Saturday, January 20, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Doomsday" (December 9, 1978)

The Super Friends foil an attack by the Legion of Doom on the brand new vessel Dauntless, the largest aircraft carrier in the world.  The Legion abandons Sinestro, Cheetah and Black Manta, rather than help them during the crisis.

Enraged, the three super villains seek revenge, leaving anti-matter robots in their place, in the Hall of Justice, and heading out to execute their wrath.

Soon, it's a battle between two Legions of Doom!

"Doomsday" features members of the Legion of Doom turning against the villainous organization, and boasts some intriguing moments. 

For one, we get to see the holding cells at the Hall of Justice. All the criminals housed there, intriguingly, are extra-terrestrial in nature. 

On one hand, this alien round-uup captures the idea that the Justice League protects more than Earth, but rather the whole galaxy. 

On the other hand, it doesn't seem realistic that Earth would house these prisoners, considering how people feel, today, about housing terrorists in American jails. How do you think such people would react knowing dangerous alien criminals are incarcerated in the middle of a major city?

Secondly, Black Manta carries a hand gun in this episode that very clearly resembles an inverted Colonial Viper, from Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979).

Bad dialogue watch: Rboin says "Holy Abominable Snowman," and Aquaman gets the honor of saying "That's what you think" this week. The target of his quip is Sinestro.

Nextweek: "Super Friends: Rest in Peace."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Captain Torque, Space Pirate" (November 13, 1975 )

Captain Torque, notorious and tyrannical space pirate wants to recruit the two stupidest volunteers in the galaxy to serve on his crew, and settles on the space nuts: Barney (Chuck McCann), Junior (Bob Denver) and Honk (Patty Maloney).

Once on the pirate’s spaceship crew, the space nuts must “walk the space beam” (a plank made of light) and endure other indignities, until contacted by space authorities for a secret mission.

Now they must double cross the captain, and procure an important treasure protected by “zapatron” rays, so it doesn’t fall into Torque’s hands.

The set-up for this week’s episode of Far Out Space Nuts (1975) is familiar indeed: a villain seeks nincompoops for henchmen and settles on the series protagonists. 

Why villains should require idiots (instead of smart, competent assistants) is a peculiarity of this particular Saturday morning universe.  The Space Nuts are constantly being chosen for jobs on their basis of their stupidity. They guard alien eggs, because they are dumb. They are made space pirates, because they are dumb.

The problem, which villains rarely see, is that not only are the starring characters stupid, but they are cowards as well.

Here, the old cult-TV “space pirate” trope gets trotted out for a heist episode in which a “cosmic treasure” aboard an intergalactic museum ship is the quarry.  That treasure, the “Quasar” is captured by our heroes, but they almost contend with another sci-fi trope: space foam! 

Here, a device called “the vaculator” can douse people in slimy, sticky foam. Such foam has appeared as a menace to space adventurers on Doctor Who (“Seeds of Death”), Space: 1999 (“Space Brain”), and Blake’s 7 (“Space Fall”) to name just a few classic series, but it isn’t much of a menace here. It looks like shaving cream is sprayed in characters’ faces, straight from the (off-camera) can.

Next week: “Vanishing Aliens Mystery.”

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow" (October 8, 1970)

In “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow,” tycoon Arthur Maitland (David Brian) and fugitive Ben Richards (Christopher George) both seek out Doctor Walter Koster (Jake Albertson), a  local physician who believes that he can stop and even reverse the aging process.

After learning that Koster and his lovely daughter, Dr. Anne Koster (Rosemary Forsythe) are trustworthy individuals, Ben Richards confides his secret to them, and consents to testing. Perhaps, if he can unlock the mysteries of his unique blood, he will no longer be a hunted man. At least that’s the hope.

Unfortunately, Maitland shows up at the Koster Clinic too, also seeking treatment. With Fletcher (Don Knight) at his side, he offers to give Koster a million dollars to continue his research. At first, Koster seems incorruptible, but before long, he sells out Ben for the promise of making a difference with his work.

Fortunately, the doctor sees the error of his ways, and with Anne’s help works to free Ben from custody. The Kosters help him escape from the clinic, but Ben has grown close to Anne and their goodbye is sorrowful.

Although lacking in any real science fiction storytelling, “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow” is another riveting episode of the short-lived The Immortal (1970-1971). The episode favors suspense over action -- which is a bit of a change, -- and the romance between Richards and Anne doesn’t feel at all forced, remarkably, even though it is a trope of man-on-the-run series such as this one.  The result is an entertaining hour.

“Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow” is very much about character, particularly the character of cantankerous Dr. Koster. 

When he first see him, he is a guest on a local TV series “Frontiers of Science,” operating a clinic, and happy with his place in life. He loves his work in fact, and is clearly a genius in his field, even without notoriety, fame, or the promise of a professional legacy. Koster resists Maitland’s efforts to corrupt him, at least for a while, but loses sight, finally, of his oath to do no harm.  It takes a while for Koster to understand that his real legacy in this life is Anne, a better version of himself, perhaps, and she shows her father how to be his best self again.

It’s fascinating how Maitland manages to appeal to Koster’s vanity over time. Koster claims he is concerned with “millions of lives” and therefore doing the right thing. It is Anne who must remind her father that if he gives in, Ben will be “…caged like an animal…long after we’ve died.

In other words, you can’t be a hero for saving millions if you are willing to let one of your patients suffer.

On the other hand, this discussion simultaneously lessens our identification with Richards. Ben has the capacity, basically, to change the world, if only he accepts some limits on his freedom. As is pointed out, he doesn't have to turn himself in to Maitland or some other greedy private individual. He could surrender to the government, and hope to be treated fairly.  

Richards' insistence that he's "gotta be free" means, essentially, that he risks squandering his gift, and never helping those whom he could save.  At time, this feels very, very selfish.

In terms of presentation and style, “Reflections on a Lost Tomorrow” doesn’t exactly end on a high-note, unfortunately. Anne helps Ben escape from a strait jacket, and he puts on a disguise before fleeing the clinic, but he’s been drugged, so he’s shaky. To escape the building, he must walk out on his own two feet, and not draw attention to himself.  This is difficult, and we can see how groggy he is, thanks to George's good performance.

Director Leslie H. Martinson shoots the scene well, to, again, heighten the sense of suspense. But, alas, he is undercut by the scene’s lack of extras. We get several point-of-view shots, as Richards walks the halls of the clinic, trying to escape. We see the same patient in a robe twice, for instance, in different rooms. Once, he walks by Richards. The next time we see him, Richards enters a new room, and he is sitting down there. Another extra tries to disguise himself by wearing a surgical mask in one of his two shots, but we’ve clearly seen him before as well.  

If you have an attentive eye, these repeat “extras” will undercut the hard-fought attempt to build suspense.

Finally, this episode adds significantly to the sense of villainy surrounding Maitland. When he learns that Koster has betrayed him, for example, the rich man's default position is to threaten to burn down the doctor’s clinic. That’s his first instinct. To commit arson to hurt the person who defied him. The fact that the clinic is filled with sick people is immaterial to the guy. It’s actually a shocking moment because it is so ugly. We know Maitland is single-minded in wanting to live forever, to cage and use Richards at his discretion. Here, we see he is vindictive and murderous too.

Next week: “The Legacy.”

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Justice" (November 9, 1987)

Stardate: 41255.6

After settling a Federation colony in a nearby solar system, the Enterprise visits Rubicun III, a planet populated by the friendly, and sexually-liberated Edo.

Shore leave privileges are approved on the planet, after a review of local customs by Lt. Yar (Denise Crosby), but the Enterprise must also reckon with a sensor ghost in orbit: a giant phantom-like presence that resembles a space station.

Meanwhile, the legal customs of the Edo prove not to be quite as liberated as the citizenry’s sexual behavior. Capital punishment -- for every crime -- is widely used as a deterrent.

Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) accidentally breaks a law while playing ball with some Rubicun youth, and is sentenced to die for the transgression.

Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) wants to adhere to the Prime Directive, and not interfere in the planet’s customs, but he also knows he can’t let the boy die over a minor infraction (destroying young plants, accidentally).

Picard must weigh his choice carefully, however, because the phantom in space is worshiped by the Edo as a God.

And that “God” takes care of them, and warns the Enterprise not to interfere with its “children.”

I readily confess that I like “Justice” a good bit more than I do many early first season offerings of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This episode gets away from the oft-seen sound-stage interiors and fake rocks found there to shoot on location, for one thing.  It also follows to the hilt Gene Roddenberry’s “kinky” proclivities, and, finally, tests Captain Picard most profoundly. 

On that last front, our good captain is very much in the middle. While he is judging the customs of the Edo, he is, simultaneously, being judged by the Edo’s God. Captain Picard may think the Edo primitive and misguided for their legal system, but for every move he makes, he must weigh how his behavior reflects on him, his crew, and even the Federation.

He is battling his responsibility to the letter of the law, but also responsibility for his people, namely Wesley.

Today, the sexuality of the Edo -- “playing at love,” scantily clad, and oiled up -- probably seems like nothing scandalous, or even a bit cheesy.  To which I would say; remember context.

We have had thirty years since “Justice” aired to grow accustomed to more provocative TV on premium cable (HBO), regular cable, and even network television. In 1987, however, this was all cutting-edge stuff. Star Trek was a “family franchise” pushing the envelope on content and visuals. 

Too often, I think, people forget that fact, now. It’s easy to laugh at this show, and call it “Planet of the Joggers” (because all the super physically-fit Edo run everywhere, in what looks like a public resort), but the fact of the matter is that the episode is very frank about sexuality. Although we don’t see it, it’s pretty clear that the Enterprise crew who are visiting the planet are engaging sex with these people. There’s a sexual charge in some of the sequences, such as Worf and Rivan’s (Brenda Bakke) introduction, or Tasha’s look of contentment and arousal when she notes that the locals make love at the drop of “any” hat.

Remember: 1987.

On Star Trek.

Thematically, “Justice” is a much like the series premiere, “Encounter at Farpoint” in that it concerns a superior alien being judging the crew of the Enterprise. This is a common Star Trek theme, but here the emphasis is a bit different.

In “Encounter at Farpoint,” Q had no real interest in the Bandi, or what happened to them, let alone the jellyfish aliens. He just wanted to see if the humans could solve what he viewed as a complex mystery.

In “Justice,” Picard must make a choice -- based on his values -- which he knows the God Alien won’t like.  And the God Alien is invested in the Edo the very way that Beverly and Picard are invested in Wesley.  This is an elegant dramatic structure, one often overlooked in the negative reviews of the installment. Picard has to act as judge, even as he is judged. 

Even surrounded by the half-naked Edo, Patrick Stewart displays a kind of intellectual dignity in this episode, showing us how Picard grapples with his choices, and does his best to be consistent.  For me, this is the first “real” Picard episode since the pilot. Since then, we’ve seen him silly and drunk (“The Naked Now”), hamstrung and frustrated (“Code of Honor”), relegated to the ship while philosophical leadership is delegated to Riker (“The Last Outpost”), and even cranky and surly (“Lonely Among Us.”)  Here, he assumes leadership, and we see how he lives by his ideals, and makes decisions by his ideals.

He has an issue to grapple with too, and so “Justice” is smart. Where, we all must wonder, is the consistency in having a law (like the Prime Directive) and breaking it when one judges it wrong?  How can we, or the God Alien, respect Picard if he breaks the rules he supposedly reveres?

That consistency emerges in the adult acknowledgement that even though law is necessary to maintain a civilization, it won’t serve the needs of that civilization in every situation. There must be exceptions to the law, or there is law, but not justice.  And those are two different things. It is not just to kill someone for falling into a bed of plants, even if it is the law.

We live in a country that sometimes tries 13-year old minors as adults in court, even though they are not adults. We live in a country that administers the death penalty on a regular basis to the poorest of the community; people who can't afford proper legal representation in some cases.  Therefore, this talk of justice is not irrelevant to the program’s audience. And so in the best tradition of Star Trek, “Justice” is not really about some alien planet and its customs. It is about us and how we view it.  Are our laws always fair? Are they applied equally to all?  Do they foster justice, or do they foster inequality?

Back in 2006, I had the chance to discuss “Justice” a little with its director, James Conway, and he told me about the experience: “I did "Justice," which was the ninth show…That was a lot of fun. That was a classic old-style Star Trek episode. I remember that one of the first things I shot on the show was the scene where we beamed in like nine people at once. It was unwieldy to try to photograph nine people on one side, and then all the people seeing them on the other side."

"It was fun," he also observed of the episode’s production. "They spent a lot of time designing the costumes. If you look at the old, early Season One of TNG, and you see where it went in seasons three and four when it became such a huge's a totally different TV show."  It ["Justice"] was very much a Gene Roddenberry-style show. He was a great guy, by the way. I loved Gene. When he left the show...originally there was no interfering with other cultures, so there were no fights, there was no action to speak of. And frankly I think the show got much better when the Borg showed up and everyone started shooting at each other. It [“Justice”] was like an updated version of the original series, down to the wardrobe," he concludes.

I think he’s right. “Justice,” warts and all, feels a bit more like Original Trek, than many chapters of The Next Generation do.  For me, that’s not a bad thing at all.  “Justice” is provocative in design, costume, and ideas, and that, in my book, is what makes for good science fiction television. 

Next Week: “The Battle.”

Monday, January 15, 2018

The X-Files: "My Struggle III" (January 3, 2018)

The X-Files (1993 – 2002; 2016, 2018) has returned for Season 11, and I’m behind the eight-ball here reviewing the new season of ten episodes. 

Hopefully, I will catch-up quickly. (Right now I’m two episodes back!)

We must begin our look at the new season with “My Struggle III,” the shocking resolution (of sorts) to the Season 10 cliffhanger. The third part of the “My Struggle” saga, written and directed by Chris Carter, aired in the U.S. on January 3rd, 2018, and has fiercely divided critics and audiences for two reasons.

First, the episode ret-cons the Season Ten finale completely.

Secondly, this episode offers a revelation -- utilizing footage from a Season Seven episode called “En Ami” -- that has apparently enraged some fans.

In other words, The X-Files is right back exactly where it belongs: ambitiously taking chances, and refusing to rest on old victories. Instead of rehashing old successes, the series pushes forward right into the madness of the Trump Era, challenging us with new ideas and new perceptions.

The Carter series enters its eleventh season with an action-packed inaugural installment that, more than anything, tells us a truth about Scully that we need to hear and acknowledge. She is not immune from the toxic white masculinity that we have seen on display in the news in recent months, but has been a part of life for women in the workplace going back decades. Instead, Scully is part of the “Me Too” Movement (and hopefully “Time’s Up” Movement) in a way that is shocking, sickening, and heart-breaking.

What does this mean?

Broadly, it means, once more, that The X-Files has charted a path that is one part fantasy or science fiction, and one part social commentary.  The series was never really about aliens, or monsters or even conspiracies, but rather about what aliens, monsters, and conspiracies say about us, and the times we live in.

Consider that The X-Files has always concerned the elite few (The Syndicate, for instance) who wield inordinate power over the rest of us, shaping events to their liking; consolidating power and wealth.  “My Struggle III” is perfectly in line with that historic arc or through-line, inscribing another line of infamy to the Cigarette Smoking Man’s ledger of evil. He not only made decisions that affected the lives of millions; he made a choice involving Scully’s body that he had no right to make.

Before we delve further into exactly why this story is so powerful, and so perfectly aligned with our times, a brief summary of the narrative is necessary.

“My Struggle III” opens with images of apocalypse. The world is dying from the Spartan Virus, which has been unleashed by the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis). Mulder (David Duchovny) is dying from the virus as well. Scully (Gillian Anderson) needs William to save both the human race and the man she loves, knowing that only her son’s unusual (and part alien?) DNA can save humanity. On the way to help Mulder, an alien ship, apparently, shines on a light on Scully.

She looks up, and we push into her face…only to find that this is all a premonition. Scully has had a seizure and witnessed the future, not the present. Mulder is not dying, and the Spartan Virus exists, but has not yet been unleashed.

Scully has seen a glimpse of the end, but the important thing is that the storyline we saw in Season 10 is not abandoned. Despite what some critics have suggested, this is not a “Patrick Duffy in the Shower” moment. Instead, it is a preview of what is yet to come, a message sent to Scully from, of all sources, her son: William. He is out there somewhere, and has telepathically transmitted this message to her. It has manifested, physiologically, as a seizure.

Now, Mulder and Scully are prepared to stop the Cigarette Smoking Man’s plans.

That’s not the end, however.

We also learn in “My Struggle 3” that there is a second conspiracy working against the Cigarette Smoking Man.  Barbara Hershey’s Erika Price leads this cabal. As much as the Smoking Man wants to save Scully -- because he is in love with her -- this conspiracy desires her dead, because it knows that she, Mulder and William have the power to stop them.

Mulder and Scully resolve to go back to their jobs, knowing that William is trying to find them, but there is a final twist.

The Cigarette Smoking Man reveals to Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) that years earlier, in 2000, he “impregnated” Scully with “science” (particularly “alien science.”) 

Hence, in some fashion, he is William’s father.

Let’s consider the retcon first.

As I said before, this is not a Patrick Duffy moment in the shower. That reference alludes to the soap opera series Dallas, in which Duffy’s character, Bobby Ewing, was killed. A whole season worth of shows were created in which his character was, actually, dead. Then, as a season cliffhanger, he was shown to be alive, in the shower, the whole season (and his death) explained as his wife’s dream.  The whole season, basically, was “undone” by this twist.

Carter does not treat Season 10 with any such level of disrespect or dismissal in the premiere of Season 11. Again, all the plot lines we saw laid out in “My Struggle II” are still in the offing. Mulder is going to get sick and die. The Cigarette Smoking Man is going to release the Spartan Virus. Humanity is moving towards extinction. 

Only the timeline of these events has changed.

Why is this a smart and valid dramatic choice?

For a few reasons.

First, thematically, The X-Files has often dramatized stories involving people with telekinetic and telepathic abilities (“Oubliette,” “Mind’s Eye”). Superhuman mental powers are therefore, valid terrain for the show to explore. In this case, we’re in the terrain of precognition, or premonitions, another realm of the paranormal worthy of investigation. And the source of this “message” is similarly, a character we know possess paranormal abilities, William. His abilities were seen at the start of Season 9.

Secondly, by positioning William as the source of Scully’s premonition (the sender, as it were), “My Struggle III” grants Season 11 an emotionally-powerful purpose. I loved Season 10 and did not find it purposeless or meandering in the slightest. But some critics seemed to quibble with it, and the way it featured Mytharc book-ends, with seemingly unrelated monster-of-the-week stories in the middle. Now, Season 11 boasts a twin purpose, right out the gate: to locate William, and to prevent the end of human life, in the process saving Mulder’s life. Even the standalone stories will, apparently, be seen through this lens.

The second controversial aspect of “My Struggle III” is the one that I find more valuable, and more relevant than clever approach to the story. The audience learns that The Cigarette Smoking Man assaulted Scully. He drugged her, and took away her right to consent. This is very much a struggle of the moment, as we have seen, one that has brought down men in power such as Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and others. It is one that has effected women including Eliza Dushku, Rose McGowan, and many, many others. Above, I called it the culture of toxic white masculinity, and this is clearly also the culture of the Cigarette Smoking Man. Clearly, he feels there is nothing he can’t do, no one he can’t hurt or control, to get what he wants.  (This facts makes his co-opting of Monica Reyes all the more tragic).

I have read comments online from some fans of the series who are very angry about this revelation regarding William’s parentage, though we actually see footage from “En Ami” to back-it-up.  Again, the information doesn’t come from nowhere, but rather from accepted and long-known X-Files lore.

But some fans have actually accused The X-Files of being sexist and toxic for putting Scully through this storyline.  By telling this particular story, however, the series does not endorse the Cigarette Smoking Man’s behavior. Quite the contrary. He is, after all, the villain. Instead, the series is acknowledging the reality that we have always known: Scully has succeeded in a male-dominated profession, but has never held “the power” in that profession.  The power was held, instead, by men like CGB Spender.

I never thought I would see the day when fans are no longer smart enough to distinguish between the behavior of the villain in the drama, and creative purpose of said drama. The last year, however, I have seen attacks on Star Trek: Discovery, Star Wars: The Last Jedi and now The X-Files that suggest there are some toxic behaviors and people in geek culture too

No work of art carries any meaning, if it does not relate to the context from which it arose. Rather than appealing to nostalgia for the 1990’s, The X-Files Season 11 has aggressively pushed into 2018 by revealing that Scully has had a “me too” moment, like so many women that we have recently learned about. She is not immune to the pervasive behavior of an entire culture. We may not like this revelation, and of course we wish differently for her (because we love Scully), but The X-Files has always kept a foot in reality.

Remember, Scully has battled cancer. She has fought infertility. She has fought sexism in her job (see: “2Shy”). And now we know she is part of the “Me Too” or “Time’s Up” moment as well.

I am really, really looking forward to Scully and Mulder telling the Cigarette Smoking Man that his time is up. I hope we see that, especially after this revelation. But to suggest that The X-Files is abusive, or pro-abuse because of this narrative is absurd. Instead, we must reckon with the fact that the abuse we see in the real world has a corollary in the world of The X-Files. I am curious to see Scully’s response when she learns what the Cigarette Smoking Man did to her.

The X-Files also takes on the Trump Era in other ways, with references not merely to “Me Too,” but “Fake News” and “Alternative Facts.” We live in an era when an authoritarian President dismisses any news that he doesn’t like as “fake.”

Let’s face it, that’s his criteria. If news paints him in a bad light, it is fake. If he gets caught in a lie, it’s not a lie at all, just an “alternative fact.”

It’s a dangerous time, and when we, as a nation, can no longer detect the truth, we are all in danger, from enemies inside and outside the country. And indeed, that is also what “My Struggle 3” concerns quite directly: our inability to distinguish between purposeful distraction, lies, and truth. The Cigarette Smoking Man can execute his plan for genocide in part because we can’t even agree on a set of facts anymore.

When we are turned inward like this, our enemies grow in strength.  Even climate change, and our rejection of the Paris Agreement is tangentially connected here, to X-Files lore. Apparently the alien invasion of 2012 did not occur because the aliens, who long sought to reclaim this world, no longer desire to own a world that we are so rapidly destroying.

It’s a caustic throwaway detail, but one that perfectly captures the essence of Trump Age, the looting of America by the 1%.

While watching “My Struggle 3,” my wife and both felt that it packed about two hours-worth of action and details into 40 minutes. It seems like virtually every scene is overloaded with two tracks: physical action and voice-over narration. There’s an inevitability to the way the story unfolds here that is both nerve-wracking and, at times, oddly dream-like. The story is both highly intellectual, in the musings of its main characters (including the Cigarette Smoking Man) and at the same time, action packed. This episode is dominated by car chases and fight scenes. One harrowing sequence sees Scully nearly murdered in a hospital bed, and Mulder slitting the assailant’s throat.  In addition to being a philosopher of sorts, Carter has become an expert choreographer of action sequences.

The undeniable impression from “My Struggle 3” is that The X-Files is going for broke, pushing harder and faster than ever before.  The series is headed in new directions, challenging us to keep up, and re-evaluate what we think the series “is.”

I’m good with that.

Next up: “This.”

The Cult-TV Faces of: Addicts