Saturday, February 10, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Far Out Space Nuts: "Destination: Earth" (December 6, 1975)

In “Destination: Earth,” Barney (Chuck McCann) and Junior (Bob Denver) are recruited by aliens called Tarnesians to test a hand-held device that can open a time vortex and return them to Earth.

The aliens, however, have a secret agenda. They plan to change time in ways that benefit them once they know the devices work properly. They will be ready to launch an invasion.

Reluctantly, Barney and Junior say goodbye to Honk (Patty Maloney) as they embark on a journey through their own past, and a life on Earth.

They travel back in time to the moment of the disaster that launched them into space. When they get there, however, they choose to do it all again, to be reunited with Honk.

The first thing to understand about “Destination: Earth” is that it is a Far Out Space Nuts (1975) clip show. Barney and Junior travel back in time, and re-visit past episodes, on their journey to Earth.  

The cool thing about the episode is that it is a prehistoric – and I mean prehistoric – version of something like Zelig (1983) or Forrest Gump (1994), only with Barney and Junior going back into their own adventures. Then, the adventures resume as they were seen originally.

And yet, despite the reliance on clips in this episode, this is one of the few segments in the canon that relies on genuine, heartfelt emotions.

In particular, Junior and Barney must say farewell to their diminutive partner-in-crime, Honk, who has been their constant companion on the journey through space.  I know this is a goofy kid’s show from the 1970’s, but this is actually a pretty emotional moment. It’s like having to say goodbye to a pet, or a best friend.

Even more emotional is the decision that Barney and Junior make, once they have returned to their past. As I wrote above, they decide -- consciously and intentionally -- to be accidentally launched into space and once more undertake all their (mis-)adventures.  And of course, that means befriending, and remaining friends with Honk.

Either I’m getting old and soft, or this was a sort of sweet episode, amidst all the typical goofy humor and chases.

Next week, the final episode of The Far Out Space Nuts: “Galaxy’s Greatest Athlete.”

Thursday, February 08, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Man on a Punched Card." (October 29, 1970)

In “Man on a Punched Card,” Ben Richards (Christopher George) is once again on the run, hunted in a new and dangerous way. His pursuer, Fletcher (Don Knight), has hired a computer company to determine where this fugitive will show up next, based on the probabilities it calculates.

Now Richards must out-think a machine.

But that machine is tracking Ben’s every move, determining his motives, calculating possibilities, and making predictions. It knows for instance, when he will be in a small town, Paso Vista.

One of the experts at the computer company, Terri (Lynda Day), however, possesses an interest in Richards that is much more than professional. She requires his special blood to help her save a hospitalized child, one whom she has not acknowledged with her fiancé.

Terri attempts to track down Richards, using the computer’s predictions, but she has no intention of turning him over to his pursuer.

You cannot make an effective trap without first understanding your animal,” a character suggests in “Man on a Punched Card,” a better-than-average episode of the 1969-1971 series, The Immortal.  

The episode is an often-clever meditation on the way that technology changes the way we live, and the moral ramifications of that technology.  One might say it is like a prehistoric episode of Black Mirror (2013 - ), mixed with the man-on-the-run format of The Fugitive (1963-1967). Here, Ben Richards must contend with a nemesis that can predict his every feint, every retreat, and every move.
Can a man out-think a machine?

The answer to that question is cheated a bit, I must admit, in the drama because Ben gets help from a programmer, the person who understands best what the computer is looking at in terms of Richard’s behavior.

No machine has a right to choose a man’s fate,” another character notes, and that, for certain, is the point. A computer can do many things, but it can’t make moral choices. It may be able to “define your soul…on tape,” as Terri states, but it can’t decide if defining a soul is the moral things to do.

A computer, at least at this stage of development, is only as moral as its user’s intentions. In “Man on a Punched Card,” the computer company personnel are unscrupulous enough to work for Fletcher, which speaks volumes about those who work there.

While this meditation on the power of computers is intriguing, and makes for a suspenseful episode, some other elements make the episode feel dated.

For one thing, the computer plays sound-effects from the original Star Trek (1966-1969). I am certain that Lenovo, Dell and other modern computer companies are missing a bet by not programming their laptops and desktops with these classic series sounds. I don’t know about you, but I would love it if my machine made those familiar chirps and whistles.

Secondly, Terri’s whole subplot here involves the fact that she doesn’t want to tell her fiancé -- who runs the computer company with her -- that she has a child from a previous romantic relationship. She feels shame because of this fact, which is surely a product of 1960’s thinking. Today, there are blended families everywhere, and no one would “hide” a child like this, or should hide a child like this, anyway. 

But even this old-fashioned idea finds relevance, thematically-speaking, in the episode. The computer’s powers are turned on its programmer, Terri, and the machine begins to trace her activities, and learn the truth about her, and her formerly-secret past. What this act suggests is that computers can create a world where privacy is a thing of the past. There no secrets anymore.

In terms of being dated, we also have the title. When we think of computers today, we don’t think of cards, punched or otherwise. I remember in the 1970’s, however, being absolutely thrilled whenever my father brought home those rectangular computer cards that had holes punched irregularly throughout them.

I also enjoyed this episode because – although there are hints of attraction between Terri and Ben – the female character of the week is strong-willed, and working according to her own agenda.  She is using Ben, and when we find out why, we can’t blame her for her actions.

Of course, in real life, Lynda Day and Christopher George were actually married, and they have good chemistry in this episode. After brushes with the law and other standard “action” scenarios, the computer makes a fascinating nemesis.

Next week: “White Horse, Steel Horse.”

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

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

Stardate 41294.5

The U.S.S. Enterprise orbits the beautiful planet Haven, a serene world that is believed to possess mysterious restorative qualities for the humanoid soul.

There, however, Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) learns that -- to her chagrin -- an arranged marriage is about to take place.

This arranged marriage to a human named Wyatt Miller (Robert Knepper) will require Troi to leave her position on the Enterprise, and also end any possibility of a future romantic relationship with Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes).

The wedding guests, including Counselor Troi’s boisterous mother, Lwaxana (Majel Barrett), beam up for the event, causing many problems for the crew. Mrs. Troi flirts relentlessly, is rude, and prefers to communicate telepathically.

But another unwanted visitor could cause even more trouble for the Enterprise.

Sensors detect the presence of a Tarellian ship approaching Haven orbit. 

The Tarellians-- who were believed destroyed nine years earlier -- suffer from a devastating, and highly contagious plague.  As they near beaming range of Haven, the Enterprise must intercept the ship.

I must openly confess the following fact: I have been dreading a re-visit of “Haven,” the first episode to feature Majel Barrett as Counselor Troi’s mother, Auntie Mame.

Er, Lwaxana Troi.

If I had a choice, I would never watch any episodes featuring this character, again.

I don’t find the character particularly funny, or particularly well-acted. And, Star Trek is supposed to be a series about exploring the final frontier.  The relative “success” of “Haven” meant that we would soon be getting “family” episodes about Riker’s dad (“The Icarus Factor,”) Worf’s human parents (“Family,”) and on and on.

These stories tend to be standard soap opera fare about estranged relationships, rather than stories about exploring the final frontier.  

Let me be blunt: I don’t watch Star Trek to see characters bicker with their parents, or siblings. At least not as often as we get these kinds of stories.

I prefer stories about exploring the final frontier.

Yet every season, The Next Generation trotted out Lwaxana for another story. 

Not all of them are awful, but most of them surely are.  The exception to the “awful” rule is the fourth season’s installment, “Half a Life,” which actually explores a relevant social issue (how a civilization treats its elderly). 

But the rest of these segments are dreadful, and to be avoided like, well, the Tarellian plague. One such story -- featuring Lwaxana and Worf’s son Alexander (“Cost of Living”) -- is so bad that I have tried to wipe it entirely from my memory. It is one of the few episodes of any Star Trek series that I admit to watching only once.

But back to “Haven.”  

Lwaxana shows up to force Deanna into a shot-gun wedding that is apparently in keeping with Betazoid tradition. This tradition requires Deanna not only to marry someone she doesn’t love, to but leave Starfleet too.  This is despite the fact that the Enterprise can house families.

This subplot is problematic for a few reasons. 

First, it could have been made clearer that this is a Betazoid cultural oddity, not a fact of 24th century life for all women.

Secondly, Troi, Lwaxana, and Wyatt are all on record as not really approving of the tradition. So why do they all go along with it without a fight?

Thirdly, if we go by Lwaxana’s imperious attitude as demonstrated here, Betazed culture appears matriarchal, not patriarchal.

And finally, at one point, Troi’s father is mentioned, and it seems he was in favor of this idea.

It’s all confusing. Dad’s idea? Mom’s idea? A cultural tradition? Obligatory? Preferred?

The premise might actually have been more effective if turned on its head. 

What if a male officer -- someone like Geordi or Riker -- had to face the possibility of an arranged marriage, and leaving Starfleet? The point would have been a whole lot clearer.

Instead, we get a story that seemed dated in 1987, and much more so today.  I’m reminded of “Who Mourns for Adonis,” in 1967. There, captain Kirk mused of a female lieutenant that she would one day fall in love, get married, and leave the service.

“Haven” seems to pick up right there, in 1967.

Character motivations are baffling in this episode too. 

Troi goes along with the idea of marrying a man she has never met, and giving up everything important in her life to do it.

Riker, meanwhile, whines about Troi’s choice, while at the same time he proves absolutely unwilling to commit to her. He wants to get a command, I suppose, and keep Deanna on a long leash, in case he ever decides to settle down.

Above, I reported that I dreaded re-watching this episode. Perhaps because my expectations for quality were so low, I should acknowledge that hated “Haven” less than I thought I might. One recurring problem with nineties Star Trek is that it feels, too often, that it must validate every science fiction concept or idea with some techno-babble.

What is nice about “Haven” is that it doesn’t throw out some obligatory pseudo-scientific explanation for the connection Wyatt and Ariana share. Instead, it just lets that connection happen, and so this aspect of the episode actually does feel romantic. I wouldlike to think there are still some mysteries, out there, in space, that can’t be solved with a deflector dish and a sensor probe.

Also, I found that I enjoyed in “Haven” Data’s (Brent Spiner) fascination with the bickering wedding party participants, including Mr. Homm (Carel Struycken). We know that Data is fascinated by human behavior, and the “civilians” he meets here are quite unlike the disciplined officers he usually interacts with.

I also found fascinating the interaction between the Enterprise and Haven, a planet it is sworn, by alliance, to protect. The government of Haven is all touchy-feely and friendly, until its paradise is threatened by the Tarellians. Then, the leader of the planet grows demanding and unsympathetic. It is in that moment that we see the people of Haven are hedonistic and selfish.

True, I wouldn’t want a plague ship moving into transporter range of my house, but members of the Federation are supposed to be enlightened about such matters, aren’t they?

Like so many episodes of the first season, “Haven” is simply a story that doesn’t really seem necessary to tell. The idea of an arranged marriage in an egalitarian future seems hopelessly antiquated, and doesn’t develop Troi’s character in a meaningful way.

Finally, one note about changed characters.  Here, as in “The Naked Now,” Troi refers to Riker as “Bill,” rather than Will. Unless I’m mistaken, “Haven” is the last time we hear the name “Bill.”

Next week: “The Big Goodbye.”