memorable application was in the finale of the second V miniseries, V: The Final Battle (1984). 

There, hot-air balloons all over the world dispersed the weapon known as “the red dust” which was known to kill the alien Visitors.  The technological aliens, unable to detect a threat from hot air balloons, were taken by surprise.

In the animated series Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975), “Terror on Ice Mountain,” a hot-air balloon is utilized to carry an apocryphal book (about apes being held in cages in human society…) to the far north.


A hot-air balloon also wandered into Altrusia in the third season of Land of the Lost in 1977, titled, appropriately “Hot-Air Balloon.”  Here, an adventurer who fell into the pocket universe hoped to escape in his balloon and take Cha-ka (Philip Paley) with him as an example of the missing link. 

The hot-air balloon was also a mode of travel between provinces in the series Otherworld (1985).  The Sterling family escaped from one region to the other in the episode “Princess Metra.”


In both Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974) and Star Blazers (1979), inflatable balloon replicas of spaceships (the Enterprise and the Argo, respectively) have been utilized as decoys in battle.


Recently, Professor Doofenschmirtz on Phineas and Ferb revealed that his best friend is a balloon named Balloony.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Balloons

1

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Practical Joker."

Identified by SGB: Ark II: "The Balloon"

Identified by Woodhuckgod: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Terror on Ice Mountain."

Identified by Hugh: Land of the Lost: "Hot Air Balloon."

Identified by Hugh: The Super Friends.

Identified by Woodchuckgod: Star Blazers.

Identified by Hugh: V: The Final Battle.

9

Identified by Mr. C: The X-Files: "The Calusari."


Identified by Mr. C: Lost.


Identified by Woodchuckgod: Doctor Who: "The Next Doctor."

Identified by Brian: Doctor Who.

14

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Mark A. Sheppard

In The X-Files: "Fire."

In Star Trek: Voyager: "Child's Play."

In Firefly as Badger.

On Medium (as Dr. Jack Walker).

On Battlestar Galactica as Romo Lampkin

On Doctor Who as Canton Delaware
On Supernatural, as Crowley.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ranking Star Trek: The Animated Series: Best to Worst


The Great:       

1.         “The Jihad”
2.         “The Slaver Weapon"
3.         “Yesteryear”
4.         “The Survivor”
5.         “The Magicks of Megas-Tu”
6.         “The Time Trap”

The Good:       

7.         “Beyond the Farthest Star"
8.         “One of Our Planets is Missing”
9.         “The Ambergris Element”
10.       “The Counter-Clock Incident”
11.       “Albatross”
12.       “How Sharper Than a Serpent’s Tooth”

The Fair:       

13.       ‘The Lorelei Signal”
14.       “The Eye of the Beholder”
15.       “Once Upon a Planet”
16.       “The Practical  Joker”
17.       “Bem”
18.       “The Pirates of Orion”
19.       “The Infinite Vulcan”

The Bad:          

20.       “The Terratin Incident”
21.       “Mudd’s Passion”
22.       “More Tribbles, More Troubles”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Counter-Clock Incident" (October 12, 1974)


STARDATE: 6770.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise ferries Commodore Robert April, the first captain of the starship, and his wife, Sarah, to the planet Babel, where they will be honored for their many years of service to the Federation.  In fact, Robert is now nearing the Starfleet’s “mandatory retirement age” of 75, and laments the fact that his journey is nearing its end.

Captain Kirk (William Shatner) diverts the Enterprise’s course, however, when sensors detect an alien space vessel traveling at Warp 36 and heading straight into the Beta Niobe supernova.  The Enterprise uses a tractor beam to grab the racing vessel, but only ends up being pulled into the nova itself.

Miraculously, the Enterprise and the other starship survive to emerge in another universe, one where the stars are black, and space is white. As Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) soon learns, however, time is also moving backwards, meaning that the crew will soon become too young to manage the controls of the starship. 

As the Enterprise teams with the captain of the alien ship -- which sought to return home to the negative universe -- Commodore April assumes command of Kirk’s starship to help guide the Enterprise safely back to its own plane of existence…



At first blush, “The Counter-Clock Incident” is another one of those very gimmicky Star Trek: The Animated Series episodes; one that seems to exist primarily because the concept is highly visual, not because it makes good story (or scientific…) sense.   Here, the Enterprise crew ages in reverse, becoming young children in the process, and yes, we’ve seen this kind of tale before.  “The Terratin Incident” featured the crew shrinking while “Mudd’s Passion” involved a love potion, and so on. 

But two qualities make “The Counter-Clock Incident” an enjoyable episode.  First and foremost, the episode examines the issue of ageism in Starfleet, which we learn here possesses a mandatory retirement age of 75.  “The Counter-Clock Incident” should indeed be commended for noting that people of various experiences and ages have something valuable to offer. 

I wonder, does the age requirement also apply to Vulcans, or only to humans? 

And also, I couldn’t help but think about Peter Capaldi here and his recent casting as the new Doctor in Doctor Who.  Have we learned anything in almost forty years, or are we still judging a person by his or her age?



Secondly, “The Counter-Clock Incident” practically overdoses on original series continuity, and frankly, that’s impressive.  Here, we learn of the building of the Enterprise at the San Francisco shipyards, and get mentions of Babel (“Journey to Babel”) and f the super-novas at both Minara (“The Empath”) and Beta Niobe (“All Our Yesterdays.”)  A Capellan flower also makes an appearance, and Capella was visited in the Star Trek episode “Friday’s Child.”  Considering that this episode was aired in 1974, before our culture had overdosed on sequels and such, it’s rather remarkable to consider the internal continuity.  Clearly, someone was paying close attention to the details of the mythos.

Still, the whole person “aging backward” trope in “Counter-Clock Incident” is one that has appeared frequently in cult-television history, and is one which I actively dislike.  This concept doesn’t possess even a borderline plausibility.  How is a baby-sized mammal (an elder) to give birth to a full-sized body (a youngster), purely from a physical standpoint?  Series such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“The Golden Man”), Mork and Mindy (in terms of Mearth), and Star Trek: Voyager (“The Innocents”) have utilized this illogical idea too, and it never quite seems plausible, in my opinion.  Is the idea that as an old person, or baby, you are just spontaneously born from “death?”  If so, how do you get the genes from your parents?


By the same token, “The Counter-Clock Incident” uses the same deus-ex-machina ending as “The Terratin Incident” and Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes such as “Lonely Among Us” and “Unnatural Selection.”  The sick or “affected” individuals go through the transporter device and are restored to normality.  As I noted a few weeks ago, the transporter is really Star Trek’s miracle medicine.  It can be used to fix anything, and renders Dr. McCoy a dunsel.

Despite the illogical story I do feel like “The Counter-Clock Incident” is one of those “feel good” episodes of Star Trek (not unlike The Voyage Home [1986], one where the happy, re-assuring emotions and pro-social value in some way trump science or even believability.  The head may be unimpressed, but the heart flutters.

“The Counter-Clock Incident” is the last episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, and I must say, I’m sorry to be at the end of the catalog.  I have thoroughly enjoyed re-visiting these stories, and feel that there are several “undiscovered” gems here.  Sure, there are stinkers too (“More Tribbles, More Troubles,” “Mudd’s Passion,” “The Terratin Incident”), but there are perhaps six-to-ten absolute stand out installments too, and that’s not a bad batting average for a series that ran for 22 episodes.

Next week for Saturday morning blogging, I start two new series.  I'll begin my retrospective of the 1990s Land of the Lost and also the 1975 animated series, Return to the Planet of the Apes.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Late Night Blogging: KISS on TV (1974 - 1979)













Lunchbox of the Week: KISS



KISS Your Face Makeup Kit (Remco)



One of my dear friends, Jonathon, reminded me of this KISS collectible on Facebook, so I thought I would share some images of it here.  I never knew (or had forgotten...) that this even existed.  The seventies were great, weren't they?

Collectible of the Week: KISS action figures (Mego; 1978)


If you grew up in the mid-1970s, one fact was certain: The Fab Four was not really The Beatles...it was KISS!   

The era brought devoted fans a popular KISS comic-book from Marvel, a KISS TV-movie (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park), not to mention lunchboxes, board games, and, yes, collectible action figures.  

I had a Gene Simmons action figure in my toy collection once, but never owned the rest of the band, alas. And today, these original figures are very hard (meaning expensive...) to come by.

Anyway, Mego acquired the license to market KISS toys in 1977, and produced four twelve-inch figures of the band-members in full, awesome regalia.   The figures were sold separately and marketed as "America's #1 Rock Group."


The company's toy catalog explained: 

"Create your own rock concert with these authentic replicas of America's #1 rock group.  KISS dolls are 12 1/2 inches tall and fully poseable.  There's Gene Simmons, the tongue-thrusting vampire figure, Peter Criss the whiskered feline; Ace Frehley, the silver-eyed spaceman, and Paul Stanley, the starry-eyed sex symbol."

Below, a toy commercial for the Mego KISS line:

Model Kit of the Week: KISS Custom Chevy Van (AMT)


Board Game of the Week: KISS on Tour




Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Cult Movie Review: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)



The late great movie critic Pauline Kael once wrote that the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers was “the American movie of the year – a new classic…the best movie of its kind ever made.”

Even at this late date, I can find no reason to quibble with that assessment.

In particular, Invasion of the Body Snatchers craftily updates the 1950s context of the original Jack Finney novel, as well as the Don Siegel film adaptation.  It does so in order to deliberately comment on the contentious 1970s: the decade of “The Me Generation” and the Watergate conspiracy and cover-up. 

Accordingly, the film’s conclusion seems to be that human life in the decade of “self-realization” seems to hamper, not encourage, real connection between people, while an overt, even paranoid lack of trust in society’s institutions and hierarchies makes that disconnect exponentially worse. 

In the absence of real connection and real love, a seed grows, and terror blossoms.  

Invasion of the Body Snatchers thus concerns, as film scholar Michael Dempsey noted in Film Quarterly (February 1979, page 120), “the manifold pressures which life brings upon people to abandon that ambiguous blessing, humanity.”



In San Francisco, lab tech Elizabeth Driscoll (Brooke Adams) grows increasingly convinced that her boyfriend Geoffrey (Art Hindle) is not himself.  When she brings her worries to her boss, Matthew Bennell (Sutherland), he recommends she see his friend, pop psychologist and relationship guru, Dr. David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy).  Kibner promptly reports that he has seen six similar cases in just one week, and suspects that the cause is the fast-moving 1970s life-style, in which people move in and out of relationships too fast, without really getting to know each other.

But as Matthew, Elizabeth, and their fiends Nancy (Veronica Cartwright) and Jack (Jeff Goldblum) soon discover, the problem in San Francisco is much graver than that.  Alien plants from a dying solar system have arrived on Earth and are rapidly producing emotionless doppelgangers of the human race.  They desire a world of peace, with no hate…but also no love. 

Matthew, Elizabeth, Nancy and Jack attempt to escape San Francisco, but the conspiracy has grown too big, and the human race stands on the brink…


The 1970s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers by director Philip Kaufman primarily concerns shape and form, and the myriad ways that human beings misperceive shape and form, and thus make unwarranted assumptions that fit pre-conceived notions about those qualities. The film itself depicts an invasion of alien “pod people” -- essentially sentient plants -- who secretly  replace human beings (while they sleep…) in a vast 1970s liberal metropolis, San Francisco. 

But unlike its 1950s predecessor, which was either an indictment of communism or an indictment of McCarthyism depending on your personal Rorschach, the remake plays meaningfully against the unmistakable backdrop of an increasing divorce rate in the United States and the ascent of the so-called “Me Generation.” 

Or, as the psychiatrist in the film, Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) trenchantly notes: “people are moving in and out of relationships too quickly,” and therefore never really getting to know people they presumably love. Accordingly, when individuals make discoveries about their intended loves ones that they don’t like, it is easier to disassociate from them, to blame the “other” for being “different” and then just move on.

But if you are so focused on self and can’t get to really know other people, how can you tell if they are even human at all?  They may look and act human -- their shape and form could be human -- but they could be…pods.

In terms of background context, the Me Generation famously consists of Baby Boomers (born 1946 – 1964, generally-speaking) who, because of rising disposable income in the 1970s and perhaps as a direct response to the ethos of the World War II generation, began to place a new importance on “the self” over the well-being, necessarily, of the community.

In fact, the 1970s was determinedly the decade of the “self,” a fact reflected in the hedonism of disco music, and the blazing ascent in popularity of the “self-help” book genre.  Popular buzz-words of the day included “self-realization” and “self-fulfillment,” yet as the movement of “self” grew, many people saw the new age as merely one of “self-involvement.  The consumption-oriented life-style of immediate gratification soon gave rise to President Carter’s notorious 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, which warned against judging success on material wealth rather than intrinsic human qualities of character and morality.  Meanwhile, we kept building more shopping malls, and imagined worlds futuristic (Logan’s Run) and apocalyptic (Dawn of the Dead) set at them.

Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers plays meaningfully with the idea of form and shape in its visuals by depicting a world where “disconnected” people can’t distinguish between genuine humanity and invading, emotionless aliens.  This tension between form and reality occurs almost immediately in the film when a health inspector -- the film’s protagonist, Bennell (Sutherland) -- starts a fight in a restaurant kitchen, arguing over whether a small black object is actually a caper or a rat turd.  This debate is actually a metaphor for the entire film.

The only way to know for sure about the caper/rat turd is to eat it…and by then it’s too late, isn’t it?  By then, what you fear is actually inside you, doing you harm…

Forecasting its bleak, terrifying, and legitimately unforgettable finale, Kaufman’s camera proves deeply ambivalent even about Bennell -- the hero -- and his “true” human nature.   For example, when Bennell first appears in the film, he is seen through the restaurant’s door, through a peep-hole, and the audience gazes at him through the filter of what seems like a fish-eye.  Bennell appears distorted and strange, and not fully human. 

Later, at a book party for Dr. Kibner, we see a distorted visual representation of Bennell again.  As he talks on the telephone to the police, he stands before what seems to be a funhouse mirror, and it corrupts his features once more. 

And when Bennell goes to rescue Elizabeth from her boyfriend’s house, he is deliberately lit from below, a visual selection which casts shadows upon his features and makes him look diabolical or sinister.

All these visualizations of the good guy prove a point in Invasion of the Body Snatchers:  You can’t trust appearances.

That lesson is learned the hard way by Veronica Cartwright’s character, Nancy, in the film’s last moment.




To approach this facet of Invasion of the Body Snatchers another way, the aliens are creatures who do understand, mimic and manipulate form and shape to their advantage.  Late in the film, a pod merges the body of a dog with the head of a homeless man because the host’s genetic materials were damaged during the duplication process.  What emerges is nothing less than an abomination (and one my earliest movie-going experiences with a jump scare, at that).  But that’s okay to the aliens because they don’t possess emotions. They don’t know fear, disgust or horror.


The protagonists further misunderstand the pods because of their “familiar”-seeming forms.  First, the pods are accepted as harmless plants and brought into human homes, where they commence the invasion. Secondly, these plants are not considered a viable “host” for aliens, as Nancy observantly points out.   Why do we expect UFOS to be metal ships?

And thirdly, the heroes operate on incorrect assumptions about plants, and those assumptions prove deadly.  Even though Nancy notes that plants do respond to music, Bennell leaves Elizabeth for a time because he hears music playing nearby, on a boat.  The song he hears is “Amazing Grace,” one of the most moving compositions ever written, and he assumes it must be sign or symbol of emotional, feeling mankind. 

On the contrary, however, the tune emanates from a cargo ship transporting pods.  There is no hope here, no “grace” to speak of.  The pods, though emotionless, listen to music as well, though it is doubtful they would ever compose new music.

Again, we believe that music is unique to us, but this scene proves that it isn’t, and that mistake costs Bennell the love of his life.  He should know better. When he breaks into Geoffrey's house, the pod Geoffrey is also listening to music.


Over and over, Kaufman’s film attempts to trick us or mislead with its visuals, making the case that in this day and age, we can’t really know anyone else.  Sometimes, the director throws the audience a bone and offers up a visual composition that makes the point we need to learn, or provides an important clue, even before the dialogue tells us.  In one scene set at Matthew’s apartment, for instance, a tower bisects the frame vertically, separating Matthew and Kibner on opposite sides of rectangle, a visual representation of the fact that they aren’t working towards a common end.  We get verbal verification of that fact in the very next scene, but the visuals tell us first, and that’s a remarkable and deft achievement.


The 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers also plays deliberately with the lack of confidence Americans felt in their government following the Watergate Scandal.  President Nixon authorized criminal activities from the Oval Office and resigned from office in disgrace, and then his successor, President Ford immediately pardoned him.  Citizens, to a certain extent, were left out of the loop, and Nixon didn’t seem to pay much for betraying the public trust.  So there was a sense that government, and government bureaucracy was not working for the good of the people, but rather to corrupt ends.  Government (Ford) took care of its own (Nixon).  I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, and I believe Ford did what was necessary to begin the healing process in America.  But others felt differently, and throughout this movie, the paranoia of Watergate proves quite pronounced as shadowy figures rendezvous and talk in hushed tones about plots and strategies.  

At one point, the specter of Watergate is directly referenced, when Matthew realizes that he and all his friends are being watched, and their phones are being tapped.  A telephone operator calls him by name before he gives it. This is, perhaps, the most chilling moment in the movie.

To Philip Kaufman’s credit, he orchestrates the conspiracy in Invasion of the Body Snatchers right under our (unaware) noses, much as President Nixon managed to do for a time.  If Watergate had its “plumbers,” then Invasion has its “garbage men.”  Throughout the film, unobserved and unremarked upon, garbage trucks enter the frame and cart off this weird organic-looking soot or fluff. 

The conspiracy's garbage men are here.

Notice the dumpster behind Leonard Nimoy.

Could that body have disappeared into the garbage truck sitting outside the window?

We don’t learn until the end of the film that this grotesque material is all that remains of the human body after the duplication process.  But at four or five different junctures in the film -- starting in the first shots after the opening credits finish – anonymous-looking garbage trucks, garbage men and dumpsters are captured in the frame, along with this mystery substance.  Only in the film’s final moments does the full breadth of the conspiracy -- and its duration -- become plain.  Invasion of the Body Snatchers also makes literal that old proverb “you can’t fight City Hall.” Here Matthew realizes that the invaders (garbage men and aliens) “control the whole city,” just as we learned they ran the country in Watergate.

Between extreme paranoia about the motives of trusted officials, and the lack of connection between citizens in a permissive utopia of “self,” Invasion of the Body Snatchers fosters deep uneasiness about how easily our natures might be mimicked or mocked.  The final scene, which sees Bennell revealed as a “pod person,” is the ultimate exclamation point on that theme.  He does everything that he did before he was an alien, and so we hope, like Nancy, that he could be “hiding” around the other aliens.  But instead we’ve missed the truth again.  We have mistaken form for substance.  He’s been “born again” into an untroubled world that has no need of hate, and no need of love, either.

Tellingly, Invasion of the Body Snatchers proposes that the alien duplication occurs while the original human sleeps.  Sleep is a universal must and biological need among human beings, so the process is both inescapable and inevitable.  Furthermore, how often have we heard from friends and family that that they “just woke up one day” and felt different about someone important in their lives. This Invasion of the Body Snatchers lives in paranoid suspicion of such a revelation.

20 Years Ago: Sleepy Hollow (1999)

After the box office disappointment and mixed critical notices of  Mars Attacks!  (1996), director Tim Burton returned to theaters in...