Saturday, January 18, 2014

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Thundarr/Smiler Edition

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): "Secret of the Black Pearl" (October 4, 1980)

Although it was likely He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (1983 – 1985) that captured fully the imagination of young fantasy audiences in the early 1980s, I have always boasted tremendous affection as well for another genre piece of roughly the same age: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980 – 1982). 

This NBC Saturday morning series was created by Steve Gerber of Howard the Duck fame, and featured production design from Jack Kirby and Alex Toth. Produced by Ruby-Spears, Thundarr the Barbarian, according to its opening narration, involves “savagery, super-science and sorcery.”

The premise of the series is that in the far-flung year of 1994, a runaway planet passes between the Earth and the moon, destroying man’s civilization virtually overnight.  The opening credits of the series are very picturesque, and reveal the moon shattered in two, and volcano lava encroaching on imperiled urban areas.

Two-thousand years later, a new world has arisen from the ashes, one of monsters, mutants, barbarians, and even heroes like Thundarr.  This great hero (another descendant, no doubt, of Howard’s Conan…) carries a special high-tech weapon called a “sun sword” which, like a light-saber, can retract into a special hilt.  Thundarr wears that sword hilt on a wrist gauntlet for easy access in times of strife.

Thundarr -- “a barbarian who fights like a demon” – also travels with two companions.  The first is the beautiful Princess Ariel, who boasts a working knowledge of pre-apocalypse times, as well as relics of that long-gone age such as “movies.” 

The second companion is a growling, Wookie-esque friend named Ookla.  He’s a creature called a Mok (amok, get it?) and a loyal friend as well. 

These three warriors ride together through the ruined and dangerous landscape, and battle many different colorful villains, including Groundlings (humanoid rat creatures), powerful wizards, and lizard people too.  Thundarr’s journeys often take him inside the ruins of ancient cities, where danger and intrigue await. Over the course of the series, he sees Manhattan, Washington D.C., Las Vegas, San Francisco, and London.

In Thundarr The Barbarian’s first episode, “Secret of the Black Pearl,” Ariel, Ookla and Thundarr rush to the aid of a “courier of the black pearl,” named Tyron. 

Tyron has been attempting to keep the mystical black pearl out of the hands of a deadly wizard named Gemini.  He was en route to the ancient city of “Manhat” (Manhattan…) when intercepted by Groundlings.  He had planned to deliver the pearl to the defenseless humans living in the ruins of old New York…

Now Thundarr assumes that mission, but faces the minions of Gemini, who are hell-bent on stopping delivery of the pearl. 

In one of the first episode’s finest visual inventions, we see the sword-carrying knights of Gemini jump from a hovering helicopter to attack Thundarr and his friends on the ground below.  This image is a perfect conjunction of sorcery/super-science/savagery, and fits in beautifully with the “apocalypse mentality” of the 1980s, a philosophy seen in films such as The Road Warrior (1982), Warriors of the Wasteland (1983) and Defcon  4 (1985).   Here, the ancient helicopter has been re-purposed as the weapon of primitives who would have no idea, even, about its construction centuries ago.

The latter half of “Secret of the Black Pearl” involves Thundarr, Ookla, and Ariel battling Gemini in the ruins of Manhattan, and there are many impressive frames of the ruination.  Humorously, we also see a poster for Jaws 9, at one point.

Later, Gemini utilizes his evil magic to bring the Statue of Liberty to terrifying life (a moment that forecasts the Weeping Angel Statue of Liberty in the new Doctor Who), but Thundarr is able to vanquish the monstrosity by using Gemini’s pearl against him.  Uniquely, even the visual appearance of Gemini is one with some relevance to new Who.  Gemini boasts two faces: a human, normal one, and a grimacing monster one.  The faces rotate to prominence. This facet of the character reminded me a bit of the Smilers/Winders in the Who serial “The Beast Below.”

Overall, “The Secret of the Black Pearl” is a pretty straightforward fantasy adventure, with elements of the productions I have listed above, as well as Star Wars, and Beneath the Planet of the Apes.  I find the series generally inventive, in part, because it couches its premise of apocalypse in terms of being an accident or disaster, rather than the result of nuclear war.  That was likely a necessity for Thundarr getting a billet on the Saturday morning schedule. 

But clearly, Thundarr the Barbarian is a kid’s version of much of the adult entertainment of the era, focusing on the end of technological civilization, and what might come next, after the fall of man. 

Next week: “Harvest of Doom.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1992): "The Sorceress" (September 12, 1992)

In “The Sorceress,” Annie Porter (Jenny Drugan) laments the fact that she possesses no female friend to talk with about boys and other pressing concerns in her adolescent life.  However, when a Sorceress named Keela (Adilah Barnes) appears in the land of the lost, she grants Tasha the power of speech as a way of thanking Annie for saving her life. 

Unfortunately, once she begins to talk, Tasha won’t stop…

Meanwhile, Keela’s deadly nemesis -- a strange Cyclops creature called Magas (Ed Gale) -- also encounters the Porters, and seeks revenge against her.

The second season of the 1991 Sid and Marty Krofft live-action series Land of the Lost commences with “The Sorceress,” a relatively undistinguished episode in the canon.

Like many other stories in the franchise, this installment involves a visitor in the land who interfaces with the Porters, and then parts ways at story’s end, but doesn’t provide any clue about escape.  Here, a world of “magic” is encountered, but not explored in any meaningful fashion, or in any fashion that would help us contextualize the stories better.

What seems missing (and what was abundantly present in the 1970s Land of the Lost) is some underlying theme to the stories that connects them all together, or suggests a way of “reading” the series as a whole. 

The original series concerned four groups, essentially -- the Marshalls, the Paku, the Sleestak, and the dinosaurs – sharing a territory: Altrusia.  When things went wrong in that territory, the Marshalls had to be shepherds of the land, and join with their recalcitrant neighbors to fix things.  It’s not difficult to read this running theme as commentary on being good stewards of the environment.  Similarly, the Land of the Lost was known to be a pocket universe with a sense of balance.

The new series never offers any such specific details, re-hashed or original, that make the episodes cohere into something larger. 

Here, visitors come, visitors go, but there’s no sense of a creator working to some meaningful end, or on some meaningful theme, alas.  That’s the real difference between the two series.  You can compare special effects, performances, and set design, but the 1970s series is unequivocally superior in one sense: it was open to analysis and multiple interpretations. The new series, while entertaining, is not.

The underlying theme in “The Sorceress” involves  the down-side for wishing for something better when what you already have is pretty darn good.  Although Tasha is given the power of speech, she also begins to develop unfortunate character traits.  She has changed from being herself, to being someone new and different, and Annie never reckoned on that fact when she made her wish.

The same idea might be applied to Magas.  He has become a monster because of his power-hungry nature, and has learned nothing from his transformation. He wanted power, and he got it...but now he's little more than an ugly beast.

Although it is interesting to see a character whose inner ugliness is reflected by his outward appearance, Magas may just be the most ridiculous-appearing creature to appear in either iteration of Land of the Lost.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of “The Sorceress” is geographical. Keela reports that the dimension gate she traveled through was far, far away in a “great desert.”  So far, viewers have not seen that desert, only the portions of the Land of the Lost depicted by Vasquez Rocks, and the landscape near the compound… that looks rather like a park or nature reserve.

Next week, I’ll review “The Dreammaker,” which is the most-oft remembered episode of the new Land of the Lost, and is widely considered to be the best episode in the remake.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: Space Wig Edition

Cult-Movie Review: Moon Zero Two (1969)

Following the success of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a boom-let of near future space movies marched into cinemas around the globe.
In this memorable group, you will discover Gerry Anderson’s underrated work of art, Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969), The Green Slime (1969), Silent Running (1972), Solaris (1972), and the subject of this review: Roy Ward Baker's Moon Zero Two (1969).
Moon Zero Two was billed as both the first “space western” and the first “moon western,” and like some of the other films on the list above is set less than a century into the future, in 2021, and involves near space -- meaning our solar system -- rather than “outer” space.
And very much like Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and Silent Running, this film very directly grapples with the reality that space travel is an expensive and thus controversial proposition.  This fact was also handled directly on the Gerry Anderson cult-TV programs of the era, from UFO (1970) to Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).
Though not exactly scintillating in terms of its pace or narrative clarity, Moon Zero Two nonetheless establishes a thematic point later covered (better…) in Outland (1981), another space western.  And that point is simply that man -- no matter what frontier he broaches -- is the same animal as he is here on Earth.  And therefore, the “dream” that drives him further and further, beyond the next horizon is not necessarily the glory of exploration, but the opportunity to get rich
This very idea of commercialism on the frontier is diagrammed in the lead character’s existential crisis.  Bill Kemp (James Olson) was the first man to set foot on Mars, but doesn’t wish to spend the rest of his life ferrying passengers to and fro, so he becomes an independent “pilot for hire” above the moon instead.  In other words, the explorer’s job is done, and now business interests and regulations dominate the arena.
For all its abundant flaws in terms of pacing and human interest, Moon Zero Two returns again and again to signs and symbols that directly critique the idea that man -- even when he goes to the stars -- must take unfettered avarice and greed with him. 
On a more fantastic and visual note, Moon Zero Two from Hammer Studio also features some impressive sets, as well some remarkable miniature landscapes and vehicles from the great Les Bowie, an effects artist who contributed his considerable talents to First Men in the Moon (1964), Fahrenheit 451 (1966), and later to Superman: The Movie (1978). 
Although it is true that -- forty-four years later -- some of Moon Zero Two’s effects appear dated, many vistas, including a long establishing shot of a lunar city in the distance, remain awe-inspiring.  There’s also a well-executed landing of a lunar ship at a site called Far Side 5, and some good scenes involving a miniature Moon Buggy traversing a treacherous frontier landscape.  These are effects from a different era, but ones that deserve acknowledgment for their depth and detail.

On a personal note, the quality that makes films such as Moon Zero Two or Journey to the Far Side of the Sun required viewing in my book is the fact that they were produced during the Apollo program, in a span when regular travel to space -- in my life time -- was an absolute expectation.
There was no thought in any of these films that man wouldn’t continue and succeed in his quest to conquer the sky and beyond, and so these productions, while grappling with issues such as greed and the cost of the next frontier, also boast a kind of hopefulness that space films of other eras don’t necessarily reflect.   
As much as I love and adore Star Trek, it is set hundreds of years in the future…a future I won’t live to see.  
In terms of 2001, Space: 1999, and Moon Zero Two, these films and television programs were thrilling in a very different (and now lost…) way because the incredible future appeared to be just over the next mountain, or on the surface of the moon…and therefore visible to the naked eye in the night sky. That future was being built before our eyes by astronauts on TV...
Today, our politics have grown too small to dream so big, but when I was a kid in the 1970s, even flawed films like Moon Zero Two seemed, well, realistic. I just knew that I was going to “live” in that future...

 “We’re all foreigners here…”
Early in the 21st century (circa 2021), Earth’s moon is the latest frontier, and is bustling with activity as business interests compete to lock up mineral and territorial rights. 
One astronaut, Bill Kemp (Olson) is a former explorer, but now captains his fifty year old junk heap, the Moon Two, to retrieve damaged satellites and claim salvage rights on his finds.
Kemp is recruited by a businessman in the settlement of Moon City, J.J. Hubbard (Warren Mitchell), to wrangle an approaching asteroid, which consists of six thousand tons of sapphires.  Hubbard wants Kemp to re-direct the valuable rock to a set of coordinates on the lunar surface. 
Although Kemp doesn’t like Hubbard, he takes the job because the Corporation will soon make it illegal for him to continue flying the old, ostensibly “dangerous” Moon Two.  If he wants to stay independent, he’ll need a big payday to buy a new ship.
Meanwhile, a beautiful visitor to Moon City, Clementine Taplin (Catherine Schell), also wants to hire Kemp to help locate her missing brother.  He had gone prospecting out on the far side of the moon, but before he could stake a claim on what he found, he disappeared without a trace.  Now Clementine fears he is lost, and perhaps dying somewhere on the dark lunar surface.
As Kemp soon learns, the two jobs are connected in an unexpected way, and behind the murder of Clementine’s brother is the eternal human quest to get rich quick…

“Let’s hope we all have a profitable trip.”
In a very real sense, Moon Zero Two is all about what happens when big business interests get involved in a new, profitable frontier, and seek -- by any means possible – to immediately secure the wealth buried there. 
The film’s unseen, but frequently mentioned antagonist is called “The Corporation,” and Moon Zero Two features much dialogue regarding the fact that “the small, independent pilots” are getting “squeezed out” by said Corporation, so it has a better chance of striking it rich on the moon. 
Indeed, Captain Kemp is subjected to draconian Corporation rules regarding the condition of his ship, rules that will make it impossible for him to keep his job.  He is forced to work with Hubbard -- a crook – because he needs the money to get a new ship.  He is the man being squeezed out of his job, and the Corporation tries to paper over that fact by offering him a job as a passenger ship pilot.  It's a job he has no interest in, and so the lesson here is about freedom. Kemp wants the freedom to chart his own destiny, but the Corporation wants to fit him into a square peg.
Moon Zero Two suggests that the moon frontier is considered, by the Corporation, a big pie to be sliced up between friendly interests, and the film does decent job of visualizing that idea in simple and memorable terms.  Mid-way through the film, for instance, a board game is depicted in close-up called, amusingly, Moonopoly. 
The name of the game is controlling the board, and that’s a metaphor for controlling the frontier.  The original Monopoly, of course, is a game intrinsically about the acquisition of wealth, and the increasing ability to squeeze out other players by consolidating that wealth into power.  “Moonopoly” -- Moon Zero Two’s space-age variation of the game -- makes explicit the movie’s theme that even in space, money is the most highly-prized resource.

The runaway capitalism angle of the film is expressed in other ways as well.  The greeting that passengers receive upon landing at Moon City is heard to be “let’s hope we all have a profitable trip.”  Again, the focus is on accumulating wealth.
But caveat emptor: even a brief stay on the moon could cost you an arm and a leg because, in the words of Kemp, the moon costs “a lot of money to get started” and the Corporation wants to recoup its losses.   
Specifically, Moon Two Zero's script observes that it costs thirty-five dollars for a single drink in the hotel’s space “saloon,” and is certain to note that the currency there is, amusingly, “moon dollars.”   To put a fine point on it, there’s a lot of emphasis in the film on the economic aspects of moon life.  And this is a far cry from modern science fiction or space fantasy, which rarely focus on money matters in the final frontier.
The idea of rampant, out-of-control commercialism is visually represented in another fashion too.  Shoppers can go to the “Galaxy Boutique” for shopping, soon after making landing, and the Moon Bar -- with dancers pretending to be space cowboys and the like -- could be something out of a modern Las Vegas revue: a lascivious show designed to efficiently separate you quickly from your hard-earned cash.

Moon Zero Two’s on-screen villain, Hubbard, is a businessman hoping to make a killing outside the confines of the law, furthering the film’s leitmotif about greed.  He has killed Clementine’s brother so that when the jewel asteroid lands on his claim, he won’t be present – or alive – to dispute Hubbard’s ownership of the treasure. Hubbard knows that if he is to make a killing and be a player on the moon, he must act now, no matter the legality of his actions.
Outside of the social critique involving unfettered avarice in the new frontier, Moon Zero Two tries hard to make its case that Space = The American West. 
In terms of theme, the reference certainly makes a degree of sense.  Brave men and women risked everything to go West in the late 19th century, but were soon followed by a parade of railroad companies, banks, land magnates, and so on, who swooped in to establish civilization…but also control of the new territory. 
In terms of Western touches, Moon Zero Two involves the wrangling -- the literal physical lasso-ing -- of satellites and asteroids (think steer wrangling...), features the futuristic equivalent of a stagecoach -- a Fargo Moon Buggy -- and highlights thieves, bandits and crooks attempting to steal legitimate claims on mineral riches.  There’s even a (zero gravity) fight in the Moon City saloon, which reflects a generation of Western films, though the fight is poorly executed in terms of special effects.

Catherine Schell (here billed as Catherina Von Schell) also plays a very Western-sounding character, Clementine: an independent-minded woman who braves the frontier to find a missing family member.  Years after Moon Zero Two, Schell returned to the frontier, of course, in Space: 1999 as Maya.  If you were ever at a convention with Schell, you may remember her amusing words about working on Moon Zero Two, and her overall opinion of the production.
The Western motif and the commentary on uncontrolled capitalism render Moon Zero Two worth watching, for certain, despite the admitted paucity of thrills.  The special effects also boast a very distinctive look and feel, and will prove a source of enjoyment for space movie fans of a certain age (like myself). 
All that established, however, the movie is never as intriguing or compelling as it could have been, and more often than not, the drama simply falls flat (which may be part of the reason the film was once featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000). 
Even the film’s credit sequence -- a Schoolhouse Rock-styled cartoon depicting man’s history on the moon -- seems strangely out of place, a miscalculation that sets the wrong tone for what is essentially a humorless picture.  
The rest of the movie has its ups and downs, to be certain, with the zero-gravity saloon fight standing out as one area where poor execution trumps a brilliant concept.  But on the other hand, Catherine Schell strips down to her space undies in one scene, which for some viewers is absolutely a moment worth the price of an admission, or a rental…

So, how to parse Moon Zero Two, an ambitious but not very successful genre film? 
Well, it certainly paved the way for other space westerns about the commercial pitfalls of the frontier (namely Outland), and features miniatures and production design that will strike your fancy if you are a fan of the works of Gerry Anderson, or Stanley Kubrick. 
I suppose the film does work best as a time capsule.  Almost unintentionally, Moon Zero Two reflects this innate optimism that we will be in space (and on the moon) in a serious way in our lifetimes.  Even the cynicism about corporations and commercialism can’t undercut the essential optimism of that (apparently time-limited…) view-point.
So even though I acknowledge the film’s myriad flaws involving tempo and clarity, I also admire Moon Zero Two for absolutely believing in its own premise.   
For a dream to come true, you have to believe in it first, and the space films of the 1960s, including Moon Zero Two, dreamed a great future for all of mankind.  There would still be greed, there would still be crime, there would still be corporations...but the final frontier would also open before us...and mankind would grow.

Movie Trailer: Moon Zero Two (1969)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The New Adventures of Wonder Woman: "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" (1979)

I watched Wonder Woman regularly as a child, and one particular episode has stayed with me ever since its first broadcast. It was the May 1979 two-parter entitled "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret", and it arrived very near the end of the series run. 

This episode, written by Anne Collins and directed by Leslie H. Martinson, absolutely terrified me as a nine year old kid, though today one can easily detect how it owes very much indeed to the Body Snatchers franchise initiated by novelist Jack Finney in 1954.

In "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret," Diana Prince heads off to Crystal Lake -- no, not that one -- to investigate a strange meteor shower.  A concerned and inscrutable scientist, Dr. Jaffe warns Diana that these meteors are no mere rocks, but alien objects that have intentionally  "landed" on Earth. 

Investigating, Diana learns that the scientist's bizarre assertion is correct. Ninety-nine pyramid-shaped devices have landed in the vicinity of Crystal Lake.  When a human being comes in contact with one of these silver pyramids, he or she exchanges souls with an alien life-form trapped within the strange container.  The human soul then becomes trapped in the tiny device, unable to escape, and the alien soul gains full possession of the body. 

This exchange procedure is apparently "painless," but it certainly doesn't appear painless.  In fact, this episode is dominated by weird, almost surreal imagery of distorted human faces trapped inside the pyramidal structure.  This is the disturbing visual I recall most from when I was a child: an almost unbearable combination of terror and madness in that caged human expression

In Crystal Lake, a local high-school boy named Skip (Clark Brandon) watches helplessly as his mother and father both become possessed by the Pyramid Pod People.   No one will believe his wild story that his parents "look like" his Mom and Dad, but aren't truly human.   And again, this subplot closely mirrors various incarnations of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Even Diana herself nearly falls prey to the alien danger.  After she escapes from possession, she notes that something in the pyramid "was trying to trade places" with her, and that even she "couldn't stop it." 

Soon, Skip and Diana join forces to learn more about the nature of this threat.  It turns out that the ninety-nine alien pyramids and their masters have come to Earth to stop a more dangerous alien: a criminal responsible for the murder of 800 of them.  This alien is difficult to trace, unfortunately, because he is a shape shifter. Only by assembling all 99 separate pyramids into one huge pyramid can the Pyramid Pod People stop the shape shifter once and for all.

A bit overlong at two-parts, "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" certainly won't win any awards for subtlety or nuance.  Every time the evil shape-shifter appears on screen, he is accompanied on the soundtrack by what sounds like an exaggerated rattlesnake hiss.   And when the alien criminal finally takes on Wonder Woman, he turns into a rather lame, curly haired cave man (wearing fur, no less), who growls like a lion.  Their final battle takes place in a barn, and guess who wins?

And yet, even today, I can see why "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" stuck with me for all those years.

It's not just the creepy pyramid/entrapment imagery, although that's a big part.  It's that the episode successfully generates an atmosphere of intense paranoia and even scores a a few nice points about high school life at the same time. 

In particular, all of Skip's friends, and even his girlfriend, Mel, are possessed by the aliens.  Almost immediately, they exclude Skip from their new clique.  "He's not one of us," they declare, and well, that's the point.  Teen kids -- even without alien influence -- select their peers and friends, and exclude others.  It's a fact of life.  But it never feels good to be on the outside, or to be judged according to what feels like an "alien" or unknown system of merit. 

There's even a nod to the bugaboo of peer pressure in this two-part episode of Wonder Woman as unfortunate high school students are urged to "touch" the pyramids and welcome their new alien overlords.  Again, it's not subtle in any meaningful way, but the underlying idea resonates on some kind of gut level, I suppose.  We all fear being left out and being ostracized by others.  In its own way, "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" plays on the universality of that human fear. I do know this for certain: it worked on me as a kid, and I still felt some traces of that irrational fear when I watched "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" as an adult last week. 

This kind of thing happens a lot with 1970s TV movies and series, I would submit. Although these older productions lack what we would today term convincing special effects or even much by way of persuasive action, their weird, occasionally creepy 1970s vibe shines through.  The idea and imagery central to this episode -- human souls locked inside silver space pyramids -- is both unsettling and inventive enough to sustain at least the first hour of "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret."

Geared towards the young (and the young-at-heart), this two-part episode of Wonder Woman thrives not only on the sub textual aspects of its Invasion of the Body Snatchers premise, but on Carter's sincere central performance too. 

Obviously, Carter is an incredibly beautiful woman, but -- not unlike Lindsay Wagner on The Bionic Woman -- she manages to imbue Diana Prince with a brand of fetching openness, curiosity, and warmth.  

In other words, the actress creates an admirable, distinctive individual without relying any of the "character" trappings we today commonly associate (unfortunately) with superheroes.  She's not the victim of a tragedy.  Diana's not filled with hate and angst.  She's not on a mission of revenge, either.  Instead, Carter's Diana Prince is centered, balanced and not wholly unaware of the humor in the situations she encounters.   She has a twinkle in her eye.  These qualities somehow makes her easier to relate to and root for.

In "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret," there's clearly  a bit of wish-fulfillment going on too, as socially-awkward Skip teams up with Wonder Woman and learns the truth about her secret identity.  Every adolescent boy would love to draw the attention of a funny, smart, heroic woman like Diana, and find, quite amazingly, that she can really relate to him.  For instance, Skip pretends to be "a dummy" in school so as not to disappoint anyone.  He likens it to his own "secret identity," and Diana identifies with this facet of his character.  She too must keep her super-heroic abilities close to the vest as Diana Prince.

Many episodes of Wonder Woman suffer from a dearth of resources.  The use of stock footage is pervasive in the third season, for isntance.  And yet, certainly, the series' heart was in the right place.  What Wonder Woman seems to have definitively lacked was the presence of  a consistent, guiding intellect behind-the-scenes, a man such as Kenneth Johnson.  He toiled on competing programs such as The Incredible Hulk and The Bionic Woman and truly raised the bar for superhero series of the late 1970s early 1980s.

Lynda Carter still shines on Wonder Woman, but the stories she was sometimes forced to vet fell short of being authentically "wondrous."  "The Boy Who Knew Her Secret" is likely one of the better 1970s-styled adventures, at least, and is filled with creepy imagery that still carries an impact.

The New Adventures of Wonder Woman: "Spaced Out" (1979)

In “Spaced Out,” Diana Prince (Lynda Carter) races against time -- and a master thief (Rene Aubjernois) – to recover stolen crystals that are desperately needed for “space navigation.” 

These crystals have been unwittingly transported to a hotel in Los Angeles where gathered fans are celebrating the return of a popular old TV series, “Space Quest.”

Also in attendance at this convention is a popular TV superhero, “The Black Avenger.”  Because this hero is never seen out of costume, it is easy for the thief (Auberjonois) to masquerade as him, and keep one step ahead of Wonder Woman…

Over the years, quite a few episodes have featured stories set at science fiction conventions.  She-Wolf of London (“Beyond the Beyond”), Castle, Psych, and CSI are just a few examples. 

But, to its credit, Wonder Woman’s “Spaced Out” is probably the first convention-themed cult television episode in TV history.  Here, Wonder Woman encounters Robby the Robot (acting as emcee for a costume contest…), and crosses paths with fans from a popular franchise of the day…Logan’s Run (1977).

Actually, “Spaced Out” is accurate, to a high degree, about 1970s fan conventions and their rituals.  Back at the height of Logan’s Run’s popularity some, fans played a game as “runners” and “Sandmen,” dressing in show-accurate costumes, and hunting one another through hotel corridors.  I learned of this “game” first-hand from a friend who attended a Star Trek convention in New York City in the late seventies, and later from Dorothy Fontana, when I interviewed her about the impact of the Logan’s Run series.  So “Spaced Out” serves as a time capsule of sorts for an early chapter of convention cos-play.

In terms of Logan’s Run, this episode also features Jessica’s dress from the film and TV series, and an accurate Sandman costume.  Although “Space Quest” replaces Star Trek as the subject of the convention (right down to the fact that a movie revival was in the offing…), other sci-fi notables are seen in attendance. There’s not just Robby here, but the Metaluna mutant from This Island Earth (1951).

Unlike many convention episodes of cult-television series, Wonder Woman’s “Spaced Out” -- title notwithstanding -- isn’t downright dismissive of fans, or of fan culture.  Although Diana Prince initially wants to book another hotel when she learns of the con’s presence, fans ultimately come to help her out, and resolve the mystery involving the crystals (which become props for a fan-made control room display). 

The Black Avenger -- a superhero with his own TV series – might also be seen as a commentary on Wonder Woman’s role on the sci-fi convention landscape.  No doubt Lynda Carter was swarmed at every stop, just like the Black Avenger, and asked about the minutiae of her character’s history and life.  Still, this ribbing is gentle and humorous, and hardly the caustic “get a life” commentary that would come in the 1980s.

Outside of its value as a time capsule of science fiction conventions and Logan’s Run, “Spaced Out” is another mostly disposable, light-hearted episode of Wonder Woman.  The episode flies by on a wing and a prayer, and Lynda Carter’s humanity pulls the hour through the rough patches.

The New Adventures of Wonder Woman: "The Starships Are Coming" (1979)

In “The Starships Are Coming,” Diana Prince (Lynda Carter), and Steve Trevor (Lyle Waggoner) watch local news reports from a small town called Berryville that suggest an attack by alien invaders has begun. News footage shows flying saucers strafing and blasting a vehicle convoy and pedestrians.   

Diana heads to Berryville, along with Colonel Robert Elliott (Tim O’Connor), to investigate the invasion’s veracity. 

Unfortunately, they come to different conclusions about it.  Elliott unexpectedly encounters aliens, and is told that a starship fleet will soon launch to destroy America…from mainland China.  The only option is for Colonel Elliott to launch America’s nukes (at China…) before that can happen. Fearing the end for his country, Elliott prepares a strike against China.

But Diana learns that the alien invasion is a clever hoax constructed by uber-“patriot” and capitalist Mason Steele.  He has orchestrated the alien attack in a warehouse-turned-studio using actors, rear-projection screens, and sound-effects. 

My hands are not tied by red tape,” he explains.  Specifically, Steele sees Red China as an enemy and is determined that American democracy should “outlive” all other forms of government.

Now, Diana must escape from Steele’s custody, and convince Colonel Elliott not to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike on Red China that will instigate World War III…

The Wonder Woman episode “The Starships Are Coming” plays on a couple of significant ideas that found currency in the American culture and national dialogue of the late 1970s.

The first was an all-out fascination with UFOs, stoked by films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and by television programs such as Project: UFO (1978 – 1979). 

The second was a movement in American politics to declare nuclear war a “winnable” enterprise.  Some individuals -- especially on the far right edge of the political spectrum -- labored to explain how a nuclear war wouldn’t be that bad and, in fact, could be vetted in a successful fashion.  These same voices attempted to pressure Ronald Reagan, in the late 1980s not to negotiate with Gorbachev and the Soviet Union.  Fortunately, Reagan didn’t listen.

Anyway, “The Starships Are Coming” is about a business-man who fancies himself a “patriot” and hopes to trigger a nuclear war that will destroy an enemy that hasn’t even attacked: Red China.  But to get his way, and his war, this businessman, Steele, must first stoke fear in the American people, which he does by staging lightning strikes on a small-town.  And he blames invading aliens for the attacks, though it seems it might have been more convincing to frame China for them.

Wonder Woman -- perpetual guardian of peace – sees through Mason Steele’s madness and notes, trenchantly, that his attempts to coerce a nation into war and kill millions of innocent people have “done more to destroy democracy” than any “communist country” in history.  It’s an effective rebuke against those who would turn life and death, war and peace into a game of winners and losers, profit and loss.

With patriots like these, the country doesn’t need any enemies,” suggests the dialogue in “The Starships are Coming,” and the episode’s last moments involve a countdown to the launch of deadly nuclear mission.  Finally, Wonder Woman appears on television to stop the count-down, and calm the panicky populace. 

Although the outcome is good, I often find it funny that the Wonder Woman character as portrayed in the 1970s series isn’t nearly as proactive as she might be, given the high stakes she often faces.  For instance, Diana Prince is captured by Steele in “The Starships Are Coming”, and tied to a chair in a warehouse while the countdown to World War III commences.

Instead of trying to break free, or otherwise engineer her own escape, Wonder Woman just sits…and is conveniently rescued by a local man named Henry.  First, I think Wonder Woman could have found her way out of that chair and warehouse on her own.  Doesn’t she have extraordinary strength?

And secondly, why did her savior have to be a man?

It’s funny how entrenched sexism can be, even for a series about a so-called “feminist icon.” Often, Wonder Woman, the series, gets by on the pure charisma and charm of Lynda Carter, and this episode, although it is timely, is not an exception.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Late Night Blogging: Wonder Woman Promo (Fall; 1977)

The New Adventures of Wonder Woman (1978): "Formicida"

In “Formicida,” Diana Prince (Lynda Carter) investigates a series of suspicious building collapses for the IADC.  All the demolished buildings belong to one man: the tycoon Mr. Harcourt.

Although Diana doesn’t realize it, Harcourt is being blackmailed by a super-villainess called Formicida (Lorene Yarnell). She can telepathically direct ant colonies to destroy Harcourt’s expensive buildings, and will continue to do so unless he shuts down a chemical plant that is producing a pesticide that will prove harmful to the insect world, and mankind himself.

As Wonder Woman, Diana Prince clashes with Formicida, even though she realizes the evil villain may, on this occasion be on the side of good…

Although tiny in size, evil ants loomed large in the 1970s science fiction pop culture, second only in the insect world to killer bees, perhaps.  Ants threatened to take-over the world in the brilliant and odd Saul Bass film, Phase IV (1974), and grew to enormous size and attempted to brainwash humanity in Bert I. Gordon’s The Empire of the Ants (1977). 

In “Formicida,” Wonder Woman clashes with a villainess who can harness the power of ants -- to chew through wood support beams, mainly -- to wreak incredible damage and conduct industrial espionage.  In this case, real ants are seen in close-up throughout the episode, which lends the menace a sense of visual authority, at least.

Formicida herself makes for a unique foe for Wonder Woman in that she may be evil (and highly destructive…) but her motives are actually good.  Formicida is trying to save the world, but using means that are questionable.  That kind of complexity elevates this episode above mere spectacle, in my opinion, and allows 1970s kiddies some red meat to latch onto.  Not much, perhaps, but enough. The episode’s coda sees Wonder Woman use her magic lasso and make Formicida -- Irene -- forget forever her dark identity.

Additionally, the Jekyll/Hyde aspects of Formicida’s character make for some interesting observations about character, and even self-confidence here.  When in human guise, the villainess is simply a scientist named Irene, but when she is Formicida, she takes on the qualities of ants, she claims.  The ants are everything that Irene isn’t, she observes: social, organized, determined, and tenacious.  Irene believes she is “empowered” by her connection to the colony, and is unable to see that she herself possesses such qualities without it.

And since Wonder Woman hides behind a “meek” human identity, Diana Prince, there’s a good mirror image between hero/villain in “Formicida.”   Irene is the “real” person, apparently made strong by her super serum, whereas Wonder Woman is the “real” individual, and Diana Prince the face of anonymity behind which the hero hides. In other words, Wonder Woman must be weak to “blend in,” and Irene must be Formicida to stand-out.

Formicida is portrayed by the late Lorene Yarnell (1944 – 2010) of “Shields and Yarnell” fame.  Her partner, Robert Shields, also makes an appearance in this episode.  At the time of Wonder Woman’s airing, the dance/mime duo had their own series on CBS The Shields and Yarnell Show, so the couple’s appearance here was no doubt part of an attempt at cross-promotion “synergy.”  That fact established, Yarnell is physically convincing as Formicida, and emotionally convincing as the meek Irene.  Had Wonder Woman returned for a fourth season, I wonder if Formicida would have made a return appearance to protect the ant world and the environment. 

“Rover,” the little IADC robot that appears in Wonder Woman’s third season boasts a larger than usual role in this episode, and saves the day.  The small ambulatory drone learns to speak “ant” language and convinces the colony not to bring down the chemical plant housing the dangerous pesticide.  Many moments in this episode involve Rover cruising through small vent shafts or corridors, attempting to complete his mission, and are dull beyond compare.

One final note about the ants in “Formicida:” they are exceptionally clever since they are able to anticipate when characters are going to use certain staircases or walk into certain rooms. The stairs and ceilings collapse instantly upon egress, and always on cue.  Even a whole of ants, it would seem to me, would spend a while biting through a solid wall, or ledge platform.  Smart little buggers, I guess…