Saturday, July 06, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973): "Once Upon a Planet"

STARDATE: 5591.2

The U.S.S. Enterprise returns to the planet colloquially known as “the Shore Leave planet,” where a humanoid Keeper tends to an advanced amusement park where visitors’ thoughts are transformed into reality.

Unfortunately, Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) is captured by the amusement park’s master computer, leaving Captain Kirk (William Shatner), Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Mr. Sulu (George Takei), and Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) to attempt a rescue.

The landing party soon learns that the Keeper has passed away, and that the computer has come to believe that it has been “enslaved.”  It now wants to commandeer the Enterprise, go out into the galaxy at large, and visit with its “brother” computers…

If the first half-dozen episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974) are any guide, it looks like a distinct pattern is emerging.  Original episodes are good -- sometimes scary good -- while the sequels to popular Original Series episodes are barely adequate, or even downright terrible.

“Once Upon a Planet” is not nearly as bad as “More Tribbles, More Troubles,” the series' low-point so far, but nor does it rise to the ecstatic, creative heights of such masterpieces as “The Survivor” or “The Magicks of Megas-Tu.”  

Here, the episode being sequel-ized is “Shore Leave,” an early and popular first season installment of Star Trek (1966 – 1969).  But in this follow-up, as Mr. Sulu succinctly opines “nothing’s changed.”

In other words, the planet is still producing hostile animatronic beings produced from human desires, wishes, and thoughts, and Mr. Spock still advises control and the careful “monitoring of our thoughts,” lest the landing party give “ammunition” to the enemy.

“Once Upon a Planet” isn’t a total failure, however, since it features a rare starring role for Lt. Uhura.  The character gets to be the prime-mover of the story's "learning" arc, and that's refreshing.

I also like that this segment involves the idea of a machine -- a master computer -- gaining awareness of itself, and its treatment by humanoids.   Indeed, this is a concept that would be important, in one way or another, to the Trek franchise in installments as diverse as Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), and "The Quality of Life," The Next Gen episode concerning sentient machines called "exo-comps."

Like, V'ger, the master computer in this episode sees the Enterprise as a kind of life-form ("the sky machine.")  It also sees its life as consisting only of “servitude,” a word which might describe the exo-comps' predicament, since they are used in hazardous, life-threatening situations.

The solution to the crisis in "Once Upon a Planet" comes when Captain Kirk (once more) talks down a dangerous machine and reminds it that it need not go anywhere.  Instead, “the galaxy will come to it.”  The computer proves amenable to this suggestion.

The problem with the overall story-line here is that the colorful, fanciful creations of the master computer are no more than narrative impediments to pad out the half-hour.  The fire-breathing dragons, pterodactyls, and even the Red Queen serve no other purpose but to slow things down, and, in point of fact, are not even avatars created by the landing party (as Kirk points out).  They must be “pre-existing” amusements, and thus are present, essentially, at random.

To describe this another way, "Once Upon a Planet" is a familiar story about a world run by a computer, and Kirk reaching an accommodation with said computer.  The bells and whistles from "Shore Leave" play almost no significant or meaningful part in this sequel.  

So overall, the story isn't particularly exciting, or original.  It's just average, familiar old Star Trek.

Next week, another sequel: "Mudd's Passion."

Friday, July 05, 2013

The Lone Ranger Week: Hi-Yo Silver, Away...

I hope you enjoyed our week-long retrospective of the Lone Ranger character in the pop culture.  I had a lot of fun revisiting episodes and toys I hadn't thought about at all since I was a kid.  I was also delighted to see how well the original series (1949 - 1957) episodes hold up, after all this time.

I'll be curious to see how the movie handles this sturdy legend, and what you -- the readers -- think about the modern update.

Our normal schedule resumes tomorrow morning with Saturday morning blogging...

The Lone Ranger Week: The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger: "Hanga, the Night Monster"

This episode of The Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour (from Filmation) and the year 1980 again features that "masked rider of the plains," and sends him on adventures to his long-standing theme song: the William Tell Overture.

In "Hanga, The Night Monster," The Lone Ranger (William Conrad) and Tonto are celebrating the "new trail of the iron horse," the joining of the west and east components of the transcontinental railroad.  Upon seeing the Lone Ranger's diagram of the railroad drawn roughly  in the sand, Tonto wonders if the railroad means "the end" for the horse. 

Stalwart Silver replies by kicking dust over the map, and obliterating it.

Meanwhile, Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad working night and day come face-to-face with a strange, fire breathing monster.  This glowing monstrosity -- this dragon -- seems to swallow workers whole, and threatens the entirety of the project to join the components of the railroad.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto arrive on the scene and must determine the truth regarding this creature apparently from myth...

In "Hanga, the Night Monster," the Lone Ranger and Tonto must discern the truth involving competing railroad companies, and which one has the most to gain by slowing down progress of the first transcontinental line.  The monster, Hanga, turns out to be a man-made device -- a train car covered in glowing paint -- that is designed specifically to scare off the Chinese workers, who are doing all the back-breaking labor.

The education coda that follows concerns the importance of Chinese workers in the history of the American railroad.

Like "The Runaway," this story sees a link between the Lone Ranger and the emerging Age of the Railroad, a factor which would eventually ameliorate the "frontier" aspect of the Old West, and bring civilization to that territory permanently, thus, after a fashion, negating the necessity of a man like the Lone Ranger.   

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and the new The Lone Ranger (2013), apparently, also both involve the railroad and trains as crucial plot elements.

The Lone Ranger Week: The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger: "The Runaway" (Filmation; 1980)

In the year 1980, CBS television began airing on Saturday mornings The Tarzan/Lone Ranger Adventure Hour (1980 - 1982), a beloved animated series from Filmation Studios that would also come to feature Zorro before the end of its run

The Lone Ranger segments were titled "The New Adventures of The Lone Ranger" and featured the baritone William Conrad (credited as J. Darnoc) as the voice of the masked man.  Many of the stories explicitly involved the development of late 19th century technology, particularly the ascent of the trans-continental railroad.

In the first episode of the series, "The Runaway," The Lone Ranger and Tonto (Ivan Naranjo) are bound for Grand Junction, Colorado and some trout fishing when they learn of a train in trouble.  It has been hit by bandits, who stole the bank company payroll.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto apprehend the bandits, but are asked to ride shotgun for a second train, of even greater importance.  This train -- described as a "milestone of railroad progress" -- houses the first fully-refrigerated train car to travel west.  It is carrying beef and fresh vegetables, and bound for Denver.  

But even more important than these food items, the car will be carrying a "perishable serum" that is needed to save a life in a Denver hospital.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto agree to babysit the serum, and not unexpectedly, bandits hit the train during its run.  

Ironically, the very presence of the Lone Ranger has convinced the outlaws that there must be a lot of money aboard the train, or some other great treasure.  Fortunately, Tonto and Lone Ranger save the day and deliver the medicine to Denver...

Like every episode of "The New Adventures of the Lone Ranger," this episode features a fun scene transition: the Lone Ranger's black mask whirls towards the camera, and moves us from one setting to the next.  

Another regular feature is an educational coda or lecture, at the end of the action, about the historical importance and/or accuracy of the preceding story, delivered by the Lone Ranger himself.  Here, the masked man talks about the importance of "refrigeration," and how it changed the world of the 1880s.

Crisply written and performed, "The Runaway" could very well have been an episode of the original TV series (1949 - 1957), with its accent on thrills and action.  The story is straight-forward, and there is a clear-cut sense of right and wrong in terms of the characters' behavior.  All the typical Lone Ranger elements are here, from the opening narration which describes his mysterious history and nature, to the closing and rousing call of "Hi Yo, Silver, away..."

The Lone Ranger Week: The New Adventures of The Lone Ranger (Filmation; 1980) Intro

Thursday, July 04, 2013

The Lone Ranger Week: The Lone Ranger Returns for 2013

The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)

"Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear... The Lone Ranger rides again!"

Oh, if only that were so...

When I was a little boy living in New Jersey, a local TV station (WPIX, I think...) ran an afternoon block of heroic programming. First The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958), then Batman (1966-1969) and then, finally...The Lone Ranger (1949-1957). 

This went on every weekday for a long time...and boy...I was in kiddie heaven. I remember some days begging my Mother to take me home from Brookdale Park so I could get home in time to see these TV programs!

Anyway, Clayton Moore portrayed the heroic Lone Ranger in the 1950s series (along with John Hart, for two years), and I admired the Lone Ranger as a child (and now, as a man) because of his moral creed. He didn't drink or smoke. Not only did he speak beautifully (never indulging in slang or jargon), but he believed that "all men are created equal and that everyone has within himself the power to make this a better world." Most importantly, the Lone Ranger never shot to kill.

Despite my love for the 1950s Lone Ranger TV series (and I even owned a complete set of Gabriel's 1973 10-inch Lone Ranger figures...), I would have certainly welcomed, by 1981, a modern take on the classic material; just as I had welcomed with open arms the updated Superman: The Movie (1978). 

But with The Legend of The Lone Ranger (1981), a notorious box office bomb, something went wrong.

I watched The Legend of the Lone Ranger again last week, for the first time in years, and was shocked anew at just how bad this film is. In fact, I was unpleasantly reminded of Tarzan: The Ape Man another 1981 film which failed to do justice to an iconic hero. At least Tarzan: The Ape Man has Bo Derek starring (and disrobing...) in it, and boasts a high-degree of camp value. The Legend of the Lone Ranger is just plodding.

Actually, The Legend of the Lone Ranger fails on three distinct fronts. But before I get to each particular failure, a brief re-cap is in order: The Legend of the Lone Ranger tells the story of the "man behind the mask" (as per the ballad of the Lone Ranger, performed by Merle Haggard).

In the Old West (Texas, 1854), young John Reid sees his parents brutally murdered by bandits and is taken in by friendly Indians to live as one of the natives. Reid's "blood brother" is Tonto, and at this early age, Reid decides irrevocably to follow "the trail of justice." Soon, however, he is removed from his Indian life by his older brother, Dan, a ranger who sends John back East to become an attorney.

Several years later, a grown John (Klinton Spilsbury) returns to the wild west hoping to make it a terrain where justice prevails, but in local "Del Rio," (a town in trouble, Merle Haggard tells us...) he finds that much of the territory is already in thrall to the power-hungry, psychotic Butch Cavendish (Christopher Lloyd), a warlord who seeks to kidnap President Ulysses S. Grant (Jason Robards). 

Before long, John, his brother Dan and a team of rangers are led into a Cavendish trap by a traitor in the ranger ranks and -- after a brutal gun fight -- left for dead.

Only John survives the massacre. He is nursed back to health by a now-adult Tonto (who happened by the crime scene at just the right moment...) and soon launches his quest for justice. But first, John must "dig a grave for John Reid" and become The Lone Ranger; a masked man who rides a white steed named Silver, and who uses silver bullets in combat.

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's first and most egregious failing is that it doesn't seem to know its audience (which, if you ask me, would include generations of "grown up" boys and girls who loved the TV show). By this, I mean that Legend of the Lone Ranger is the ugliest, gauziest, dustiest-looking western since Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate (1980).

It's not just that the movie is unpleasant to's actually unpleasant to look at. You can hardly make out faces, the film is so gritty and soiled-looking. I would argue that this is precisely the wrong visual for any Lone Ranger production. We should be inspired by the beauty of the West, by those gorgeous wide open skies and natural landscapes; just as the Lone Ranger is himself inspired by the promise of America. I mean, I know dark things happen in the Lone Ranger's origin, but no one in their right mind would live in a Wild West that looked like this, forever inside its own whirling Dust Bowl.'

Secondly, this is a film that, in the first few minutes, depicts innocent Mrs. Reid (John's mother) dragged behind a horse by bandits, and then shot and killed at point-blank range. Later, the film doesn't cut away when two bandits are executed by Cavendish, and we see the bloody impact wounds blossom on their chests. I'm no prude, but the Lone Ranger in the past was a franchise that didn't exploit graphic violence. The Lone Ranger himself never killed his enemies; and furthermore lived by a code of justice that he applied to all: criminals and honest citizens alike. It's a mistake, I submit, given the history of the franchise, to revel in bloody demises like those depicted here. It seems antithetical to what the Lone Ranger is all about.

I'd also state that The Legend of the Lone Ranger doesn't know its audience because it makes several basic mistakes in franchise information and background. For instance, this film transforms heroic John Reid into a rookie attorney (!) not an experienced ranger, when he is involved in the massacre. It also establishes that he is a terrible shot, one whose skill is miraculously improved only when Tonto gives him silver bullets. In most incarnations of the Lone Ranger, Reid is a talented marksman and ranger before the events that change his life. Frankly, that origin makes more sense. Silver bullets aren't magic in and of themselves (though I guess they can kill werewolves...). I just don't see how silver bullets make a person's aim more true, even if, according to Tonto, "silver is pure."

The Legend of the Lone Ranger's second, and perhaps most catastrophic failing is that it is dull beyond  conventional forms of measurement. This is an action movie that moves at a snail's pace. It takes thirty-eight long minutes just to get to the ranger massacre in the gully. It takes to forty-eight minutes to introduce Silver. Key scenes are notably and irrevocably dull. For instance, the moment when Reid tames Silver is extended relentlessly by slow motion photography (think of Tarzan's wrestling match with a boa in Tarzan the Ape Man), and becomes almost laughable in its duration. I'm a long-time admirer of composer John Barry, but his lugubrious, ponderous score only contributes to the sense that this movie is a dead weight around your shoulders...never ending, ugly, and with nothing of significance occurring. 

"Thrilling days of yesteryear?" You won't find them here...

The film's final flaw is simple: basic incompetence. Through the entire film, Klinton Salisbury's voice is badly dubbed by James Keach, and you can tell. Worse, in key moments, (particularly the horse whispering moment), it is obvious that Silver is played by at least two very different horses. You know a movie is in trouble when you have the time to notice that the lead horse is being stunt-doubled...

The only time this movie comes to life is when that inspiring William Tell Overture is dragged out of mothballs and the pulse quickens.

What a disappointment. The children of 1981 deserved better.

Movie Trailer: The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981)

Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Lone Ranger Week: Lone Ranger Lego Sets (2013)

The Lone Ranger Week: Lone Ranger Comic Books (Dell Edition)

The Lone Ranger Week: Cheerios (General Mills)

The Lone Ranger Week: Halloween Costume (Ben Cooper)

The Lone Ranger Week: Toy Holster Sets

The Lone Ranger Week: Whitman Frame Tray Puzzle (1967)

The Lone Ranger Week: Lone Ranger Coloring Books

The Lone Ranger Week: Legend of the Lone Ranger Action Figures (1981; Gabriel)

With the high-profile release of The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) in theaters, Gabriel Toys had high hopes that it could re-capture the magic of Yesteryear and its 1976 Lone Ranger toy line.

Unfortunately, the movie proved a bomb, and Gabriel’s merchandise was largely ignored in the post-Star Wars toy marketplace.  Cowboys and Indians had become passé, and outer space toys continued to be the rage (until The Masters of the Universe and later Transformers came along…)

In essence, Gabriel recreated the toys of their earlier line, only in a much smaller mode. 

Here, characters such as The Lone Ranger, Tonto and Butch Cavendish and General Custer were created in fully-poseable 3 ¼  inch variations. Because of their diminutive size, these toys did not have the removable clothes items or hats that their predecessors did, which made them somewhat less fun to play with.  

Gabriel also released smaller versions of Silver and Scout, the heroes’ steeds.

I remember, I bought all the Legend of the Lone Ranger action figures at Englishtown Flea Market in 1982 -- still on their cards -- for a dollar-a-piece.  At that point, however (I was eleven, I guess…), I never really played with ‘em.  They have managed, however, to stay in my home office collection to this day.

Lone Ranger Week: Legend of the Lone Ranger Board Game (Milton Bradley)