Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Herculoids: The Pod Creatures (1967)

The third Herculoids story, “The Pod Creatures” dramatizes the story of strange alien capsules that land in the Azmot jungle and proceed to attack Zandor and his family. 

The plain-looking metal capsules open up to reveal evil-looking robots that are bent on ensnaring the primate-like Igoo in restraining nets.  For his part, Igoo uses karate chops to destroy the restraints.

At the end of the story, the Herculoids defeat the Pod Creatures, and the alien spaceship -- a flying saucer -- leaves Azmot for good.

is the simplest (or most simple-minded….) so far of the Herculoids (1967) adventures.  There’s no stated reason for the attack of the “pod creatures,” and more so, no revelation regarding the source of the attack.  The alien saucer merely shows up, drops the capsules and attacks.  When the invasion fails…the saucer leaves.

Who are these guys?  What do they want? Why did they choose Azmot?  I always appreciate a good mystery, but this episode is set up almost purely as an action vehicle.

I’ve been cataloguing The Herculoids’ Edgar Rice Burroughs or Tarzan-like touches in previous posts, and there are fewer of them in this abundantly-direct installment.  About the only element that touches on this comparison is a visualization of Zandor’s family home, a weird alien tree/mushroom plant.  It indeed looks like the equivalent of Tarzan’s tree house in the African jungle, only transposed to an alien environment.

The paucity of new ideas or developed plot-line in “The Pod Creatures” suggests that The Herculoids works better as a concept -- Tarzan in an alien jungle -- that it does as a week-by-week, story-by-story enterprise.  I felt there was a lot to mull over while watching “The Pirates” and “Sarko the Arkman,” and, contrarily, almost nothing at all to discuss here.

We’ll see what the next episode brings…

Monument(al) Destruction #1: Planet of the Apes (1968)

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Shazam: "The Brothers" (September 14, 1974)

The second episode of the Filmation live-action series Shazam first aired on September 14, 1974 and is titled “The Brothers.”

In this didactic tale, an older brother, Danny (Steve Tanner) refuses to acknowledge that his younger sibling, Chad (Lance Kerwin) can take care of himself, because he is blind.  Danny is over-protective and smothering, and his behavior irritates Chad, who wants to hold on to some semblance of a normal life.

Meanwhile Billy Batson (Michael Gray) learns from the Elders that he is destined to share his secret identity as Captain Marvel with Chad.  This prophecy comes to pass, as Michael and Mentor (Les Tremayne) attempt to rescue Danny from a life-threatening rattle-snake bite.  In this crisis, Danny must place his trust in the blind Chad, and Chad comes through.

“The Brothers” follows almost-to-the-letter the narrative outline of the first Shazam installment, “The Joyriders.”  The Elders warn Billy about a lesson he must learn, quote a famous historical figure on the subject of that lesson, and then set Billy out to save the day.  Billy does so, but only by becoming Captain Marvel.

In this case, the lesson is that sometimes you must reveal your true self to help another human being, and the quote of the week comes from the Romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) and Lyrical Ballads, his work with Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.”  

As a critic, I’m pretty much a sucker for works of art that contextualize their stories in terms of pertinent quotations, because -- generally-speaking -- such quotes provide us an insight into how an artist would like his or work to be seen.  I loved the quotes that opened Millennium (1996 – 1999) episodes, for instance. They always helped to contextualize the story in terms of human history, and literature.

And I can plainly see the appeal of including “famous” (or at least relevant) quotations in a live-action Saturday morning kid’s program.  With a little luck, the inclusion of such quotes encourages kids to learn more about Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Aristotle, or the “writer of the week.”

At the same time, however, the overtly preachy or heavy-handed nature of stories like “The Brothers” probably does much to drive kids away from a series like Shazam!  It is relentlessly moralistic. And therefore the quotations from famous writers feel more like an English class assignment than a part of an exciting superhero program.

Also in keeping with the format of “The Joyriders,” parents don’t seem to exist in this dojo.  

Instead, children are left alone for long stretches of time, and must ferret out moral problems without the supervision of adults.  Only Mentor is present as an “advisory” figure, at least so far.  The thematic concerns, as I noted in my post last week, are all juvenile ones.  And the opponents for Captain Marvel are mostly small-potatoes.  This week, must only contend with Danny’s injury from a (stock-footage) rattle snake.

Similarly, there are very few interior shots in “The Brothers.”  There’s just a scene or two in Danny and Chad’s house, but the rest of the episode takes place on desert roads and in rocky canyons.  I’m not complaining about the approach, just noting, again that sometimes Shazam boasts the feel of a guerilla production.  There’s no home base (save for the mobile recreational vehicle), and no recurring settings, either.

As before, there are also some unexplained aspects of the Elder/Mentor communication in this Shazam episode. The Elders seem to be able to hear everything Mentor says, even though he does not travel with Michael on the boy’s weird vision-quest like trips to the Elders’ realm.  Mentor isn’t present visually, in other words, for the meet-ups, yet he always knows exactly what was spoken during the conferences.  Is he just eavesdropping?

Next week: “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” starring 70s child star Pamelyn Ferdin (The Mephisto Waltz, Space Academy, etc).

Friday, March 22, 2013

From the Archive: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)

Jules Verne's immortal tale of undersea adventure, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea has been adapted to film on several occasions, but it is likely the Walt Disney effort of 1954 that remains, for many viewers and film aficionados, the definitive or "classic" screen version of the novel.

Helmed by Richard Fleischer, the veteran director behind Fantastic Voyage (1966), Soylent Green (1973), Amityville 3-D (1983) and Conan The Destroyer (1984), 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea stars James Mason as Captain Nemo, Kirk Douglas as harpooner Ned Land, Paul Lukas as Professor Aronnax and Peter Lorre as Conseil.

Oh, and did I mention Esmerelda, Captain Nemo's pet seal?

I make note of the seal (a character not present in the Jules Verne story) simply because the cinematic version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea takes some rather significant liberties with the cherished source material. That doesn't make it a bad film, but it does make the movie a decidedly...different experienc

First and foremost, Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea reflects the Atomic Age of the 1950s and the beginnings of the Cold War epoch. In particular, Nemo's magnificent underwater machine, the Nautilis is powered by atomic energy in the movie rather than the electricity of the book. Now, the movie doesn't specifically single out "atomic energy" by name, but Nemo reveals to Aronnax the sub's propulsion unit and and claims that it harnesses "the dynamic power of the universe," which by my reckoning is a euphemism for atomic power. Especially since Nemo profoundly notes that such power could either "revolutionize the world" or "destroy it."

Additionally, one of the film's final (and most resonant) images is that of the archetypal Cold War nightmare scenario: a mushroom cloud blossoming on the horizon. Nemo single-handedly destroys his high-tech island base, Vulcania (another element not exactly taken from Verne's book...) to prevent it from falling into enemy hands. The result is the mushroom cloud; the tell-tale and ominous indicator of nuclear weapons detonation.

Indeed, much of Verne's novel has been deliberately re-purposed with an eye towards the contemporary (meaning the 1950s context of the film), and specifically the use and mis-use of atomic power. Nemo reveals to Professor Aronnax, for instance, that his wife and child were tortured and then slaughtered when he refused to share the secret of the atom with his captors in the gulag at Rura Penthe ("the white man's grave yard.") Although the death of Nemo's family is clearly inferred in the Verne novel (near the end), the film provides this much-more explicit exposition about the tragedy.

These alterations make the movie's Captain Nemo appear somewhat less misanthropic than his literary counterpart. For instance, in the book, Nemo attempted suicide-by-Nautilus and drove the submarine down into a raging whirlpool, a "maelstrom." He was downcast and sullen over having committed the "murder" of a ship's crew during battle, and desired to end his hopeless, conflicted life. Nemo's last exhortation was a word of surrender: "Enough!"

By contrast, Nemo's demise in the Fleischer film is much more heroic in both magnitude and intention. In order to keep the Pandora's Box of Atomic Energy firmly shut for the time being, Nemo nobly destroys all of his advanced technology on Vulcania and then even scuttles the beloved Nautilus. This final act is not truly suicide anymore, since Nemo has been fatally shot and would have died shortly anyway. Still, Nemo's death in the film brings forth a humanitarian goal: protecting the species from "tampering in God's domain" before it is wise enough to understand that territory.

The film version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea then culminates with a decidedly uplifting voice-over from the late Captain Nemo, one that suggests (as his conveyance, the Nautilus, sinks below choppy waves...) that the character harbored some inherent optimism about the future. "There is hope for the future. And when the world is ready for a new and better life, all this will someday come to pass. In God's good time," he declares beatifically, elevated to the level of saint, if not savior.

This distinctly out-of-character statement transforms Verne's dedicated man of science and unrepentant misanthrope into a something quite different: a pollyanna, a humanist! Again, I'm not stating that the film adaptation is of poor quality, only that it is by no means a faithful adaptation of Verne's original literary vision.

In addition to the "comedy" scenes involving Esmerelda -- Nemo's sea pup mascot -- the Fleischer film relies at points on some unnecessarily broad humor. Kirk Douglas's first appearance as Ned --- with a floozie dangling on each arm -- is a perfect example. In this scene, Ned is comically knocked atop the head by a crutch-wielding charlatan, and then he falls splat in a mud-puddle....after going cross-eyed. Bluntly stated, it's not an auspicious beginning to a remarkable and well-loved film.

Again by contrast, in the book, Ned was a forty-year old of considerable experience, intelligence, and seriousness, and not an all-singing, all-dancing, treasure-greedy buffoon...which is precisely how he comes across in the movie. And don't get me started on his obligatory musical number, "A Whale of a Tale." I accept that films made at this time in Hollywood history had to feature song interludes to net a wide demographic and entertain the whole family, but once more the movie puts up a set-piece of such jocularity that it feels out-of-step with the serious Verne story.

I've discussed rather fully how Fleischer's adaptation veers away from the trajectory of Verne's novel, but I haven't discussed yet the plethora of ways in which this classic, much-loved film succeeds on its own merits.

First and foremost, the visual aspects of Fleischer's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea remain ambitious...glorious, even. Everything -- from the superb miniature (model) work, to the fantastic set design, to the harrowing action-sequence involving an attack on the Nautilus by a giant squid -- still works. The film's visual effects remain compelling, ingenious, and yes, even fresh. There are some moments at Vulcania and beneath the sea wherein the special effects don't appear to have aged even a day. Which is a pretty amazing feat since this movie was released just about sixty years ago. It's one thing to write convincingly of a hunting expedition at the bottom of the sea; it's quite another to see those images play out before your very eyes, rendered entirely plausible...and wondrous.

Furthermore, while one can (and should) make extensive note of the myriad ways the movie changes some conceits in Verne's book, one might also remember that some clever updating of a nearly century-old book was likely necessary. An electricity-powered submarine just wouldn't seem like a very interesting vehicle of fantasy to audiences in the 1950s, would it? The deliberate infusion of Atomic Age moral questions into 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea grants the film a didactic quality, and more importantly, a relevant one.

Admirably, the Fleischer film also fully preserves the Arronax/Nemo philosophical debates of the original text. We learn in the film -- just as in the book -- of Nemo's ingenuity and invention when it comes to diet ("the sea supplies all my wants"), harnessing resources (we actually get to see his men farming at the bottom of the sea...), and inventing new technology (the amazing Nautilus itself). We view his commitment to vengeance, and are afforded some dramatic close-ups of an anguished Nemo at the wheel of the Nautilus, on the attack against those who have so egregiously wronged him. The film also preserves Arronax's first-person narrator role in the form of a voice-over, whether recounting the sinking of the Abraham Lincoln (a vessel not named in the film...) or his first experience with the "twilight world" under the sea.

In the book, Nemo had a manifesto of sorts: the captain's dedicated declaration of independence from nationalism, civilization, and "unjust" wars. That manifesto too survives the translation to Fleischer's film. Mason delivers a calculated, seething, and most importantly, pragmatic monologue about the ways that Man's "evil drowns on the ocean floor," and that -- only beneath the waves -- does there exist true independence; true freedom. I found this speech to be one of the film's finest, most transcendent moments.

In fairness, the Captain's darker side isn't totally ignored, either. I appreciate that the movie provides a sense of balance; making more than mere passing notations about the classic anti-hero's darker side. "The power of can fill the heart as surely as love can," the movie notes of Nemo, and that observation is right on the money. Aronnax likewise ultimately calls Nemo a "murderer" and a "hypocrite," while Ned terms him a "monster." These declarations seem very accurate to the spirit of the book, and I can't really complain that the movie seeks to provide Nemo a more explicit redemption than that found in the text; so that 20th century audiences return to the light of day with a sense of moral uplift.

It's often quite difficult to judge objectively a movie that you grew up with and which you still love so emotionally. Nostalgia inevitably creeps in and colors perception. In terms of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, I can say with some certainty that the film remains a technological marvel; that Mason's Nemo endures as an inscrutable, larger-than-life icon, and that the film overall is fast-paced, exciting, and scary in good measure. I'm quite aware that books can't be movies; and movies can't be books: that the two media have as many differences as they do similarities.

Yet, here's the crucial difference in intent: Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea concerned a misanthrope who had given up on man entirely; an anti-hero who had cast off the auspices of "modern" civilization for an exile under the sea, taking only man's best "art" with him (music, paintings, books). Nemo was finished with the world above the waves and no longer cared what we did with our domain above the waves.

In the movie, 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, Captain Nemo is a great inventor with a tragic past who simply believes man is not ready for his new science, a man who actually protects and preserves the corrupt human race by destroying his miracle technology before it can do harm.

That's a pretty big difference isn't it? Maybe not 20,000 leagues worth; but certainly enough to drive a submarine through...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

20th Anniversary X-Files Blogging: "The Erlenmeyer Flask" (May 13, 1994)

The X-Files’ first season finale, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” is both a logical development of the series pilot, which established extra-terrestrial incursions on Earth, and a vanguard for the overall Myth-Arc, which describes over several seasons an attempt by humans to create human-alien hybrids before alien colonization of Earth commences in 2012.

Written by Chris Carter and directed by R.W. Goodwin, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” -- like many of the greatest episodes of The X-Files also takes as its inspiration a real-life story or mystery, and then turns that mystery to creatively service its narrative. 

Equally significantly, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” serves two important arc purposes. 

In the first case, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” reveals the tip of the conspiracy iceberg to the agents.  “You’ve never been closer,” affirms informant Deep Throat (Jerry Hardin).  Indeed, that is very much the case as Scully discovers the “wellspring,” an alien corpse used in research by secretive scientists.

In the second case, the episode’s conclusion reveals to Mulder and Scully that even though they haven’t seen or understood every element of “the conspiracy,” they possess the power to stop it in its tracks, or the very least expose it.  The last scenes of “The Erlenmeyer Flask” reveal a weakness -- galvanizing fear -- on the part of conspirators.  Accordingly, they shut down the X-Files to prevent any further discoveries, and to permanently separate the potent partnership of Scully and Mulder.

“The Erlenmeyer Flask” is a superb first-season-ender, and it book-ends the season beautifully.  In the pilot episode, we witnessed the Cigarette-Smoking Man (William Davis) taking UFO-related evidence to that Raiders of the Lost Ark-styled repository in the Pentagon…hiding the truth.  “The Erlenmeyer Flask” ends with a reprise of that cogent imagery: another walk through that warehouse of alien technology and artifacts with the same result: the truth is hidden from the public eye. 

I don’t know for certain if The X-Files had a renewal in hand by the time this episode was penned and aired, but in a certain sense, the final episode of the first season squares the circle.  The first season, in and of itself is a complete “whole.”  It is book-ended by examples of deceit and obfuscation, with the “hope” of discovering the truth having risen and then, finally, fallen.  I’m glad The X-Files returned for eight more seasons, but it’s fascinating to contemplate the season as a complete “novel” or chapter too.

In “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” government informant Deep Throat (Hardin) suggests that Mulder (David Duchovny) take a closer look at a police chase in Maryland which ended with an inhumanly-strong suspect jumping into the water after incapacitating several police officers.  The chase ended with something else too: the discovery that the suspect had been wounded…and that he bled a weird, green material. 

Mulder and Scully trace the suspect’s car, a silver Sierra, back to EmGen Corp., where a scientist who worked on the Human Genome Project is toiling with monkeys for some known purpose.  When Dr. Benrube, the project scientist, dies in an apparent suicide attempt, Mulder and Scully (Gillian Anderson) realize that they are witnessing the fringe of a larger, shadowy conspiracy.  An ancient, perhaps extra-terrestrial bacteria which existed before man walked the Earth, and a strange warehouse filled with human/alien hybrids are the ingredients, which resolves not in the discovery of truth, but the government’s shutting down of The X-Files.

“The Erlenmeyer Flask” draws its inspiration from an unexplained, real-life happening in the 1990s.  In Riverside, California on February 19, 1994 at approximately 8:00 pm, a woman who became known in the media as “the toxic lady” arrived at the General Hospital while suffering apparent cardiac arrest.  When the workers attempted to draw her blood, a toxic ammonia-like smell emanated from her body, and no less than three medical workers fainted and experienced dizzy spells.  The patient died that night, and strange, toxic nature of her blood was not fully explained.

This odd story is mirrored in “The Erlenmeyer Flask” during a scene in which EMTs attempt to deliver emergency care in an ambulance to the human/alien hybrid seen in the opening sequence.  When they take his (green) blood, they suddenly cough, sputter, pass out, and suffer from burns on their skin.  Exposure to the hybrid is deadly.

I remember actually reading about the “toxic lady” at the time the incident occurred, and so “The Erlenmeyer Flask” probably represents perhaps my first or earliest recognition that Carter was indeed exploring “real life” X-Files in his (fiction) series as well as establishing a new Gothic aesthetic for the nineties.  As I wrote last week in regards to “Darkness Falls,” which also had some basis in fact with the story of a “brain sucking amoeba,” this is an aspect of the series that I resolutely admire and appreciate.  And as recently as I Want to Believe, in 2008, Carter has used real life stories of the odd and inexplicable to lend validity and legitimacy to his tales of the bizarre and paranormal.

Carter’s ability to weave a real-life story into a pre-existing arc is noteworthy, but I also appreciate how he artfully brings allusions from mythology into his storytelling.

The warehouse containing the human hybrids is owned by a company called “Zeus Storage” and is located on Pandora Street. 

Given those two references to Greek myth, you just know it’s going to prove a place of danger and disaster.  The location, “Zeus Storage,” recalls the Greek King of the Gods, from whom the secret of fire was stolen in the myth of Prometheus. 

And of course, the “magic” of creation is here taken -- again by humans -- from the (god-like?) aliens.

Pandora, not coincidentally, is a part of the same myth.  She represents Zeus’s revenge upon misbehaving man.  Zeus creates Pandora in fact, knowing that she will open the “jar” (or rather “box”) containing plagues and other diseases, thus unloosing them upon grasping, greedy mankind. 

In “The Erlenmeyer Flask,” of course, the knowledge of alien DNA and bacteria creates a new biology toxic to mankind, as those imperiled EMT workers learn all too well. 

Thus, the title “The Erlenmeyer Flask” might be translated ably as “Pandora’s Box.”  Avaricious scientists, hoping to steal knowledge that is not theirs to possess, take it and in the process, release a toxin that could destroy the human race.  Pandora’s Box is opened.

This is a brilliant, almost sub-textual reference to myth, but it deepens considerably the episode’s impact and artistry.  It gives the audience a context for what is happening to Mulder and Scully.  In essence, they are running up against human nature itself, and the desire to possess information that we are not ready to wisely possess.

Chris Carter has also often gone on record describing his memories of the Watergate hearings in the mid-1970s, and his subsequent distrust of the government.  One positive element of Watergate -- or of the Watergate mythology, we must now admit -- is the little guy against City Hall narrative (also seen in Kolchak: The Night Stalker).  Reporters Bernstein and Woodward went up against a sitting President armed only with the truth, and they emerged victorious. 

Perhaps modifying that scenario, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” suggests that Mulder and Scully boast the same capacity: to bring down a governmental conspiracy and reveal the truth to a deceived public.  What’s clear from this episode is that their investigations terrify the (as yet unnamed) Syndicate.  The agents are getting too close to their target, and the powers-that-be react hastily and vindictively by shutting down the X-Files.

Again, had The X-Files lasted only one season, the overall arc would have seen two agents of change (Mulder and Scully), essentially, discovering a conspiracy, almost exposing it, and then being, in the last moment, defeated by power.  That arc prescribes new developments since Watergate: the idea that the more things appear to change, the more they actually remain the same.  This is Carter’s statement on government, no matter which party happens to be in power, I suspect.

In terms of X-files lore, “The Erlenmeyer Flask” reveals Mulder’s -- or perhaps Chris Carter’s -- obsession with science fiction film history.   Here, the film Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959) appears on television.  Later episodes, such as “War of the Coprophages” feature clips from Planet of the Apes (1968). 

Again, such references book-end one another in telling fashion..  Mulder in this episode embarks upon a “journey to the center” of the truth, at least after a fashion.  But Planet of the Apes warns that, in the words of Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans), when he reaches his destination he “may not like what he finds.”

“The Erlenmeyer Flask” also features the death of Deep Throat, who in many senses is a father figure to Mulder.  Mulder even describes himself here as “the dutiful son.”  Importantly, he experiences a kind of adolescent rebellion against his metaphorical dad here, refusing to accept Deep Throat’s sincerity and honesty regarding the conspiracy.  Ultimately, however, the father figure is vindicated by saving Mulder from a kidnapping, and issuing the warning which ends the episode and hangs over the entire first season:

Trust no one.

Next week:  “Little Green Men.”

The X-Files: The Erlenmeyer Flask Promo

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Bionic Day: Late Night Blogging

Bionic Day: Themes and Intros

Bionic Day: Mission Control Center (Kenner)

In the Christmas of our Bicentennial year 1976 -- the last Christmas before Star Wars (1977) arrived -- Kenner's "bionic" toys dominated the market...not to mention the imagination of children like me.

These were the prized toys that every kid in the neighborhood wanted and hoped that Santa Claus would bring.

An avid fan of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973-1978) or The Bionic Woman (1976-1978) could choose from any number of really fine toys in this line, including large-scale action figures (Steve Austin, Jaime Sommers, Oscar Goldman, Maskatron...), huge vehicles (like Jaime's sports car, or Austin's space vehicle...), and cool play sets galore.

The Bionic Woman had a salon/repair center, for instance. Oscar had his Washington D.C. OSI office (not to mention an exploding briefcase...), and Steve himself had a space capsule/repair station.

However, one of the most exciting and sought after play sets in Kenner's stable was The Six Million Dollar Man "Mission Control Center," the very place, according to the box legend, "where all the bionic adventures begin!"

This huge, impressive toy included a "giant inflatable dome, 17.5" high and 26" wide."

Since the dome was inflatable by air valve (9 for strength and durability...), the toy even came with a repair kit.

In case, I guess, Big Foot (Ted Cassidy) happened by hoping to puncture it with a pin or something.

And inside (or rather beneath...) that huge dome was the HQ for OSI agents Colonel Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. It was protected, according to the dome specifications, by a "laser force field."

Another exterior section of the dome was a computer, a "retrieval storage unit."

The Six Million Dollar Man Mission Control Center also contains (from the bulleted points on the box): "radar scanner," "TV Monitor," "radio headphones" "bionic check-out panels and cables," "command chair and command console" and "mission control vinyl floor."

At the "Bionic Check-Out Panel" you could "plug cables into your Six Million Dollar Man's modules" and "pretend you check out his bionics for special missions."

At the communications console, you could "change pictures in the T.V. monitor to communicate with Oscar, Jaime Sommers, Maskatron and outer space."

And there was even a "secret escape hatch" designed "for those times when the Six-Million Dollar Man must get out of the Mission Control Center in a hurry without being seen."

Designed for kids ages five and up (and I would have just turned seven that year...), this Kenner Bionic Headquarters was never featured on either TV series that I can recall.

But it's such a truly awesome toy that it certainly should have been.

Bionic Day: The Six Million Dollar Man Board Game

I was just five years old during “Bionic Mania” that all-too-short a span in the 1970s when The Six Million Dollar Man (1974 -1978) and his spin-off, The Bionic Woman (1976 – 1978) reigned supreme on television, and at toy stores thanks to the efforts of Kenner and Parker Brothers.

Not long ago, my parents found a fun little reminder of those days in the mid-1970s at a local yard sale: The Six Million Dollar Man board game from Parker Brothers, manufactured in 1975. 

The back of the box spells out the game’s specifics:

“Four bionic men each claim to have Steve Austin’s powers.  Your job is to prove that YOU ARE THE REAL SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN.

The Computer Spinner reads out your moves and gives you the power to handle assignments for NASA, INTERPOL, the CIA and the Defense Department.  You’ll take part in dangerous missions – encountering imposters and waging Bionic Battles.

Each assignment will make you stronger.  And the stronger you become the faster you’ll move around the board and back to the Bionic Research Lab where you’ll win the game.

On the box front, you can see images from the four scenarios you get to explore in the game: “Steve Austin rescues stranded astronaut,” “Steve Austin prevents nuclear blackmail attempt,” “Steve Austin knocks out International Crime Ring” and “Steve Austin locates underwater missile network.”

Unfortunately, there is not a scenario called Steve Austin fights Bionic Big Foot.

Anyway, the first player to complete all four assignments proves that he’s the real Six Million Dollar Man.  Bionic battles ensue when a “player lands on a space which is occupied by another player.” 

Where many games from this era seem to have nothing to do with the TV series they are related to, this game’s description actually sounds like it could be a Six Million Dollar Man plot-line.  I can just see Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) now, informing an alarmed Colonel Austin (Lee Majors) that three bionic imposters have been spotted all over the globe…and he’s got to stop them.

Bionic Day: Model Kits of the Week

Bionic Day: The Bionic Woman - "Doomsday is Tomorrow"

A touchstone for Generation X'ers, Kenneth Johnson's The Bionic Woman aired for three popular seasons (two on ABC and one on NBC) and fifty-seven hour-long episodes.  The series depicted the continuing adventures of Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), the world's first bionic woman. 

The character of Jaime was first introduced on a popular two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man before she headlined her own spin-off. 

To re-cap the series premise quickly: Jaime is a tennis pro and girlfriend to Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) before a skydiving accident nearly kills her. 

At Steve's urging, government official Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) and Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) arrange for Jaime to receive experimental bionic replacements for her shattered legs, a destroyed arm, and an ear.   These bionic parts grant Jaime superhuman strength, speed, and hearing.

In return for these life-saving mechanical prosthetics, Jaime agrees to work from time-to-time for Oscar at the O.S.I. (Office of Scientific Investigation) on dangerous assignments involving espionage, crime and international diplomacy.  Unfortunately she has almost no memory of her previous romantic relationship with Steve.

No cheap spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 - 1978), The Bionic Woman emerged rather fully from the shadow of the Lee Majors series during its high-quality second season.  In that memorable span, lead character Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) faced a bionic opponent equally as powerful as Ted Cassidy's Bionic Bigfoot: the famous "Fembots" (in a three parter, "Kill Oscar.")  Wagner also nabbed a well-deserved Emmy Award for her (double) performance in the suspenseful episode "Deadly Ringer."

However, perhaps the finest episode of The Bionic Woman remains "Doomsday is Tomorrow," a spectacular two-parter written, produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson.   

This epic installment traps Jaime in a vast subterranean complex and pits her  in a duel against a powerful super-computer programmed "to win" at all costs. 

In this case, the computer's victory means the detonation of a doomsday device, and the destruction of all life on Earth.

In "Doomsday is Tomorrow," the pacifist inventor of a new "cobalt bomb," Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres) breaks onto airwaves around the globe to announce that he has developed another weapon that can literally destroy the world.  He then summons four respected nuclear physicists to visit his complex in the American northwest and confirm his frightening story.

The OSI's Jaime Sommers masquerades as a French scientist, and accompanies Dr Wells to the Dakota Base.  There, they learn that the 78-year old Cooper has indeed created a "doomsday device;" one based on a toxic new isotope that can create a shroud of deadly radioactive particles in the upper atmosphere when combined with a cobalt bomb detonation. 

A man of peace, Cooper has no desire to actually kill all life on Earth.  Rather, he is hoping to blackmail the warring nations of the world into a final, lasting peace.  For the only thing that can trigger Cooper's doomsday device is the "air burst of a nuclear bomb." 

So long as no country in the world deploys a nuclear bomb or conducts nuclear testing, Earth and mankind are safe.

Growing increasingly infirm, Dr. Cooper entrusts the care and protection of his doomsday device to a "master computer" called ALEX 7000.  Alex is the "highest form of computer art" and can defend himself and his facility with lethal force. 

Unfortunately, Alex is also incapable of human emotions or feelings, which means that he will fulfill his matter what. 

"I am programmed to show no mercy," Alex reports to Jaime.

Almost immediately after Cooper's warning is broadcast, a small Middle-Eastern country led by the suspicious Satari (David Opatoshu) violates Dr. Cooper's terms and conditions by detonating a test nuke.  Satari believes that the doomsday device is merely a ruse to keep Third-World countries out of the nuclear "club."  Almost immediately, the test blast activates Alex 7000's countdown clock. 

In six hours, the Earth will be destroyed...

Jaime Sommers and a Russian agent (Kenneth O'Brien) attempt to infiltrate Alex's vast complex, and run a veritable obstacle course of deadly defense mechanisms.   In short order, they must evade laser beams, navigate a mine-field, elude machine gun fire, and more.  The Russian agent is injured in the attempt, leaving Jaime alone to stop the final countdown to global destruction.

Inside, Jaime  meets with Dr. Cooper as the old man dies, and as Alex 7000 vows to defeat her at all costs.  Feeling confident of his abilities, Alex 7000 informs Jamie that she will never reach sub-level 8, where his central memory core and the doomsday device are stored. 

But Jamie makes a game effort of it, evading incineration underneath the engine of a fiery rocket, escaping through a corridor of fire-fighting foam that removes all oxygen from the chamber, and even repairing her own damaged bionics following an injury.

Finally, Jamie reaches the core and confronts Alex one last time.  Unfortunately, events spiral out of control.  A B-52 bomber has been launched and is en route to the facility, carrying a nuclear bomb that could also, in conjunction with Cooper's weapon, irradiate the planet...

Today, "Doomsday is Tomorrow" still plays as tense, ambitious and worthwhile, despite the Cold War context of the U.S. and Soviet Union in perpetual rivalry.  What makes the tale hold up rather well is the fact that these two Super Powers cooperate, in the age of detente, and both act responsibly to avoid Armageddon.  It's not just Us vs. Them, Yanks vs. Commies. 

Here, the catalyst for near global-disaster is actually a Third World country trying to "catch-up" to  the U.S. and Russia.  It's interesting: Satari's nation is clearly responsible for its own transgression, and yet the warring Super Powers are also at fault too, at least indirectly.  America and Russia have shown the world the respect and deference afforded nuclear nations.  Who wouldn't desire  the same respect and deference?

In 2011, this type of scenario is probably even more likely than it was in 1977 (think of Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons; or North Korea's repeated efforts to launch missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.)   In The Bionic Woman, entry in the nuclear club is a right of passage that Satari believes will afford his country prestige.  Instead, those attempts initiate a countdown to worldwide disaster.  In real life, the same could happen.  It wouldn't be a doomsday device, of course, causing the problem, but the threat of a regional nuclear war, one that could blossom out of control very quickly as the big players (China, the U.S.) pick sides.

If you've seen this two-part episode of The Bionic Woman (and I don't want to spoil the ending...), you know that it boasts an incredibly powerful anti-war message.  Lew Ayres -- Hollywood's most famous pacifist -- plays the role of Cooper, and it's easy to see why the well-known conscientious objector  took the part, given how things turn out. 

The message, of "Doomsday is Tomorrow," as voiced by Cooper and written with care by Johnson is that human beings never feel more alive or more in love with life than when they are attending a funeral and thus really, truly contemplating what death means.  On a global scale, Cooper has arranged not Doomsday, but the proverbial opportunity for reflection.

This anti-war (and anti-nuke) episode of The Bionic Woman also comments on another 1970s worry; the fear of "technology run amok," also seen in such contemporary films as The Andromeda Strain (1971), Westworld (1971), Demon Seed (1977) and other productions. 

Although Dr. Cooper is legitimately a pacifist he makes a terrible mistake in judgment by entrusting his machine, Alex 7000, with the future of the human race.  Unable to measure or understand the value of life -- as Jaime points out to the super-computer -- Alex 7000 treats Armageddon as a game, and nothing more.  It's a contest simply to be won, a view of computer "thinking" that forecasts the 1983 blockbuster, War Games.  There the message about nuclear war was that the only way to win was "not to play."

Based in equal measures on Kubrick's Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Alex 7000 is the avatar for all our fears about automation, and about machines controlling the destiny of mankind.

In The Bionic Woman's "Doomsday is Tomorrow," it's a little bit more than that as well.  Oscar Goldman and Dr. Wells devise a back-up plan to save the world, assuming that Jaime fails.  Unfortunately, their answer to saving the world is another nuclear bomb detonation...and it is the very thing that nearly kills everyone.  Alex 7000 jams communications with the in-flight B-52, and so the plane cannot be recalled...even after the primary threat is passed.  Again, man's dependence on his technology is the issue, in both the case of Cooper and even series hero Oscar Goldman.

Jaime Sommers, explicitly described in this episode's dialogue as "a cyborg," represents a pointed contrast to both Oscar and Cooper.  Where they have ceded their lives, essentially, to the control of the machine, Jamie is different. 

She controls the machines (the bionics) in her body. She is fully integrated with them and thus her human, emotional mind still holds sway over how the machines work.  In other words, in Jamie's case it is a human who harnesses the machine; not vice-versa.   In this episode, we see Jaime out-think, out-perform and out-feel the Alex 7000, proving the superiority of human judgment.  

As always, Wagner makes an incredibly charismatic and likable lead, and in this episode, Jaime is nearly driven to despair by her inability to beat the powerful machine, which commands a huge complex and vast store of resources. 

There are a few moments in the second part of "Doomsday is Tomorrow" in which we see Jamie just inches away from losing her composure, and Wagner isn't afraid to play those moments for all their drama and power.

Yet -- importantly -- there's nothing "edgy" or "angry" about this Bionic Woman, to use the terms Wagner herself applied to the moribund 2007 remake.  This Jaime is just a regular human being with extraordinary abilities, and the belief that she alone can help (since Steve Austin, a strong ally, is currently stationed on Skylab...).  Today, as the 2007 version proved, Jaime would be rageful, hungering for revenge against an enemy, and saddled with a boatload of personal "baggage."

But Wagner's performances here (and throughout the series) prove a valuable point: Jaime doesn't have to be moody or angsty for audiences to identify with her or her important  missions.  She doesn't need manufactured "issues" for us to root for her success. 

Instead, Kenneth Johnson's intelligent  writing and Wagner's human, good-humored performance are more than enough to accomplish that.  All the bells and whistles of today's dramatic conceits are unnecessary, and worse, cliche.  All superheroes don't need to be revenge-a-holics and rage-a-holics.  Sometimes they can just be people called by destiny to help.  Sometimes they can just be people doing their best in a tough or even seemingly impossible situation.  That's Jaime Sommers, in a very real way, and it's certainly no coincidence that another great female superhero (the vampire slaying sort) is also named Summers.  Jaime was one of the first -- and still one of the best -- of this breed.

I first saw "Doomsday is Tomorrow" as a child (I believe I had just turned eight), and I must admit that it scared the crap out of me.  In part this is because Alex 7000 holds all the cards, and is one tough nemesis.  In part it is also because the episode suggests that our world is just twenty-four hours from Armageddon.  When Alex 7000's countdown to destruction arrives at zero, the episode cuts to a long-shot view of the Earth, and there's silence on the soundtrack.  A sense of anticipation, and fear too, accompanies the edit. According to movie and TV convention, the next shot should be of the planet blowing up.

Thanks to Jamie Sommers, the Earth avoids that fate here, but the haunting last words of the episode were enough to give me pause as a child.

"But what about tomorrow?"

Bionic Day: Pop Art, Six Million Dollar Man Charlton Edition

Bionic Day: The Six-Million Dollar Man: “The Secret of Bigfoot.” (February 6, 1976)

I watched The Six Million Dollar Man religiously – and I mean religiously – as a six year-old boy. But truth be told, I never much cared for the espionage stories, the ones with Steve going undercover to topple a foreign dictator or help an Eastern Bloc scientist defect to the West.

No, the stories I loved were the ones in which the bionic Colonel Austin (Lee Majors) battled nemeses that more than matched his unusual strength and power. 

Prime among such villains was the Bionic Bigfoot, first introduced in this two-part episode, “The Secret of Bigfoot.” 

As I’ve written before, the 1970s for some reason saw a Bigfoot or Sasquatch Craze on TV (In Search Of, Bigfoot and Wild Boy, etc.) and at the movies too.  But no depictions of Bigfoot were more fun, in my opinion, than The Six Million Dollar Man’s. 

It’s one thing to contemplate the existence of the Sasquatch.  It’s another to mark him as an extra-terrestrial. 
And then, of course, to make him a cyborg (like Steve) is a stroke of wacky brilliance.

In “The Secret of Bigfoot,” Steve and his boss at the OSI, Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) are assigned to the forests of the Pacific Northwest to provide security for two friendly seismologists testing classified earthquake sensors.  While deploying these new sensors, the scientists are attacked by a creature that appears to be the mythical Sasquatch (Andre the Giant).

Steve tracks the beast’s footprints, and comes face to face with the inhuman monster.  After Steve rips off one of the beast’s arms in a (slow-motion…) scuffle, he realizes the truth: Sasquatch is a bionic robot!  Steve follows the injured machine back into a mountainside, and falls unconscious in a strange, glowing tunnel.

When Steve awakens, he finds himself the guests of an alien community, led by Battle for the Planet of the Ape’s Severn Darden (as Apploy). Steve promptly becomes friends with the colony’s physician, the lovely Shalon (Stefanie Powers).  He learns that Sasquatch is the creation of these aliens, and that the beast serves as the Colony’s “protector and defender.”  Austin also learns that each scientist is equipped with a device called a “TLC” which allows people to disappear from sight, and move at speeds undetectable by the human eye. 

While spending time with the E.T.’s Steven comes across another unique discovery: Time for the alien explorers passes more slowly than it does for humans, so while legends of Bigfoot go back some two centuries or more, the aliens have only been on Earth conducting their studies for a few years, their time.

The aliens sent out Bigfoot to sabotage the sensor equipment in the first place because they did not want to be discovered by mankind.  But this fear of discovery diminishes compared to another problem. Oscar plans to detonate a small underground nuclear device in the forest to forestall an upcoming earthquake. Unfortunately, the aliens’ mountain base will be buried, unless Steve and the Sasquatch can work together to prevent the apocalypse.

“The Secret of Bigfoot aired in early February 1976, and -- no exaggeration -- it was the TV event of the season for the primary school set. As a six-year old, I enjoyed every aspect of the two-hour program, from the camping to the aliens, to Bigfoot, to the bionic brawls.  As an adult, what I enjoy most about the episode is the fact that there really aren’t any overt bad guys or evil-doers.  Sasquatch is only a tool of the aliens and not malicious, and Oscar’s nuke plan -- though foolhardy -- is not intended to kill anyone.

Remarkably, the Sasquatch costume still holds up pretty well after all this time.  Director Alan Crosland goes out of his way not to reveal too much detail in the episode’s first acts. Instead, we are’ treated to suspense-maintaining P.O.V. shots from the Sasquatch’s perspective as he lumbers through the woods.  The episode also opens with views of the beast’s hairy legs and feet as they traverse the wild forest

Even the first big attack scene -- at about the nine minute point -- hides the creature’s face.  In a spectacular composition, Bigfoot steps out into the open in a low-angle shot, and the radiant light of the sun occludes his monstrous visage.  This saves the first full reveal for Sasquatch’s initial encounter with Steve.  We see during that sequence that the monster boasts glowing, inhuman eyes.  And to some extent, those glaring, bright eyes divert attention away from any inadequacies of the hairy costume.

The first battle between Steve and the Bionic Bigfoot is still spectacular too.  The slow-motion photography makes it seem that every punch, hit, and blow is earth-shattering, and the battle goes on and on for something like five minutes.   I noted while watching that there is virtually no dialogue at all in this lengthy interlude, just fight music, bionic sound effects, and fearsome animal grunts. 

This, my friends, is Bionic nirvana.

Another visual I remember from my childhood is the long, weird, glowing tunnel that leads into the mountainside alien base.  This tunnel was actually an attraction at Universal Studios called Glacier Avalanche, just re-purposed for the series.  In 1982, when I went to Universal Studios on a cross-country camping trip, I got to ride through this unearthly tunnel and my first thought was of The Six-Million Dollar Man.  The only disappointment in this scene is that, on DVD, it is all-too easy detect that the floor of the (spinning) tunnel is not rock, but earth-tone blankets draped across the floor.

The depiction of the aliens in “The Secret of Bigfoot” feels very 1970s today.  The aliens wear brightly-colored jump suits with bell-bottoms, and Stefanie Powers looks as though she’s crossed right over from the set of Charlie’s Angels.  Still, I appreciate the fact that the aliens aren’t malevolent in nature, and that cooperation with them is possible.

Today, perhaps the most horrifying aspect of “The Secret of Bigfoot” is the fact that OSI’s man in charge, Oscar Goldman, deploys nuclear weapons inside the continental United States as though they are just another run-of-the-mill fix-it too.  Could you imagine the PR disaster were it learned that a United States government agency were detonating nuclear bombs in an unspoiled forest?  

If “The Secret of Bigfoot” possesses any dramatic failing, it’s only that the story does not go much beyond entertaining escapism.  The Bionic Woman, by contrast, often featured overt social commentary in its tales, such as in the great two-part episode “Doomsday is Tomorrow.”

Bigfoot returned to The Six-Million Dollar Man on several more occasions, and even crossed over to Bionic Woman episodes as well.  After a while, however, the law of diminishing returns came into full effect and the great Beast (played in later incarnations by Ted Cassidy) lost some of his mystery, majesty, and menace.

But “The Secret of Bigfoot” endures -- 37 years later -- because it handles its monster with restraint, and then, delightfully with affection.  I haven’t watched many Six Million Dollar Man episodes recently, but watching this fun two-part installment makes me want to haul out “Death Probe” (wherein Steve fights a malevolent Russian space probe) and the Bionic Woman cross-over episode involving Fembots and a scientist’s devious plans to control the weather…

Since The Six Million Dollar Man has been out of circulation so long, and wasn’t available on DVD till just two years ago, I don’t know how well it translates to the younger generations.  But the action-packed bionic nirvana of “The Secret of Bigfoot” may be a good place to start the bionic journey if you’re interested. 
At the very least, you’ll be able to talk about it with your Generation X aunt and uncle next time you get together…