Saturday, March 10, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Monster Squad: "The Tickler"

In “The Tickler,” Walt (Fred Grandy) discovers counterfeit money at the Wax Museum and with the help of the crime computer determines that it is being circulated by a dreaded old enemy: The Tickler (Ivor Francis). 

The Tickler is known as “the man who cannot laugh” and he dresses as a clown so as to pull pranks on unsuspecting people, and, hopefully make himself laugh in the process.

Drac, Frank’N’Stein and The Wolf Man head to Laugh Land -- a weird funhouse -- to apprehend The Tickler, but he is ready for them.  The Tickler captures all three of the monsters with the help of his minions, Twitter and Snicker, and informs them that he wants revenge on Walt and the Squad for sending him to prison.

Soon Walt heads to Laugh Land as well. But will he show up too late to save the monsters from The Tickler’s nefarious feather wheel and giggle goo?

This week’s episode of The Monster Squad (1976), “The Tickler” features Ivor Francis as a villain who tries very hard not to be The Joker.  Although he is also a clown, The Tickler makes a big deal of not laughing about things.  

I suppose that’s the primary differentiation between villains.

Because in every other way, this episode of The Monster Squad -- like each one made so far -- rigorously apes the Batman TV formula. 

The Wax Museum basement doubles as the Bat Cave, the crime computer for the Bat Computer, and the Tickler for the Joker.  The colorful villain of the week attempts to confound the heroes with a terrible machine, and in this case, it’s the feather wheel.  But if you watched Batman, you know that each cliffhanger ending featured some terrible trap for the Caped Crusader and the Boy Wonder.

What is a little different about this episode of the series is that Walt actually gets out of the dungeon and is able to help out the monsters on their case.  He takes his criminology book into the field with him, a jokey but amusing touch, and it turns out that the book is hiding a weapon, one with which he can escape from his cell and free his friends.

Fans of Star Trek (1966 – 1969) will note that the gun is a toy phaser. The prop department on this series was really raiding Star Trek merchandise on a regular basis.

I liked “The Tickler” a bit more than the previous entry, “Mr. Mephisto,” in part because -- despite the derivative nature of his character -- Ivor Francis provides the series its best villain so far.

There’s something very unsettling about a lugubrious clown, and Francis nicely showcases a sense of menace in the role. He seems like the most dangerous foe The Monster Squad has yet encountered. Perhaps his performance works well because, as a humorless clown, he isn’t constantly reaching for silly jokes.

Next week: "The Ringmaster"

Friday, March 09, 2018

Guest Post: Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther Soars
By Jonas Schwartz

Responsibility has been the cornerstone of the Marvel universe. In the Iron Man films, Tony Stark's past playboy irresponsibility constantly bites him in the ass. The Avengers face ramifications for past collateral damage in Captain America: Civil War. And of course, Peter Parker's uncle Ben has been accredited with the famous quote, "With great power comes great responsibility." Now the blockbuster Black Panther raises the subtext to the forefront as an entire civilization suffers due to their past choices and the sins of their fathers in a thought-provoking, yet exhilarating action adventure.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who watched his father die in the Civil War film, follows the rituals, including battling a fellow tribe leader, to win the crown of King of Wakanda and absorb the land's ancient strength to become Black Panther. As warrior and leader, he must stop an evil dealer, Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), who has stolen a Wakanda's artifact forged with vibranium, the source of Black Panther's power. T'Challa's former girlfriend Nakia (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o) and his top warrior Okoye (The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira) travel to South Korea to bring down Klaue. But it's Klaue's mysterious partner Erik (Michael B Jordan) who poses the greatest danger for the new king and his entire kingdom.

Director Ryan Coogler, who intrigued audiences with the complex Rocky sequel, Creed, and the tragic Fruitvale Station, raises Black Panther above standard popcorn fare. His script (co-written by The People Vs. O.J. Simpson producer Joe Robert Cole) contains epic battle scenes, including a civil war to rival the Avengers' tiff in the last film, high speed chases and snarling villains as one would expect, but the theme of consequences elevates the script and the film as a whole.

The film sees blood on everyone's hands, particularly our heroes, and they must devise a way to make right their failures. Countries that stand by and protect themselves from harm while watching their brothers and sisters suffer, they have blood on their hands. The men who justifiably were enraged due to inequality yet take blind vengeance on everyone they can, they have blood on their hands. People who follow a code without paying attention to how it affects the innocent, they have blood on their hands. In this universe, no one gets the skate by and no one is entirely blameless. It would have been easy for Coogler to make a simple 'us vs. them' world, but instead the film demands everyone act more responsibly and still manages to encase that in a thrilling movie that has lines at the box office around the block (as this review is being written, the film has already earned 900 million in six week).

Coogler paints a world where the women stand equal to their male counterparts. They are fearless soldiers, technological gurus, and leaders who rule with their hearts. The Wakandan nation does still feel a bit patriarchal with its queen (Angela Bassett) taking a backseat to the men, and the strong women serving their male leaders, but progress takes baby steps.

Boseman makes a majestic leader. With concentrative eyes and an assurance that never comes off as cocky, he presents a true super being. Nyong'o brings wisdom to the spy unafraid of danger or speaking her mind. Gurira is fierce as the bold leader of the Dora Milaje tribe. Jordan, who shined in Coogler's two previous films, brings angst and fury to Erik. While many villains are driven mad by the machines that give him power, he is fueled purely by pain, and the film allows him a full arc for which he takes full advantage to build a complicated antagonist, a doppelganger to our hero.

The visuals are startling, with a color scheme of royal blues and purples contrasting with biting reds. Coogler allows his camera to speak for him, particularly in a shot where an upside-down camera spells out the chaos that has just emerged victorious. The action scenes are shot fluidly with intensity.

Marvel films never allow the audiences to check their brains at the box office. They consistently draw the viewer in but teach them the fallibility of even our most esteemed leaders, who strive like the rest of us to improve themselves so they can make the world a better place. Black Panther touches subjects about race and responsibility that few billion-dollar films would care to drum up and handles the themes with mature hands.

Check out Jonas's reviews at 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Cult-TV Blogging: The Immortal: "Dead Man, Dead Man" (December 3, 1970)

Continuing his flight from Fletcher and captivity, Ben Richards (Christopher George) gets a lift in the desert from a police detective from Philadelphia named Tom McWade (John Garwood). 

After a terrible car accident on a winding road, McWade is killed, but Richards is thrown from the car and survives.

Richards wakens in the nearby town of Vernal Park, where the local sheriff (Byron Keith) has mistaken the fugitive for the police detective. With Fletcher hot on his heels, Ben goes along with the case of mistaken identity, pretending to be McWade until he can escape from town.

However, matters get complicated when Richards learns why McWade was headed to Vernal Park in the first place: to arrest the town doctor, Dr. Kinneson (Henry Beckman). 

Kinneson has been practicing medicine without a license, only pretending to be a qualified M.D.  The townspeople, however, love their doctor dearly, and are out to get McWade for arresting him.

Now, Richards’ plan to masquerade as McWade could have fatal consequences for him.

“Dead Man, Dead Man” is a clever episode of The Immortal (1969-1971), though it is another story that focuses on strangers instead of the lead character, Ben Richards.  However, in some sense, this story is actually about Ben Richards; or at least the life that Ben Richards has selected for himself.

Specifically, Ben Richards in “Dead Man, Dead Man,” pretends to be someone he is not, so that he can survive, and “live free” as he chooses.

He encounters a man, Dr. Kinneson, who has done precisely the same thing. Kinneson wants to heal people, but taught himself how to be a doctor.  He is not, however, a real physician, and only pretends to be one.

In both cases, the pretender must hide, or run, or otherwise escape from a judgmental society.  In this story, Ben starts to feel like a hypocrite for his behavior, pretending to be a cop tracking down an innocent man. He knows what it is like to be an innocent man on the run, after all.  At one point, Kinneson tells Richards that his whole life has just been a “series of roles,” and this is certainly a comment that Ben can identify with.

In choosing to “live free,” and run, ironically, both men have actually selected lives in which they are trapped, unable to find peace or respite.

During the moments when “Dead Man, Dead Man,” draws parallels between Kinneson and Richards, it is a successful and dramatic installment of this short-lived series. Kinneson’s plight gives us a new insight on Richards’ plight, without Richards having to lament it himself.  At the end of the story, Kinneson tells Richards “there are so few of us free souls left,” and it’s a fascinating point to make.   I’m not certain it is accurate, however.

Are Kinneson and Richards really free at all?

Some elements in “Dead Man, Dead Man” don’t work as well as the comparison between characters. For instance, the whole town is against Richards, thinking he is a police officer. A town nutcase, Van Ryerson, even tries to kill him. This seems a bit over the top.

Even someone who likes and appreciates the good doctor (and whose son was saved by the doctor) is not likely to become homicidal, and attempt to kill a police officer.

Finally, we get yet another romance this week.

The sheriff’s sister, Helen (Joan Hotchkis), is a widower, and let’s just say that she has not had, well, the comforts of a husband for some time. Though Ben reminds Helen that he is “just passing through,” he nonetheless goes to bed with her, after initially resisting the impulse to do so. 

The episode is surprisingly straightforward and frank about this relationship and what’s involved. There’s no talk of love, or staying together, or the long term.  The relationship is very....transactional, I suppose one might conclude. Helen needs a man, and Richards is ready and willing.  Still, this seems the most knowingly casual hook-up for Richards on the series thus far.

Next week: “Paradise Bay.”

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Jigsaw Puzzle of the Week: Sesame Street

Coloring Book of the Week: Sesame Street

Sesame Street Magic Alphabet Set (Colorforms)

Sesame Street Ben Cooper Halloween Costumes

Lunch Box of the Week: Sesame Street

Board Game of the Week: Sesame Street (Milton Bradley) - Walk Along Sesame Street

Theme Song of the Week: Sesame Street (1969)

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "11001001" (February 1, 1988)

Stardate: 41365.9

 The Enterprise D. arrives at Starbase 74 for a routine computer upgrade. Performing the upgrade is a team of diminutive aliens known as "Bynars" from the planet Bynaus.  Over time, the Bynars have grown so "interconnected" with computers and computer language that their "thought patterns" have become almost binary in nature.

As the Bynars work, the Enterprise crew relaxes, off-duty. 

In a nice bit of characterization, the extroverted Riker seems at loose ends without his usual crew mates to pal around with, and so spends the first portion of the episode attempting to stave off boredom by visiting Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) in sickbay, watching Data (Brent Spiner) and La Forge (Levar Burton) paint in the conference room, and conversing with Worf (Michael Dorn) and Yar (Denise Crosby) about a competitive game called Paresi Squares. 

There's a slightly desperate quality to Riker here, and I appreciate this peek at his human frailties.  He's not a deep thinker (like Picard), and he needs other people around him.  When Riker tells Crusher that it looks like she's "packing up" to "leave forever," there's a vulnerable side to the character exposed, and it's good to see.  Frakes does especially well with this material, and carries this portion of the episode effortlessly.

Soon, Riker happens to the holodeck, where he find more Bynars working, and they ask him to test their upgrades to the system.  Almost immediately, Riker conjures a Bourbon Street bar in New Orleans, circa 1958, and indulges in a little trombone playing. 

His audience consist of one: a sultry but engaging woman named Minuet (Carolyn McCormick).  Riker plays "The Nearness of You" for Minuet, and soon comes to realize she is anything but a cipher. 

In fact, Minuet seems responsive and intelligent in a way that no computer simulation ever has.  She seems to possess life itself; sentience.

Outside the holodeck, the Bynars manufacture an emergency for the crew to disembark, leaving only Picard and Riker aboard.  They the aliens steal the Enterprise and make for their home world, where a supernova has imperiled their civilization.  An EM pulse threatens to destroy their main computer, unless the Bynars can use the Enterprise -- with its computer -- as a repository for all their culture's knowledge and information. 

Once Riker and also Picard realize that Minuet is merely a distraction, they set the Enterprise's auto destruct sequence, and reclaim the bridge.  There, they find the Bynars incapacitated and assume their mission: saving the Bynaus main computer and therefore the civilization itself.  When the crisis ends, Riker returns to the holodeck and finds Minuet gone, only a "piece" in the now-ended Bynar tactic. 

When Picard notes that "some relationships just can't work," Riker responds that, nonetheless, Minuet shall be "difficult to forget."

"11001001" is all about the human impact of the holodeck technology, particularly on the character of William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes).

This focus makes the story stand out fro the typical "holodeck malfunction" story, and makes for a great early episode of this series.

Like the original Star Trek's "Devil in the Dark," "11001001" concerns desperation, and an alien race that is so desperate to survive that it undertakes what could be misinterpreted as hostile action; here the theft of the starship Enterprise.  An enduring element of Star Trek -- and one that I love -- is that of mercy.  The men and women of Starfleet don't greet every challenge as an existential threat, and -- if able -- will demonstrate compassion and empathy for aliens in jeopardy and danger. 

This is a facet of our culture that is nearly extinct today, and such compassion and empathy is often viewed as a sign of weakness or vulnerability, not as a strength. 

Specifically, our culture encourages us to meet violence with violence, greet aggression with aggression, and target purported enemies for payback.  A wrong is not forgiven, it is cause for attack and reprisal.

Not so in the overtly idealistic universe of Star Trek, where the Bynars -- though acting poorly -- are treated fairly, and their world is saved.

But even that re-assertion of a great moral value is not the reason I appreciate this episode, even after almost twenty-five years.  Rather, I feel that the holodeck aspects of the story work remarkably well, and point to the evolution of the EMH  character in Voyager and other holographic characters as "sentient beings."  Here, Minuet is a fully-fledged individual, and Riker falls in love with her...regardless of her nature as a program. 

The heart desires what the heart desires, and this doomed TNG love affair seems indicative of that human truth.  Riker falls hard for a hologram, even though there's no real future in such a relationship.  She can't even leave the holodeck, actually.

Yet Riker loves her. 

And that's just how the human heart works. 

Once more, this idea carries tremendous relevance in our culture today, especially as some extremists seek to punish homosexuals for wanting what their hearts want. But, like Riker, that's how they are wired.  It isn't a choice.  By expressing this idea clearly, Star Trek paved the way for tolerance and compassion about such relationships. Ultimately, this idea went further in Star Trek than "11001001," but this episode lays the groundwork for the idea that holograms are people too, and also the notion that the human heart cannot, necessarily, choose who to love or not to love.

In terms of "11001001," the episode doesn't make the mistake of drifting into overt sentimentality or schmaltz.  Jonathan Frakes underplays his last, heartfelt line of dialogue, and rightly so. 

His comment about Minuet being difficult to forget thus transmits as not some angst-ridden, shallow admission of personal pain, but as pure statement of fact.  As such, it resonates powerfully, and I commend Frakes and director Lynch for resisting the urge to make more out of the episode's valedictory moment.  It speaks volumes as it stands.

"11001001" is also one of the few Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in the first season that seems to showcase an authentic and light-hearted sense of camaraderie and chemistry between the new cast.  There's a delightful moment here wherein Worf intentionally misunderstands the nature of sports competition to Commander Riker:  "If winning is not important, Commander, then why keep score?"

And I also love Riker's politically incorrect jibe to Geordi and Data about a blind man teaching an android to paint.  That's a priceless joke, and too often Star Trek: The Next Generation felt staid and sedate, instead of fun.  These remarks are not merely fun, but fun in the jaunty spirit of the original series.  They evidence a joie de vivre, and make the characters seem genuinely colorful.  "11001001" also offers one of the great lines of the entire season, when Riker asks Minuet "what's a knock-out like you doing in a computer-generated gin joint like this?"

I don't want to put too fine a point on it, but there's a very...Star Trekkiness...about this brand of dialogue.  It is both serious and creeping right up to the edge of camp.  It is smart, and it is funny.  And I wish Star Trek: The Next Generation featured much more of it.  Star Trek is always at its best when its characters acknowledge the humorous aspects of their situation. Somehow, it makes the universe seem more real when the characters have a sense of humor about it.

Another ingredient that works well in "11001001" is the concept of the Binars themselves.  They make for a fascinating alien race, being so interdependent with computers, and one wishes they had returned to the series in a more dramatic capacity at some point. 

Considering the nature of the Borg (representing the blending of biological and technological components), it seems there might have been  a powerful story here to tell about the Bynars.

Would they have considered the Borg brethren? Would they have felt they could have changed the nature of the Borg...for the better?  And how would the Federation feel with a kind of proto-Borg culture like the Bynars within their borders?  In all, not revisiting the Bynars seems like a lost opportunity.

About my only quibble with the episode is - as usual - the writing of the Picard character.  Here, he spends the first half of the episode thanking profusely his crew for a job well done, complimenting them over very, very little.

I suppose his pervasive good cheer was an attempt to soften the stern character, but it plays as strange; like Picard has taken some brand of mood-altering drug like Prozac. Suddenly the good captain is spouting "thank yous" and "well dones" repeatedly, as if in some kind of euphoric state.

Later in the episode, Picard also reveals his total lack of awareness of others, when he horns in on Riker and Minuet and just...won't...stop...talking.  Can't he see that they would like to be, you know, alone?   Eventually he realizes it, but only after quite a while. Again, I'm not criticizing the dignified Patrick Stewart, only the writing of his character.

Overall, however, "11001001" is a great early episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation because it isn't just about fun and games and getting out of a pickle on the holodeck.  Instead, it's about the human problems that the technology of the holodeck creates, and how those problems emotionally impact the characters  In many ways, this episode may represent Frakes' finest acting work on the series.  Accordingly, "11001001""  is also one of the best episodes in terms of Riker's character development.  We see the extrovert growing lonely...and then answering that loneliness with a trip to the holodeck, and finding the unexpected specter of true love.

Certainly, "11001001" doesn't make any "top ten" episode lists for TNG, but that's because it isn't epic in scope (like the Borg episodes or the Klingon episode).  Instead, the episode achieves what the medium of television does best: it fosters a sense of intimacy and connection to a character.

"The Inner Light" is an episode that accomplishes the same thing for Picard (and it's one of my personal favorites), but "11001001" is an early segment of The Next Generation that really hits on all thrusters. 

This episode is all about interconnection. Interconnection between the Bynars, interconnection between the Enterprise crew members, and finally, between Riker and Minuet.  "11001001" reveals how we can succeed when we connect meaningfully to others and also, emotionally, how we can feel lost when that sense of connection disappears irrevocably.

Next week: "Too Short a Season."