Saturday, March 03, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "Mr. Mephisto"

In “Mr. Mephisto,” the Monster Squad goes up a cunning hypnotist (Barry Dennen) with the ability to bend anyone to his diabolical will. 

In this case, Mr. Mephisto hypnotizes the town mayor, Goldwyn (Edward Andrews), and makes the hoodwinked public official raise property taxes on everyone in the city. 

Specifically, Mephisto uses a device called a “magical-type-a-tongue” which allows him to put words in the mouths of his victims.

Fortunately, Walt (Fred Grandy) finds Mr. Mephisto’s hide-out at the Doll Factory on Broad Street, and sends Dracula and Frankenstein to bring the villain into custody.  Unfortunately, he hypnotizes them and attempts to feed the famous monsters into his sausage maker…

This week’s episode of Monster Squad (1976) is another Batman-(1966 – 1969) –on-the-cheap-styled show, one with an exceedingly campy tone, a colorful villain, and a deadly “cliffhanger”-type menace (the sausage maker).

The Batman-template, alas, doesn’t really do Monster Squad any favors in the long term. High camp gets old very quickly, and the same tone prevents the characters from really coming to life as anything other than walking jokes. 

“Mr. Mephisto” is commendable, perhaps, for its many jokes about politics and politicians. One such joke is about the sausage maker, since sausage-making is often a term utilized in relation to drafting legislation. 

In other words, you don’t want to know what goes into it.

Secondly, “the magical-type-a-tongue” device suggests that politicians are generally just mouth-pieces for hidden but powerful interests. Devoid of belief or feeling, they just say what they are told to say. (See: Marco Rubio vis-a-vis the NRA).

Granted, such commentary is pretty cynical for a Saturday morning kid’s show, but it is also, sadly, often accurate.  These moments give adults something to latch onto, while the high camp silliness runs out of control.

“Mr. Mephisto” also features a mention of “Sid and Marty Kraft,” a nod – or perhaps tribute -- to Monster Squad’s key competitors in the Saturday morning TV market: Sid and Marty Krofft.  

As was the case with “Queen Bee” last week, the production values here are particularly threadbare, and Barry Dennen doesn’t make much of an impression as the villain, especially compared to his life-sized dolls, Baby (Cathy Worthington) and Arlene (Mindi Miller). 

Edward Andrews (Gremlins [1984]) does well here as the good-natured but vapid Mayor Goldwyn but otherwise this episode of Monster Squad doesn’t hold up particularly well.

Next Week: "The Tickler."

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "By Gift of Chance" (November 19, 1970)

In Mexico, Ben Richards (Christopher George) is attacked and shot in an alley.

The badly wounded immortal is aided by Garland Colley (Herbert Jefferson Jr.), a drifter who offers to help him get across the border to America using an ‘underground railroad’ of sorts for illegal immigrants.

Once across the U.S. border, however, Ben and Colley are quickly sold into servitude at a tomato ranch, where a draconian task masker, Loomis (Michael Conrad) works his field-hands to death, even exposing them to a toxic pesticide. Loomis’s prized crop is under attack from pin-worms, and the workers, who have no rights because of their illegal status, have no voice in the matter.  They can work, and die. Or they can refuse to work, and also die.

As Ben recovers from his injuries, he learns he is at the Henderson Ranch, and that Loomis is just as brutal to the owner of this “hard-scrabble farmland” as he is to the workers: Alpha Henderson (Jacqueline Scott).   

After Colley dies, saving Richards’ life a second time, Ben and Alpha work together to stop Loomis from his continued exploitation. They burn down the tomato crop, destroying Loomis’s ability to harm any others so he can make a profit.

Well, after last week’s compelling episode “The Queen’s Gambit,” it’s back to business as usual on The Immortal (1969-1971) in “By Gift of Chance.”

Once more, the audience finds Ben Richards in an adventure that has absolutely nothing to do with his unique blood, or unusual situation.  Instead, he’s just the generic man on the run, encountering people, this time immigrants, who need his help.

As we have come to expect, there’s also a romance (or pseudo-romance, this week), with the female guest star of the installment, and a touch of social commentary too. In regards to the latter quality, “By Gift of Chance” is certainly timely, since it involves illegal immigration, and exploitation of immigrants, once they have arrived in the United States. Because of their illegal status, they are easily manipulated and mistreated by unscrupulous business interests

“By Gift of Chance” is enlivened, largely, by the presence of a sci-fi cult-TV favorite, Herbert Jefferson Jr., who played Boomer on the original Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979), and is this week’s sacrificial lamb character. 

The sacrificial lamb, in case you are wondering, is the character in series such as this one whose decency and friendship -- and then untimely death -- lead the rugged man-on-the-run to act affirmatively for the defense of others. 

We had a sacrificial lamb type named Charley a few weeks backed in “The Rainbow Butcher.”

At this point, all the story and character elements: man on the run, hapless pursuer, female love interest, and sacrificial lamb are so firmly ensconced in the formula that episodes of The Immortal seem to write themselves. That’s the greatest disappointment of this series, no doubt: the utter reliance on an old formula.

Sooner or later, that mortgage payment comes due” one character laments in “By Gift of Chance,” and I can apply that statement to The Immortal, as well. The series relies so heavily on a tired formula that many weeks the episodes are just time-wasters.  We learn nothing about Ben. We learn nothing about his condition. We learn nothing about his future, either. 

But here’s the thing that really vexes me when I think about the series: are episodes like “Man on a Punched Card” or “The Queen’s Gambit” only so strong because of the fact that most other episodes are run-of-the-mill man-on-the-run tropes like “By Gift of Chance?”

Would the good episodes even register as such without all the formulaic ones?

I don’t know for sure, but this week, while watching, I thought of how imaginative The Immortal could have been. Each episode could have jumped ahead a decade or so since Ben Richards could have been the same age, in each decade, and there would have been no need to use old-age make-up on Christopher George.

It would really be fascinating to catch up with him twenty, or thirty years, into his fugitive run.  Of course, Fletcher would have aged at a much faster rate.

Next week: “Dead Man, Dead Man.”

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Love Bug (Hot Wheels)

The Love Bug (Disneyland Long-playing record)

Comic Book of the Week: the Love Bug (Gold Key)

Pop Art: The Love Bug Novelization

The Love Bug Little Golden Book

The Love Bug GAF Viewmaster

Model Kit of the Week: The Love Bug (Polar Lights)

Movie Trailer: The Love Bug (1968)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Angel One" (January 25, 1988)

Stardate 41636.9

The U.S.S. Enterprise proceeds to Angel One, a matriarchal oligarchy, where survivors of the lost freighter Odin are believed to have settled.

Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) leads an away team to the planet surface to search for the Odin survivors, and to negotiate with the guarded leader of Angel One, Mistress Beata (Karen Montgomery).

An unexpected wrinkle arises, however, when the Odin survivors -- all men -- don’t want to leave Angel One with the Enterprise crew.  Instead, they are deemed revolutionaries on the female-dominated planet, and want to stay to effect change.  Beata finds their political views unacceptable.

Aboard the Enterprise, another crisis occurs.

A virus begins sweeping through the crew, including Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), even as the ship is summoned by Starfleet to head to the Romulan Neutral Zone, where battlecruisers have been reported on maneuvers.

When the Odin survivors are captured by Beata, and sentenced to death for treason, Riker must convince Beata to succumb to the forces of not “revolution,” but rather “evolution,” and pave the way for the equality of men and women.

In roughly half-a-season’s duration, Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) manages to bungle a story involving race (“Code of Honor”) and one about gender (“Angel One.”) In the process, the first season of the series often appears more dated than its 1960’s predecessor does, at least in terms of pro-social commentary.

“Angel One’s” tale, of course, involves a militant feminist society; one in which men are sex objects (down to their skimpy fashions), and women hold all the power in government. The so-called “role reversal” culture clash is one of the hoariest and most-oft explored ideas in science fiction TV history. 

Not long ago on the blog here, I reviewed a series that carried this notion as its very premise: Star Maidens (1976).  In that case, and in others (such as Roddenberry’s Planet Earth), the concept of a “gender reversed” society might work (intermittently, anyway), if treated as satire, or commentary on our world.  In other words, we might laugh at the female-dominated culture because we recognize the flaws of a male-dominated one. “Angel One” gleans laughs from Riker dressing up in a revealing outfit for Mistress Beata, but is otherwise humorless in its treatment of the trope.

The episode largely comes off as a story in which Starfleet shows up at a wayward or backward planet, and shows it the error of its ways, hopefully paving the way for a fairer society. But the series writers don’t explain in “Angel One” why a society that treats either gender as inferior is wrong. 

Without this specific thematic point addressed, the idea of a female dominated culture is made to seem not like satire, but like a reversal of the natural order.

Meaning a male-dominated society is the right, proper and natural way to go.

It’s a shame, because somewhere in “Angel One” is the idea that the women of the Enterprise crew demonstrate their worth and value in the course of the mission.  For example, Dr. Crusher cures the virus that sweeps the Enterprise crew, literally by herself, since we see almost none of her staff.  Simultaneously, however, the episode backs away from a good role for Counselor Troi. She is the voice of the Enterprise when it first contacts Angel One, but is not given command of the away team for some reason. This episode would have proven much more powerful, and perhaps more even-handed, if Troi not only commanded the away team, but was permitted to give the valedictory speech about “evolution” that Commander Riker speaks. 

Instead, Riker gets that plum role, and to bed the hot alien leader.

In terms of the romantic scenes, this situation is certainly fun in a campy, silly way, and as a call-back to Kirk’s womanizing ways on the original series. 

But boy is this the wrong episode in which to hit that particular note. Riker’s easy romance of Beata again seems to suggest the “proper” value of women in society -- according to the series -- is as sexual objects. 

The episode is really, really confused about this point. It’s wrong for women to objectify men, for sex, but it is okay for women, like Beata, to be treated that way, by men like Riker.  The writers try to have the romantic scene come off as “equal” by making Beata assertive about her sexual desire, but the whole premise of the scene is a basic male sex fantasy.  Honestly, most stories of this type -- the female dominated society -- come off that way unless writers, directors and performers are very careful.

“Angel One” doesn’t fare any better with the “B” story it features.

Although it is great to see Dr. Crusher hard at work, brilliantly puzzling out the particulars of the strange virus, the subplot feels like filler, and confusing filler at that. 

Did the holodeck -- in the simulation where Wesley went skiing on a class trip -- generate the virus? If so, that is certainly an amazing malfunction, and one that Starfleet should watch out for.  What if the simulation was set in Europe during the time of Bubonic Plague, for example?

Or was the virus something related to Worf’s physiology, in particular, since the virus “smells” Klingon, and is transmitted via scent? 

The situation is terribly muddled, and some clarity would have been appreciated.

Finally, the Romulan threat is utilized most poorly here as well. A great deal of attention is paid to the fact that Romulan battle cruisers are moving about through the area of the Neutral Zone, and the fact that the Enterprise must travel to that location to shore up Starfleet defenses. Matters look grave when the virus strikes, and the ship becomes undermanned to the point that Data is the only officer left stationed on the bridge.

Then, the episode ends with the Enterprise on its way to the confrontation…and we never know what happened at the Neutral Zone, or with the Romulans!

In fact, the final episode of the season, “The Neutral Zone” goes out of its way to offer viewers the backstory that the Romulans have been quiescent for decades, completely forgetting about the events of “Angel One” in the process.

Next week: “11001001.”