Saturday, December 23, 2017

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Flight of the Pippets" (October 18, 1975)

In this episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Far Out Space Nuts (1975), miniature alien beings called “Pippets” capture and then shrink Junior (Bob Denver) down to miniature proportions so they can store him in a jar and bring him back to their intergalactic museum.

Honk (Patty Mahoney) rescues Junior from this fate, bu Junior is trapped in tiny form, no bigger than a matchbox.

Now Honk and Barney (Chuck McCann) must restore Junior to his normal size, and outwit the Pippets.

To do so, Junior uses the lunar lander’s jet pack, which in turn gets miniaturized.

“Flight of the Pippets” makes extensive use of chroma-key technology, the innovation that was so crucial to Sid and Marty Krofft series including Land of the Lost (1974-1977) and Dr. Shrinker (1976-1977).

Here, chroma-key allows the miniature Pippet flying saucer miniature to be composited over live-action footage of Denver, and McCann. Later, it is utilized to composite the tiny Junior into live-action scenes with Barney.  The technique was cheap and easy to do, but the drawbacks can be noted today. Chroma-key effects (which I love, and used extensively in my web series, The House Between), sometimes look very cheap in color.

Some of the shots work better than others. For instance, there is a shot here of a miniature Junior encountering a normal-sized, but giant-seeming Honk. The shot stands up remarkably well.

Far Out Space Nuts seems to possess two major plot formulas. The first involves Barney being sought by nefarious alien purposes, and captured. The second involves the Space Nuts helping to restore (a female) alien ruler to her rightful throne. “Flight of the Pippets” sees a return, after some weeks, to the first plot line.

The silliest aspect of the story involves all the “tiny” jokes the comedic duo make about Junior’s situation. “I’m so hungry, I could eat an ant,” Junior notes. Or “Let’s talk some small-talk.”  It’s goofy, but not un-amusing.

Finally, the aliens this week are another homage to classic movie monsters. Last week, the aliens resembled the famous Gill Man. This week, the Pippets are modeled after the Metalana mutant from This Island Earth (1951).

Next Week: “Birds of a Feather.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Swamp of the Living Dead" (November 11, 1978)

In “Swamp of the Living Dead,” an episode of Hanna-Barbera’s Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), the Legion of Doom negotiates with an old witch in a swamp to possess the greatest powers of all time. A dark force, an Evil Being, promises the Legion of Doom it will comply, but wants the Super Friends in return.

The Legion of Doom sets out to capture and destroy the Super Friends one-at-a-time, setting “super traps” for the heroes.

Before long, the heroes are captured in tubes under the swamp, and gassed into suspended animation.  

While the heroes suffer this “strange fate in the depths of the fathomless bog,” the Legion of Doom inherit from their benefactor -- “The Evil One Who Haunts the Night” -- the ability to raise an army of the living dead.

The Legion of Doom and the zombie army attack the Federal Plutonium Plant, but no one should ever count out the Super Friends.

Challenge of the Super Friends delves into George A. Romero territory in “Swamp of the Living Dead” after, in its previous installment, visiting the Planet of the Apes (Gorilla City!).

In “Swamp of the Living Dead,” the Legion of Doom seeks power from a dark force that happens to inhabit a local swamp.  Why or how this creature -- a kind of floating head -- has come to exist is never explained. The Legion of Doom, however delivers to it the Super Friends, starting with Hawkman, and then Batman and Robin.  The Dynamic Duo end up running the Batmobile into the swamp, and Robin exclaims, “Holy Reckless Driving, Batman!”

The funniest thing about this episode is that the Legion of Doom has never, ever -- in the entire history of the show -- been able to successfully restrain or stop the heroes from the Hall of Justice for any significant duration of time.

But when the dark swamp entity demands the superheroes as a price, the Legion of the Doom promptly captures them all. Maye they should have just quit while they were ahead.

In addition to his reckless driving comment, Roin gets in a quasi-reference to Kolchak at one point: “Holy Night Stalker!”

Next week: "Conquerors of the Future."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Maidens: "The Enemy"

In the final episode of Star Maidens (1976), Fulvia (Judy Geeson) and her captives -- Adam (Pierre Brice) and Shem (Gareth Thomas) -- prepare to return to Medusa for the hostage exchange.  

At the same time, Dr. Rudy Schmidt (Christian Quadflieg) and Liz (Lisa Harrow) are being ferried back to Earth by Octavia (Christiane Kruger).

The exchange does not go off quite as planned, however, because of a malevolent third party. The Medusans remember -- from their ancient history in Proxima Centauri -- the presence of alien predators who “fed” on them. Now, a deadly spaceship from that force has arrived in Earth’s solar system, ready to once more interfere in Medusan affairs.

The alien ship attacks, attempting to seize the Medusan shuttles, but Adam and Rudy, on separate ships, launch a counter-attack, something the Medusan females are not willing to do. The counter-attack is successful, and Earth and Medusa have their first triumph together.

“The Enemy” is a fascinating episode of Star Maidens, and a segment that makes one wish for further episodes. Although the episode’s final statement on the war of the sexes is not so strong (which I will talk about below), “The Enemy” nonetheless sets the scene for a larger tapestry, had the second season been produced.

Here, the ancient enemy of Medusa arrives in a menacing-looking spaceship, depicted with a miniature that would have felt right at home in Space: 1999 (1975-1977). We never actually see the enemy. But from their merciless voices, we know that the enemies are all male. We see their uniforms, rotund bodies, and gloved hands, but never their faces.

We are told -- via exposition -- that the Medusans, in their original solar system “were preyed upon” by these aliens.  Apparently, these forces have been searching for Medusa for centuries.  And now the enemy has found both its quarry, and Earth. It would indeed have been fascinating to see how this dynamic altered the series in a second season, but alas it was never to be.

In terms of our final statement about men and women, there is finally no ambiguity about where Star Maidens stands. Adam and Rudy take command of their respective Medusan crafts, and fight back against the aliens. 

Several times, Octavia and Fulvia complain that they don’t know how to fight. So the men, who apparently do, must step up to save the day.  

In light of what we have already seen on the series, including Medusan weaponry and security forces, this plot element doesn’t make much sense. Octavia is a hard-nosed, brutal fighter, and head of Medusan Security. It seems highly unlikely that she would “choke” in battle, especially after detecting that her enemies are males.  Her primary prejudice, as we have seen close up, is that men are weak, inefficient creatures who cannot protect themselves. Hence women must protect them.  That through-line is lost in this final episode.

In terms of science, Star Maidens gets into a little trouble here. “The Enemy” continually confuses the term galaxy with solar system, noting that the bad guys have been chasing Medusa from galaxy to galaxy.  In the 1970’s, these terms were used interchangeably in many series, including in Battlestar Galactica (1978).

As this is the final episode of Star Maidens, I do want to reflect on the series as a whole. In brief: I rather enjoyed it, even if I can make the argument that the series did not always know where it was headed, or what its point about the war of the sexes really was. 

I love the production design from Keith Wilson, and the miniature effects as well.  Some stories, namely “Hideout” and “The End of Time” are really fascinating, and suggest that the makers of the series aimed for more than “high camp.”

And “high camp” is what critics have determined the series is. I can see why, based on some early episodes, but Star Maidens is worth a second-look, if only to better understand science fiction on TV in the 1970’s.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "The Last Outpost" (October 19, 1987)

Stardate: 41386.4

The U.S.S. Enterprise pursues a Ferengi Marauder into an unexplored region of space after the  mysterious Ferengi steal an energy converter from a Federation planet.

In orbit above, Delphia Ardu IV, however, both the Enterprise and the Ferengi ship are immobilized in space by a force emanating from the planet. 

Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) believes that some remnant of the Tkon Empire -- extinct now for 600,000 years -- may be responsible for the force draining power from the ship.

Hoping to learn more about the mysterious Ferengi and solve their mutual problem of power loss, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) suggests a joint away team to the planet surface, led by Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes).

The Ferengi, led by Letek (Armin Shimerman), quickly prove untrustworthy, and the mission soon encounters a being called Portal (Darryl Henriques), a guardian of the Tkon Empire. 

Portal issues a challenge to the intruders in his Empire, and Riker answers it.

For some hopeful viewers watching this new Star Trek series in 1987, “The Last Outpost” might have actually been “the last straw,” another derivative, poorly-written episode of The Next Generation (1987-1994).

In this case, the source material is clearly “Arena,” a beloved episode of Star Trek wherein two competing forces -- Starfleet and the Gorn -- are immobilized in space. 

Then, down on the surface of a planet, the two forces are confronted by a highly advanced alien with the power to destroy either competitor. Here the Tkon's sleeping guardian stands in for the Metrons, but in both cases, the advanced race is impressed by human values, and relents in its hostile pursuits.

But significantly, “The Last Outpost” is like “Arena” in concept, not in execution. The episode is like “Arena,” only if all the excitement, thrills, and character growth of that story were removed from the equation. The great nemesis of "Arena," -- the Gorn -- has been replaced by the comedic Ferengi. 

And once more in The Next Generation, the Starfleet characters learn nothing from their adventure, but are all too happy to share their disdain for those less advanced than they are (in this case, the Ferengi).

Once more, there is so much wrong in an episode of The Next Generation that it is difficult to know where to begin with an analysis. A fish rots from the head, so let’s begin with Captain Picard. This is the second time in four episodes that the writers have the character -- the captain of the Federation flagship -- surrender without conditions during a crisis. 

So, just think, if you were watching these shows sequentially in 1987, at this point Captain Picard had a fifty percent surrender rate when contending with danger.  That's not good.

Either in a desire to make him the “anti-Kirk,” or simply out of a lack of direction, the writers of The Next Generation were doing a great disservice to this new character, and the actor who plays him.  In “The Last Outpost” what exactly does Captain Picard do to help?  He surrenders the Enterprise.  He brags (on an open channel) about his bluffing: “at least we won’t start with weakness!” And then, as the temperature drops on the Enterprise, he falls unconscious. That's right: he goes to sleep.

Can you imagine Captain Kirk, in the same situation, stopping the fight long enough to freeze to death in his chair? I can’t. He would have started a fire, using a phaser, to keep warm. He might have tried many things, but not taking a nap.

Beyond the depiction of the Captain as weak and useless, “The Last Outpost” suffer from the same problem that “Code of Honor” did. In particular, there is no growth or leaning among the main characters. The stories don’t help them learn anything about themselves; they just confirm their apparent wonderful, evolved nature.  

Here, for instance, Portal reads Riker’s mind, sees the brilliance of Sun Tzu’s philosophy, and takes the side of the humans in the conflict with the Ferengi. Then, Portal and Riker talk together about how they shouldn’t kill the primitive Ferengi, and that some day the Ferengi might grow up, or mature out of their foolishness.

The problem, as I wrote in my last review, is that this smugness is pervasive in these early episodes of The Next Generation. The human are always right and evolved, so much so that they feel the need to lecture others about how right and mature they are.  I submit it is a better paradigm to feature flawed characters, and show them grow through their adventures. It isn’t very exciting, or even entertaining, to see smug characters rewarded for their smugness.

Now, let's move to the Ferengi.

Some fans may disagree with me on this point, but I believe the idea of the Ferengi is brilliant: Yankee Traders. The Ferengi are crony capitalists; capitalists run amok. They live by the motto "caveat emptor."

If the original Star Trek functioned as a Cold War allegory with Starfleet representing the United States and Klingons representing the U.S.S.R., then the Ferengi represent a daring risk for the 1980's.  They represent America in the age of “greed is good” Gordon Gekko.  I think that in concept and execution they are ambitious, even genius. They are a mirror to who we were, as a nation, in the Age of Trickle Down Economics.

However, in terms of physical dimension, there can be no disagreement: the Ferengi are not threatening. And in terms of demeanor, they are not malevolent, but deeply funny, and satirical.  In other words, I believe the Ferengi are a perfect mirror by which to comment on American society of the 1980’s, but not at all suitable as the main villains of a Star Trek series.  They just aren't threatening, scary, or menacing in the slightest.

The flaw here was not in the nature (physical or ideological) of the Ferengi, but in the role they were designed to play on the series. The Ferengi are silly and energetic, yet but not at all a counter-balance to the Federation's might. 

One thing I love about Star Trek: The Next Generation is that it did not abandon the Ferengi because of a weak episode or two. After another episode in which they were supposed to be the “big bad” (“The Battle”) someone in power realized that the Ferengi should instead be a kind of cosmic irritant and comic-relief for the series. That transition was brilliant, and gave us characters such as Quark (Armin Shimerman) on Deep Space Nine

Star Trek redeemed the Ferengi in later seasons, and later series, and with outstanding characters such as Rom and Nog. The writers could have looked at “The Last Outpost,” deemed it a failure, and never featured the aliens again.  Instead, the Ferengi remain, today, one of the most fascinating and well-developed races in Star Trek lore. 

Again, this seems a matter of Star Trek: The Next Generation getting its space legs. The writers knew that the Ferengi were clever conceptually. But they couldn’t figure out, initially, how to use them in a compelling story, at least as an antagonist.

Part of the problem might not be the episode’s fault, either.  

I remember the preview for this episode airing on WPIX Channel 11, out of New York. The narrator breathlessly spoke of the Enterprise crew fighting alien “predators,” and that description set up the belief for many viewers that the Ferengi were going to be a terrifying alien race and a real threat to Starfleet.  

And of course, none of that materialized.  The extremely negative response to the Ferengi n “The Last Outpost” could be, simply, a matter of high expectations quashed.

Once you know the Ferengi for what they are, in other words, the episode is not so bad.

Visually, “The Last Outpost” is actually top-notch. The episode features a terrific miniature to depict the Ferengi Marauder (one reportedly designed to look like a horseshoe crab), and some of the action on the misty surface of the Tkon planet is quite stunning. The moment wherein Portal’s face appears out of the swirling winds is highly cinematic, and impactful, for instance.  

Also, the hologram read-outs in the Enterprise briefing room look terrific, and I wish they had been used throughout the series.

Next week, quality goes up a bit (briefly) with “Where No One Has Gone Before.”

Monday, December 18, 2017

Memory Bank: The Sears "Wish Book" Catalog (Circa 1979)

Recently, I tried explaining to my youg son, Joel, the idea of ordering items from a catalog.

I explained that it’s like ordering something from, only your choices are more limited, you can’t buy the items online, and you have to wait longer to receive your toy.

He didn’t see the appeal.

But when I was growing up, it was tremendously exciting to order from a catalog, or I should say from one catalog in particular. 

Every year, Sears sent out a mammoth Christmas catalog or “Wish Book,” a hugely fat inventory of everything it sold, from appliances and clothes to toys galore.  

One of the Wish Books that I’m remembering today -- from the year 1979 -- was illustrated with the tag-line “Where America Shops For Value.”

Forget value, I just wanted space toys.

The 1979 Sears Wishbook Catalog had ‘em too. 

From Page 613 thru 620 in that catalog, there was everything a 1970s space-kid could possibly desire: toys from Mego’s Micronauts, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Star Wars, and Star Trek too.  There were models, play-sets, toy action figures…the works.

And the great thing about Sears was that it not only offered toys you could find elsewhere, it also offered exclusive toys, like the Star Wars knock-off playset called “The Star Fortress” (seen on page 617).  I’ve covered this toy before on the blog, but the giant fold-out space base has a position of honor in my home office to this day. 

Another Sears exclusive from the same era (although it may have been first sold in 1978…) was the Star Wars “The Cantina Adventure Set” (not to be confused with the Creature Cantina).  The legend in the catalog read “If you stop at this cantina, watch out for strangers.”

This diorama of the exterior of the Mos Eisely drinking hole came with four new Kenner action figures that were unavailable elsewhere: Greedo, Hammerhead, Walrus Man, and Blue Snaggletooth.  The Blue Snaggletooth has become a highly-prized collectible.

Without me knowing, my Mom ordered me the Cantina Adventure Set, and I loved it. 

I kept it intact until about two years ago when the diorama base finally ripped. But it’s the item I remember most from the catalog.  

After I received the toy in the mail, I would play adventures with Sheriff Snaggletooth and Deputy Hammerhead.  They’d drive the land speeder around Mos Eisely, catching the gangsters Greedo and Walrus Man.

Back in the 1970s I loved coming home from school and finding in the mail either the next week’s issue of TV Guide (so I could see if Star Trek or Space:1999 was playing…), but it was a day of absolute delight and toy nirvana when the Wish Book arrived.

I still remember the feel and scent of the Wish Book catalog's pages. I remember poring over those toy pages too, imagining adventures with Buck Rogers, the Micronauts, the Cantina, and that Space Fortress...

The Cult-TV Faces of: Scrooge