Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Dinosaur Denizens of Land of the Lost (1974 - 1976)

Big Alice







Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Medicine Man" (December 4, 1976)

In “Medicine Man,” the very last episode of Land of the Lost, old enemies bring their long-standing hatred to an end with the help of the stranded Marshalls.  It’s another overtly didactic morality tale, and one highly reminiscent of Star Trek’s “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.”  Only here, the ending is positive, rather than a demonstration of the fact that some hatreds simply never die.
 In “Medicine Man,” the Marshalls encounter Lone Wolf (Ned Romero), a Native-American medicine man who is desperate to get medicine to his sick people.  Lone Wolf is being hunted, however, by Captain Elmo Diggs (Gregory Wolcott), a U.S. cavalry officer who claims that Lone Wolf stole the medicine that his men need if they hope to survive.

At first, Lone Wolf and Diggs circle each other with suspicion and racist fears, but thanks in large part to Jack, who brokers a peace, the two become reluctant allies.  At episode’s end, the Native-American Medicine Man and soldier ride off together, with one horse, hoping to return home to their time.  Of course, this ending is indeed a problem in the Land of the Lost continuity.  We know that the land is a pocket universe -- a circle -- and that there is no escape point, and certainly none reachable by horse.

The most disappointing aspect? The episode (and thus the series…) ends with another terrible song from Will (Wesley Eure), one in which he wistfully “dreams of home.”
Although “Medicine Man” may seem preachy, it certainly offers kids a good lesson about the human quality of mercy…and forgiveness.   Still, as a final episode, this installment disappoints.  We see Grumpy one last time, but it’s been some time since there’s been a good dinosaur story on the show.  Furthermore, we don’t see the Sleestaks, the Lost City or any other Land of the Lost regular supporting cast (like Big Alice).  The episode thus feels very contained and small, like a budget-saving effort. 

If made today, of course, there would be a great ending for Land of the Lost.  Either the Marshalls would make it back home, or the show would end on some dynamic cliffhanger.  Given the reality of 1970s TV programming, neither option was likely here.  However, it would have been nice if the series had ended more firmly on the thematic terrain where it so often exceeded expectations: as an intelligent science fiction series; one that muses about, in genre terms, the importance of environmental stewardship and responsibility.
I’ve now blogged every episode of all three seasons of The Land of the Lost (1974 – 1976), and I must confess that I’ll miss the amazing sights and unmistakable sounds of Altrusia.  Even with the addition of the uninspiring third season, the series was a usually pleasure to watch.  Land of the Lost lasted for something like forty three episodes, and most of the episodes, especially in the first two years were of a generally high quality.  It was a thoughtful series, more often than not.  No other live-action series, I should note, lasted so long or has attained such a following.
I’ve said it before but it bears repeating.  Someone really ought to look at what worked about Land of the Lost in the 1970s and update the series for today’s adults.  The same underlying theme (about the environment) would work brilliantly in today’s context, and an adult science fiction series about a family trapped in a lost world would make for great, adventurous entertainment.
One of these days, if I get the chance, I’ll review the 1991 remake of Land of the Lost, featuring a family known as the Porters.  In the meantime, I begin blogging a new series next week… the live-action Shazam! (1974 – 1976).

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Deadline(s) Looming!

I'm running into the perfect storm of graduate school assignments and literary deadlines for March 1st, so I'm going to table this week's X-Files retrospective (on "Gender Bender") till next Thursday.  Sorry!

But don't despair, I should be over the crisis soon.  Fresh blogging resumes here Saturday morning. And in the meantime, may I recommend my review of Dredd (2012)?

See you Saturday!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Pop Art: Coloring Books (Space:1999 Edition)

Collectible of the Week: Quiz Wiz (Coleco; 1979)

In 1979, Coleco introduced a toy called “The Quiz Wiz,” a small rectangular “computer” designed to test the limits of your knowledge. 

This small beige electronic game came replete with a numerical keyboard, and green and red indicator lights for noting correct and incorrect answers.  The portable Quiz Wiz could also “lock” into various booklets -- colored red and blue -- which posed questions on many different topics.

The Quiz Wiz came packaged with the booklet “1001 Questions,” but Coleco also released other booklets for the Quiz Wiz by the boatload including Movies and TV, The World of Sports, People and Places, Trivia, Music and Books, The Ocean, Energy, The Book of Lists, Super Heroes, The Bible, Ripley’s Believe it or Not and a supernatural themed book, Monsters, Vampires, Witches and Ghosts.

I remember getting the Quiz Wiz for Christmas in 1979 or 1980, and absolutely loving the toy.  Of course, I primarily loved it as a component I could use in my mock-up of a space ship control room, but that's likely beside the point.  I also remember at the time marveling how compact the keyboard was, and thinking it was amazing that a computer could be so small and yet still do so much.

Times have changed...

Model Kit of the Week #17: Jaws of Doom

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: Dredd (2012)

The great age of science fiction movie dystopias occurred from the 1970s to the early 1980s.  During that span -- from roughly 1971 to 1981 -- audiences witnessed dystopias involving over-population (Z.P.G. [1972], Soylent Green 1973]), hippie communes (Zardoz [1973]) fascist computer control (Logan’s Run [1976]), and even rampant crime (Escape from New York [1981]).

John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s future cop, Judge Dredd, arose from that historical period.  The character first appeared in the British comic-book anthology 2000 AD in the year 1977.  In the comic-book universe, the fearsome, always-helmeted Dredd patrolled the mean streets of Mega City One on his law-master motorcycle, carrying his lawgiver pistol.  He was a policeman, judge, jury and -- if need be -- executioner.

The dystopian milieu of Dredd was first adapted to film in 1995, with Sylvester Stallone in the lead role. But Judge Dredd was poorly received in large part because it watered down the hardcore nature of Dredd’s dystopia.

In the Stallone film, Dredd often removed his helmet, took time to romance a fellow judge, and had a comedic sidekick played by Rob Schneider.  The film seemed more concerned with fanciful, stereotypically “future” touches and comic relief than with the creation of a real sense of place.  Instead of a legitimately artistic vision, the 1995 film had the word “blockbuster” written all over it.  And there’s nothing more depressing than a film that homogenizes its source material in the hopes of being commercial…and then fails in that endeavor.

The same criticism could never accurately be applied to the compact, concise, and visually-dazzling Dredd (2012), the recent cinematic adaptation of the same comic-book material. 

This new version of the comic-book material is a breath of fresh air in a movie culture that eschews purity of vision in hopes of satisfying the widest possible demographic coalition.  The film’s script is spare, satirical, and relentlessly sharp.  Furthermore, Dredd is unburdened by unnecessary settings, characters, or plot points, making it -- brilliantly -- all of a unified (dystopian) piece.  The film thus represents a perfect introduction to Dredd’s unpleasant world, one where small touches -- like a homeless man holding a sign that reads “will debase self for credits”--  add up to a lot.
By avoiding that pitfall as well as the temptation to go for blockbuster scope and ameliorating, politically-correct touches, Dredd emerges as not only one of the best science fiction films of recent vintage, but one of the best action films since The Matrix, or going back even further, since the original Die Hard (1988).

“Only one thing fighting for order in the chaos…”

In a harrowing future world, much of the United States’ east coast, from Boston to Washington D.C. is a vast metropolis called Mega-City-One.  Eight hundred million citizens live there, and 17,000 crimes are committed per day. Unemployment is at 96% and vast skyscrapers now house entire, self-contained slums of over two-hundred levels.

A cadre of highly-trained Judges enforces order in the unruly city, though even though they can only respond to 6% of the crimes that occur.

On the very day that Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) is supposed to train an inexperienced rookie judge, a mutant telepath named Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), he discovers just how outnumbered the judges really are.  He and Anderson answer a seemingly routine call at the Peach Trees Slum, and learn that the drug-lord, Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) rules it with an iron fist.   In fact, she has just skinned and murdered a group of rivals.

Before the Judges can take a suspect back to headquarters who can finger Ma-Ma as the main producer of the illegal narcotic “slo-mo” in Mega City One, she locks down the entire slum, and announces over the loudspeaker that the two judges are to be executed.  Any residents who help or hide the law enforcement officers will be killed themselves.

Trapped in a hostile, self-contained city, Dredd, Anderson, and their reluctant witness make their way skywards, towards Ma-Ma’s headquarters, but not before encountering floor-after-floor of deadly resistance…

“It's a fucking meat grinder. People go in one end, and meat comes out the other. All we do is turn the handle.

Dredd is an extremely violent and bloody film. And yet that depiction of violence absolutely rings true with the dystopian world the film portrays.  This is the world Wayne La Pierre apparently thinks we live in today, right now, rife with gang violence everywhere, and the police under constant siege. 

It’s a vision the more reality-based among us would more commonly associate with the early eighties and films such as Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981) or Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981).  Nonetheless, the world of Dredd is still believable to us today in part because of sporadic mentions of high unemployment.  This is a problem which still threatens to derail our economy, especially when paired with the dire and looming threat of austerity.

In terms of its intense action, the film unexpectedly lands on a legitimate method to accommodate slow-motion, 3-D photography in its visual tapestry, an accomplishment roughly akin to the genesis of bullet-time as a side-effect of the virtual world in The Matrix (1999).

Only here, much of the action is rendered in glorious, beautiful, rainbow-colored slow-motion because of a narcotic called “slo-mo,” which slows time for the percipient to 1/100th of its normal speed.  Several crucial action sequences are filmed while gunfighters are under the sway of this drug, and the visualizations of these extended moments are incredible.  They are beyond incredible. They are jaw-dropping.

Such a creative visual conceit by itself would mark Dredd as dynamically original action film.  But the movie also succeeds because of its stoic, nearly ascetic artistic values.  The film quickly settles down into one setting and a central conflict, and doesn’t leave that arena, even though the temptation was no doubt to “world build” on a colossal scale. 

But the problem with traveling around and even outside the city, however, is that the sense of overwhelming urban blight, and thus dystopia, is lost.  The existential problem for those unlucky souls who inhabit this world is that they can’t escape the cycle of economic ruin and crime.  So to have Dredd flying off to locales far and wide (as he did in the 1995 film) would spoil the atmosphere of doom and hopelessness.  Dredd works so splendidly because the judge finds himself locked down in a claustrophobic trap, one where he must fight just to survive, let alone to execute the law.

Although the violence in Dredd is particularly bracing, it is also depicted in such a way as to be -- dare I say it? -- beautiful

In part, this aesthetic works very well because the film projects a hopeless future.  The only way to experience pleasure for the poor and unemployed is to use “slo mo.”  The drug permits one to mentally check out, and view the world as a kind of lumbering, slow-motion tapestry.  In this way, life is revealed as a slowly-shifting work of art, one with cascading light, frisson-able atmospherics and other tactile pleasures.

Nihilistically then, life can only be appreciated in a world that is not “convulsing, choking and breaking under its own weight,” to quote the film’s dialogue.  Dredd’s drug-of-choice makes the visualization of the action revolutionary, but it also does something else too.  It reveals much about the culture that created it.

Ma-Ma’s death scene is the most egregious example of this aesthetic of violence.  Dredd gives the crime boss a snoot-ful of slo-mo and pushes her off a high ledge.  She will fall to her death down a trench of 200 levels, and the moments before her death will be extended dramatically because of the drug.

Is this a kind of mercy?

Or is it a brand of punishment? 

Does slowed down time augment and extend Ma-ma’s terror at the oncoming death, or does it lengthen the last few, precious moments of her life on this mortal coil?

Although I don’t view Dredd as the merciful type, I would argue that the visuals raise the question.  Ma-ma’s falling body seems to fall first through a shattered snow globe of sorts, with glittering debris all around, and then, she passes through a kind of color rainbow and atmospheric rain cloud.  Implicitly, she gets to experience one lost moment of beautiful life before hard, cruel reality re-asserts itself….violently.

Maybe that is punishment: the knowledge that she could have done things differently, and experienced life’s beauty for many more years had she not been so terrible and murderous.

In whatever way one chooses to parse this climactic sequence, it is visually dazzling, and a reminder that even in the most unpleasant situations, life is still the best game in town. 

 Most of the violence in the film also involves the restoration of order in an out-of-control setting, and from a certain perspective, that too can be a beautiful thing, or at least a relief. The moment of Ma-ma’s death expresses the effect of the drug, of but also the liberation of Peach Trees at Dredd’s hand.  It is a sustained, gorgeous, visual catharsis.  .

Sometimes it is useful to discuss a movie in terms of other movies, and indeed, that’s the case here.  Dredd features the Training Day (2001) scenario of an experienced cop showing a rookie the ropes. It also features the “hostile city” scenario of Black Hawk Down (2001), wherein American soldiers fought a whole metropolis rising up to kill them in Mogadishu, with precious few safe harbors.   And in keeping with the dystopia comparison, the contained “future” city of Logan’s Run (1976) is not all that different from the Peach Trees slum.

The remarkable thing about Dredd is the smooth, uncluttered manner in which it silently assimilates all those cinematic references into a dynamic and surprising new narrative.  If Training Day was about a first day on the job, and a corrupt cop, Dredd concerns instead, a policeman who, no matter the situation, won’t abandon his principles.  Black Hawk Down was about a foreign policy failure and its blowback on America, but Dredd concerns a terminal, ubiquitous economic failure and the internal blowback resulting from that problem.  Even the glittering shopping mall city-of-the-future from Logan’s Run (1976) is reflected or overturned in the blighted commercial landscape of the Peach Trees Ghetto. 

Paradoxically, Dredd is both a dazzling movie, and a grounded one.  It is dazzling in its visual imagination and audacity, yet grounded in the way it adheres to the rules of its grim, future world.  There is little sentimentality in the film, and yet the burgeoning friendship between Dredd and Anderson nonetheless transmits beautifully.

After the Stallone version of the same material, I was “dreading” this re-boot, but director Peter Travis has given us a new classic, and one that I wager we’ll be discussing for years to come.  A sequel would be great, but it isn’t, strictly-speaking, necessary. We now have the definitive Judge Dredd movie.

Theme Song of the Week: First Wave

Movie Trailer: Dredd (2012)

Monday, February 18, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: The 4400? (2004 - 2007)

My friend, the great Troy Foreman, writes:

"I saw Joe Maddrey did a post about some of his favorite TV shows and he listed The 4400 as one of them. I loved that show. Did you ever watch it? Have you ever done a review on the series? If not, I think it's something you may want to check out."

Troy, I did read Joe's excellent post, "Television Takeover."  

But I've never written about The 4400 (2004 - 20007), and I've never seen even a single episode of it, for some reason.  

For those who may not remember the series, it aired on the USA Network and ran for four seasons and forty-forty episodes all together.  The premise, as I understand it, involves a comet that returns 4,400 people to Earth.  They are all folks who disappeared in the last fifty-sixty years, but their mysterious return raises all kinds of questions. Where did they come from? What happened to them?  What does their return mean now, to the rest of us, here on Earth?

I remember being intrigued by the premise of the series, but apparently not enough to commit to it at the time of broadcast.  But also, Joel was born during the span of the series, and not to use that as an excuse, but for about two or three years, I missed a lot of new TV series.  Since then, I've caught up with Dexter, Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, Torchwood, Primeval, and I am now on Season Six of the revived Doctor Who.  

Perhaps The 4400 needs go in my queue (after Fringe?)

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Shakespeare

Although the poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) died five hundred years ago, the Bard of Avon has nonetheless made a huge impact on cult-television history.  Actors portraying the playwright have appeared on several occasions (in I Dream of Jeannie, The Simpsons, The Twilight Zone and Doctor Who), but his works have also been performed on-screen and referenced in several programs (Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and again, Doctor Who).

In the fourth season Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964) episode by Rod Serling titled “The Bard,” a desperate writer, played by Jack Weston, uses black magic to conjure Shakespeare in the flesh.  His hope is that the Bard will help him write a quality television special.  Shakespeare is vexed in the episode, however by nonsensical rewrite demands, and by the presence of a Marlon Brando-esque method actor, Rocky Rhodes, played by Burt Reynolds.

William Shakespeare was also at the center of an alien invasion in “The Shakespeare Code,” a serial from the third season of the revived Doctor Who (2005 - ).  In this story, the tenth Doctor (David Tennant) and his new companion Martha (Freema Agyeman) visit Elizabethan England just as Shakespeare is working on his sequel, titled Love’s Labour’s Won.   Sheakespeare’s work, however, is corrupted by the presence of three Carrionites, alien sorceresses who hope to encode the play’s dialogue with language that -- when spoken aloud -- will restore their destroyed world and race.  His encounter with the Carrionites inspires Shakespeare to create the three witches of MacBeth.

The Star Trek (1966 -1969) franchise has featured a long relationship with Shakespeare and the playwright’s works.  Many episodes of the series are titled with phrases derived from Shakespeare.  “Dagger of the Mind” (MacBeth), “The Conscience of the King” (Hamlet) and “By Any Other Name” (Romeo and Juliet) all arise from the Bard’s plays.  Similarly, the Original Series episode “Conscience of the King” follows an interplanetary Shakespeare Company that may be affiliated with the monstrous figure from history, Kodos the Executioner.  In the episode’s final act, we get to see the company perform Hamlet aboard the starship Enterprise.

Similarly, the third season episode of the series, “Elaan of Troyius” has often been described as a space age version of Taming of the Shrew.

Star Trek’s follow-up series, The Next Generation (1987 – 1994) boasted the audacity to cast a Shakespearean actor, Patrick Stewart, as its lead character, Captain Picard.  Accordingly, many episodes featured Shakespeare allusions.  Such references appeared in “Encounter at Farpoint” (Henry VI), “The Naked Now” (Merchant of Venice), “Hide and Q” (Hamlet), and “Time’s Arrow” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream).

On-screen, Shakespeare’s Henry V appeared as a holodeck program, initiated by Data (Brent Spiner) in the third season episode, “The Defector.”  In a seventh season story, “Emergence,” Data was also seen to be portraying Prospero in a production of The Tempest.

Other franchises have also flirted with the Bard’s work.  The first and only season of Man from Atlantis (1977 – 1978) featured an episode called “The Naked Montague” revealed that the story of Romeo and Juliet was true.  In this episode, Lisa Eilbacher portrayed Juliet, and John Shea was Romeo. 

Similarly, Moonlighting’s third season in 1986 featured a comic take on Taming with the Shrew, titled, appropriately “Atomic Shakespeare.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Shakespeare

Identified by Carl: Doctor Who: "The Chase."
Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "The Bard."

Identified by SGB: I Dream of Jeannie: "The Girl Who Never Had a Birthday" Part II.

Identified by Carl: Star Trek: "The Conscience of the King."

Identified by Terri Wilson: Man from Atlantis: "The Naked Montague."

Identified by Chris G: Moonlighting: "Atomic Shakespeare."

Identified by Carl: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Defector."

Identified by Carl: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Emergence" (Data as Prospero.)

Identified by Terri Wilson: The Simpsons: "Treehouse of Horror."

Identified by Terri Wilson: Mystery Science Theater 3000: "Hamlet."

Identified by Carl: Doctor Who: "The Shakespeare Code."

Television and Cinema Verities #58

"Science fiction loves to warn. Remember, science fiction's always been the kind of first level alert to think about things to come. It's easier for an audience to take warnings from sci-fi without feeling that we're preaching to them. Every science fiction movie I have ever seen, any one that's worth its weight in celluloid, warns us about things that ultimately come true."

- Steven Spielberg on the science fiction film and Minority Report (2002), at the BBC.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Sci-Fi Cityscapes #10: Mega-City One (Dredd [2012])

(I'll be reviewing this [amazing...] film for Tuesday, PM).

Cult-TV Gallery: Antoinette Bower

In The Twilight Zone: "Probe 7 Over and Out."

As Sylvia in Star Trek: "Catspaw."

As Dr. Marshall in The Starlost: "The Beehive."