Saturday, March 09, 2013

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



Hanna-Barbera’s The Herculoids (1967 – 1969) aired on Saturday mornings before I was born, but I watched it endlessly in reruns as a kid, and have always had affection for it.  The series visuals were designed by Alex Toth, the artist behind Space Ghost and other H.B. efforts. 

The Herculoids is set on the distant, jungle world of Azmot.  There, a human family consisting of Zandor (Mike Road), his wife, Tara (Virginia Gregg) and son Dorno (Ted Eccles) defend the unspoiled planet from technologically-advanced invaders.  They do so with the assistance of several colorful and dynamic alien creatures.

These aliens are: Zok, the flying dragon, Igoo, a giant stone ape-like creature, Tundro the rhino-ceratops, and last but not least, the playful protoplasmic adult and child, Gloop and Gleep.  Possessed of more than a mere rudimentary intelligence, all these bizarre creatures rally when faced with external menaces.

Igoo

Zok

Tundro

Gloop and Gleep

Although it is never spoken or explicitly stated on screen, The Herculoids appears to be a space age variation on Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan mythos. 

The wild, unspoiled Azmot represents Africa at the turn of the 19th-20th century, and Zandor is the lord of this particular jungle.  In the Tarzan story, Tarzan was sometimes accompanied by his wife, Jane, and son Jack, and those characters have clear counterparts here in Tara and Dorno.  The aliens that Zandor communicates with on the series -- Zok, Igoo, Tundro and Gloop and Gleep -- represent the wild animals of the jungle, the apes and elephants, specifically, that Tarzan cooperated with.

In many Tarzan narratives, particularly the films, the “white man” invades Tarzan’s jungle with his technology and imperialistic/capitalistic philosophy, only to be beaten back by Tarzan’s efforts.  That element is also preserved in The Herculoids, with Zandor and his family constantly resisting space age incursion and high technology, and using the “primitive” qualities of team work and cooperation to do so.

In the episode “The Pirates,” this dynamic is asserted.  A group of hostile space pirates board a spaceship in flight while the crew is asleep in suspended animation, and steal a treasure.  They hope to bury the loot on Zandor’s world, Azmot.


Once on Azmot, these pointy-eared, goggled pirates abduct Dorno, “the perfect hostage” to make Zandor comply with their demands.  But Gloop rescues the boy, and Igoo smashes the spaceship, sending the pirates careening into a mountainside. 

The Herculoids gaze at the wreckage and Dorno asks about the treasure.  Zandor notes: “we’ll leave it there and forget it.  And hope no one ever finds it.”  The point is, of course, that material wealth means nothing to the Herculoids.

Unlike the didactic Saturday morning program of the 1970s, such as Shazam Or Land of the Lost, The Herculoids is all action all the time. 

The short, ten minute installments consist of a constant jazzy soundtrack, cacophonous prehistoric grunting and roaring, and space-age sound effects.  The visuals are, delightfully, incredibly pulpy in nature.  The invading aliens man “flying torpedoes,” arm themselves with ray guns, and possess green skin and pointed ears.  The technology is basic mid-1960s futuristic, meaning stream-lined rocket ships with fins, and large computer banks.  I have a tremendous love for this old-fashioned “future” look, and also love the alien monsters of The Herculoids.


The problem of course is that the stories are incredibly repetitive, and not much character background is provided.  Even “The Pirates” doesn’t really make a point of providing closure.  Are the pirates killed when their spaceship crashes into the mountain?  Are they captured?  What happens to them?

Globally-speaking, the series characters and situations raise questions.  Why have Zandor and his family shunned civilization in the space age?  As “The Pirates” suggests, Zandor is known throughout the galaxy.  Who is he?  A soldier who once fought in a galactic war? A vanquished leader? 


Although movie adaptations of beloved franchises can be dicey, a live-action version of The Herculoids would be great assuming it maintains the design of the characters, puts some flesh on the Tarzan flourishes, and gives a little background on the outer space milieu, and Zandor’s past.  I know that new Tarzan movies are currently in the works, but audiences have demonstrated (in the instances of The Shadow, The Phantom, The Rocketeer, and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow) that they don’t want to go back to a previous age for modern genre entertainment

The Herculoids captures the essence of the Tarzan universe, while also setting the story in the far-flung future.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam! (1974 - 1976) Series Primer



As a character, Captain Marvel first appeared in Whiz Comics in 1940 as a kind of competitor for D.C.’s popular Man of Steel, Superman.  

However, in the mid-1970s, Filmation’ Studios’ Lou Scheimer and Norm Prescott brought the superhero to life on TV for the first time with the live-action Saturday morning series Shazam! (1974–1976).

The title of the series -- which has caused some confusion for a generation -- stems from an exclamation made every week by adolescent hero Billy Batson.  When he shouts “Shazam!” aloud, Billy is actually summoning a pantheon of Greek Gods and heroes, and calling for their powers: 

Solomon for wisdom.

Hercules for strength.

Atlas for constitution and endurance.

 Zeus for sheer power.

Achilles for bravery and skill.

and

Mercury for velocity or speed.

But “Shazam!” as many folks mistakenly believe is not actually a character or hero’s name or deesignation, only the utterance which transforms young Billy Batson into the aforementioned Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick, John Davey).


In the TV version of the comic book material, young Billy (Michael Gray) travels around the United States in a Winnebago RV with an older teacher named, appropriately, Mentor (Les Tremayne). 

Batson receives sage life advice from Mentor, but can also ask for the input of the Gods, a Greek chorus, known as The Elders. 

These Elders are the aforementioned Solomon, Hercules, Atlas, Zeus, Achilles and Mercury.   In somewhat non-traditional fashion, this Council of Elders is depicted in every episode in animated or cartoon form.  Billy (in live-action, superimposed over the animation) stands before the assembled Elders in what appears to be a cave of some type. This is either a revolutionary blending of media for the time, or just a really bizarre, kooky 1970s touch.




The stories featured on Shazam! countenance very little violence as we reckon it today, and the villains are never the sort who poses much of a challenge to Captain Marvel, who possesses great strength and the ability to fly.  Instead, the stories focus on “kid” problems of the day, like bullies and peer pressure.  This makes it a superhero series, frankly, in a kind of minor league.  Shazam! has a great deal of value as historical nostalgia, but we'll be seeing too, how the stories hold up.

Shazam ran for three seasons on CBS, and I’ll be blogging the first season over the next several weeks. The first year consists of fourteen half-hour long episodes, and these episodes originally ran from September through December of 1974.

Next Week: “The Joyriders.”

Shazam (1974 - 1976) Intro

Friday, March 08, 2013

Cult Movie Review: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977)



“How old do you have to be before people start treating you like a person?” asks the lead character, Rynn, in the 1977 horror movie, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.

It’s a good question, and this vintage movie -- in some oddball fashion -- concerns how badly the world often treats the most innocent citizens, its children.  The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane was released at about the same time, historically-speaking, as genre efforts such as Who Can Kill a Child? (1978), a horror film which opens with documentary-footage of real-life atrocities committed against the globe’s young.

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is also a weird inversion or reflection of the principles and ideas explored in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  Both films concern a lonely person living alone in an isolated setting, yet pretending to be in the company of a parent.  Meanwhile, visitors to that character’s house in both films have a nasty habit of disappearing…permanently.

The difference, of course, is that Norman Bates is a schizophrenic, murderous lunatic, and Jodie Foster’s sensitive, young Rynn just wants to be free to live her life as she chooses.  But she constantly finds her freedom imperiled by representatives of the adult --- and therefore corrupt -- world. 

Accordingly, the film is not really about a girl who trespasses the law and commits crimes, but an adult world which leaves her no choice but to do so.  Even the film’s title, after all, serves to infantilize her.


The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane opens on Halloween, as Rynn celebrates her fourteen (or thirteenth…) birthday. A man comes to the door trick-or-treating, Frank Hallet (Sheen), and he is immediately suspicious of Rynn’s isolation.  A child predator, he immediately marks her as a target.

The next day, Frank’s mother, the cruel and parochial Clara Hallet also marks Rynn as a target, entering the family home without permission, re-arranging the furniture, and verbally upbraiding the child for having the wherewithal to stand up to her bullying.  She threatens to revoke the lease on the house, but Rynn realizes that she is bluffing.

When Mrs. Hallet accidentally slips and dies on the stairs to the fruit cellar, Rynn becomes desperate to hide her body, and enlists the help of an unpopular local boy Mario, to get Hallet’s car off the premises. Mario does so, and he and Rynn develop a fast friendship.  He soon learns her full, tragic story.  Rynn and her father fled Rynn’s tyrannical mother in England and came to the States.  Here, however, her father grew terminally ill, and arranged for Rynn to be independent, even as he reckoned with his impending death…


The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is an adaptation of Laird Koenig’s novel of the same name and features a knock-out performance by young Jodie Foster as the isolated but brilliant, Emily Dickinson-reading adolescent who constantly sees her rights trampled on by the neighbors, including the aggressive child molester, Frank.

Alarmingly, the local police know all about Frank’s inappropriate behavior, and do nothing to stop him or protect the town’s children from his malicious presence.  The film makes a point of noting that Frank – an adult -- is free to do whatever he wishes, despite his perverse tendencies while Rynn – owing to her youth -- must be incredibly careful about drawing attention to herself and her predicament.

Frank’s freedom to corrupt and destroy the innocent is embodied in an expressive image rendered early in the film.  He tracks mud across the pristine wood floor of Rynn’s living room.  Wherever Frank goes, he tracks that mud.  And in the film’s most horrific scene, another metaphor for destroyed innocence is visualized.  Hallet chokes to death – on camera -- Rynn’s pet hamster, Gordon.


Besides visually establishing Frank’s pervasive menace, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane does a good job of setting up the byzantine rules of Rynn’s everyday life and world.  She lives an existence of constant subterfuge and misdirection, lest she be discovered. She must constantly fend off questions from Frank and his Mom. She also talks frequently about her father, a poet, though he is actually dead. At one point, when things grow dire, she must even enlist Mario – an expert in disguises – to double for him.

Every visitor to the house asks Rynn about her parents in virtually ritualistic, obsessive fashion, and so Rynn is exceedingly good about making up stories and excuses.  If she knows a visitor is due, she smokes one of her father’s stinky cigars for a while, to grant the impression that he is nearby.

A funny and unique  quality about The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane is that the audience understands that Rynn is constantly lying, and yet very much wants her to succeed and to live as her (dead) father intended, without the interference of a world that will dull-her-edges, or otherwise harm her.  The danger arises not just from Frank, but from a life of institutionalized mediocrity, apparently.

And yet as adults, the viewer also recognizes that Rynn is very, very young, and therefore unable to appropriately care for herself.

Accordingly, The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane walks a tight-rope of suspense in terms of maintaining identification with the lead character even though, on more than one occasion, Rynn commits murder by poisoning a guest’s cup of tea.   

Of course, in the incident the audience actually witnesses, Rynn has only two choices.  Both are bad ones.  She can submit to the will of a sicko child molester, or kill that child molester.  It’s a pretty clear-cut case of self-defense when she chooses murder.  The film’s final scene ratchets up the level of suspense to a nearly unbearable level as Rynn and Frank sit down uncomfortably to share tea, and then play a game of psychological chess with one another.

One shocking scene in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane which would never pass censors’ muster in 2013, reveals Rynn -- just thirteen years old -- making love to Mario, her boyfriend.  The film features some brief nudity (a body double, not actually Foster), but today it is shocking to witness, and not necessarily in a good way.    Trying to look at the scene objectively, there is a dramatic motivation for it presence, which, I suppose is what matters most.

In particular, the scene plays directly into the primary thematic question raised by the film:  How old do you have to be for people to treat you as a person, one who can make his or her own decisions?

Well, our culture holds that legally a person is a child -- and therefore unable to make responsible decisions for him or herself without a parent -- until the age of 18. 

Yet Rynn is thirteen (or fourteen, depending on whether she is telling the truth to Frank…), brilliant, and precocious.  She also knows how she wants to live.  Her father hoped she could live independently until she became eighteen, and left her a home, rent money, and a joint-savings account to make that dream a reality. 

This is what Rynn wants.


Although Rynn seems lonely -- in part because of the film’s emotional piano score, and in part because of all the long, establishing shots of her walking the beach surf alone -- she also seems capable of taking care of herself, even though the law insists she can’t do it. 

Clearly, given her circumstances, Rynn is a special case.  And balanced against the adults in the film – the incompetent police man, the bigoted real estate lady, and the pervert – who’s to say that in this one, single case Rynn can’t, finally, look-out for herself best?

I have vivid memories of first seeing The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane as a kid, perhaps as a ten year old, and not fully understanding it all.  I remember thinking that Rynn was evil for what she had done, and for the secrets she kept hidden in that beach house fruit cellar.

Now I see, of course, that Rynn is not an evil kid at all (like those in The Bad Seed or The Good Son) but rather a child just trying to make it in a very confusing, very adult world.  Evil is in the picture all right, however.   

It keeps ending up on her door step. And Rynn must find ways to deal with it, as any of us, young or old, might.

As the end credits rolled on The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane, I wondered about where Rynn might be today, and what, finally, she became. In some manner, the persistence of that question must be a benchmark for the movie’s artistic success.  By the film’s denouement, you come to care enough about this fictional character to ponder her future.

What happened to Rynn when she finally grew up, and no longer had to hide in that little house down the lane?

Movie Trailer: The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane (1977)

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Overrated Genre Movies




All right, now reader Jason is back to get me in more trouble by asking me about overrated genre films. He writes:

"It occurred to me that I also meant to expand the question to movies as well.  Naturally, I have my own opinions on this, too...  

It's easy to pick on a movie like "Avatar" as overrated, but that's too easy.  Yes, it was a well-made movie and made a ton of money, but I don't know a single person who really loved it or holds it in particular esteem.  It's like a good roller coaster ride at the amusement park: it's fun the first time, but once you figure out where all the thrills are, it's just a long ride with a barf bag at the end.

No, my pick for most overrated genre film has to be the "Matrix" series.  The first one was fun and different, but by the time the second and third ones came out... I fell asleep in the second one and didn't bother seeing the third.  It ended up coming across as pretentious.  Some filmmakers cannot figure out the difference between a film with a message and a film with a MESSAGE!!!!!"

All right, before I respond with my selections, let's re-establish the definitions here for those visiting the blog and reading this post.  "Overrated" doesn't equate to "Bad," necessarily.  That's the "nuance."  A good film can be overrated if the critical response is out of proportion to the film's artistic merits.

Okay.

Jason, I think you are right about Avatar.  It can't be overrated because everyone complains about the bloody thing all the time.  If anything, it is actually underrated, given the widespread propensity to take shots at it.  The beaten, bruised corpse of that movie has been picked over so fully, there is nothing left but bones.

I  understand your point on the subject, but I actually feel the same way regarding The Matrix Sequels. I so rarely read anything nice or positive about either Reloaded or Revolutions, that I can't actually term either one overrated.  The critical evaluation remains so low that, again, at least Reloaded feels immensely underrated to me.  (And you can read my review of the film, here.)

My school of the overrated would by headlined by two Christopher Nolan movies: Inception (2010) and The Dark Knight (2008). 


Again, that's not to say that either film is bad, or less-than-entertaining, only that the critical responses have been over-the-top enthusiastic to such a degree that brain washing (or is it peer pressure?) appears to be involved.   And I write this as a serious fan of Nolan's work, especially Memento (2000) and Batman Begins (2005).

But Inception takes nearly three hours -- and multiple levels of confusing time-shifting reality -- to accomplish what the Mission: Impossible team did every week on TV in 52 minutes, only with psychotropic drugs or psychological warfare: suss some information out of a recalcitrant subject.  

At about two-thirds of the way through the film -- when a truck is endlessly plunging from a bridge in super-slow motion -- the reality strikes the intrepid viewer that there must be some easier, less laborious, less time-consuming way of sussing out this information...one that doesn't use dream infiltration, and dreams moving at different rates of speed, at that.  

Once that realization strikes, you check out of the movie.  The premise doesn't withstand scrutiny.

Additionally, Leonardo DiCaprio's character in the film is suffering from an identical "crisis" as his character in a film released earlier the same year, Shutter Island (2010).  If you haven't seen that film, compare the flashback and revelation scenes, and you'll see what I mean. 

As for The Dark Knight, a strange madness swept over movie goers and critics alike in the summer of 2008  -- like some surging tidal wave -- and there was apparently no resisting it.  In the cold light of day, this Batman movie boasts little sense of visual sweep or grace, and the fight scenes are loud, incomprehensible examples of herky-jerky chop-suey.  

Philosophically, the film validates every War on Terror Age outrage and excess, and the story ends with the lesson that it is better to tell the people a comfortable lie than a difficult truth.  Then, we're supposed to feel sorry for the martyred Batman after, essentially, he agrees to a bargain premised on his low opinion of the public's ability to handle the facts.

I fully realize, of course, that many genre fans love, love, love, LOVE both these movies, and I certainly wouldn't attempt to dissuade them from their heartfelt appreciation.  

But the wide and deep -- nay pervasive -- critical approbation for these abundantly flawed (if admittedly interesting...) genre films makes them perfect candidates for the "most overrated" title in my book.   I still like and appreciate aspects of both films, even if I wouldn't park either one in the neighborhood of "great" genre movies. 


Pop Art: Coloring Books (Planet of the Apes Edition)








Collectible of the Week: Micropolis (1978; Mego)




This is the Micronauts “building set that never stops growing” from Mego  As the box art suggests: “Make this and dozens of fantastic space age structures for your micronauts.” 

These space-age construction sets “enable your child to build any number of different toys that can be taken apart and put together over and over again.  Using a simple five millimeter plug and receptacle system, Micropolis building sets will adapt to all Micropolis figures and accessories."


I have two Micropolis sets in my collection, the Interplanetary Headquarters and Mega City (which consists of 579 parts).  

Joel and I have a lot of fun building new configurations together, but the "plug and receptacle system" can really, really hurt your fingers...





Model Kit of the Week #19: Star Probe


Tuesday, March 05, 2013

50th Anniversary Doctor Who Blogging: Series Primer


\
November of 2013 brings us the fiftieth anniversary of the BBC science-fiction adventure, Doctor Who (1963 – 1989; 1996; 2005 - ), and I’ll be featuring here a retrospective of several serials from all eleven eras of the program.

Writing a primer for a series that has endured for so long and featured so many different actors, writers, and directors isn’t exactly a simple proposition. 

But even with all the cosmetic changes and twists-and-turns in terms of story arc and intent, Doctor Who is essentially the tale of one very unique and mysterious character.  The Doctor is a (time) traveler, renegade and crusader.  Sometimes -- especially of late -- he even seems a little bit like an adrenaline junkie.   

An alien with the power to regenerate and thus alter his physical appearance and even personality, the Doctor’s true identity is shrouded in secrecy.  Is he representative of alien royalty?  Is he God Himself?  Is he a Loki figure of mischief and chaos?

We don’t exactly know the precise answer, even after fifty years.


What we do know (pretty much) is that the Doctor universally seems to be on the side of the weak and endangered (even if he is playing a long game…), that he universally travels with one or more companions…often human, and that his mode of transportation is a time-ship called a TARDIS (Time and Relative Dimension in Space) which is stuck in the shape and blue coloring of an early 1960s British “police box.”

The classic series (1963 – 1989) and new series (2005 - ) have tended to follow two particular paradigms or models in terms of narrative or storytelling. 

The first is the “invasion” story. 

In this brand of tale, the Doctor prevents a hostile alien force from taking over Earth.  When I wrote my book, A Critical History of Doctor Who in 1996 (published in 1999), I estimated that a full sixteen percent of Doctor Who serials involved nefarious plots of alien invasion.  The invaders have been, amongst others, Autons, Cybermen, Daleks, Sycorax, Carrionites, Sontarons, and the Master.  The new series follows a similar pattern.


The second type of story featured by Doctor Who is what I term The Time Machine Dynamic. 

In both the H.G. Wells novel and the George Pal film of The Time Machine (1960), the premise is identical: a traveler in time arrives in new environs (Earth of the future, for instance…) and finds that two cultures are locked in Darwinian combat. 

One culture -- the Eloi -- is more human, but weak in some critical way. The other culture -- The Morlocks -- represents a perversion of humanity or human values, and is a threat to its survival as well.  The time traveler chooses side and selects morality and humanity over…monsters.   

This is very much the premise of many of the Doctor’s adventures set on other worlds.  He defends the kindly Thals from the Daleks in “The Daleks,” the innocent Gonds from the robotic Krotons, the awakening humans from the Wirrn in “Ark in Space,” and so on. 

Over and over again, the Time Machine Dynamic repeats on the series, and in virtually every case, the Doctor utilizes his superior intellect and knowledge of history and/or science/time to stop the unjust, and free the enslaved or oppressed.

There are other inspirations and sources for Doctor Who storytelling too.  The period of the third Doctor (played by Jon Pertwee) closely resembles the Quatermass serials and movies of the 1950s-1960s.  In other words, these tales involve a very intelligent Earth-based scientists reckoning with some kind of alien incursion on Earth.

Lastly, many Doctor Who stories have been out-and-out pastiches of other popular forms.  “Voyage of the Damned,” for instance in the era of the Tenth Doctor is a delightful and unexpectedly moving take on sea-going disaster films like The Poseidon Adventure or Titanic (1997)…only set in orbital space, not in an Earth ocean.


In American terms, a quality that makes Doctor Who so unique in the cult-television pantheon is the fact that the lead character is not part of some quasi-military hierarchy, as we witness on Star Trek, Space:1999, Sea Quest DSV, Battlestar Galactica or Babylon 5. And furthermore, The Doctor travels unarmed.  His sonic-screwdriver may help him unlock doors or short-circuit a computer, but it is only rarely deemed an actual weapon (“The Doctor’s Daughter,” for instance).

Thus far, there have been more than a dozen actors who have played the time traveling Doctor (if one counts Peter Cushing in the movies, and Richard Hurndall, who played the first incarnation in “The Five Doctors”), and it useful to categorize the series’ eras by lead actor.   In each era, there is a different Doctor with a different personality. He faces different enemies and is accompanied by different companions.  Importantly, however, story-style is also a bit different in various eras.

I have been catching up with the current series at night (I’m currently at the beginning of Series 7) while revisiting the classic series with my son Joel for our weekly movie nights and Sunday afternoons.  It has been a tremendous pleasure to witness classic Doctor Who as seen through Joel’s eyes.  He is six years old, and as I have written before, no other series that I watch (Star Trek, Space: 1999, Land of the Lost) has captured his imagination in the way that Doctor Who has.

It sounds simplistic to pin this fascination on the aliens or monsters, but Joel is absolutely taken with the aliens on Doctor Who.  To my eyes, some of these alien costumes may not hold up too well, but Joel loves them without reservation.  We recently watched “The Curse of Peladon” and “The Monster of Peladon,” and he was so taken with the creatures -- the Ice Warriors, Alpha Centauri, Aggedor, and the Arcturians -- that we had to build him an Arcturian costume out of a cardboard box and tin foil.  And sometimes Joel also pretends to be Aggedor…and I have to practice my Venusian lullabies before bedtime.

I think it is worth noting that Doctor Who began as a program for kids, and that the classic shows really work so well for that age group.  Joel actually prefers the black-and-white episodes, and has veritably been mesmerized by serials such as “The Chase,” “The Space Museum,” Tomb of the Cybermen,” “The Mind Robber,” and “Seeds of Death.”  I love seeing how Doctor Who sparks Joel’s imagination (not to mention his vocabulary…).

We’ll begin next week with the First Doctor, Wililam Hartnell, and his landmark story “The Daleks.”

I’ll try to cover before November at least two serials per Doctor.  I don’t want to give anything way, but my favorite Doctors are: Patrick Troughton, Tom Baker and -- to my complete and total delight and surprise -- Matt Smith.

Next Tuesday: “The Daleks.”

Theme Song of the Week: Blackstar (1981)

Monday, March 04, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Most Overrated Cult-TV Series?

A reader, Jason, writes:

Here's an Ask JKM that might stir the pot a little: what genre TV show and / or series do you think is the most overrated?

Granted, this is a matter of opinion.  It's my experience every show or movie is someone's favorite.  I certainly know that some of my favorites will never grace a serious critic's Top Ten.  Nonetheless, there are some projects whose importance is blown way out of proportion.

Personally, my vote for most overrated genre TV series is "The X-Files."  I know it's a favorite of yours, but I just couldn't get into it.  For me, it will forever be a monster-of-the-week show wrapped in an overly dense mythology.  Plus, it spawned a series of imitations that cluttered the airwaves for years. 

I'm very curious to hear what you have to say on the matter.”

All right, Jason, you are trying to stir the pot.  You’re going to get me in trouble!  But that’s okay.  It’s actually a great question, and I’m glad you posed it.

You’re right, of course, that I have a high opinion of The X-Files.  It’s one of my favorite series of all time for many reasons, and I encourage you to stick around for my 20th anniversary blogging celebration, and re-consider your own assessment of it.  I’ll be tackling “Gender Bender,” at long last this week. 

For me, the series offers qualities that earn it the stellar critical reputation, namely the two-lens view-point of every episode (belief vs. skepticism).  Secondly, I appreciate the program's reassertion of the Gothic Paradigm (as a Romantic response to Enlightenment/rationality) but for the Clinton Age rather than the Victorian one.

But okay, your question wasn’t really about The X-Files.


The question of “overrated” is an intriguing one because there’s actually some nuance to it. 

First: a work of art can be overrated without necessarily being bad. 

So being “overrated” sounds like a colossal insult or put-down, when in fact what is being expressed is the notion that the critical response is out-of-proportion to the actual value of the art in question.

For me, the most overrated cult-television series in history has to be the remade Battlestar Galactica of last decade, from producer Ron Moore. 

Again, I’m not saying that the series itself is terrible, or without value and merit. 

I’m saying that the critics rated it too highly, given the actual value of the thing.  I mean, this program, while still on the air, was termed the greatest science fiction series in history by many respectable critical outlets.

Battlestar Galactica was, before the historical tally could be considered, thus termed superior to The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, and Doctor Who.   

As I've written here before, I find the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica to be a very entertaining program, one that I happily put on a par with something like 24 (2001 - 2010).  In other words, Battlestar Galactica is extremely addictive and engaging, but in the final analysis not much more than a great thrill ride.  I enjoy watching the series, but I can't, frankly, understand why it has been raised to such a rarefied, over-hyped pedestal among genre fans and critics.

In the first place, the series boasts an utter lack of imagination about the universe at large.  In the world of this Galactica, it's just us (humans) vs. them (Cylons), with nothing in between.  No alien beings, and no truly alien environments.  Personally, I find that worldview extremely depressing.   If we reach the stars and find out there are only liberals, conservatives, and religious zealots, then the human adventure isn't just beginning...it's over.

Alas, the visualizations of Battlestar Galactica's world share the program's thematic dearth of imagination.  Human beings half-a-galaxy away drive Hummers, wear business suits and tank-tops and quote lines from old Earth movies ("I feel the need...the need for speed.") 

The aesthetic strategy of the re-imagined series seems to be "world-building is notoriously difficult, so we're not even going to try."  Is this approach really worthy of praise, even if it is true?

I can fully understand and appreciate the budgetary and creative reasons driving this production philosophy, but that still doesn't make the strategy any more noble or efficacious. Whatever their relative flaws, series such as Star Trek, the original Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers, Space:1999, Babylon 5, and Farscape at least attempted to imagine what other worlds and alien cultures might look like.  They didn't always succeed, but the effort was made to transport audiences to new, imaginative realms.  Not so here.

The much-ballyhooed social commentary of the Ron Moore-developed Battlestar Galactica is also a bit too on the nose.  With talk of "no fly lists," and politicians telling other politicians to "go frak themselves," the series makes no attempt to cloak its War on Terror political sensibilities behind imaginative or timeless metaphors.  What you see on the surface is all there is.  No analysis, interpretation, or deciphering is really necessary.  Everything is spelled out.  

Then spelled out again.  

But here's the biggest problem: This is a series that ended a four year long, very intricate sweeping mystery with the simple cliché “God works in mysterious ways,” essentially, and the fact of a technologically-advanced, star-faring people accepting a life-style without indoor plumbing.    Next to Lost, this may be the biggest "fuck you" to dedicated fans in sci-fi history.

There are many, many fine episodes of the series, of course. 

I’m an absolute sucker for “Scar,” for example, which is a kind of outer-space allegory for World War I aerial combat, or the Red Baron milieu.  I think that episode, and many others, work like gangbusters.

But every week a title card comes up on-screen as Battlestar Galactica opens.  It re-affirms that the Cylons have a plan. 

By the end of the series, it’s clear that the Cylons may have had a plan, but the writers did not.  

And since Battlestar Galactica is a serialized program, unlike a standalone program for example like Star Trek, any critical evaluation of the series must factor in how successfully all the elements are brought together at the series’ conclusion. 

I would submit that Battlestar Galactica failed this test in terms of believability, and in terms of fidelity and consistency to the clues presented along the run of the series.

Thus, Battlestar Galactica is my choice for most overrated genre TV series.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Mad Scientists

Identified by SGB: Cliff Robertson in The Outer Limits: "Galaxy Being."

Identified by SGB: Martin Landau in The Outer Limits: "The Bellero Shield."

Identified by SGB: John Hoyt in The Twilight Zone: "The Lateness of the Hour."

Identified by SGB: Michael Dunn as Dr. Lovelace in "The Wild, Wild West."

Identified by SGB: Dr. Korby (Michael Strong) in Star Trek: "What are Little Girls Made of?"

Identified by Carl: Solon (Philip Madoc) in Doctor Who: "The Brain of Morbius."

Identified by Carl: Simon Oakland in The Starlost: "And Only Man is Vile."

Identified by Carl: Davros in Doctor Who "Genesis of the Daleks."

Identified by SGB: Dr. Ernst Queller (Jeremy Kemp) in Space:1999 "Voyager's Return."

Identified by SGB: Brian Blessed as Mentor in Space:1999 "The Metamorph."

Identified by Carl: Dr. Manheim (Rod Loomis) In Star Trek: TNG: "We'll Always Have Paris."

Identified by Carl: Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) in Mystery Science Theater 3000.

Identified by Hugh: Dr. Polidori (John O'Hurley) in The X-Files: "The Post-Modern Prometheus."

Identified by woodchuckgod: Farscape: "DNA Mad Scientist."

Identified by Carl: Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse) in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Identified by Carl: Adam Busch as Warren Meers in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Identified by Carl: John Noble as Walter Bishop in Fringe.

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