Saturday, January 13, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Secrets of the Hexagon" (November 6, 1975)

In “Secrets of the Hexagon,” the space nuts’ lander is broken once more, and Junior (Bob Denver) feels useless because he can’t do anything to help. The lander is out of fuel.

A strange alien named Flam, however, soon appears near Junior, and makes a trade: a useless hexagon device for the lander. Junior accidentally agrees, and must explain to Barney (Chuck McCann) how he has traded away their only ticket back home, to Earth.

Soon, however, the space nuts learn how to operate the Hexagon. It is actually a talking key that leads them to a mysterious lost city, and the strange duplication device housed there.  If Barney and Junior can just reclaim their lander, they can duplicate all the fuel they need to return home.

Unfortunately, Flam stole the hexagon device from two hostile aliens, who wish to reacquire it.

Another week, another ridiculous episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s 1975 live-action romp, Far Out Space Nuts. “Secrets of the Hexagon” features alien beings who look like humanoid moles, a lost city, and a blooper that reveals just how low-budget the production must have been.

In that blooper, we see Barney and Junior driving their rover vehicle in a circle over the landscape. The camera moves just a little to one side, and the capsule, or lunar lander, is visible behind them. At this point in the story, however, Flam has taken the lander -- it has de-materialized -- and they are going off to the lost city in an effort to recover it. The lunar lander mock-up is moved from its normal position…by about three feet, and just by moving the camera a tiny bit, it is still visible. The sound-stage where the episode was shot must have been tiny!

As usual, the strangeness of the series is evident in this episode. In the lost city, Barney and Junior happen across a cosmic barbershop and pretend to be barbers, so they can put on patches of hair, and masquerade as the space mole people. Miraculously, the gambit works.  But a barbershop on an alien planet? Why do the mole people even stop to get their hair cut in the first place, in a city they know to be abandoned? When they are looking for their missing technology!  ("Oh let's stop here, I need a trim.")

The alien villain of the week is named “Flam” (as in the word “flim flam,), but forget that term, which means confidence game, or swindle.

These old episodes aren’t “flim flam,” but they sure seem to have been made on a wing and a prayer.  

Next week: “Captain Torque, Space Pirate.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Fairy Tale of Doom" (December 2, 1978)

In “Fairy Tale of Doom,” Toyman unveils his “newest and most awesome” invention, a weapon which can zap any living being into the pages of a book.  If someone becomes trapped in said book for more than twelve hours, they are stuck there “forever.

The Legion of Doom traps Hawkman in Jack and the Bean Stalk, which pits him against a giant. And the Man of Steel is tricked into the world of Gulliver’s Travels, and captured in Lilliput.

Meanwhile, Batman, Robin, Green Lantern and Black Vulcan are trapped in a pit in the Hall of Justice, unable to save their friends.  Meanwhile, the clock ticks down...

Another episode of Challenge of the Super Friends (1978), another ridiculous (but enjoyable) plot-line. This week, the Legion of Doom traps our favorite DC heroes in the fictional world of books.  

It’s a dopey idea -- “Holy Science Fiction!” as Robin exclaims -- and yet an installment filled with fun little Easter eggs.

For instance, the Nautilus, Captain Nemo’s submarine from Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea, makes a guest appearance in “Fairy Tale of Doom,” and in design it looks almost exactly like the beloved Disney Nautilus from the 1954 film.

Later, while the superheroes fight in Japan, we see a sign for “Toho,” the studio that produces the Godzilla films (and which had licensed Godzilla to Hanna-Barbera for a 1978 Saturday morning series of his own…).

Otherwise, this is your standard episode of the series. Everyone announces what they are going to do, as they do it, and a character inevitably states “That’s what you think!” This time, Toyman gets the honor. 

And, of course, the situations are ridiculous. I noted above that Batman, Robin, Green Lantern and Black Vulcan become trapped in a pit in the Hall of Justice. It has an open-ended top, but the series writers apparently forget that both Black Vulcan and Green Lantern can fly. A hole in the floor shouldn’t impede them;

Next week: “Doomsday.”

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "White Elephants Don't Grow on Trees" (October 1, 1970)

In “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees,” the third episode of the short-lived series The Immortal (1970-1971), Ben Richards (Christopher George) is on the run.

During his travels, Ben encounters a man named Eddie (Ross Martin), who is struggling to keep custody of his son, Judd (Mitch Vogel), in part because he doesn’t hold down a stable job.

Instead, Eddie travels the southwest and participates in blind auctions, hoping for a “white elephant,” a windfall that will set him up for life.

As Ben first meets Eddie, the fly-by-night gent is transporting in his rickety truck a shipment of leaky World War I explosives. Ben helps save Eddie and Judd’s lives with his driving skills on the mountain roads, thereby preventing the unstable canisters from igniting. A few canisters are ditched off a mountain ledge, just before they explode.

A nearby plant -- owned by Maitland, and visited by Fletcher (Don Knight) -- offers Eddie nearly six thousand dollars if he gives up Richards, plus another four thousand for the remaining canisters.

But Eddie can’t bring himself to surrender the man who has saved his life…

“White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees” takes The Immortal into full-on The Fugitive (1963-1967) territory, with the (alpha) man-on-the-run protagonist, in this case Richards, helping out strangers in need; strangers with no connection to his particular plight or overall narrative.

The hapless pursuer -- Fletcher -- is nearby, of course, and the story is a standalone, meaning that it ends with Richards bound for his next (unrelated) destination. In other words, this story doesn't really contribute anything in terms of a story arc.

Because there is no story arc.

Although the man-on-the-run formula is strongly intact, and familiar, I should be clear: this is nonetheless an extremely entertaining episode of the series, and one brought to life by a great, heartfelt performance from Ross Martin.  

His Eddie is a dreamer with a choice to make. Should he go on dreaming, or take a real job and thus be able to support Judd?

Which is more important to him, pursuing those white elephants, or providing stability for his son?

Even today, this subplot carries an emotional resonance. The story, although obviously a one-off (and a formulaic one) is involving, and not irrelevant. Many men and women who become parents have to ask themselves a similar question at some juncture. When do they stop pursuing their own dreams and begin laying down the groundwork for their children’s dreams, instead? As a writer, I am not at all immune to this conflict.

What makes Eddie's situation worse is that there is a "responsible" adult (the boy's aunt) nearby, looking at him and his career choices with constant disapproval. She thinks she would do a better job raising Judd than Eddie can do. At one point, Eddie decides she's right, and gives up custody of Judd. Ben sees the whole pitiful hand-over, and finds it as troubling as we -- the viewers -- do. Ben's compassion for the situation makes him seem a more likable lead. We can see that he cares about Eddie and Judd.

The story, of a truck transporting explosives over dangerous terrain, is a well-tread movie and TV trope. Film fans will recognize it from The Wages of Fear (1953,  and its William Friedkin remake, Sorcerer (1977).  Long-time TV fans will recognize “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees” as forecasting a similar story on Gemini Man (1976); one that finds hero Ben Casey transporting the volatile substance “tripolodine” over difficult roads, all while under pursuit by bad guys.

What may be most fascinating about “White Elephants Don’t Grow on Trees” is the opening act. After a brief burst of dialogue, the episode goes nearly seven minutes without any speaking at all. Instead, it features an incredible, knock-down, drag-out chase between Ben Richards and pursuing cars. 

He’s on foot, attempting to evade his pursuers, and the cars are on Ben's heels the whole time. The action is sustained, and incredibly impressive. 

If one looks at The Immortal as an action series, it doesn’t disappoint at all. Indeed,  the program often features great stunt work and strong fight choreography.  

From a science fiction standpoint, however, the series largely disappoints. The concepts underlying Richards’ condition are rarely explored in anything approaching an intriguing fashion.  The series is so well-made, from performances to musical score, but The Immortal can't marshal all its elements to jump over the restrictions of its rigid, old-fashioned format.

Next week: “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow.”

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Lonely Among Us" (November 2, 1987)

Stardate 41249.3

The U.S.S. Enterprise proceeds to the planet Parliament after picking up delegates from the warring planets of the Beta Renner system: the reptilian Selay, and the canine Anticans.

En route to the diplomatic meeting, the starship encounters a strange space cloud. While moving through the cloud’s amorphous boundaries, a non-corporeal life-form composed entirely of energy moves inside the ship, briefly possessing various crew members, including Worf (Michael Dorn), and Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden).

The life form accidentally kills an assistant chief engineer, Singh (Kavi Raz), and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) launches an investigation. Inspired by Sherlock Holmes' personality and methodology, Data investigates in the persona of the great detective, earning the irritation and bemusement of the command crew.

The strange alien life form moves next into Captain Picard. Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) and Counselor Troi (Marina Sirtis) attempt to learn more about the captain’s strange behavior once the change has occurred, but not before he acts unilaterally to beam out into the cloud, and join the non-corporeal life forms living there…

I am a huge admirer of D.C. Fontana and her work, but “Lonely Among Us” may not represent the author’s finest work in the Star Trek universe.

That is no slam against a brilliant writer, of course, because just consider the episodes this amazing talent has written: “Charlie X,” “Journey to Babel,” “This Side of Paradise” and “Yesteryear” (on The Animated Series) to name a few.  

The first three titles, all made my top 20 list during my 50th anniversary blogging last year.

Here, we are still early in the first season of The Next Generation and things are clearly still developing in terms of the characters, the performances, and even the kinds of stories being told. 

For instance, there is some funny  material in this episode about the Anticans and Selays, but the humor is largely diminished because of wooden performances from the likes of Stewart, Frakes, and Crosby. It’s not that the material is necessarily bad; it’s that the execution is weak. 

By contrast, Brent Spiner  absolutely shines in this episode, playing a manic Data/Sherlock Holmes combo that proved so popular it would be resurrected for stories such as “Elementary Dear Data.”  If the Antican/Selay antics had proven as humorous a fashion as Data’s subplot in “Lonely Among Us,” the story might feel a bit more lively, or surprising.

Fontana is also the author of “Tomorrow is Yesterday” a solid Star Trek episode that featured a confusing climax involving the transporter and its functions. There, as you might recall, people from the 20th century (Captain Christopher, notably) were beamed atop their already existing patterns, and were therefore superimposed over their old, pre-existing patterns. This procedure occurred so that the Enterprise’s interference in Earth’s history would go forgotten. 

However, the “new” (superimposed…) patterns were those that had knowledge of the Enterprise’s interference. It’s confusing to say the least.

“Lonely Among Us” has something in common with that transporter confusion. Here, the solution to rescuing Picard from his new life as a non-corporeal life form is to blend his “energy pattern” in space with his stored (pre-existing) physical pattern in the transporter buffer/computer.  Blend them together, and -- voila! -- restored Picard.

I’m not exactly certain how this is all supposed to work, to be frank. It seems like the right thing to do here is just bring up Picard’s stored pattern from the exact moment he left the ship, and restore that pattern to life. Why does the energy pattern need to be combined with it?

And, in calling all this up, has Star Trek accidentally discovered the cure for death?  Remember how angry and nitpicking Trekkers like to complain about how Khan’s magic blood in Into Darkness (2013) brought immortality to the Trek universe?  Well, the same thing rather definitely happens in “Lonely Among Us.”

Imagine, for a second, that you beam down with six crew-members to a planet, and things go wrong. You die on the surface, with all your teammates. Why couldn’t the starship in orbit just call-up your stored patterns from the moment before you beamed off the ship, and bring you and the rest of the away team back to life?

No one ever need die on a dangerous mission again! 

Just call up the last stored pattern, and pop it on the transporter pad! Instant resurrection!

Perhaps more genuinely troubling than the technology-miraculously-saves-the-day-ending here is the often-missed revelation that Picard joins with the cloud entity and willingly abandons his command, to “explore” the final frontier.  

So, just to be clear: it was partly his choice to leave.

This doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in our captain. When possessed by an alien, he decides he wants to go with it.

Imagine, for a second, Captain James T. Kirk, Captain Benjamin Sisko, Captain Kathryn Janeway, Captain Jonathan Archer, or Captain Lorca making the same decision under the same circumstances.  

They all would have fought the alien presence, and the alien agenda, not willingly signed up.

The only reason Picard returns to the Enterprise at all in “Lonely Among Us” is because the joining with the alien entity wasn’t possible in space.  So he would have died had he stayed.

Here I will be blunt: I don’t at all like the writing of Captain Picard in the first season of The Next Generation. He surrenders the Enterprise twice in the first four episodes. Then, in the sixth episode, he willingly gives up command of the ship and his captaincy, on this flight of fancy to be an “explorer.” 

An upcoming episode (#8), “The Battle,” similarly reveals him to have lost his faculties.

I understand that Picard doesn’t and shouldn’t be an imitation of Kirk. But my god, any captain with this record should be court-martialed out of the service, and not allowed to continue as commanding officer of the Federation flagship.  I hasten to add, had these particular stories been spread out over twenty four episodes, this impression of Picard wouldn't stand.  But when you consider that Jean-Luc surrenders two times, and loses his faculties two times in the first eight stories (50% percent of the series so far!) the only word that can describe this captain is incompetent.

I want to finish this review by writing something nice: I love the Enterprise dress uniforms introduced here, and the alien costumes (for the Selay and Anticans) are terrific.  I always wished I had the Galoob action figures for these endlessly-bickering aliens.

Next week: “Justice.”

Monday, January 08, 2018

Ask JKM a Question: Will I Be Reviewing The New X-Files Season?

Several readers, on Twitter, and via e-mail, have asked me a variation of the same question:

"Are you going to write reviews of Season 11 of The X-Files?"

Well, the short answer is yes. 

But the longer answer is: please be patient. I just started a new position at my community college, as department chair for Humanities and Social Sciences, and my time is at a premium, as I learn the ropes.

I watched (and loved) "My Struggle 3." Now I just need to find time to put my thoughts down in a coherent review. I have every confidence I will get to it soon, so hold tight!

And don't forget to ask me your questions at

Memory Bank: The Blizzard of 1978

Here in Charlotte, N.C., we have spent the last week enduring the coldest winter in 22 years. My college canceled a work day last Wednesday, and schools throughout the area have had delayed openings and early releases, on and off, for days.

But the seasonal weather got me thinking about a winter storm from my own youth: the much storied Blizzard of 1978

Now, this blizzard was serious business, and I don't want to minimize that fact, or romanticize the damage caused by the storm. 

The blizzard struck the North East U.S. on February 6 and February 7th, 1978, and did more than 500 million dollars worth of property damage. There were over one hundred fatalities, too, and nearly 5,000 injuries. 

Make no mistake: the  Blizzard of  '78 was a big deal.  The headline at the top of this post describes "winter's fury."

In my neck of the woods -- Glen Ridge, NJ -- however, the blizzard was a cause for joy for eight year olds like me.

Our front yard, on Clinton Road, was covered in snow several feet high. I remember my father shoveling snow from the front walk, into our yard, so that the snow accumulation would be even higher.  

And then he dug out several holes and tunnels, so that my sister and I had a multi-room igloo right beyond our front porch.  

The igloo was big too. I remember that you could crawl from a main room to a network of tunnels with at least three other rooms. Our next door neighbor and friend, Jeannie, had a room to herself. My sister had a room. And I had a room. Our beloved family cat, Penny -- a long-haired calico -- would even spend time inside the igloo with us too.

As a kid, I was utterly oblivious to the fact that such weather could be destructive. For me, these snow days were merely a unique occasion to play. 

I saw some slides my father took of the Blizzard of '78 recently (alas, I don't have a photo to post at this point.) and the huge snow pile/igloo actually made our house's lower roof accessible to us. You could stand on the top of the snow hill, and jump, basically, onto the roof in front of my bedroom window.

I can't say for sure that I remember how many days of school we missed, but it seemed like a lot. 

I still recall the amazing routine of those snow days: We'd get kitted up in winter gear -- which took about an hour, it felt like -- and then head out, as early as possible, to get into our igloo.  

We'd stay there until we were frozen, or soaking, or both.

I've regaled Joel for years with stories about the Blizzard of 1978, and my childhood experience with my first really big snow.  It's the snowstorm, obviously, that I remember most, forty years later.

Happy Days.

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Machine Underneath