Saturday, January 06, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Dangerous Game" (October 30, 1975)

In “Dangerous Game” a furry alien and an alien female, Solanna, embark on a new hunt, seeking fresh prey. They come upon Barney (Chuck McCann) and Junior (Bob Denver’s) in their lunar lander, and settle on the duo.

The lander sets down in a spaceship grave yard, and the duo learns they have been trapped there “for the games.”

If victorious in this deadly context, they can be returned to Earth.

The duo attempts to escape from the games, and the hunters never waged on prey as stupid as the far out space nuts…

“Dangerous Game” is another sci-fi TV variation of the famous cult-TV standard: The Most Dangerous Game. In stories of this type (or trope) -- seen on Space:1999, The Incredible Hulk, Logan’s Run, Deep Space Nine and other programs -- the series’ protagonists must escape from deadly, technologically advanced hunters.

Here, the alien hunters are particularly distinctive, at least in terms of their visualization. The female, Solanna, possesses a face of glitter, and long, pointed side-burns, much like Space: 1999’s Maya (Catherine Schell). And the male, Lycos, looks very much like a silver-haired Wookie, from the Star Wars universe.

Another trope, the space-graveyard, or “Sargasso Sea,” also gets a work-out in this episode of the Sid and Marty Krofft live-action series. Long-abandoned space-ships (miniatures) are seen on an alien surface.

Some other weird touches: When being threatened by the hunters, the space nuts encounter a weird space distortion, a vortex of some type. To determine what it is Junior and Barney consult their Encyclopedia of Space Disasters. This isn’t likely a tome that America’s space program could have developed, given its knowledge at the time of the space nuts’ accident.

That said, the lander’s passage through the space vortex allows for a ridiculous scene of (chroma-key) weightlessness with the two main actors.

The episode culminates with pie-throwing and other shtick, and then Barney teaching the alien “Space wolves” about poker, though the rules sound more like Star Trek’s Fizzbin.

Next week: “Secrets of the Hexagon.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "The Final Challenge (November 25, 1978)

In “The Final Challenge,” a space warp sucks the Super Friends and the Legion of Doom into a strange unknown universe. There, Vartu -- the “peaceful” leader of this realm -- wants to put an end to the constant and endless battling that characterizes life on Earth. 

To that end, he arranges a series of deadly challenges for the super-powered foes. These include a labyrinth of death, a lake of terror, a mission to scale an erupting volcano, and a battle with a two-headed serpent.

Ultimately, the Super Friends prove victorious, which means that the members of the Legion of Doom are to be destroyed, dropped into acid.  

The Super Friends realize, however, that even the villains of the Legion of Doom deserve a fair trial.

“The Final Challenge” is another sci-fi TV version of Fredric Brown’s story, “Arena.”  That story, about warring races brought to fight (by aliens) in a place of personal combat, has been adapted by name not only to Star Trek, but to series including The Outer Limits (“Fun and Games”), Space: 1999 (“The Rules of Luton”), Blake’s 7 (“Duel”), Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (“Buck’s Duel to the Death”), and Star Trek: The Next Generation (“The Last Outpost).

Here, the leader of an alternate dimension, Vartu, is tired of the strife created in the conflict between the Hall of Justice and the Legion of Doom, and so arranges a contest which will settle the battle for power once and for all.  

These challenges, intriguingly, are not all won by the heroes. For instance, Black Manta defeats Aquaman, who becomes trapped inside a giant clam. Scarecrow, likewise, defeats Apache Chief, in his particular contest.  This is a nice touch which suggests that the Super Friends are not all-powerful, and do not always win.

The original story, “Arena” ended with one alien race -- the losers in the personal combat -- being destroyed (as promised), but TV often changes this outcome. In Star Trek’s “Arena,” for instance, Captain Kirk demonstrates mercy for the Gorn, and impresses the Metrons with his behavior. A similar outcome is depicted here. The Super Friends reject the rules of the contest, and save their mortal enemies.

Intriguingly, another sci-fi TV cliché also gets a work out in “The Final Challenge.”  Specifically, the “my enemy/my ally” trope is present, which sees protagonists and villains cooperating to reach a mutually beneficial end.  Here, the Super Friends and Legion of Doom members not captured and forced to compete by Vartu work together to find their missing friends. Naturally, the Legion of Doom proves untrustworthy.

Some other intriguing notes regarding this episode include the fact that “The Final Challenge” commences with what I call a “Star Wars shot,” a view of a  large ship passing in front of the screen. 

Also, this installment  continues the general nuttiness of the series’ dialogue, which often suggests that the heroes and villains are all-powerful and all-knowing . Here, someone actually says “let’s search the universes parallel to ours!

That sounds easy, just a quick scan of a couple -- or dozen? -- UNIVERSES…

Next week: “Fairy Tale of Doom.”

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Sylvia" (September 24, 1970)

In “Sylvia,” the first episode of the TV series, The Immortal (1970-1971), Ben Richards (Christopher George) -- a man with blood that serves as a kind of fountain of youth -- comes out of hiding to help his former fiancé, Sylvia (Carol Lynley), who is on the verge of her marriage to a man named David Hiller (Glen Corbett).

Ben is unaware, however, that he has a new enemy. A business tycoon named Arthur Maitland (David Brian), has picked up where Jordan Braddock left off, and is desperate to possess his unique, immortality-granting blood. 

To that end, Maitland has hired a cunning mercenary, Fletcher (Don Knight) to procure Richards for his personal use, and survival.

Knight’s first gambit is, not surprisingly, to use Richards’ attachment to Sylvia Cartwright against him. He plans to capture Richards at her engagement party, where Maitland is a guest. Richards walks into the trap, but receives unexpected help from Hiller, who turns out to be a decent and moral man.

After escaping Fletcher’s grasp, Richards must say a final goodbye to Sylvia, and the life they once shared.

The first hour-long episode of The Immortal opens with the following narration, voiced by Paul Frees:

“This man has a singular advantage over other men. Ben Richards is immune to every known disease, including old age. Periodic transfusions of his blood can give other men a second, third, lifetime…maybe more.”

After these words, we hear Richards notes: “I gotta live free.”

Welcome to The Fugitive 2.0, with a science fiction veneer. 

Ben Richards is our man-on-the-run (substituting for Richard Kimball), and Fletcher is the latest “hapless pursuer”-type, filling in for Lt. Gerard. Here, it is Paul Frees who narrates, not William Conrad, as was the case in The Fugitive

Finally, the quest in The Immortal is not to find the “One-Armed Man” who killed Kimball’s wife, but rather Ben Richard’s brother, who could possess the same, special type of blood as his sibling.

Of course, by locating his brother, Richards is actually leading his pursuers right to him, but that’s an argument for another day.

In terms of specifics, “Sylvia” is superior to some later episodes of the series because there are connection, even if tenuous, to the TV movie. 

For instance, Carol Lynley reprises her role as Richards’ one true love, Sylvia Cartwright. The teleplay also makes mention of Jordan Braddock, the first tycoon to seek to control Ben’s future (and his blood).

The episode also does a good job introducing Don Knight’s Fletcher, a real cut-throat character. 

Knight’s performances in the series are always delightful, and worthwhile, but the actor must continually struggle against an archetype that makes him seem incompetent. In other words, if Fletcher were to succeed in capturing Richards, the series would come to an end. Therefore, Fletcher must forever be outwitted, out-smarted, and outmaneuvered by his opponent. This fact means that, no matter the dignity of the performance, the character comes across as somewhat incompetent, even insipid. Knight does his best to overcome this structural/formula deficit.

David Brian's Maitland, by contrast, does not come off well here at all. He seems far less sinister and distinctive a nemesis than his predecessor, Braddock, was.  His heart doesn't seem to be in the pursuit.

Like the TV movie that preceded it, the emotions and intrigue of “Sylvia” all resolve in…a car chase. 

It’s just a sign of the times, and 1970's television, I suppose, but it is disappointing. “Sylvia” sets up an interesting love-triangle between Richards, Sylvia and Hiller, and then -- instead of following through -- takes to the road for crashes and high-speed pursuits. 

In the end, Richards voluntarily gives up Sylvia after she admits she can’t live on the run, as a fugitive. Richards leaves, alone, and Sylvia can find happiness with Hiller, instead. Convenient for her, no?

The episode culminates with Hiller wondering if Richards has a chance to outwit his enemies.  Sylvia replies that “he has a change, as long as he won’t quit.”  When a formula is applied so strenuously to a series, there is little chance of that.  

Richards, like Kimball before him, will always run because The Fugitive format requires him to do so.

Next week: “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees.”

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Where No One Has Gone Before" (October 24, 1987)

Stardate: 41263.1

The U.S.S Enterprise beams over two propulsion experts from the starship Fearless: Kosinski (Stanley Kamel) and his assistant from Tau Alpha C, the Traveler (Eric Menyuk).

These visitors have been assigned the task of testing different intermix formulas and different ways of entering warp speed.

The only problem is that Chief Engineer Argyle (Biff Yeager) and Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) have suspicions about Kosinki’s methods and results. His equations and explanations appear to be nonsense.

On the first warp speed test, however, the Enterprise surpasses warp ten and travels through two galaxies; some two million light years in all. Unfortunately, it would take over 300 years to get home after this “phenomenal surge of power.”

On an attempt to get back under Kosinski’s stewardship, the Enterprise travels even further, to a mysterious “place that is uncharted and unknown” where the “world of the physical universe and ideas are intermixed.”

Only Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) realizes the truth, that the alien assistant, the Traveler, has been manipulating time and energy to make these great leaps in velocity. The Traveler did not intend to strand the Enterprise, and must attempt to bring them all home safely. Unfortunately, he is very weak, and may not survive the journey.

The Traveler also reveals to Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) that gifted individuals such as Wesley are the reason that he travels the galaxy. He compares Wesley to Mozart, only in the “intricacies of time, energy and propulsion,” not music.

“Where No One Has Gone Before,” by Diane Duane, and Michael Reaves may just qualify as Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987 – 1994) first (mostly) good episode.

The story is certainly classic Star Trek in nature: one of pushing boundaries, exploring the final frontier, and mankind learning something new about himself and the nature of existence.

In the final case, that knowledge is, as Wesley notes in Main Engineering that “space and time and thought aren’t the separate things that they appear to be.

Although one might wish that it were an adult, fully-trained and highly-capable Starfleet officer making this important recognition, at least there is an explanation in this episode for Wesley’s precocious and genius nature.

He’s a Mozart of Engineering, basically. He’s gifted and talented.

If that is indeed the case, as the Traveler suggests, than there is no place Wesley belongs more than the starship Enterprise, the flagship of the Federation and a vehicle for galactic exploration. 

On the one hand, this idea of being “gifted” makes Wesley’s expertise (in stories such as “The Naked Now”) easier to accept. 

On the other hand, Star Trek works best when it is not about superheroes, but normal human beings facing difficult challenges. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, we have a blind man with superior vision, a psychologist who can read emotional states of others, a super-human android, and now a genius “Mozart.” character.

Much of the episode’s drama arises from the Enterprise’s predicament at the end of the universe, trapped in a realm where thoughts manifest as reality. Some of the episode’s best moments arise from this situation. Worf remembers his pet Targ with affection. Tasha relives a frightening moment on her failed colony, and Picard nearly steps off a turbo lift into infinity. 

All these little moments add, in quick visual ways, to our understanding of the series' main characters. We see Worf smile at the sight of a childhood pet, allowing us to understand he is not just a dour, humorless alien. 

And though Tasha talks about her upbringing and the "rape gangs" in other stories, this episode shows us a visualization of what that dreadful life looks like.

My favorite scene, however, is the one in which Picard encounters his long-deceased mother, and she asks him about their location in space. Is this the end of the universe, or is it the beginning of it?

The scene with Picard’s mother succeeds on multiple levels. 

First, we have Picard’s surprise to see his mother, and the tenderness he feels for during the encounter, which could not occur in normal space. 

Secondly, we also have the mother’s love for her son, and her apparent (deeper) knowledge of his current predicament.  

Patrick Stewart is particularly strong in this scene, having many emotions to portray in a short amount of time, from suspicion and sadness, to joy and regret. The most powerful moment occurs when Picard is contacted/distracted by Riker, and Picard realizes his mother (and her answers) are once more out of reach, forever, despite her comment that they are always with one another.

The Traveler returns in future episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, including “Remember Me” in the fourth season, though here he appears to be dying from his travels. In his first tale, the Traveler has some wonderfully “Trekkian” moments in “Where No One Has Gone Before” that make the character memorable. 

For instance, he notes that he travels because of curiosity (a trait he shares with humans), and he even shows compassion for Kosinski, in the climax.

Kosinski is a self-important loud-mouth, and yet, we sense, someone also deeply insecure about himself and his abilities. In that climactic moment, the Travelers says that he “needs” Kosinski’s help, and it is a moment of mercy and humanity which suggests that all of us, even the most flawed, need respect, love and a feeling of belonging.

Despite all the strong character moments and fascinating plotting, this episode lapses into some cheesiness at points. At one point, Captain Picard gets on the intercom and tells his crew to think good thoughts for the Traveler. This edict then requires Counselor Troi to comment on the surfeit of good feeling she is experiencing. It’s all very sweet, but a bit schmaltzy too.

Finally, it’s another round of musical chairs with Enterprise chief engineers this week. In “Where No One Has Gone Before” we meet Biff Yeager’s Argyle, a character who would return in “Datalore,” as our replacement for McDougal (“The Naked Now.”)

Intriguingly, some of Riker’s dialogue in this episode suggests that many of the chief engineer’s duties have been folded into the role of executive or first officer. This shift in duties may account for the fact that the ship seems to have almost a half-dozen chief engineers or so (McDougal, Argyle, Logan, Leland T. Lynch), at least until Geordi assumes the role on a permanent basis in season two.

Next week: “Lonely Among Us.”

Monday, January 01, 2018

Happy 2018!

To celebrate the arrival of the new year, I started searching for classic sci-fi films set in the year 2018, and came up with one off the top of my head: Norman Jewison's Rollerball (1975).

How close are we, in real life 2018, to this sci-fi dystopia of 2018?

From my review of the film:

"Rollerball's action takes place after the world's nations have gone "bankrupt," and after the destructive "Corporate Wars" have come and gone 

Now, corporations "take care of everyone," and the violent, team sport of Rollerball has been created by Big Business to remind people of "the futility of individual effort."  

The goal of the corporations is to be essential to every individual's life, and for "the few" to make important decisions on "a global basis."

Well, this may all sound far-fetched, but we know corporations are people, right? And we do have a U.S. president, for now, of the film's so-called "Executive Class," and fewer and fewer people making choices for the rest of us (see: Ajit Pai, and Net Neutrality.)

Still, at least we're not watching bloody gladiatorial games on TV, right?

Happy 2018!!!

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Tribute 2017

The year 2017 was a dreadful one for fans of science fiction, horror, and film and television. An inordinate number of icons passed away.

This was the year we lost the leading actor of four classic science fiction TV series: Richard Hatch of Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), Martin Landau of Space:1999 (1975-1977), Jared Martin of The Fantastic Journey (1977), and Heather Menzies of Logan's Run (1977).

2017 was the year we lost two of the greatest horror film directors the world has ever seen: George A. Romero, and Tobe Hooper.

This was also the year we lost two of my greatest childhood heroes, Adam West, who played Batman, and Roger Moore, who played James Bond, 007, longer than any other actor in movie history.

This was the year we lost teen heart-throb David Cassidy, and the xenomorph's first cinematic victim, John Hurt, as well as his cast-mate, Harry Dean Stanton.

Below is a gallery of those who passed away in the last twelve months. 

As always, if I have forgotten anyone, it was an oversight, and not intentional. Please feel free to post your memories of those featured in the gallery, in the comments section.

Richard Anderson

Mike Connors

David Cassidy

Jonathan Demme

Roy Dotrice

Miguel Ferrer

Dominic Frontiere

Robert Guillaume

Richard Hatch

Tobe Hooper

John Hurt

Barbara Hale

John Heard

Glenn Headley

Martin Landau

Jerry Lewis

Jared Martin
Heather Menzies

Mary Tyler Moore

Roger Moore

Dina Merrill
Jim Nabors

Bill Paxton

George A. Romero

Don Rickles

Della Reese

Harry Dean Stanton

Sam Shepard

Jay Thomas

Adam West