Saturday, January 27, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Challenge of the Super Friends: "Super Friends: Rest in Peace" (December 16, 1978)


Batman is dead!

The Super Friends huddle in the Bat Cave in shock, as the latest Legion of Doom gambit takes a powerful emotional toll on the Justice League.

This crisis all began when the Legion of Doom members, posing as oil company employees, excavated a deadly canister of Noxium that had been buried under the Hall of Justice. 

After acquiring the weapon,the Legion tricked Superman into opening it. Inside is a poisonous crystal.

With the deadly weapon in hand, the Legion proceeded to attack Paradise Island. There, Cheetah killed Wonder Woman.  

At another location, Superman had to rescue Lois Lane, only to die, apparently, in the attempt, because of exposure.

The deadly Noxium gives The Legion of Doom"The greatest victory" it has ever had.  But the Super Friends have one last trick up their costumed sleeves.



"Super Friends: Rest in Peace" is a really fun episode of this Saturday morning series. It features an exciting  point-of-attack: the death of Batman, and then works backwards to explain what has occurred. 

The story is surprising, and fans get to see superheroes dying, which is an unusual sight, to say the least, for a kid's show.

I also adore this episode because it pulls in characters from the individual hero universes. For instance, we see Commissioner Gordon, from the Batman mythos.  And, of course, we get to see Lois Lane, at the Daily Planet, too.

The final deus ex machina involves the death of these beloved superheroes.  They aren't dead at all, but super duplicate robots!  

It's a little far-fetched, but it is consistent with what we see on screen, and so it works.

Next week: "History of Doom."

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Vanishing Aliens Mystery" (November 20, 1975)


In “Vanishing Aliens Mystery,” the Space Nuts (Chuck McCann, Bob Denver, and Patty Maloney) seek shelter from a space storm aboard a haunted space platform or station.

There, assembled aliens, including Lantana, are waiting for the reading of a dead man’s will. They all hope he will leave his estate, including the space station, to them. Unfortunately, a glowing creature is also guarding the station, and kidnapping the guests, one at a time.

Barney and Junior are accused of being behind the disappearances, and they get one hour to prove the theory wrong.





Bad title. Good episode.

In fact, “Vanishing Aliens Mystery” is one of the most enjoyable episodes of The Far Out Space Nuts. It is a lot of fun, and very silly. The whole episode plays like a live-action, future-based version of a Scooby Doo cartoon. There’s the haunted setting, the reading of the will, the colorful suspects, and then the hackneyed, prehistoric gags like a painting with moving eyes, and a secret door that rotates around.  The space station even has cob-webs, making it, in Barney’s words “a computerized home for space spiders.”

Intriguingly, “Vanishing Aliens Mystery” even devises a version of Alien’s (1979’s) famous tag-line four years early. At one point, a character notes “If you get very afraid and scream, no one can hear you.”  It’s an awkward precursor to “in space, no one can hear you scream,” but it transmits the same idea.

Also fun is the fact that “Vanishing Aliens Mystery” brings back the costumes and aliens from previous episodes, including Crystallites and Pippets. Sure, it’s just a re-use of what the series  already had in its wardrobe closet, but the return of these various aliens suggests a larger, consistent universe.


Next week: "Barney Begonia."

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Legacy" (October 15, 1970)


Ben Richards (Christopher George) is shot in the shoulder while being pursued by Fletcher’s men in the desert.  He is assisted by a kindly woman, Annie Williams (Susan Howard), a teacher who has been helping a local Mexican boy, Luis (Manuel Padilla). The boy’s grandfather is sick, dying of Typhoid Fever.

Richards, Annie, and Luis head to a remote camp in the mountains, to hide there and tend to Luis’s grandpa. The camp -- the site of an old mine -- is run by a charismatic but dangerous fugitive named Ramos (Mario Alcalde), who refuses to let Richards leave the site to seek help for the old man.

After the old man dies, Richards confronts Ramos, and Annie seeks to adopt Luis. Ramos would rather turn Richards in, than contend with him. Ultimately, he has a change of heart and proves himself a good man.




 “The Legacy” is the episode of The Immortal (1970-1971) -- the fourth after the pilot movie -- that signals the program’s long slide into mediocrity and formulaic storytelling. This episode is the canary in the coal-mine, in other words. In keeping with the (now tired) man-on-the-run format, the series once again finds Richards romancing a beautiful woman, in this case the lovely and kind, Annie. 

The problem is that for the series to follow up with another romantic relationship following Ben’s relationship with Dr. Koster (Rosemary Forsyth) in last week’s (superior) episode, both stories are cheapened.  His connection with Dr. Koster feels a lot less special.

So is Ben Richards just going to love ’em and leave ’em, every darn week?  No woman is more special to him than the last?  As James McLean and I talked about in our podcast about this Fugitive formula, this “different woman in every port” approach may be actually a kind of fantasy for the male viewers.

I should hasten, Annie is a lot like Anne Koster. She is a do-gooder who finds herself instantly attracted to a stranger who is, clearly, keeping secrets.  Yet she automatically trusts him. I think it would have been great if, at some point, the series explained that Ben Richards’ special blood also makes him irresistible to the opposite sex.  Women just throw themselves at his feet.

This episode is also the most dated (thus far) of The Immortal episodes. For example, I understand that Ben is a test driver, but seconds after meeting Annie, he starts driving her pick-up truck.  He does so with a brusque: “Get in. I’ll drive.”  She goes along, asking no questions.  Importantly, Ben doesn’t tell her that he is a test-car driver. He just orders her into her own vehicle, and tells her that he’s in the driver’s seat.  Welcome to the unspoken, unquestioned white male dominance of the 1970’s. If there’s a man and a woman going somewhere, and it’s the woman’s car, the man is still going to drive it. Even if he’s just been shot in the shoulder.

The treatment of the Mexican criminals is slightly better, to one’s relief. Ramos is an interesting, dimensional character in some important ways. He knows that he is a criminal, and that all he will ever be is a criminal. It is too late for him to change. He never had an opportunity to be anything but a criminal. Despite this, he wants something better for young Luis.  He can see that for Luis, a better life is within reach.

And, Ramos is aware of the racial dynamics here too, with Richards carrying the “great white burden,” teaching Luis the so-called “right way” to live. He sarcastically refers to Richards as “The great Anglo-American hero.”  He’s not far wrong, and it’s good that the episode acknowledges this fact.  The episode’s solution to Luis’s situation and future is adoption by Annie. To the show’s credit, it never feels as though this is the answer because she is white, but rather because she truly loves Luis.  She cares deeply for the boy. Since his grandpa is dead, he has no one else.


“The Legacy” is a pretty pedestrian episode of The Immortal. There are still some strong episodes coming up (namely “Man on a Punched Card” and especially “The Queen’s Gambit,”) but one can’t help but feel that the series is losing its battle with a formulaic premise.  The gravity of that premise is pulling down the fine performances, and the action, and making the stories feel less immediate, less individual, even.


Next week: “The Rainbow Butcher.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "The Battle" (November 16, 1987)


Stardate: 41723.9

Summoned to the Xendi Sabu star system by the Ferengi, the Enterprise waits for three days for a further transmission, much to the dismay of Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart).

Strangely, Captain Picard develops a headache, which Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) can “cloak,” but not eliminate.

Soon the Ferengi make their move. Daimon Bok (Frank Corsentino) has arranged a unique gift for Picard. He has recovered Picard’s previous command, the Constellation class U.S.S. Stargazer, which Picard was forced to abandon nine years earlier; following a sneak attack from an alien vessel.

As Bok reveals, that vessel was a Ferengi ship, and the encounter is now known as “The Battle of Maxia” by his people.

As Picard learns more, he starts to experience powerful memories from his last day aboard the Stargazer, and that fateful battle. The only way his crew survived the attack was a last ditch gambit now known in Starfleet lore as “The Picard Maneuver.”

As Picard grows more unable to discern past from present, the Enterprise crew learns that Bok is utilizing alien “orb” devices to trigger his memories, an attempt at revenge for the death of the Ferengi’s son, who commanded that alien ship all those years ago.

 


“The Battle” is another minor, and undistinguished episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation’s (1987-1994) troubled first season. 

This makes the third story out of eight to feature an incapacitated Captain Jean-Luc Picard (the other two being “The Naked Now” and “Lonely Among Us.”)  Here, he takes command of his old ship, the Stargazer, and attacks his current ship, the Enterprise.

If we are to run a check on Captain Picard’s record in the first eight episodes of the series, we’ve got three instances of the character being incapacitated, and two surrenders by Picard of the Federation flagship (“Encounter at Farpoint,” and “The Last Outpost.”) 

Again, had these instances and scenarios been spread out over an entire season of twenty-four episodes, we would have a different first impression of Kirk’s successor. As it stand, he isn’t a towering figure of command, at least not yet.


If any character suffers more deeply than Picard does in the first stretch of TNG episodes it is Wesley Crusher. 

It’s as though the writers are deliberately trying to undermine the poor kid. Here, once more, he proves himself cleverer than the Starfleet officers who represent “the best of the best.” In “The Battle,” it is Wesley -- not a trained professional -- who realizes that Picard’s brainwaves are in “tune” with broadcasts emanating from the Ferengi Marauder.

The problem, as we have seen before, is that by making Wesley the “hero” so often, he not only seems like an obnoxious know-it-all, but the other characters, from Riker and Geordi to Worf and Yar -- seem incompetent. 

Don’t even get me started on Data. He’s supposed to be able to complete 60 trillion operations a second, and still Wesley figures out the similarity in patterns before he does.

Since I ran a tally for Picard above, I’ll give you Wesley’s tally at this juncture. In the first eight episodes, young Mr. Crusher provides the answer that saves the day in three stories: “The Naked Now,” “Where No One Has Gone Before,” and here in “The Battle.”

So if you were serving on The Enterprise during the series’ first season, there was a 37.5% percent chance you were alive because of a wet-behind-his ears, untrained genius teenager.

Still, you’d be glad to have him aboard, considering Picard’s track record!  How does Acting-Captain Crusher sound?

Seriously, it’s easy to pick on The Next Generation at this early juncture, but it’s a bit of a wonder that no writers or producers were seriously looking out for how viewers might perceive these characters, hour-to-hour, episode-to-episode.

In terms of other elements in this story, one tough one to swallow is the condition of the Stargazer. It’s pretty much intact, it seems. 

I understand the Ferengi must have done some repair work, but just in terms of the ship’s structure, it still possesses its saucer section and all four nacelles. 

Consider for a moment, how the Reliant looked after a similar battle, in The Wrath of Khan (1982). The Enterprise blew off a torpedo pod and a nacelle in the Battle of the Mutara Nebula (before Khan detonated the Genesis Device). It was a wreck. It clearly went through a battle.

Now look at the Stargazer by comparison. Structurally sound. All engines intact. There’s some cosmetic damage inside the ship, but not enough to merit evacuating it.  

Once again, we have a reason to question Picard as a captain. Why’d he abandon a ship that is still, largely, space worthy?


There is another problem that crops up in "The Battle," and again and again on this show: lax or incompetent security. 

Here, Worf just unquestioningly delivers a heavy trunk from a Ferengi-controlled vessel (the Stargazer) and deposits it in the captain’s quarters, without checking its contents.  Wouldn’t security go over absolutely everything, especially as it is going to the personal quarters of the ship’s commanding officer?



Dr. Crusher should also be on the list of incompetent officers, at least in this episode. Several top-rank Starfleet officers witness Captain Picard, in a briefing, unable to distinguish past from present. 

And yet Crusher doesn’t relieve the captain, even with prior knowledge of the fact that he is experiencing debilitating headaches. We know from Crusher's comments earlier in the episode that headaches are no longer common.  (They must have been cured since the Original Series era, since Kirk had a headache in "The Trouble with Tribbles").  

So, any good doctor would relieve Picard based on his physical condition, and the stress of the Ferengi situation.

The whole revenge plot is rather hackneyed too. It's been done before on Star Trek, and done far better.  Bok is no Khan. Let's just put it that way.


One nice aspect of “The Battle,” however, is Riker’s friendship with Kazago (Doug Warhit), first officer of Bok’s ship. The two characters develop a nice rapport over the course of the episode, and come to trust one another. Something about the relationship seems oddly realistic. Both men are loyal officers, and yet both men know something is amiss with their respective commanding officer. Perhaps out of empathy for their opposite number, they unexpectedly develop a sense of trust.

The final scenes on the bridge of the Stargazer, with Picard surrounded by the “ghosts” of his Stargazer crew, are also well-visualized, thanks to director Rob Bowman.

But overall, "The Battle" another decidedly mediocre show; with some sloppy storytelling and a reliance on clichés we have already seen on the show (the genius kid, and the incapacitated captain, to name two.)

Next week: “Hide and Q.”

Monday, January 22, 2018

The X-Files: "This" (January 10, 2018)


In “This,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) receive a strange transmission on Mulder’s smart phone, apparently from the late Richard Langly (Dean Haglund) of the Lone Gunmen.  On the phone, Langly asks if he is dead.

Before the agents can process this strange encounter with a man who died 15 years earlier, they are the targets of a brutal surprise hit. Heavily armed assailants attack their house, and attempt to gun them down.

Scully and Mulder survive, and learn that the attackers are foreign nationals operating legally in the United States. More specifically, they are from Russia, from a private intelligence company called Perlu.

On the run, Mulder and Scully flee into the woods. They arrange a meeting with Skinner (Mitch Pileggi), who informs them that the Russian nationals are operating, with Executive Branch authority, in the U.S. He also reveals that the X-Files have been digitized by Perlu, and are now all online. 

Attempting to stay alive, and one step ahead of their would-be captors, Mulder and Scully investigate Langly's life and death, commencing at his tombstone in Arlington cemetery.  From there, they find the tombstone of Deep Throat, and a microchip stored there.

They then learn of a strange plot operating from “Titanpointe,” or the Long Lines Building in Manhattan, NY.  There, Erika Price (Barbara Hershey) oversee a digital repository of dead geniuses.  Like Langly, their consciousness has been uploaded to a server, where these individuals serve the conspiracy...forever.

Langly reports to Mulder and Scully that this “life after death” is but a form of digital slavery, and that he wants to be killed, so that he can escape from it. Together, Mulder and Scully attempt to turn off the server, even as Price’s forces close in for the kill.


Glen Morgan writes and directs “This,” an unusual installment of The X-Files (1993 – 2002; 2016 - ) that feels like a steroidal mash-up between a work of Alfred Hitchcock, and the earlier series firfth season episode, “Kill Switch.” 

From Hitchcock, the tale adopts the dramatic device of protagonists running for their lives, hunted and attacked by deadly, shadowy operatives (North by Northwest [1959].) This is a novel point of attack, since The X-Files episodes traditionally start with Mulder and Scully investigating a case file and going to the location of a murder, or strange phenomenon.

Here, the case file comes to them in a literal blast: a splendidly choreographed fight scene cut to “California Sun.”  Usually, in standalone stories, the prologue is reserved for characters we don’t know who experience something paranormal or even supernatural. Here, we see Mulder and Scully in the prologue, contacted by Langly, making our protagonists the center of their very own X-File.

This sequence starts the episode off in surprising, high-tension fashion. First, we see Mulder and Scully asleep together on a sofa, having fallen asleep while watching television. Then they get the call from Langly.

First, I love this imagery, because: welcome to middle age! Mulder and Scully aren’t the thirty-somethings they were in the original series and that means, among other things, less stamina. This is a charming moment, watching them asleep beside each other before the action starts.

And then the action kicks in, and it isn’t just action, it is hyper-action. Scully flips a sofa for cover, and Mulder darts to take the high ground (the top of the staircase), as the brutal assault commences.


What I love about this is that Mulder and Scully just jump into action, reflexively. Without words, they work together to fight their way out of a life-and-death situation. And again, they don’t do it by being young and strong, but by (wordless) coordination, and smart strategy. They pick off their enemies in a cross-fire, even if the bad guys outnumber them, and ultimately capture them. At least briefly.  This sequence is a blast, and a great way to begin a story.

Later in the episode, Mulder must physically take down a younger Russian agent, and I love Duchovny’s performance in the sequence. Mulder is still  quite physically fit, but he’s older, and it’s clear that after the knock-down, drag-out fight, he’s winded. When he approaches Scully, after the fight, and notes, triumphantly, that he got his phone back, it’s a great moment. 

He’s still got it.

But he'll be feeling it tomorrow, if you know what I mean.

From “Kill Switch,” “This” takes its central premise: that of human life preserved, digitally, long after physical death. The great thing about this story is that it feels like a legitimate outgrowth of “Kill Switch.”  The technology we saw back then (in 1998) is now up and running, and housing scientists who can serve Price’s cabal of the elite. She reveals to Fox that now the cabal can upload a human mind from a smart phone, a terrifying thought.


Indeed, a fascinating angle of this story is the notion of “digital slavery.” When Langly died, his consciousness went to Price’s device, to serve her agenda...forever. Sure, he gets to eat donuts and watch the Patriots lose, but Langly's intellect is being used for purposes beyond his control, beyond his choice.

I read this idea not merely as a development of the plot-point we saw originated in “Kill Switch” but as an acknowledgment of some of the harsh criticism The X-Files faced in 2016. I read some reviews in prominent periodicals, after Season 10, blaming the series, essentially, for the fact that our culture now widely believes in conspiracies and distrusts government. 

To me, this might be a form of digital slavery. Critics were harnessing aspects of the series for their own agendas. They looked back at the nineties, and tried to rewrite what it meant, and what impact it had on the culture. 

Largely, they had the answer in reverse. 

The X-Files tapped into something happening in America as far back as Watergate, which it then explored, in an era of paranoia.  But the series has been enslaved, sometimes -- like Langly in "This -- for purposes beyond its original intent. Intriguingly, this idea has a corollary in the episode’svery text. 

Without Mulder and Scully’s knowledge, their case files have been uploaded to the Net, for others to utilize, without their consent.


Beyond this self-reflexive touch, “This” is very much about the current state of our country, and serves as a pointed criticism of the Trump Era. 

Mulder and Scully are left to fend for themselves, basically, because the FBI is no longer in “good stead” with the Executive Branch, according to dialogue. This is a reference to Trump's attacks on the FBI, ostensibly to silence investigations into his affairs with Russia.

And, of course, there are armed Russian mercenaries operating with impunity in the U.S. in "This." The episode connects the President to Russian infiltration, and name-drops Robert Mueller and Edward Snowden. 

The literal idea here is that Mulder and Scully have nowhere to run, because they are being hunted by foreign agents on American soil, and can’t get help from the FBI, the attorney general (also implicated in the Russian collusion), or our President himself.

On a deeper level, “This” is about how a foreign power has infiltrated America, and undercut our freedom. 

In real life, we know the Russians meddled in social media, during a presidential election. The X-Files goes one step beyond that fact by suggesting that a Russia-Friendly Administration has allowed foreign agents into the country, who are helping Erika Price’s cabal maintain security around their operations. 

Given what we already know of Trump’s many, deep, long-standing Russian entanglements, this is hardly a leap into fantasy; more like some believable speculative fiction. (For instance, there have been reports of Russian mercenaries operating in Syria).  And "perlu" means "necessary," I believe.  So perhaps, these agents are in some way necessary to the success of Erica's plan.

Bolstered by great action, an immediate crisis for our heroes -- who are on the run -- and a great concept (digital enslavement), “This” is a terrific addition to Season 11. 

My favorite moment, however, is the one in which Mulder notes that the 1990’s -- once an era of paranoia, and crazy conspiracy -- now, in the Age of Trump, seems like “simpler times.”  This comment is made in a scene (set in a graveyard) which connects “nostalgic” X-Files characters such as Deep Throat and the Lone Gunmen, to the twisted, new 2018 narrative.  

This juxtaposition seems to me the sweet spot for Season 11.

The series is openly acknowledging the past, and Mulder and Scully’s age (again -- middle-aged, and asleep on the sofa!) at the same time it pushes forward into the most pressing concerns of this dangerous and tumultuous new age.


Next week: “Plus One.”

The Cult-TV Faces of: Protests

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