Saturday, February 03, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Far Out Space Nuts: "Barney Begonia" (November 27, 1975)

In “Barney Begonia,” the space capsule lands on a new planet, and a nefarious alien botanist transforms Barney (Chuck McCann) into a living, breathing plant man.

The scientist promises to give Barney the cure for his new condition, but secretly plans to breed hundreds of plant men just like him. The botanist has been experimenting for decades without success, and now he believes he has made the perfect hybrid.

“Barney Begonia” is packed, wall-to-wall with goofy plant jokes, as the title may indicate. There’s a joke about a banana plant, another one about Barney falling in love with a female plant, and other silly touches too. “I’m growing faster than crab grass,” Barney notes at one point. Junior (Bob Denver) replies: “You’re just in season.”

As you might guess, these jokes are generally cringe-worthy, but notable as relics from another, more innocent age of comedy. Today, they don’t exactly feel in season.

In general, The Far Out Space Nuts (1975) has proven to be a generally likable series, despite the antique humor and poor production values.  It isn’t one of the better-remembered of the Sid and Marty Krofft canon and yet it is probably superior to some other efforts (namely Lidsville, or Dr. Shrinker).  I think the series is often mistaken for being idiotic when, in fact, it is about two idiots…in space.

Next week: “Destination: Earth.”

Thursday, February 01, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "The Rainbow Butcher" (October 22, 1970)

A corrupt sheriff in Damon County named Dan Wheeler (Vic Morrow) arrests Ben Richards (Christopher George) on trumped charges for hitchhiking, and takes him to the county jail. 

There, the sheriff makes Ben “work off” his debt, at a rate of fifty dollars a day.

Ben tries to help other inmates on the work crew, but they are all terrified of the sheriff. He even kills one inmate, an alcoholic named Charley (Jerry Ayres).

Soon, Ben learns that Wheeler is illicitly funneling money to a pet project, Wheeler Park for children. He is also forcing a single-mother, Clarice (Collin Wilcox Horne) to be his lover.

Ben must escape from custody before Fletcher and his men show up, help extricate Clarice from her situation, and put the corrupt Sheriff away for good.

Three weeks; three romances.

That’s my motto for The Immortal (1970 – 1971) this week, and for the episode, “The Rainbow Butcher.” Once more, Ben Richards gets involved, at least a little, with a beautiful woman who needs help.  This time that woman is one who has become -- the episode implies -- a corrupt sheriff’s sexual slave. She wants Ben to stay with her, after the sheriff is arrested.

But the road beckons, and Ben has to leave.

And therefore, the man-on-the-run format is revealed fully as a male sexual fantasy. Here, a “special man” gets to romance a different woman in every port, or city, and owes her nothing, afterwards. He’s “got to be free” and move on, after all. His life is at stake, right?

Some the women are but momentary sexual conquests, but the man has no responsibility to them beyond the responsibility of the moment. Please notice that, as far as I have seen in my research, there have been no “woman on the run” TV series.

Only men get this gig.

The key virtue of “The Rainbow Butcher” is the presence of the late, great Vic Morrow as Sheriff Wheeler. The actor creates a character here who is fun to hate, and the best “villain of the week” we have seen so far on the series (at least since the pilot movie). 

Sure, Fletcher and his goons are always on the hunt, but Wheeler is a corrupt murderer who will do anything to get his way, and to meet his desires. He’s such a creepy guy.  The corrupt lawman is a well-worn trope, perhaps, but in Morrow’s hands, the character is more memorable (and by that I mean more despicable) than the average cliché. The episode is compelling enough that you really come to hate the guy, and want to see him fall.

The character of Wheeler also excavates another quality of the man-on-the-run format: the corrupt establishment. Clearly, this character, and indeed the format, are an outgrowth of the Western genre. A lone stranger arrives in town (think Clint Eastwood, or Christopher George, here) and cleans it up, freeing a subjugated or terrorized populace and then restoring justice. 

Then, just as is the case in the Western format, the lone protagonist (often a mystery man, again, like Ben Richards), goes on his merry way, refusing to stay and become part of the community he saved.
If anything consistently disappoints about this series, however, it is the generic nature of Ben Richards. He’s just a “good guy” with “good looks” (a healthy libido too…) who is a “good Samaritan.” 

Perhaps Richards is so assiduously maintained as so generic a character because it is easier for the men in the audience to identify with him; to imagine themselves in his place. If he were too distinct, too unusual, to individualized, I suppose identification would be more difficult.

Yet, as he stands, Ben is a bit of a bland protagonist. He can drive, he can run, he can fight, and he can romance the ladies. But how does that make him different, for instance, from David Vincent (in The Invaders) or Richard Kimball (in The Fugitive)?  Intriguingly, I think a case could be made that Bill Bixby, in The Incredible Hulk (1978-1981) imbued his man-on-the-run series with a more distinctive protagonist. He projected a more thoughtful, individual quality than some of the alpha men who have taken on this role (Roy Thinnes, David Janssen, Judson Scott, Christopher George, etc.)

I believe every word I have written here is true and accurate, and yet, I must confess, “The Rainbow Butcher” manages to prove compelling. I don’t know exactly how or why that is true. Everything that happens here is entirely predictable.

Perhaps it is something inherent in the professionalism of the production, or the sheer villainy of the evil sheriff.  But again, even an episode of The Immortal that feels formulaic emerges as wholly entertaining.  Perhaps it is just the simplicity of the characters and their situations. There is elegance, and even relief, in that simplicity.

Next week: “Man on a Punched Card.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Hide and Q" (November 23, 1987)

Stardate: 41590.5

While the Enterprise races to the Quadra Sigma system to help miners and families caught in a gas explosion at a Federation facility, the vessel is unexpectedly intercepted by the meddling omnipotent being known as Q (John De Lancie).

Q has returned to bestow god-like powers upon a human being, but Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) wants no part of his machinations.

To get his way in the matter, Q teleports the bridge crew -- save for the captain -- to a weird battlefield on an alien world. There, he forces them to engage in a game to the death involving strange “animal-things” in Napoleonic uniforms. Q gifts Riker (Jonathan Frakes) with the power of the Q to save his friends when the deadly game reaches its conclusion.

But once Riker uses the power of the Q, will he be corrupted by it?

Upon return to the Enterprise, Picard orders Riker to refrain from using his new powers under any circumstances, an arrangement the executive officer regrets immediately when he finds a child of the miners’ dead in a cave-in. He believes he could have saved her.

Picard relents in regards to Number One’s new powers, but when Riker offers to give the command crew their deepest dreams, he finds they are far wiser than he. They refuse his gifts, and he sees the error of his ways.

After Riker renounces his powers, Q is cast out from the Enterprise, agreeing never to return, and never again to interfere in the matters of man.

“Hide and Q” is a fun episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) that -- while charting no new ground for the franchise -- offers some fun performances, especially on the parts of John De Lancie and Patrick Stewart. Also, Riker finally gets to prove himself more than a loyal lap-dog to Picard, expressing his own views on a matter of life-and-death (no matter how wrong-headed).

In terms of franchise history, the pilot that sold the original series in 1966, “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” concerned an Enterprise crew member, Gary Mitchell, who develops God-like powers, as well-as God-like arrogance.

Thanks to Q’s gift, Riker undergoes a very similar journey here; realizing that absolute power corrupts, absolutely. 

In “Where No Man Has Gone Before,” Mitchell was irredeemable, and Kirk had to dispatch with him in a fist-fight. In The Next Generation, Riker learns and grows, instead, and realizes the error of his ways. When all his friends refuse his “gifts,” he recognizes how flawed his thinking has been.

Like many early episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Hide and Q” brings up some intriguing ideas, only to abandon them quickly. With great fanfare, Q introduces the captured bridge crew to a game, and tells them there are no rules. Tasha (Denise Crosby) gets put in an existential “penalty box.” 

But then, there is no real game, and Riker zaps the crew back home, to the starship.  The game is a half-thought out idea, the “animal things” not real players, just a momentary threat. A game must have an objective for each team, and that objective can’t just be “stay alive” until someone stops the proceedings. It’s a change in premise, mid-way through the episode.  The death scenes of Wesley and Worf, however, are a lot of fun, and even shocking in their own way. Not so much that they occur (we can guess the demises will be undone), but in the fact that they are portrayed as gory. We see Wesley impaled, and there’s plenty of blood.

Despite the changed premise mid-way through the episode, what follows it is not necessarily bad. The episode’s final sequence, with Riker “guessing” the dreams of his friends, is very effective in character-building. 

We see Worf’s (painful but amusing) idea of sex, with the appearance of a growling Klingon female, and would-be mate. We see Geordi with “normal” sight, and therefore Levar Burton’s expressive eyes.

And we also see Wesley as a twenty-five year old, which is a little cringe-inducing, and weird, truth-be told.

In this scene, Data quotes Polonius, from Hamlet (“This above all; to thine own self be true.”), which brings up my favorite scene in the episode: Picard’s hectoring of Q using quotations from Shakespeare.  In fact, the nemeses have a kind of Shakespeare duel in the NCC-1701-D ready room.

Q quotes MacBeth to demean humanity and his existence: “Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hours upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Picard responds, appropriately, with another Shakespeare selection. He quotes Hamlet, Act II, Scene II: What a piece of work is man, How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, In form and moving how express and admirable, In action how like an angel, In apprehension how like a god.”

This response enrages Q, but fits perfectly with the central debate of the episode. Q sees mankind as a tool to be manipulated, one with no real value. Picard sees mankind growing, becoming -- over time -- more and more admirable.

This scene between Q and Picard may represent the captain’s finest moment in the first half of season one, since he so thoroughly outwits and irritates the God-being.

And “Hide and Q” does well by Riker, as well.

Riker grows angry that Picard has forbidden him from using his new powers. For once, he disagrees with the Captain, and challenges his authority. It’s nice to see that Riker can grow angry, and emotional, and is not always perfect and loyal. I have complained in my episode reviews before about how the characters in Star Trek: The Next Generation tend not to learn new things. Instead, they are the smug teachers, having all the answers from the beginning.  This episode is a notable exception.  Riker actually learns something about his friends, his captain, and his own weaknesses in this tale. Frakes plays Riker’s embarrassment at the end quite well.

Finally, the episode ends with “Q” being taken by the Continuum, over his protests, from the bridge of the Enterprise.  The moment is highly reminiscent of Trelane’s exit in the original series episode “The Squire of Gothos” and Charlie’s similar goodbye in “Charlie X.” 

We can be grateful, however for Q’s return, in season two. When we next see the omnipotent alien, he provides Star Trek: The Next Generation with one of its finest hours (and the introduction of the Borg), in “Q Who.”

Next week, a meditation on love, family, and destiny, in “Haven.”