Saturday, August 03, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Star Trek: The Animated Series - Aliens

"One of Our Planets is Missing" 

"The Lorelei Signal"

"More Tribbles, More Troubles"

"The Survivor"

"The Magicks of Megas-Tu."

"Time Trap"

"The Ambergris Element"

"The Slaver Weapon"

"Eye of the Beholder"

"The Pirates of Orion"



Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Slaver Weapon" (December 15, 1973)

STARDATE: 4187.3

Commander Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Lt. Sulu (George Takei) travel aboard the long-range Enterprise shuttle craft Copernicus -- en route to Starbase 25 -- carrying a strange stasis box from a long-extinct technological race known as “Slavers.”

These mysterious boxes are extremely rare, and also extremely dangerous, because they often possess technology inside that is far beyond that of the Federation or other space governments in the galaxy.  Inside the boxes, time is frozen so that the weaponry or devices inside can’t detonate, fire or otherwise cause damage on a cosmic scale.

When the Copernicus crew detects signs of a second Slaver stasis box in a nearby solar system, Spock diverts course to investigate.  The Enterprise party runs afoul of a race of feline-alien predators: the militaristic (and carnivorous) Kzinti. But the Kzinti have actually sprung a trap in order to steal the Slaver’s stasis box in Starfleet’s possession.

Inside the box -- as the Kzin and the Starfleet officers soon discover -- is a hand-weapon of extreme power, one that can morph from destructive setting to destructive setting with extreme ease.

The general fan and critic consensus -- which I agree with -- is that “The Slaver Weapon” (based on Larry Niven’s short story “The Soft Weapon”) is one of the very best episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 – 1974).

There are many reasons for the positive assessment of this episode.  For one, the episode adopts a unique and therefore innovative point-of-attack.  It doesn’t feature Captain Kirk, and  "The Slaver Weapon" never once visits the mighty starship Enterprise.  Instead, our protagonists are three Starfleet officers in deep space, with little by way of support from the powerful Federation. This sense of being alone -- and away from help -- adds an element of danger and uncertainty that many episodes of many Star Trek incarnations simply do not feature.

A related point is that this episode showcases Mr. Spock in a difficult command situation, and again, this is something relatively rare in Star Trek history.  We saw his “first command” in “The Galileo 7,” but other than that, Spock isn’t often in charge or calling the shots for an entire episode.  The great thing about “The Slaver Weapon” is that Spock commands so brilliantly, yet in a fashion that is true to his character, and very different from Kirk’s style.  In short, this is a great Spock episode.  His advice to Uhura and Sulu about how to contend with Kzinti interrogation is priceless.

The villain in “The Slaver Weapon” also offers a point-of-interest. We meet Niven’s Kzinti, carnivorous, technological “cat-people,” and (despite their pink costumes...) they quickly prove a welcome relief on the Animated Series from the over-used Klingons (whom we have seen in “More Tribbles, More Trouble” and “The Time Trap.”)  

At some point, it just gets tiresome watching the Enterprise crew effectively defeat the too-familiar Klingons of the Original Series...who always seem to shoot themselves in the foot with the slightest provocation.  The new Kzinti-- with their meat-eating habits, opinions regarding humanoid females and other “original” qualities -- make for a tremendously fresh and therefore unpredictable villain.

Last but not at all least, “The Slaver Weapon,” features a great concept and theme.  

The story involves the galaxy as it existed a millions of years ago, before human beings even existed.  The Slavers are a great mystery from that era, and also an object lesson for Starfleet in the 23rd century.  The hideous Slavers plunged the galaxy into war eons ago, and then intelligent life had to evolve “all over again.”  The fear, clearly, is that with rivals like Starfleet and the Kzinti -- and the existence of Slaver stasis boxes -- the same thing could happen again.  Or as Spock notes, it is “strange how the past sometimes breaks into the present."  He fears that the Slaver weapon may “well mean the end of mankind.”  Like Joyce Perry's excellent "The Time Trap," it is not difficult to detect the Cold-War/detente era social commentary here.  

The idea of jeopardy emerging from the distant  past is, incidentally, one that finds voice in later Star Trek series.  In The Next Generation (1987 – 1994), episodes such as the second season installment “Contagion” reveal the race between Romulans and the Federation to possess the secrets of the long-dead Ikonian Empire, with the survival of both races on the line.  This tale is clearly inspired by “The Slaver Weapon.”

I might add, finally, that “The Slaver Weapon” feels like one of those infrequent Star Trek stories which even non-fans or casual fan can enjoy.  It is tautly-written, beautifully conceived and executed, and it doesn’t depend heavily on series continuity to understand it, or to get the point.  It's just a damn fine adventure.

In terms of my personal favorite Star Trek: The Animated Series episodes, “The Slaver Weapon” goes directly to the top tier of the catalog, right alongside “Yesteryear,” “The Survivor,” and “The Magicks of Megas-Tu.”

Next week: "Eye of the Beholder."

Friday, August 02, 2013

Michael Ansara (1922 - 2013)

I'm very sad to report today the death of Michael Ansara, an actor who left a huge mark in science fiction television history. 

Mr. Ansara is most famous in sci-fi circles, perhaps, for his role as the Klingon Commander Kang (pictured above) in Star Trek.  

Ansara played this role in the Original Series ("Day of the Dove"), in Deep Space Nine ("Blood Oath") and Voyager ("Flashback.")   Kang is a beloved character in Trek circles, and not at all a typical "black hat."  Ansara brought his trademark intelligence and strength to the character, and that's the reason Kang is remembered with such affection after more than forty years. He was a great adversary for Kirk, both thoughtful and cunning.

Beyond his memorable role in the Trek franchise, Mr. Ansara played "Killer" Kane in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981) series on three different occasions, in "Escape from Wedded Bliss," "Ardala Returns" and "Flight of the War Witch."  

In this role, Ansara also projected authority and power.  Ansara boasted a booming voice, and an intimidating gait, and he put those qualities to good use as Buck's nemesis on the Draconia.

Mr. Ansara was also a staple of all the popular Irwin Allen sci-fi programming of the 1960s, and appeared in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space, Land of the Giants and The Time Tunnel.  

Other prominent guest-starring roles in genre programming came on the original The Outer Limits ("Soldier" by Harlan Ellison) and Babylon 5.

The artist also made appearances in the horror films of William Girdler, including Day of the Animals (1977) and The Manitou (1978). 

Outside the genre, Mr. Ansara lent his powerful screen presence to dozens of TV programs, including The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, Bewitched, Broken Arrow, Hawaii 5-0, I Dream of Jeannie, and more.

Mr. Ansara will be missed tremendously, and my thoughts are with his family in this time of sorrow.  His great performances, however, will live on.

Cult-Movie Review: Gattaca (1997)

In the first shot of Andrew Niccol's impressive Gattaca (1997), what appears to be an over-sized fingernail lands on a hard floor like some heavy-gravity chunk of ice or space rock.  

This Goliath is followed promptly by a tree-trunk sized strand of human hair, which also impacts with considerable force. 

These unusual images -- extreme close-ups, actually -- are captured in rich blue hues, and promptly followed by shots of a naked man (Ethan Hawke) scrubbing his body vigorously, attempting to leave behind the biological evidence of his real identity.

This memorable and highly cinematic opening sequence suggests a few important things. 

First, it suggests to the viewer that, as human beings, we are all the product of genetic blueprints, and that, given a certain set of circumstances (namely the future world imagined by Gattaca), that very blueprint could subvert or betray us.   

To wit, the film concerns a man who aspires to reach the stars, but who is held tightly to the terrestrial firmament below by his physical blueprint; by the fact that he does not possess the right genetic "code" for success. 

The discovery by Society-at-Large of something so simple as a fingernail or a strand of his hair could shatter this man's dreams of transcendence permanently.  So these falling objects -- the fingernail, the hair-strand -- literally "loom" over the man as giant threats.  The director's choice to present them as colossal juggernauts is a clever, intelligent and unconventional one.

Secondly, the blue light (and also the act of scrubbing) suggests sterilization of a sort; of rendering neutral or dead those things or elements that could potentially do harm.  The film's protagonist, Vincent (Hawke) must literally sterilize himself to be accepted in "valid" society.

He's sanding off parts of himself to fit in; to conform. 

On a more symbolic note, the blue light in this inaugural sequence suggests, at least to me, the sterile, somehow empty nature of Vincent's near-future world.  It is a place where all imperfections have been engineered out of the human organism. 

The result is a world that seems remote, lacking in the warmth, love and color we associate with everything that exists in the species today:  in our families, in our national discourse, in the pure diversity of our lives.  We may lead messy, chaotic lives of highs and lows, of bickering and compromise, but that's the human equation, isn't it?  To clean that up -- to refine and rein in that anarchy  -- is to change the essence of what and who we are as a species.

Inspiration, spontaneity, all strong emotions, it seems, have been forsaken as "imperfections" in this world of Gattaca.  The genetically-engineered people who dwell there are intelligent and beautiful, but -- somehow -- shallow.  All their struggles were resolved for them before they were born; on the battlefield of test tubes and splicing.   Now, these men and women of Gattaca are surrounded by inspiring rocket launches every day, and never turn their eyes heavenward; never express excitement about the final frontier. 

Why strive or struggle when your destiny is written and cemented in your genes?

When I consider the great science fiction films of the 1990s, my mind almost always conjures Gattaca first (though I am also quite enamored with The Matrix [1999]).  The 1997 Niccol film not only artistically imagines a very believable, very distinctive near future, it  also explores that future fully, and in the process makes a case against discrimination or racism in all its forms.     It also asks a pertinent question: without the struggle -- the struggle to be better, stronger, smarter, more resourceful and successful -- what's left for human kind?

But, as science fiction, in particular, Gattaca, succeeds so ably because it extrapolates -- based on 1997 knowledge -- on one possible future direction of our species.

In terms of context, the most important thing to understand about Gattaca is that it was crafted and released in the decade of the Human Genome Project,  a  "13-year project coordinated by the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Institutes of Health" with the goals of "identifying all the approximately 20,000-25,000 genes in human DNA, determining the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, storing this information in databases, and improving tools for data analysis," among other things.

The 1990s also brought us an obsession with forensic science, the use of physical DNA evidence in solving crimes, and even the first successful cloning experiment in 1997, involving a lamb named Dolly. 

Accordingly, many films of the decade, from Jurassic Park (1993) to The Island of Dr. Moreau (1996) to Alien Resurrection (1997) to Mimic (1998) to  Gattaca (1997) gazed at the possibilities and pitfalls of advanced genetic engineering.  Not since the age of the Atom Bomb in the 1950s had the genre obsessed so much on the idea of a Pandora's Box being opened,and the potential for science to "run amok."

On theatrical release, Gattaca failed to draw an audience, although the critical response was mostly positive.  Janet Maslin at The New York Times called the film "a handsome and fully imagined work of cautionary futuristic fiction."  

Walter Addiego at the San Francisco Examiner recognized the film's value as "social criticism" and opined that Gattaca was a "welcome throwback to the days of good, low-tech sci-fi, stressing character and atmosphere over computer-generated effects and juvenile thrills. It reminds me of the older sort of British science fiction, produced on very modest budgets, but with superior writing and acting, that achieved a thoughtfulness many don't expect from this genre."

Elegant, gorgeous and filled with heart, Gattaca is the amazing story of a man who beats the hand his genes and society have dealt him.  Maybe, that's the story of us all...

"My real résumé  is in my cells."

In the "not-so-distant future" of Gattaca, a man named Vincent (Hawke) relates, in voice-over, the story of his life. 

He was a "faith birth," meaning that his parents conceived him without first seeking the help and meddling of genetic engineers.  When Vincent was born and he was given a life expectancy of just "30.2" years, his parents were scared straight.  They set about having another child...the "proper" way this time, with the aid of helpful scientists. 

"We want to give your child the best possible start," says the Geneticist.  "Believe me, we have enough imperfection built in already. Your child doesn't need any more additional burdens. Keep in mind, this child is still you. Simply, the best, of you. You could conceive naturally a thousand times and never get such a result."

As Vincent grew, he was overshadowed in every way by his genetically-engineered brother, Anton (Lorn Dean). But he also became fascinated by the subject of outer space, and the potentials it promised to escape the conformity of Earth. 

But because he was a "de-gene-rate" or "Invalid," Vincent would never be allowed to go to the stars.  "The only way you'll see the inside of a spaceship is if you're cleaning it," he is told in no uncertain terms.  In this world, all the faith births form a kind of custodial underclass, doing menial jobs that the Elite won't.

So, Vincent leaves home and family, and with a "borrowed ladder" in Jerome Morrow (Jude Law), gets a job in Gattaca, the space command center, which sends spaceships to the stars every single day. 

Pretending to be Jerome, Vincent carries bags of Jerome's urine in case of surprise drug tests, and even adorns small blood pouches under his fingernails so he can pass daily blood tests.  He is a pretender amongst the Elite, but if he plays his cards right, he will man a yearlong voyage toTitan.

Despite Vincent's cleverness and drive, one thing stands in his way.  With the flight to Titan pending, the mission director is found murdered -- battered with a computer keyboard -- and a police investigation by "Hoovers" is commenced. 

Very quickly, the detective on the case, Anton, discovers evidence of an invalid on the premises, his long-lost brother Vincent, and the hunt is on.  Now Vincent must outwit his genetically "superior" brother, the forces of law enforcement, and overcome the suspicions of his new girlfriend, Irene (Uma Thurman) if he hopes to achieve his dream of touching the stars...

Fortunately, he has at least one secret ally.

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."

If you take away all the scientific, film noir and futuristic trappings of Gattaca, what you have is a simple and heartfelt morality tale concerning prejudice. 

Bigotry, after all, involves the judging of other people by exterior but ultimately superficial qualities.  The color of their skin.  Their sexTheir sexual orientation.   Where they were born, even.   

These are all things that -- like genetic make-up -- don't account for an individual's personal character, heart, or mind-set.   Everyone can choose to be good, or choose to be bad; can choose to be strong, or choose to be weak.  Everyone can excel, and deserves the right to follow their dreams, no matter what skin color or genitals they possess.

But what's even more alarming about Gattaca is that the film intimates a State-sponsored brand of prejudice.  Institutionally-speaking, "Invalids" are lesser (three-fifths?) people than the genetically-engineered elite. In one short sequence, we see, for instance, that many Invalids live in an urban, ghetto-style community away from the "pretty" people.  They're so unsightly after all, right?

And though there are laws on the books against "genoism," these edicts are easily discounted, and talk is rampant of "the right kind of people," meaning only the genetically engineered.   

Cannily, the crisp, elegant, 1950s-1960s-look and production design of Gattaca suggests, quite dramatically, the pre-Civil Rights era in our own nation. This was a time when it was okay for African-Americans to be waiters and elevator operators, but not astronauts (that didn't happen in America until 1983). 

I often write here about form echoing content in great films; and that's what Gattaca does so well, too.  It presents a future that has one foot in the inequalities of the past; and the Eisenhower-era styled costumes and cars express that idea beautifully.  Even the idea of a nascent space program reflects that era in American history (post-Sputnik).  One step forward; two steps back.

Another intriguing facet of the Niccol film involves the class distinctions even amongst the genetically engineered. If the Invalids are the least of the society, some of the elite are also -- tellingly--  victims of their DNA and their propaganda about DNA.  Irene, for instance, possesses a tiny heart defect, and believes that this problem some how renders her lesser than the others around her.  In fact, this small thing destroys her sense of self.

"You are the authority on what is not possible, aren't you Irene?," Vincent asks her. "They've got you looking for any flaw, that after a while that's all you see. For what it's worth, I'm here to tell you that it is possible. It is possible."

This too is a side-effect of institutionalized racism.  Some of those discriminated against come to internalize the hateful beliefs of the bigots.  Some part of them believes that they really are inferior, or lesser, or somehow "degenerate."  Institutionalized racism is not just cruel and ill-founded, it's ego shattering to those targeted.  That's what Irene represents in the movie.

Gattaca affirms that people are more than a mix of proteins (more than skin color or sex, by extension, in contemporary terms) quite ably in several ways.  First and foremost, of course, Vincent executes his brilliant strategy and gets to the stars.  He succeeds because he wanted it; because he desired it; and because he masterminded a way to get it. 

This plot-line allows the viewer to see that desire and drive can be more powerful a motivating force than genetics.  Early on, Vincent figured out a way to beat the elite.  "I never saved anything for the swim back," he reveals to his brother, Anton. In other words, he marshals all of his resources to get where he wants; with no resources waylaid or wasted or rationed for a return trip. For him, getting there is the entire battle.  That is victory enough.

A bit more subtly, Eugene/Jerome (Jude Law) also, in some way, proves the same thing.  He is paralyzed from the waist down, considers himself a failure, and yet commits himself fully to Vincent's cause.  A genetically-engineered person, he is supposed to be perfect in every way, but early on, he lacks Vincent's sense of desire. 

Late in the film, however, the paralyzed man pulls himself up a staircase (seen in the poster above) shaped deliberately like the DNA helix.  Eugene drags himself to the top of this edifice -- with his drive and desire to help his "brother," Vincent intact -- and succeeds beyond all expectations.  Again, think of it symbolically: even paralyzed, Eugene's desire is more powerful than genetics (represented by that staircase and his mastery of it.)

In their own ways, both Vincent and Jerome/Eugene overcome society's impression of them (which is based on genoism).  Both prove to have "the right stuff" and manage to outwit law enforcement, the space program, and their fellow citizens.  Again, the powerful leitmotif is that individual human drive trumps genetic blueprints or "programming" every time.

Another important idea here concerns "brothers" and "genetics."  Vincent and Anton are biological brothers, but are estranged and competitive.  Vincent and Eugene are not biological brothers, but are united as brothers in their purpose and mission.  Eugene gives everything (finally his life) for his spiritual brother, a sacrifice which the more rational, less spontaneous Anton could never imagine. 

Again, look back at the 1990s in America.  This was an age when the shape of families was changing in dramatic and non-traditional ways.  Because of no-fault divorce, more blended families came into being in this country than in any decade previous.

And also for the first time, beginning in the 1990s, homosexual couples could openly adopt and raise children. 

What these changes indicate is that "family" was no longer a static concept tied exclusively to biology.  Stepfathers, stepmothers, and step-siblings are family too.  The intentional comparison and balance between Vincent/Anton and Vincent/Eugene mirrors this change in American society, and it too is a critique of sorts. Genetic, biological relationships are not the only standard of family, Gattaca suggests, and should not be held up as "perfect" while other relationships are treated as, well, invalid.

"Of course, they say every atom in our bodies was once part of a star. Maybe I'm not leaving... maybe I'm going home."

In Gattaca, Vincent compares the weightless environment of space to being "in the womb" and later he notes that he is not leaving Earth on his mission to the stars, but rather "going home." 

When these words are taken in conjunction with the film's surfeit of water imagery (swimming, in particular...), one can see how Gattaca concerns, in some way, the ever-present human struggle to begin again; to experience a second birth, get a second chance. In this case, Vincent literally wants to be born  free of society's restrictive rules, and -- by going to space -- transcend the limitations of bigoted society.  The water represents cleansing and a return to the womb; as does space travel.

I deeply admire how Gattaca concerns these powerful idea of transcendence.  Vincent must transcend society's expectations of him to make his dreams come true; and he must literally leave the Earth to do it.  The stars are his destination, and in that idea of the final frontier there is also the kernel of hope.  Of finding something better out there; or at least something that gives one a new perspective on life here.  Thus Gattaca is about the human desire to transcend the unpleasant moment and see over the next hill.

If you've seen Gattaca, you'll remember how gorgeous the film is, in terms of visuals. There's a gorgeous scene in which golden sunlight lands on reflective satellite dishes in the desert, for instance, and the film's color palette is suggestive of a paradise on Earth...even if all cannot share in it equally. 

But I equally admire how Gattaca gets every detail right, down to the futuristic slang ("de-gene-rates,") and down to terminology (cops are called "Hoovers" not after J. Edgar but after the hand vacuums they use to collect evidence.) The movie even gets right the "soft bigotry of low expectations" visited upon the Invalids by even "nice" people among the elite.    These people aren't evil, they just live according their society's rules, and society has told them it is okay to look down their noses at "God children" or "faith births."

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss, at least a little, Gattaca as what author and scholar Paul Meehan terms a "tech noir," a futuristic film noir.  In particular, the film is structured in the familiar fashion of a 1940s or 1950s noir.   Like other film noirs,  Gattaca concerns a crime aspect (murder) or police procedural plot-line.  It is about a "social problem" (in this case, prejudice or bigotry) and it is structured as a series of flashbacks introduced through a laconic voice-over narration (Vincent's).

In this case, the film noir structure serves the same purpose as the 1950s-1960s-style wardrobe and production design.  It ties the futuristic world imagined by Gattaca with a Pre-Civil Rights Movement past in America; a time when prejudice, if not institutionalized, was at least pervasive.

In Gattaca, it's clear that mankind has taken a wrong turn, and it's easy enough to see how it happened.  Who wouldn't want to eliminate baldness, the propensity towards obesity, or other "negative" qualities from our genetic make-up?  The problem is that it's hard to know where to draw the line.  Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, isn't it?  Who gets decide what is perfect, and what is imperfect?  Scientists?  Politicians? Theologians?

In this case, I sympathize with the decision made by Vincent's parents in the first case.   "We were just wondering if, if it is good to just leave a few things to, to chance?" his father asks. 

I also agree with something Vincent reminds us at one point in the film: "They used to say that a child conceived in love has a greater chance of happiness."

In Gattaca, "they don't say that anymore." 

And it's their loss.

Movie Trailer: Gattaca (1997)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Theme Song of the Week: Happy Days (1974 - 1984)

Memory Bank: The Fonz

The other day, I had a very…interesting time trying to explain “The Fonz” and his popularity in the 1970s to my five-year old son, Joel. 

You see -- I told my boy, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) -- was a kind of tough guy from the 1950s who appeared on a show made in the 1970s, and he had this thing called “The Fonzie Touch” where he could just tap any machine that was broken, and it would start working…

In one episode, Fonzie jumped his motorcycle over a row of garbage cans, and in another, he water-skied over a shark...

And then the Fonz had his own Saturday morning cartoon series, The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (1980 – 1982), where he would travel through time…

It was at about that final revelation that I realized I must have sounded absolutely nuts.

So how do you explain the “Fonz Mania” of the mid-1970s?

Garry Marshall’s Happy Days ran on ABC television from 1974 to 1984, and expertly tapped nostalgia for the “simple” days of 1950s.  It was such a popular sitcom, in fact, that Happy Days spawned a whole bunch of spin-offs, including Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi.  

The series was ostensibly about Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his high-school friends Potsie (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Don Most), but the cool, leather-jacket wearing, motorcycle-riding Fonzie became the break-out character in almost no time.  He was famous for saying “Ay!,” among other things.

Again, in the cold light of day in 2012, it all sounds a little…strange.

But when I was a kid, Fonzie was absolutely everywhere in the pop culture. I remember I owned two iron-on T-shirts in kindergarten.  One featured Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise from Star Trek, and one featured the Fonz.

And then there were Fonzie action figures from Mego (with thumbs posed in the “up” position), and Happy Days lunch boxes, trading cards, color form sets, model kits…you name it.  Sega even launched an Arcade game called “Fonz” in 1976.

Today, there are punk rock and heavy metal bands named after the Fonz, and a bronze statue has been erected in his honor in Milwaukee, where Happy Days’ was set. 

I haven’t watched Happy Days in years (though it was a staple of my Tuesday nights for close to a decade…), but I nonetheless remember the Fonz well, particularly from those episodes in which he matched his “cool” powers against larger-than-life villains like Mork from Ork (“My Favorite Orkan”) or the Devil himself (“Chachi Sells His Soul.”)

The Fonz also went to Hollywood and battled Jaws, as I mentioned above (“Hollywood”), rode a killer bull called Diablo (“Westward Ho!”) and took on the mob (“The Claw Meets the Fonz.”)   

As the series went on, the Fonz’s exploits become weirder, wilder and much more far-fetched (hence the term “jump the shark,” which originated with Happy Days).  By about the midpoint, it was almost like Fonzie belonged in an adventure series as the star, but had to settle for being on a family situation comedy.
The secret of Fonzie’s appeal, I suspect is that everyone wanted to be like him.  He was loved by women, envied by men, and well…infinitely cool.  By the same token, the Fonz was human enough to possess frailties and insecurities, and so he was easy to relate to.

And yet, no matter how you cut it, it is truly bizarre that a rough 1950s “greaser” became, arguably, the greatest TV star of the decade of disco.   Given Fonzie’s widespread popularity in the 1970s -- and Generation X's fond memories of the character -- it is truly shocking that Hollywood has not yet made a Happy Days movie, or re-booted the series. 

But really, who else but Henry Winkler could play the one and only Arthur Fonzarelli?

Lunch Box of the Week: Happy Days

Collectible of the Week: Fonzie Garage (Mego; 1978)

In 1977 - 1978, Mego introduced a full line of toys based on the popular ABC TV series Happy Days (1974 - 1984).

The action-figure line included eight-inch-tall likenesses of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard), Potsie (Anson Williams), Ralph the Malph (Donny Most) and the show's break-out character: the Fonz (Henry Winkler).

Also released and marketed by Mego were Fonzie's motorcycle, an old jalopy, and this great, over-sized garage playset.

The art on the box reads:   "AAAAY!  The Fonz has a new head mechanic, and it's you with the official Fonzie garage."

The play-set is remembered today for its backdrop art, which consisted of photographs of a real garage interior, and because it came packed with the (now very rare...) Fonzie hot-rod.  

It seems odd that in the heyday of Star Wars and the space craze, a TV series inspired by another George Lucas production, American Graffiti (1973) was responsible for so much merchandise, including trading cards, T-shirts, color-forms, and these action figures.  The nation was riding high on 1950s nostalgia at the same time that it was getting into outer space action.

I remember that I always wanted the Fonzie garage playset, and that my best friend at the time had one. One day, I went to his house to stay for a few hours after I got sick at school because my mother couldn't pick me up, and I got to play alone with this Mego kit and the figures.  It was absolute Fonzie nirvana...

Below is a toy commercial for Fonzie's beloved bike (from Mego).

Model Kit of the Week: The Fonz and his Bike (MPC)

Board Game of the Week: Happy Days (Parker Brothers)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981)

I was just eleven years old when The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981) first aired on NBC in prime time.  Although that premiere event was a long, long time ago, I distinctly remember the TV-movie (and back-door pilot...) being announced on-air as the first of several TV adventures set in a fantasy universe created by writer and director Nicholas Corea (1943 – 1999).

To my disappointment, no additional adventures ever appeared.  

And adding insult to injury, The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire has never been officially released on DVD, though Universal Studios did put out a VHS release back in 1987, which I tracked down and screened for this retrospective.  Other countries, it seems, have done a little bit better by the TV-movie.  It has been released under the title The Archer and the Sorceress in parts of Europe, I understand.

I was very eager to see this made-for-TV film for the first time in over thirty-years because I possess such strong memories of the imagery from The Archer.  

These images -- including Snake Men warriors rising out of the ground to ambush unwary travelers, or the beautiful Sorceress Estra (Belinda Bauer) and her fearsome tomb guardian -- gained a foothold in my young psyche all those years ago, and they remain strong enough that I have never forgotten them.

Re-watching the telefilm in 2013 I could see why my young mind was so drawn to this fantasy adventure.  It features great visualizations of an “acid lake” (which an unlucky Snake Man falls into, face first...), involves a sentient (or at least conscious) mystical weapon called “The Heart Bow,” and showcases a great villainous performance by Marc Alaimo -- DS9’s Gul Dukat -- as a traitor named Sandros who seems cut from the same diabolical cloth as John Colicos’ Baltar.  Genocide is hardly a consideration when personal power is at stake.

Additionally, Belinda Bauer is absolutely smoldering and sexy as the sorceress Estra, and the ubiquitous Vasquez Rocks even makes an appearance in the latter-half of the film.

But clearly, and I mean this without negative judgment, fantasy television has come a long way since 1981, as Game of Thrones (2011 - ) testifies. The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire is an intriguing and ambitious production, but one saddled with a low budget, and some poor acting.  Yet despite such abundant drawbacks, the productions also boasts some memorable interludes.

The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire is set in a fantasy world, “in a time that may have been, or a time that still might be.”  A voice-over narrator explains in detail how the warring people of Malveel are imperiled by an Invasion of the Dynasty, a force led by Gar the Draikin (Kabir Bedi) and his army of Snake People.

The King of Malveel, Brakus (George Kennedy) wants to join together all the barbarian tribes of his land to repel the invasion of the Dynasty, but is betrayed by the cowardly Sandros, and then murdered.  Brakus’s son Toran (Lane Caudell) is framed for the King’s murder, and he must flee the land, lest he be killed too.

After accepting ownership of a mystical weapon called “The Heart Bow” which can vanquish enemies with explosive power, Toran sets out to find Lazar-Sa, the legendary wizard who may be able to train him, and help him restore his kingdom.  

But the Goddess Estra (Bauer) presents both a love-interest and an obstacle for Toran.  She wishes to avenge the spirit of her Mother, who was murdered by Lazar-Sa years earlier…

The first observation I should probably make here is that I watched The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire on a 26-year old VHS tape  

The color palette was dark and darker, and the sound was muddy to say the least. These factors surely hindered a pleasurable viewing to a great degree.  In other words, the movie probably looks a lot worse here than it otherwise would on an official new release, all things being equal.

But even outside the problems with the medium of VHS, I could still detect how The Archer suffers tremendously from its insufficient budget.  It features a lot of familiar-looking TV actors wearing bad wigs, bad costumes, and mouthing incomprehensible, declamatory exposition. Indeed, even the persistent voice-over narrations can’t fully explain all the byzantine intricacies of the nation of Malveel and its storied history.  

On the one hand, I admire Corea for so clearly taking the fantasy milieu seriously.  This TV-movie premiered just as D&D was really taking off in the pop culture, and with Conan: The Barbarian (1982) on the horizon, so he must have sensed there was an opportunity to treat the genre in a grown-up, respectful fashion.  

Accordingly, Corea doesn’t play his movie for laughs, or mistake the adventure for high-camp. Additionally, it’s clear that the writer devised a lengthy and intricate history for his fictional world, and had really thought that history through.  

Yet on the other hand, the ambition to impart so much meaningful information about his fantasy universe in just 97 minutes renders much of the action and relationships baffling.   The "bigger" story of Malveel keeps getting in the way of telling a compelling story about Toran's heroic quest.

The current iteration of dramatic narrative television, best exemplified by Game of Thrones, allows for a complex world to be introduced almost literally a kingdom at a time, with the grand action moving only a chess-piece at a time, or a chapter at a time, so that viewers come to understand character motivations, alliances, history, and other important factors.  By contrast, the storytelling style of 1981 offers The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire no such safe harbor, and so the narrative and characterizations are, frankly, a bit of a mess.

Still, even though the surfeit of ambition collides repeatedly with the tele-film's paucity of budget, some elements of The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire yet shine.  

The Snake Men, for instance, are rendered in frightening and believable make-up.  In fact, this make-up holds up very well both in terms of the series’ contemporaries (such as V [1983]) and in terms of today’s special effects expectations.  Additionally, some of the staging with the Snake Men, particularly their first appearance as they rise -- in slow motion -- from a leafy dirt bed to attack unwitting sojourners, remains impressive.'

I also like how the Heart Bow vanquishes enemies.  An arrow strikes an opponent, and it looks like a grenade has detonated on their torsos...

Finally, Belinda Bauer remains beguiling as Estra.  I have long been an admirer of Bauer’s work, in genre films such as Timerider (1982) and TV efforts such as Airwolf and Starcrossed (1985).  In her many roles, she often combined exotic or erotic beauty with a sense of fragile strength or power, and such qualities ares put to perfect use in the film.  Every time Bauer is on screen as the vengeful sorceress, the movie automatically gets more interesting.

The Archer’s obsession with the Heart Bow also brought back memories for me of Krull (1983), and the glaive, another mystical weapon found on a different heroic quest.  But that fantasy film had a visual sweep  and majesty that the comparatively low-budget The Archer simply can’t muster.

It's always tough when nostalgia meets reality, and I can't honestly claim that The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire lived up to my enthusiastic youthful memories of it.   The images I had remembered from my youth remain vibrant, but at times the movie just seems to drone on, one talky-scene after the next. The last half of the film is particularly dull, and some scenes with "humorous" towns-folk are positively cringe-inducing.

Still, I'd love to see a cleaner print of The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire, and watch this old tele-film under ideal viewing conditions.

TV-Movie Trailer: The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Star Trek's "The Magicks of Megas Tu" and The Final Frontier (1989)...

A regular reader, SGB writes:

“Regarding Star Trek The Animated Series "The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” I agree that this animated series episode would have been a great original series live-action episode.

I think Star Trek V:The Final Frontier(1989) should have been a direct sequel to "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" with the Lucien character revisited as Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982) was a direct sequel to TOS "Space Seed" episode with the Khan character revisited. What do you think?"

SGB, I always enjoy your questions and speculations about connections in the Trek universe. Thank you for the question. It makes for interesting reading and discussion.

Certainly, in many substantive ways, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” -- written by my friend Larry Brody, a great TV writer who also penned the foreword to one of my books back in 2007 -- does play like the origin point for many aspects of 1989’s feature, The Final Frontier.

Consider, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” is:

                        …set at the center of the galaxy, like The Final Frontier.

…boasts alien life forms that may be the origin of our mythological/religious beliefs about God or the Devil.  Again, The Final Frontier repeats this idea.

...involves the idea of man confronting his superstitions and finding that they are not true.

Given the broad similarities between narratives, the movie could have been re-parsed, at some point in the creative process, as a sequel to the animated episode.  At the very least, it would have been neat to get a mention of the Enterprise’s previous visit to the center of the galaxy in The Final Frontier. 

Of course, The Enterprise-D also went to the same location in the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) in an episode titled “The Nth Degree.”  That installment also failed to make mention of any previous starship excursions to the center of the galaxy.

Why no mention of either adventure, when it would have been very easy to have Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) deliver a historical factoid in typical throwaway fashion? 

Well, in some circles, The Animated Series is considered apocryphal. 

And The Final Frontier is widely considered a financial and critical failure.  

Still, one quality of The Next Generation that I have always admired is its willingness to reference and build upon even unpopular previous installments.  Put the three tales together, and you have a "center of the galaxy" trilogy, after all.

But onto the meat of your question: I suppose, at some point, the creative team behind The Final Frontier might have considered having Kirk and co. encounter Lucien a second time, masquerading as “God” at the center of the galaxy.  

However, they must have gambled that he was too obscure a character in Star Trek history at that point…

I do think "Magicks" is a great episode, though.  And I tend to like The Final Frontier a great deal more than many other Star Trek fans seem to.

Don't forget to send me your Ask JKM questions at