Saturday, February 17, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Far Out Space Nuts: "Galaxy's Greatest Athlete" (December 11,1975

Two beautiful space aliens -- who are really alien hags -- want to recruit Barney (Chuck McCann) and Junior (Bob Denver) as the galaxy’s greatest athletes in a kind of cosmic Olympic Games.

These space sirens determine that only Honk is actually intelligent, and attempt to seduce Junior, the dumbest of the trio, to their cause.

He participates and wins in different events such as “laser leap,” (a long jump), “astro arm wrestling” and more.

Junior proves victorious, and must battle the “space fuzzy” as the final contest.

The final episode of Sid and Marty Krofft’s Far Out Space Nuts (1975) doesn’t chart much new territory in terms of theme or plot, but remains enjoyable in the campy manner of much Saturday morning TV from the era (think: The Ghost Busters [1975].) 

As always, the humor remains juvenile, but pleasantly juvenile.

Once more, in “Galaxy’s Greatest Athlete,” we get female characters who appear to be beautiful, but are really hideous aliens, a story idea we have seen before in the series.

Once more, Junior is singled out as the stupidest man in the universe, and recruited to some cause (space piracy, scientific experimentation, or Olympic Games) that he has no desire to be involved with.

Once more, the “space nuts” out-maneuver the “superior” aliens they contend with.

This episode, intriguingly, does rely more heavily on chroma-key technology than most installments of the series do, with Junior (Bob Denver) visually inserted into miniature arenas and sets.  These shots are not visually-accomplished by today’s standards, yet remain inventive for a low-budget 1975 series.

The focus on crazy “futuristic” games at the galactic Olympics here also forecasts similar imaginings in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) episode “Olympiad.”

As this is the final episode of the series, I should offer a summation of the program as a whole.  I’m as surprised as anyone to note this, but I actually enjoyed Far Out Space Nuts more than the previous two Krofft series I covered: Lidsville and the Bugaloos.  

Perhaps it’s all the crazy aliens, or the outer space milieu, or perhaps just the fact that the series arises from an era I am nostalgic about (the immediate pre-Star Wars era; the epoch of Space: 1999), but I’m sad to have reached the end of a program I watched when I was five years old.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "White Horse, Steel Horse" (November 5, 1970)

Working at a potato ranch, Ben Richards (Christopher George) ends up in an armed dispute between motorcycle riding workers, and nefarious ranch owner, George Allison (John Dehner). Allison refuses to pay his workers, and they protest, violently.

When a scuffle between factions ends with the death of a local sheriff, Ben flees to the mountains, but George Allison organizes a vigilante posse to bring him, and the others, to justice.  The “Honor Posse,” as it is called, captures Ben and another cyclist.

Soon, Fletcher (Don Knight) shows up with a (fake) warrant, and attempts to make a deal for possession of the captured Richards.

Written by Star Trek (1966-1969) veterans Gene L. Coon and Stephen Kandel, “White Horse, Steel Horse” is all about the generation gap of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s; the war between the Greatest Generation and young anti-establishment, counter-culture. 

What may be surprising is that this episode of The Immortal views the young generation sympathetically, and the older generation as corrupt.

In this case, George Allison, the antagonist, is a white man who holds all the power in his particular situation. He is rich. He owns land. He runs a business. He has powerful friends in law enforcement and the judicial system.

And then, on a dime, this well-connected, wealthy man decides he doesn’t want to pay his workers what he owes them.  

They get angry. 

After acting capriciously, George blames the young workers. He laments children who have been allowed to grow up and “run wild.” He calls the youth “rotten, long-haired scum.” He sees them as a threat to his country too. “It’s like they’re trying to destroy everything,” he says.

Of course, Allison has the right to his viewpoint. The scary thing about his character is how he then manipulates the law (and his connections) to hunt those he cheated. “The courts don’t do their jobs, so we have to,” he tells the members of his vigilante posse. 

In other words, he substitutes his rules for society’s rules. And because of his wealth and power, he can do that.

Ben Richards, in “White Horse, Steel Horse,” stands up for the persecuted ones. He tells Allison that people “have the right to be different, and not be killed for it.”

This was a truth apparent to our society in 1970, but which some Americans seem to have forgotten today, in 2018.  This fact makes this particular episode of The Immortal quite timely, but also quite sad.  It seems we have gone backwards in the last forty years, at least in terms of how we treat one another.

The episode also finds Allison’s grown son turning against him, another sign of the generation gap.  The inference is that with the passing of the generations, a new, better morality will take hold.  Alas, that hasn't really happened either.

The only problem that I see with the episode is that it basically conflates young people, motorcycle gangs and hippies as one demographic. Perhaps at the time, that is how they were all viewed by men like Allison. All made-up, collectively, the counter-culture.

In terms of series continuity, this is another story in which Ben Richards falls in with strangers who need help, but we learn virtually nothing about him. Even the details about Fletcher’s warrant for Richards’ arrest are maddeningly vague. It must be a forged document, but we don’t even know the details of what the fugitive is being charged with.

Despite the lack of character development, not to mention science fiction concepts, we’re still at a point in The Immortal’s canon where the stories are compelling and interesting. This episode serves as a time capsule of a very turbulent time in our culture, if nothing else.

Next week: An Immortal classic: “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "The Big Goodbye" (January 11, 1988)

Stardate 41997.7

Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) is over-worked and over-stressed, preparing to vocalize an important greeting to the powerful -- and perfectionist -- insect race known as the Jarada.

One mispronounced syllable in his oratory could spark an interstellar incident. Indeed, such a mishap has occurred in the past.

Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) suggests that the Captain should relax for a while, to relieve the pressure. Picard acquiesces and visits the holodeck to participate in a holo-novel based on the 1940s private detective, Dixon Hill.  There, he can participate in a Dixon Hill “mystery.”

After a brief visit to the holodeck, Captain Picard returns to tell his command crew about the vivid experience. Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) and ship’s historian Whalen (David Selburg) go into the adventure/mystery too, all appropriately dressed to the time period.

A scan from the approaching Jarada, however, causes a malfunction on the holodeck, trapping the Captain and the others inside, and terminating the safety protocols. Now, their lives are actually in danger from a 1940’s ganger Cyrus Redblock (Lawrence Tierney).

Captain Picard must outmaneuver this nemesis, escape from the holodeck, and deliver a pitch-perfect oratory in time for the looming rendezvous.

No complaints from me this week.

“The Big Goodbye” is an unequivocally strong and successful episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994). The episode won a Peabody Award in 1987, and an Emmy for Best Costume Design as well.

More importantly, for our purposes, “The Big Goodbye” is funny and charming, and in its finale, it actually proves touching and thought-provoking.  The subplot featured also begins a theme or in-universe “thread” that is carried all the way through the franchise, into Star Trek: Voyager (1995 – 2001). That thread, of course, involves the nature of “photonic” life forms, or holograms. 

Are they programs, or are they sentient? Do they have souls? Here, we see the first exploration of that notion.

But before “The Big Goodbye” reaches that point, the performers and writer, Tracy Torme, have a ball playing up “the fish out of water” dynamic that made the recent Star Trek: IV: The Voyage Home (1986) such a hit at the box office. There, as you recall, Kirk and his crew had trouble adjusting to 1980’s San Francisco, and the results were often hilarious as they attempted to “blend in.”  

Here, The Next Generation cast not only gets to dress up in film noir gear, but play the humor straight-faced, as the characters fail to understand all the nuances of this 20th century era.

Some of the funniest and most romantic moments in the episode involve the often-underutilized Dr. Crusher. Here, she gets to sample chewing-gum (!), and ask – naively -- when Picard is hauled into the police station, why everyone isn’t being interrogated. She wants in on the fun. 

Another great moment involving her character sees Captain Picard and Crusher first meeting in the Dixon Hill universe, and in romantic close-up framing to boot. Here, Jean-Luc notes that Crusher wears the clothes of the era “well.” 

And indeed she does.

This is the kind of genuine, compelling character chemistry that the series often lacked in its earliest days. Also a lot of fun in “The Big Goodbye” are the jokes about Data hailing from “South America” (due to his unusual complexion), and Worf having difficulty pronouncing the word “automobile.”  

There’s even some self-reflexive humor here involving television.  Data notes that the format of television, for instance, has an expiration date in our near future.

“The Big Goodbye” succeeds, however, not merely because it is funny, but because it ultimately proves to be a meaningful story about mortality, and what it means. One of the holograms in the Dixon Hill story, a police detective named Lt. McNary (Gary Armagnac) learns the truth about his identity, and confronts Picard about it. He learns, basically, that he is living inside a simulation and that his memories of and emotions for his family are not real.  Hauntingly, he asks if he will continue to exist, when Picard and the others depart from the holodeck.

Picard answers with genuine empathy. He doesn’t know.

The lieutenant’s plight is the “seed” or kernel of a great, developing Star Trek concept. As the episodes of The Next Generation continue, we see Riker (Jonathan Frakes) fall in love with a hologram, Minuet, in “11001001.”  We also see a hologram outgrow his programming and built-in character (as a villain!) to become a curious, sentient being in “Elementary, Dear Data” and so forth. And then, in the time of Voyager, the EMH (Emergency Medical Hologram) played by Robert Picardo is a central character, one who learns to become more than the sum of his programming. By the end of that series, the case is made for the rights of holograms as sentient, individual beings.

And that idea is planted right here, in the 12th episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

“The Big Goodbye” is indeed a fun episode of Star Trek, and a successful one too, despite some of its limitations. We never see the Jarada, for instance, for budgetary reasons. One wonders if they were the beginning of the concept for the Borg, however.

Similarly, it seem a shame to have Wesley at the forefront of the holodeck repairs on the Enterprise. Again, he’s a teenager who has never been to Starfleet Academy. The Enterprise, we know from episodes such as “Hollow Pursuits,” possesses whole engineering teams qualified to handle problems like the one that crops up here.

Lastly, one might argue that “The Big Goodbye” is too good, too successful.  The series keeps trying to recreate this vibe of romance and comedy in future “holodeck” installments with titles like “A Fistful of Datas” or “Ship in a Bottle.”  The holodeck, as a dramatic device, is best utilized only occasionally.

These are minor quibbles however. “The Big Goodbye” tells a story of great humor, and romantic chemistry, and then culminates with a meaningful thought about the nature of future technology.  This episode represents Star Trek at its finest, and is the best installment of Early Next Generation.

Next week: “Datalore.”