Saturday, January 04, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975): "Invasion of the Underdwellers" (November 1, 1975)

In “Invasion of the Underdwellers,” Ape City suffers a number of robberies of precious historical artifacts and objects, including Zira’s precious first edition of the collected works of William Apespeare.

Eyewitnesses report to the Ape Council that the Under Dwellers are responsible, but the real culprit is General Urko.  He plans to use the robberies as an excuse to invade Under Dweller territory and start a war.

The astronauts, meanwhile, learn from Krador, leader of the Under Dwellers, that Urko has stashed the valuable items in the Tomb of the Unknown Ape, on the outskirts of the city.

The astronauts inform Zira, Cornelius, and eventually Dr. Zaius, about Urko’s involvement, and after a confrontation with a barge, the gorilla is suspended from duty without pay for his egregious mis-use of power…

Something intriguing and unusual happens in “Invasion of the Underdwellers.”  The series’ villain, Urko, actually faces consequences for his behavior.  

While many other animated series of the same era exist in a kind of permanent status quo -- where no change occurs, season after season -- Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) permits for characters to react meaningfully to the changes that occur in their lives.  In this case, Dr. Zaius acts reasonably when he learns of Urko’s misdeeds.  He suspends the guy without pay, and demands he deliver a TV apology to the ape-nation.

This is an important development, and it sets in motion the events that occur throughout the remainder of the series.  It’s also a nice bow to realism.  In real life, Urko wouldn’t be able to get away with rank corruption and insubordination again and again without someone at least taking notice, or reprimanding him.  Fact is, he probably would have been replaced because of his sheer incompetence long before this particular installment.

Another aspect of this episode that seems realistic: a man (or ape) in power trying to forward his agenda by misleading a nation into war.  In this case, Urko gins up fear of the Under Dwellers to make the populace pliable, and even fosters outrage by jeopardizing treasures of ape heritage.  Once such primitive emotions are engaged, the war machine is not easy to stop, and we have certainly seen such things happen in our own history.

The only aspect of the episode that plays a little goofy to me is this notion that all Ape works of art have the word “ape” in them.  

Like the Ape-a-Lisa (Mona Lisa), or the works of Apespeare (Shakespeare).  An earlier episode featured a popular movie called The Apefather (The Godfather), and this notion has always seemed odd to me.  I mean, we don’t go around putting the word “human” or “man” in front of everything. 

It just seems…silly.

Next week, Urko makes one last power play, and an era of sweeping change starts on the planet of the apes…

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991): "The Thief" (November 23, 1991)

In “The Thief,” the Porter family plans a surprise birthday party for Christa. In order to impress the jungle girl, Kevin plans to make her a necklace.  He steals several gems from a pterodactyl nest near a mountaintop.

When the treehouse is ransacked, and the gems turn up missing, Kevin blames Stink, who had shown an interest in the jewels.  Although Stink maintains his innocence, Kevin is cruel to him, and calls him a thief.
In time, the real culprit is identified: the pterodactyl. 

When Kevin ends up trapped in the flying dinosaur’s nest, it’s Stink to the rescue…

“The Thief” is an episode of the Land of the Lost  (1991 – 1992) remake that sometimes plays like an episode of a bad 1990s family sitcom, with one character accusing another of doing something bad, and then hurt feelings generated all around. 

The message, telegraphed early and often is -- as the Super Friends might note at this juncture -- “don’t jump to conclusions” about people or their actions. It’s a good lesson (and this is a kid’s show so that’s fine…), but this episode does feel a bit heavy-handed.

What makes the episode somewhat more interesting -- if not necessarily good -- is Robert Gavin’s high-energy portrayal of Kevin Porter.  He plays Kevin in “The Thief” not merely as wrong, but as downright brutal.  Kevin comes across so angry -- and as such a jerk -- that I was reminded of Dirk Diggler stoned on cocaine in Boogie Nights (1997). 

Seriously, Kevin transmits not only as angry, but as downright psychotic.  He treats Stink terribly, and it’s to Stink’s credit that he forgives Kevin at all.

I think the point of “The Thief” is that, for we all say and do things that we regret -- I already regret the Dirk Diggler joke in the above paragraph, for instance -- but Kevin is so vehement and horrible in both act and deed, that the appropriate moral take-away gets lost.  

And besides, the episode never really gets to the idea of who the real “thief” actually is here.  It was Kevin himself, who stole the gems from the pterodactyl nest, and put this whole sad affair into motion.  The “thief” of the episode’s title is Porter!

It is true however, that Kevin is repentant about his behavior in the end. It would have been even better, though, if he noted that he was at fault, from start to finish.  He stole the gems, he accused the wrong person, he acted like a jerk, and he created the whole situation.  

Perhaps the lesson here, then, is forgiving people not just when they make mistakes, but when they compound that mistake and it snowballs into something bigger.

Next week: "Power Play." 

Friday, January 03, 2014

Cult-Movie Review: The Class of 1984

Okay, so this isn't technically a film of 1984 (it was made in 1982.)  Instead, it's a film about 1984.

And while some movies appeal to the intellect, others go for the heart.  Or, in the case of Class of 1984, right for the jugular.

This visceral 1982 exploitation film lives up to its sub-genre in spades. Mark Lester's Class of 1984 gamely exploits widely-held "generation gap"-styled  fears, happily stokes extreme paranoia and anger towards failed American institutions (such as the police and public school systems) and finally descends into bloody violence the likes of which one usually expects to see only in a rape-and-revenge film

If dissected, coldly, rationally and intellectually in the cold light of day, Class of 1984 hardly holds together as a film at all.  It doesn't make sense even on a basic narrative level.  But in the darkness of a movie auditorium -- or your living room -- the film veritably pulsates with wild, anarchic energy.  It "feels" dangerous to watch, and puts you on edge from the very first frame.  Class of 1984 emerges from an era when exploitation films like this were made not merely with commendable gusto, but absolute fearlessness, plus a strong grounding in film style.

Given the film's emotional approach to its subject matter, it's an authentic surprise that Class of 1984's most valuable player is not a bomb thrower (like Van Patten's effectively dramatized gang leader, Stegman), but a perfect gentleman.  The late Roddy McDowall here plays a put-upon biology teacher, Terry Corrigan, just about at the end of his rope.  McDowall crafts his character with the sensitivity and intelligence one expects from this great actor. In fact, his performance grounds Class of 1984 in understandable, relatable humanity, when only blood and guts appeared to be on the syllabus. 

And yet even McDowall's appeal is an emotional, not intellectual one.  We feel the guy's pain almost as our own, yet still want to ask him logical questions like: how about looking for another job?  Or not attempting vehicular homicide...?

Breathing life into Class of 1984's rambunctious tale of students gone wild is an old, widespread, real-life fear, a generation gap if you will.  Basically, the adult generation demonizes and "fears" the up-and-coming generation as a wild, apocalyptic, uncontrollable one.  Since the 1950s, teenagers have been an easy scapegoat for society's problems in this regard.  You can find generation gap films in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties without conducting a wide or deep search.

But in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it indeed looked like things were falling apart to some folk, and this element of American culture played into the fear about the future, and future generations.  New York City became a hub for urban blight and ruin in efforts such as The Warriors (1979), Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Escape from New York (1981) and Wolfen (1981). 

In terms of teens, about a thousand murders a year were committed by them in 1982, and the trend grew worse until about 1994, when the trends sharply reversed.  But the early 1980s remains the age of an irrational fear of teenagers, some of whom were even termed "super predators" in the mainstream press. Similarly, the media often recounted horrific tales of skyrocketing  drug abuse and prostitution among teens.  This Zeitgeist is perfectly captured by student thug Stegman's immortal line (put to music by Alice Cooper in Class of 1984):

"I am the future."

The narrative model for Class of 1984 appears to be director Richard Brooks' Blackboard Jungle (1955).  Often described as the very first "rock and roll" movie, Blackboard Jungle follows an English teacher, Rick Dadier (Glenn Ford) as he takes a new teaching job and runs afoul of violent juvenile delinquents including Miller (Sidney Poitier), Artie (Vic Morrow) and Stocker (Paul Mazursky). 

At home, Dadier's wife, Ann (Anne Francis) suffers from extreme anxiety over her husband's teaching assignment, and this anxiety could jeopardize her pregnancy.  During the course of the film, a gentle math teacher, played by Richard Kiley, sees his record album collection destroyed by the out-of-control students. The film ends with Dadier earning the respect of his students after winning a knife-fight with Artie.

Blackboard Jungle opened with a passage that contextualized this strange tale of students gone crazy:

"We in the United States are fortunate to have a school system that is a tribute to our communities and to our faith in American youth.  Today, we are concerned with juvenile delinquency -- its causes and its effects. We are especially concerned when the delinquency boils over into our schools.  The scenes and incidences depicted here are fictional."

Class of 1984 apes Blackboard Jungle significantly.  Here, there's another new teacher as protagonist, his pregnant wife, several out-of-control teenagers, and a teacher friend who undergoes a terrible loss, in this case the murder of his school room rabbits.  Even the didactic Blackboard Jungle prologue has a corollary in Class of 1984.

Specifically, a title card informs audiences that "last year" (presumably 1981...), there were "280,000 incidents of violence by students against their teachers and classmates."  The card concludes with an ominous note; that the "following film is based partially on a true event."  And yes, the word "partial" certainly leaves the filmmakers quite a degree of wiggle room, and they exploit the loophole to its fullest.

In plot and thematic focus, Class of 1984 is much like Blackboard Jungle on speed.  The films are of different generations, and from different narrative and cinematic traditions, and yet they both reveal a disdain and fear of teenagers, the "next generation."  That's apparently a recurring value in American culture, but Class of 1984 is the more hardcore presentation.  This 1982 film descends into violence and death, rails against failed institutions (such as law enforcement) and resolves not in amity, but in bloody, mortal combat between the generations.  It's final title card, which I won't reveal here, is a testament to the film's cynicism, and yet, it's impossible to deny that the film's finale -- gory as it is -- satisfies the heart.

"Face the music, teacher, teacher..."

Written by Tom Holland, Class of 1984 depicts the story of Mr. Andrew Norris (Perry King), a high school music teacher who has just transferred to the difficult Lincoln High...where students must go through metal detectors before entering the school house. 

Very quickly, Mr. Norris runs afoul of a violent gang, one led by the brilliant but psychotic Peter Stegman (Timothy Van Patten).  Stegman is not only a bully, but an entrepreneur of sorts, running drugs and a prostitution ring in school.   He is always protected by a gang of enforcers, including a grunting neo nazi, and a skinny heroin addict.

When a music student dies from a drug overdose-spawned accident, Norris vows to punish the "pusher," Stegman (Van Patten).  Although Norris's friend and fellow teacher, Terry Corrigan (Roddy McDowall) urges caution and restraint, Norris ignores his advice and spurs a a war between gang and teachers.  The warfare eventually takes Terry's life, and  causes another music student, Arthur (Michael J. Fox) severe injury.  On the night of a big school concert, Stegman and his goons break into Norris's house and gang rape his very pregnant wife, Diane (Merrie Lynn Ross). 

Realizing the impotent local police and school administration can't help him seek justice, Norris exacts bloody vengeance with fire, table saw (!), and automobile.

"What's the matter with you? What's the matter with me? What's the matter with matter?"

I wrote in my introduction that Class of 1984 doesn't really hold together on a logical or cerebral level.  In part, this is because the film really stacks the deck in Stegman's favor.  In doing so, it makes school bureaucrats and policemen look like ineffectual idiots. 

Al Waxman's detective, in particular, informs Norris that unless someone "sees" Stegman committing a crime, nothing can be done to stop him. 

This "fact" (ahem) is abundantly untrue in our legal system, and has never been true in our legal system, as I hope discerning viewers would realize.  Eyewitness accounts, forensic science (finger prints!) and even confessions are also helpful when putting away bad elements.  However, much of Class of 1984's emotional argument about bad kids stems from this fully-expressed idea of helplessness; this idea that even the law itself is powerless to stop teenage super predators on the rampage.  It's the same irrational thought that underlines much of the cinema of Charles Bronson, and appeals mainly to paranoids.  Our laws just protect criminals!

In more specific terms, the film must jump through some wacky hoops to keep Stegman and his thugs out of jail.  Arthur -- the very young Michael J. Fox -- has witnessed a drug deal, but won't testify as to this fact, thus allowing Stegman to remain on the loose.  Norris spends much of the film trying to get Arthur to testify against Stegman, but he won't.  Then, Arthur is stabbed by one of Stegman's new lackeys, and finally, Arthur agrees to testify.  But here's the rub: he only apparently testifies against the lackey who stabbed him, not against Stegman, whom he witnessed selling drugs.  It makes no sense at all.  In for a penny, in for a pound, right Arthur?  Sensibly, there's no reason why the kid wouldn't tell the police everything he knows, at least to get Stegman off the street for the length of an investigation.

The worst aspect of the film, however, is that it lives up to the Principal's critique of his own school, that "the bad ones take so much of our attention." 

This idea is literalized when, during a brilliant concert performance of The 1812 Overture by the school band, Stegman's corpse -- hanged by a rope -- breaks through a stain glass window on the ceiling. 

In other words, the students who have done well and achieved a victory in the concert see their thunder utterly stolen by the bad more time.  But Class of 1984 doesn't recognize this.  It treats the finale as a triumph, a victory.  It is a triumph, I suppose, in the sense that Stegman dies and Norris and his wife survive.  But what about the kids who staked their futures on the concert?

A better ending, I submit, would have seen Norris dispatch the gang, and then return to conduct the orchestra triumphantly.  Instead, the movie just reinforces the idea that good kids get lost in the battle, and are treated with less importance than the bad ones.  Since the film makes you root and support the music students, the visual reiteration of the school principal's negative point is odd and counterproductive, to say the least.

And yet, of course, none of this matters a lick. 

Class of 1984 is an effective and brutal little film, one that activates the primitive impulses of your mind, and makes you absolutely long for vengeance.  This blood lust is achieved not just through violent acts, but through some pretty fine acting.  Once more, I must pinpoint Roddy McDowall's performance, which lifts the whole enterprise.  In particular, he has a scene in which he explains to King's newcomer, Norris, why he became a teacher in the first place.  It was to touch young lives in a meaningful way, to offer students a real connection to a world larger than their own concerns.  But his hopes have been quashed and destroyed.  The students of Lincoln High want nothing from Corrigan. Nothing.  There's no fact, no theory, no idea, no message about life that he can impart to them, and so his life has been rendered meaningless. 

Accordingly, Corrigan (McDowall) decides that the best way to teach these kids is not with a carrot, but with a stick. He holds his class at gunpoint and begins implementing a snap quiz about biology wherein the students better answer correctly.  Or else

In these two scenes, McDowall affords Class of 1984 its human heart.  I realize that movies such as this one don't get nominated for Academy Awards, but goddamnit if McDowall didn't absolutely deserve one for his work here.  Sometimes the great work of an actor involves not taking high-falutin material and simply giving it just due, but working on a more problematic script, and elevating the whole affair.  As foolish, illogical and anger-baiting as the rest of Class of 1984 remains, McDowall represents a stark contrast.  Through Corrigan, we see the human toll on the teachers at Lincoln High, and this quality absolutely grounds the picture and makes it more than a simple reach for blood lust.

But you'll feel blood lust too. 

I think that's because, inherently, all human beings covet justice.  We want to see the good rewarded and the bad punished.  And yet our legal system doesn't universally reach a just conclusion.  So we get angry when we see bad people get away, and good people hurt.   We get angry when we see the law, and our schools, and policemen, fail in what we perceive as their duties.

On this front, Class of 1984 turns Stegman into an absolute monster, one who has escaped the law and operates with no fear of being caught.  By the end of the film -- after gang rape and other crimes -- you really do thirst for the deaths of the gang members.  The film obliges in a glorious, bloody denouement. 

You may regret your blood lust after the film ends, but during it, Class of 1984 brilliantly plucks every note of indignation and outrage imaginably.  It certainly leaves you feeling...emotionally sated.

You may rightly ask yourself why you want to see a movie that doesn't make sense if you step back and examine it rationally.  Or one that provokes your most animal instincts and thirst for vengeance.  Or that simplifies a real, multi-faceted problem so much that it becomes the basic law of the jungle: kill or be killed. 

I don't believe I can satisfactorily answer those questions, except to suggest that all human beings possess a multitude of psychological shades.  As evolved and civilized as we might like to believe we are, there is still that part of our psyche that longs for the re-assertion of justice, even if it is bloody justice.  Bluntly described, Class of 1984 resonates with something powerful in the psyche.  The film is extremely effective in delivering what it sets out to give us, and the one-two assault of humanity (in McDowall's performance) and inhumanity (in Van Patten's) makes the bloody movie virtually impossible to resist. 

Rationally, I can see how Class of 1984 panders to the worst in human nature.  Emotionally, the film does speak to some basic truth about our human need to see justice prevail.  I can't deny feeling a thrill when Roddy McDowall picks up a gun and begins to lecture his out-of-control class about biology.  It's not rational, but when I write here, I'm supposed to level with you, and express myself and my feelings honestly.  For me, this movie worked, even if afterward I wondered why I let it get to me.

In my book -- irrationality aside -- Class of 1984 gets a passing grade.  But Roddy McDowall is the one who did all the extra credit.

Movie Trailer: The Class of 1984 (1982)

Thursday, January 02, 2014

The Fungus Among Us: Cult TV’s Most Memorable Eukaryotes.

Mushrooms, yeasts, and molds…oh my. 

Eukaryotic life forms – fungi – are non-vascular organisms that reproduce by means of spores.  Unlike bacteria, fungi always possess a nucleus and are made of thin threads known as “hyphae,” or all together, in networks, “mycelium.”

Typically fungi are not motile (meaning capable of motion), but in cult-television history that’s not always the case.   Additionally, many fungi are saprophytic, meaning that they release digestive enzymes and then absorb the digested food.  Many fungi in the real world are also mutualists (lichens, for example), but some (especially in genre television) are decidedly parasitic in nature.

Over the decades, monstrous (and sometimes helpful…) fungi have appeared in many popular science fiction programs.  Thus today, I offer a list of some of the most memorable TV fungi, both friendly and hostile.

7.         Blake’s 7: “The Web” (January 30, 1978). In this early episode of Blake’s 7 by creator Terry Nation, the Liberator is ensnared in space in an organic, fungal web.  The web is a tool of an immortal creature called Saymon (Richard Beale), a corporate life form.  On the planet below the web, Saymon has genetically engineered creatures called Decimas that Roj Blake (Gareth Thomas) attempts to free from enslavement.  Meanwhile, Saymon – one of the legendary Auron “Lost” -- desires the Liberator’s power cells.  Unless he gets them, the Liberator will be permanently ensnared in the gossamer filaments of the space fungus.

6.         Lost in Space: “Welcome Stranger” (October 20, 1965.) In this sixth episode of Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space written by Peter Packer, an astronaut from Earth named Jimmy Hapgood (Warren Oates) lands near the Robinson encampment, unaware that the tiny fungal life-forms on his capsule are evolving in the friendly atmosphere and rapidly becoming giant, tentacled monsters..  When he offers to take Penny and Will back with him on his shape, he has no idea that the area is overrun these frightening monsters.

5.         Space: 1999: “The Last Sunset” and “Journey to Where.”  In “The Last Sunset” by Christopher Penfold, aliens from the planet Ariel gift Moonbase Alpha with a breathable lunar atmosphere.  Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) leads a team to judge the possibility of reclaiming the surface of the moon, but her Eagle crashes in a wind storm.  

While attempting to get word to Alpha, a member of her exploratory team, controller Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) discovers mushrooms growing in the new atmosphere.  He samples one, and soon turns psychotic, imagining the moon's surface as a future Garden of Eden, made into a paradise by the mushrooms, by so-called “manna from heaven.”  Eventually, Helena and her team are rescued, and it is learned that the mushrooms actually possessed dangerous hallucinogenic elements…
In the second season episode “Journey to Where,” Helena falls ill from “viral pneumonia” after a time travel trip to Earth in the year 1339.  Captured by people of that era, Helena, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) and pilot Alan Carter (Nick Tate) are imprisoned in a cave, where Helen sees fungus growing on the cave walls.  She notes that “fungoids” are the basis for the only drugs known to cure viral pneumonia.  She asks Koenig to pick some off the wall to treat her, and creates herself a remedy.

Incidentally, this particular scene between Koenig and Helena is repeated, almost note for note in the first season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Arsenal of Freedom.”  Only there it took place in another cave, and between another commanding officer and CMO: Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher.

4.         SGU: “Cloverdale.” (October 26, 2010). In this second season episode of Stargate Universe, the crew of Destiny is menaced on a lush alien planet by a dangerous fungus creature.  Matthew Scott (Brian J. Smith) is infected by it, and the fungus begins to grow, out-of-control, on his arm.  As the fungus rapidly spreads towards Scott's trunk, Dr. Rush (Robert Carlyle) suggests amputation (with bone saw, no less...), but reverses course when he learns the fungus is already in Scott’s blood stream.  While unconscious and infected by the alien fungus, Matthew imagines an elaborate fantasy in which he returns to the picturesque home-town called “Cloverdale” and awaits his wedding day with Chloe (Elyse Levesque).  Meanwhile, walking plant creatures that resemble triffids could hold the key to reversing Matthew’s rapidly-spreading infection.

3.         The X-Files: “Field Trip” (May 19, 1999).  In this sixth-season episode of The X-Files by John Shiban and Vince Gilligan, F.B.I. agents Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) visit my neck of the woods, North Carolina, to investigate the death of two hikers in the woods.  They soon run afoul of a hungry, giant, subterranean mushroom that begins to slowly absorb and digest them.  During this lengthy process, Mulder and Scully both hallucinate that they have returned home to their lives.  In Scully’s case, she imagines Mulder’s death and wake.  In his case, Mulder tracks a story of alien abduction.  The duo awake just in time, and with Skinner’s (Mitch Pileggi) help escape from the cave of the giant ravenous mushrooms…

2.         Primeval: Season 3. Episode 5 (April 25, 2009).  In this episode of the BBC time incursion series, an anomaly opens up in a millionaire's apartment.  It leads to Earth's distant future, where an assistant soon inhales the spores of a giant fungus.  He returns to the presents and spreads the spores to his heartless boss, Richard Bentley (William Scott-Mason), who begins to transform into a terrifying fungus-man.  

Meanwhile, at the ARC (Anomaly Research Center) one of Christine Johnson’s (Belinda Stewart-Wilson) men is also exposed to the fast-growing fungus, and evolves into one of the mushroom monsters as well. Trapped in a lab with the rapidly-growing fungi, Connor Temple (Andrew-Lee Potts) realizes that extreme cold holds the key to halting the spread of the avaricious fungus from the future.
Connor's discovery comes not a moment too soon, as team leader Jenny Lewis (Lucy Brown) is imperiled by the Fungus Man, and exposed to the toxic material…

1.         One Step Beyond: “The Sacred Mushroom” (January 24, 1961).  This is perhaps the strangest episode of the paranormal anthology One Step Beyond, and, in fact, one of the strangest of all episodes in cult TV history.  Whereas most episodes are fictionalized accounts of paranormal events, this episode is a documentary and travelogue.  

Series director and narrator John Newland hosts a trip to a remote village in Mexico to determine along with experts Dr. Puharich, Dr. Barbara Brown, spiritual guru David Grey and Stanford professor Jeffrey Smith, if a special mushroom with hallucinogenic properties (called “X”) is capable of enhancing extra sensory perception in humans.  In one scene, we watch as the members of the team sample peyote before our eyes.

Then, upon returning to America, Newland himself also consumes the special mushroom in Dr. Puharich’s Palo Alto laboratory and is tested for an increase in psychic power and ESP.   Although the late John Newland reported to me that he experienced flashbacks for months after sampling the mushroom, he never did feel any kind of psychic awareness.  

Still, this episode has become legend because it is likely the only time in prime time history that a series host – and Golden Age Hollywood star – tripped before our eyes on American network television.  

Thus John Newland went where Boris Karloff, Rod Serling, Alfred Hitchock and Truman Bradley never did (at least publicly)…straight into America’s burgeoning drug culture.

The Five People You Don't Want to Get Lost in Space With...

In the cult television Valhalla, viewers have encountered several lost or wayward space travelers: human men and women isolated in the void of outer space, and seeking a new home (Space: 1999, Lost in Space), a way back to Earth (Star Trek: Voyager, SGU) or even a mere respite from pursuit (Battlestar Galactica).

In virtually every well-known TV tale of “lost” space travelers, however, the human community struggling to survive has been forced to contend not just with externals dangers such as strange space phenomena or hostile aliens…but with threats from within their very group.  These internal dangers – these treacherous characters -- are perhaps the trickiest to manage, and these menaces often cause tremendous discontent and strife.

So without further introduction, here are the five characters you’d least like to be lost in space with.

5. Dr. Nicholas Rush (Robert Carlyle) on SGU (2009 – 2011).  Admittedly, Dr. Rush is not flat-out evil, like at least a few of the names you’ll note on this list, but he’s certainly…difficult.  

A genius and a dedicated scientist, Dr. Rush finds himself trapped aboard the Ancient starship Destiny, a vessel flying out of control and headed beyond the confines of our galaxy.  Although we learn in the episode “Human” about the tragic death of Rush’s wife, Gloria (Louise Lombard), that personal background detail hardly excuses Rush’s secrecy, his arrogance, or his schemes to see life on Destiny unfold by his agenda.  Early on in the first season, Rush frames the ship’s leader, Colonel Young (Louis Ferrara) for murder, so that he can continue to study Ancient technology unimpeded.  After Young exiles Rush on a desolate planet, Rush manages a return (thanks to a little alien abduction…) and returns to Destiny.  Once there, he agrees to cooperate fully with Young for the well-being of the crew, but in the very next episode, sets about trapping Young aboard a shuttle, and seizing control of the Destiny for a faction of civilians. 

In short, Rush is a valuable asset in terms of his intelligence and knowledge, but absolutely unreliable in terms of loyalty or team-work.    

4. Seska (Martha Hackett) on Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001).  Seska is a member of Commander Chakotay’s (Rorbert Beltran) Maquis crew when she joins Voyager in the Delta Quadrant in the series pilot “Caretaker.”   Introduced in the second episode, “Parallax,” Seska quickly proves that she isn’t exactly Starfleet timbre.  She constantly second-guesses attempts to integrate the two disparate crews, and deliberately goes against Captain Janeway’s orders of non-interference in the episode “Prime Factors,” opting to steal alien technology that could provide a short-cut home.

Of course, the kicker with Seska is that she is incredibly deceptive.  She is not the Bajoran she appears to be, but rather a Cardassian spy! When Janeway’s command style proves to her intense disliking, Seska reveals her true colors and begins secretly working with a villainous Kazon sect that hopes to seize Voyager.  Finally -- making her the intergalactic equivalent of Fatal Attraction’s Alex Forrest -- Seska impregnates herself with Chakotay’s DNA and then uses Chakotay’s child as bait to entrap Chakotay and the Voyager crew.

On the plus side, Seska is apparently the only person in history to find Chakotay interesting…

3. Commissioner Simmonds (Roy Dotrice) on Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).  When the moon is blasted out of Earth’s orbit, Moonbase Alpha is manned by 311 dedicated scientists and astronauts. 

Plus, there’s one politician tag-along…Gerald Simmonds. 

In the first episode, “Breakaway,” Simmonds is revealed to be your typical political animal, a man who would do and say anything to avoid making a tough call, and at the same time maintain his position of power authority.  He’s a weasel and a bureaucrat, one who would easily let Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) take the fall for a difficult decision.

But in his second appearance in “Earthbound,” Commissioner Simmonds proves rather more malicious than his behavior in “Breakaway” suggests.  When visiting aliens called Kaldorians arrive on Moonbase Alpha, Simmonds contrives to take any action necessary – including blackmail – to assure that he gets a seat (or stasis tube…)on their spacecraft, which is headed to Earth.  Specifically, he threatens Alpha’s life support unit, and holds several technicians at gunpoint.

Cruel, imperious, and eminently capable of violence, Simmonds is a “superior” officer, but an inferior human being.  As his actions in “Earthbound” make plain, Simmonds puts his own well-being ahead of the lives of everyone on Alpha.  As Captain Zantor (Christopher Lee) notes of Simmonds, he is a “diseased” individual.  And as Paul Morrow (Prentis Hancock) observes, Alpha is “well rid of him.”

2.    Count Baltar (John Colicos) on Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979).  In the first episode of the original Glen Larson series, Baltar betrays the entire human race to the genocidal Cylons. He does it with a smile, which makes it worse.

The Cylons spare Baltar’s life only so that he may pursue the fleeing rag-tag fleet and destroy the Galactica.  But Baltar, strangely, seems to switch loyalties…again.  In “Lost Planet of the Gods,” he meets Adama (Lorne Greene) on the sacred planet of Kobol and presents a plan to attack the Cylons, even releasing Starbuck (Dirk Benedict) from captivity to prove his sincerity.  Adama doesn’t believe him, and Baltar is left to die on the planet surface

In a later episode, “War of the Gods,” Baltar is back.  This time, he’s fearful of the Ship of Lights and visits Galactica to propose a universal truce.  Instead, he is immediately imprisoned and taken to the Prison Barge, where he attempts escape (“Baltar’s Escape”). 

And finally, in “The Hand of God,” Baltar again navigates the narrow line between friend and foe, promising the Colonials critical information about the lay-out of a Cylon base-star if only they grant him his freedom and maroon him on a habitable planet. 

The problem with Baltar, of course, is that betraying and exterminating nine-tenths of the human race is an offense that’s tough to walk back from.  But that doesn’t stop him from trying.  Why propose a truce?  Why propose teaming-up?  No one can guess what really motivates Baltar, besides his own lust for power. 

1. Dr. Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris) on Lost in Space (1965 – 1968). If Dr. Smith is near, you have plenty to fear, to turn around a popular character catchphrase.

This “reluctant stowaway” aboard the Jupiter 2 in Irwin Allen’s Lost in Space started out as a saboteur and villain, and then became – for three years – a constant irritant to the heroic Robinson family of space pioneers.  Cowardly, manipulative, and insulting (especially to the robot), Smith managed to land himself and usually the Robinsons too into all kinds of trouble over the years.   In “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,” he nearly killed a peaceful alien so as to possess a cache of diamonds.  In “The Oasis,” Smith used-up the last of the family’s precious water…for a shower.

Smith causes accidents (“Wish Upon a Star”), sabotages spacecraft (“The Raft), covets alien items (“The Magic Mirror”), requires constant rescue (“His Majesty Smith”), is transformed into a stalk of celery (“The Great Vegetable Rebellion”), and even attempts to sell the family robot as spare parts (“Junkyard in Space.”)   In short, he makes life miserable for the Robinsons. 

It has often been suggested that Dr. Smith be shown the way to the nearest airlock on the Jupiter 2, and booted into space.  It’s a testament to the Robinson family’s good-nature (and the family friendly atmosphere of the series…), that this never occurred.  But Smith surely represents all the worst in humanity, from greed to treachery to disloyalty.  It would be miserable to be lost in space with this guy.

In fact, just imagine being lost in space with a crew consisting of Dr. Rush, Seska, Commissioner Simmonds, Baltar and Dr. Smith.

Which of 'em would get kicked out the airlock first?

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Enik was Here: A Survey of Cult TV Graffiti

There's an old saying that goes "the handwriting is on the wall."  In terms of graffiti -- a "street" art form that has been around for a very long time (at least as far back as Ancient Rome...) -- this proverb is a literal truth.  The writing is on the wall.  And in the alley.  And carved into stone.

In terms of a useful working definition, graffiti can refer to writing, scrawlings, carvings, or paintings left anywhere  in what is commonly considered the public square or arena.  In daily life today, graffiti might simply be considered a nuisance -- a willful defacing of community property --  but in some cases, it may also function as highly-individualistic artistic expression.

Recently, I've watched a number of cult TV programs and noted -- to my surprise --that graffiti is frequently marshaled by storytellers to make their imaginative narratives about the future or other worlds seem even more exciting, terrifying or mysterious.  Perhaps graffiti is so often depicted in genre television because of the informality I mentioned above; it often appears spontaneous or unplanned. 

Additionally, graffiti functions as an (often ironic) addition to or overwriting of the established culture. Therefore, when graffiti appears in science-fiction and horror, it is often about disorder: about the expected order being subverted or otherwise overturned.

Given this recent epiphany, I thought today it might be illuminating to survey a few of the most memorable instances of graffiti appearances in cult-TV history.

One of the earliest examples comes from Star Trek (1966-1969), and an early first season entry entitled "The Naked Time." 

You might recall this story as the one in which the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise is infected by a virus that mimics the effects of alcohol intoxication.   Under the influence, Kirk admits his deep loneliness; Mr. Spock weeps; and Sulu practices his fencing...on unwitting crew members.

But late in the episode, a random, cackling crewman carrying a can of crimson red paint defaces the corridors and immaculate turbo-lift of this 23rd century Federation starship with graffiti that reads: "Sinner Repent."  

As an inebriated Kirk makes his way to the bridge during an orbital crisis, he spots this graffiti and's a moment of tension and portentous doom as the clock ticks down to destruction. 

Here, the impromptu scrawling clearly represents out-of-control human nature slathered across sterile, impersonal technology.   Raw emotions have been freed by this strange disease, and the buttoned-down Starfleet crew lets loose, literally painting the starship red with such emotional, colorful outbursts.   

The entire crisis has occurred because -- uninhibited -- the crew of the Enterprise has failed to act responsibly.  Kevin Riley has locked engineering and de-activated the engines.  Sulu has left his post.  Nurse Chapel can't stop mooning over Mr. Spock.  Duty has been replaced by self-indulgence. 

It's a splendid study in contrasts: high technology (or technology unchained, as Gene Roddenberry later termed it in the Next Gen) against uncontrolled, basic human passions and fears. 

The words "sinner repent" in red suggest that man has somehow lost touch with who he really is by exploring the final frontier.  This is a persistent subtext of the episode as well, involving Joe Tormolen, an infected crewman who also wonders what business Earthman has in the stars.  

We must learn to control ourselves, says "The Naked Time" or we have no business in space at all...we'll kill our ourselves.  As Spock might remind us at this juncture, we must learn to "govern our passions."  The graffiti in the turbo list seems to ask the audience: are we on an upward trajectory, or going straight down?  

Or, better yet, are we going to break out of this crazy orbit, or succumb to gravity?

Graffiti also serves other thematic purposes in cult television history.  In some instances,  it's actually a blazing warning.  (I suppose "Sinner Repent" is also a blazing warning, but not a very useful or practical one.) 

In terms of serviceable warnings, both the Canadian-made  The Starlost (1973-1974) and the Krofft Saturday morning series Land of the Lost (1974) provide mysterious markers in dangerous, frontier zones...written in graffiti.  These mysterious warnings standing at "the forward edge" of knowledge are like the equivalent of that famous warning to ship navigators painted on old-fashioned maps: Here Be Dragons. 

Enter (or leave...) at your own risk.

In The Starlost, a young man named Devon (Keir Dullea) dwells in the small, self-contained world of Cypress Corners, a kind of agrarian, Quaker community.  In truth, the farmers and citizens of this community are living inside a huge dome...aboard a vast spaceship, the Ark.   Their entire existence is a lie.

Except for a few men in power, most of the people have long ago forgotten this critical information.  But at the door to the corridor connecting one dome to another -- at the juncture of the outside world and new knowledge-- stands a fearsome graffiti warning (again colored in red paint; and in this case, garish red lighting).  "Beyond is Death!" 

In this case, we are left to consider the notion that the repressive, religious regime in charge of Cypress Corners painted the warning itself (and made it appear so dire...) in order to hold back the citizenry from learning the truth about their origins.  Here, the warning in graffiti is not actually about what lies beyond; it is about controlling the people from seeking new knowledge.  In other words, this informal art is not so informal, and it is not anti-establishment as it appears.  It is a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In Land of the Lost's "The Sleestak God," a Revolutionary War private named Peter Koenig carves the warning "Beware of Sleestak" into a rock monolith near the Lost City of Altrusia.  This warning is pretty darn unambiguous, and serves no secret agenda whatsoever.  It is meant to be helpful to explorers, and it is indeed helpful to the Marshalls when they arrive in the pocket universe.  

Will, Holly and Rick don't know what Sleestaks are, but they are essentially put on alert by the warning.  Another identical message is seen inside the Lost City in the episode "Follow that Dinosaur," and the cue to the audience is simple: forge ahead lightly.Wonders and terrors ahead.

One of cult-TV's most interesting and unconventional uses of graffiti arises in the 1974 horror venture Kolchak: The Night Stalker, starring Darren McGavin. 

In the classic episode, "Horror in the Heights," the fearsome symbol of the swastika is painted all over the exterior walls and alleys of a Jewish community in Chicago. Naturally, the investigative reporter Kolchak and the residents fear an old anti-Semitic evil, and associate the swastikas with Nazis, or in America, the rise of neo-Nazis.  This graffiti seems entirely hate-based, in other words.

The truth turns out to be something far different.  The swastika is actually a Hindu symbol meant to ward off a shape-shifting illusionist, a flesh-eating monster called a Rakshasa.  A local Indian man has actually painted these swastikas to protect the elderly Jewish residents in the area, whom the Rakshasa is preying upon.  

Here, one can detect graffiti as an expression of good; of protection, but misunderstood as the workings of a "bad" or "villainous" agent.  This may be simply because the graffiti arises from a culture/belief system outside the American mainstream.  Thus the American mainstream mis-perceives its nature and purpose. 

In the 1980s updating of Sinclair Lewis's, It Can't Happen Here (1935) -- Kenneth Johnson's original V (1984-1986) -- spray-painted graffiti (again colored in shades of scarlet red...) serves another purpose all together. 

In this story, graffiti serves ably as a symbol of resistance against oppressive authority (rather than, perhaps, the tool of a secretive authority, as in the case of Starlost's "Voyage of Discovery"). 

Here, human citizens living under the thumb of the fascist, technologically-superior Visitors take every opportunity possible to deface Visitor propaganda; particularly posters which speak falsely of "universal friendship." 

The truth is far darker, of course, and the spray-painted graffiti reading "V" is a symbol of resistance, and a promise (or hope) of "V for Victory."  The spray-painted graffiti -- the ubiquitous "V" -- is so important to this franchise that it is even featured as the title image of the original program (and is also seen frequently in art for the remake as well.)  

Interestingly, the 2009-2010 remake comes at the same material not from the leftist stance of the original, but from a right-wing mode instead.  The remake re-purposes the "V" symbol as something other than resistance.  Here, the "V" graffiti is a symbol of a dangerous cult, of those who support and believe in the enigmatic, but mysterious alien visitors.  In not too subtle terms, the "V" here is a metaphor for the ubiquitous "O" (for Obama) that we saw in the 2008 election.  

I've written thus far about graffiti rendered in paint.  But there is another "red" medium that is also utilized to hastily adorn crime-scenes and other locales in programs such as The X-Files, Millennium and American Gothic ("Someone's at the Door.") 

As you can perhaps guess...I'm writing here about blood...and usually human blood. 

In The X-Files seventh season episode, "Theef," for instance, the graffiti -- so fearsomely rendered on the wall of a modern mc-mansion -- becomes a critical clue in the solving of a weird mystery.  Scully and Mulder wonder, at first, about the message penned in human blood. Is it a misspelling of the word "thief" (the specter of Dan Quayle and potato is raised by Mulder...)? Or is it some kind of meaningful, secret anagram? 

The answer is neither: the word is being used ritualistically, by a someone imposing a curse or hex.  In this case, the task at hand is to understand the purpose and meaning of the bloody graffiti, and hopefully come to some kind of answer.  Here, the story is the opposite of what we saw in "Horror in the Heights."  The graffiti is the expression of an evil power; not a form of protection.

Although not so pleasant in day-to-day life, graffiti always looks terrific in future-based series, like Star Trek and the Starlost because it stands in such stark contrast to the crisp, cool, technological lines of those series settings (technologically-advanced spaceships primarily).  The art-form also works well in horror, as in the case of The X-Files or Kolchak, leading us down a rabbit hole of mysterious twists and turns in the search for meaning, and in some cases...for the artist himself (or herself).

In Land of the Lost, the graffiti is a challenge to explore uncharted territory (but safely), and the graffiti of V undeniably makes a political statement (left and right, depending on incarnation).  It's either: resist or perish; V for Victory, or watch out for false gods making big promises.

In all cases, however, the graffiti of cult TV is particularly memorable (and these are just a few of the most notable examples).  On a very basic level, these TV scrawlings reflect human nature; our need to put an individual stamp, and imprint, on our surroundings.

I was here.  I exist.  And I have something to say, something to tell history.