Saturday, May 26, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging; Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1975): "The Monster Who Came to Dinner" (September 8,1973)

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters (1973-1975) is the first live-action Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series to run more than one season. The program ran for two seasons and nearly thirty episodes on NBC, though its record for broadcast was soon usurped by Land of the Lost (1974-1977), which ran three years and forty three episodes.

Sigmund and the Sea Monsters remains beloved by young and old alike, and was recently re-booted for a six episode run on Amazon Prime. The original seventies series follows the adventures of two young brothers, Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Scott (Scott Kolden), who live near a beach, and discover a friendly, diminutive  sea monster named Sigmund (Billy Barty) near “Dead Man’s Cove.”

The boys bring him back home to their clubhouse. Notably, Sigmund is unlike the other sea monsters of his kind, because he doesn’t want to frighten people. Having run away from his family of origin, he finds a new family with Johnny and Scott, though he must stay hidden from the family housekeeper, the stern Zelda (Mary Wickes).  Johnny and Scott’s parents are “away” and never seen throughout the series.

Over the weeks and seasons, Sigmund’s sea monster family tries again and again to bring him back home (in part so the family’s rich uncle Siggy, Sigmund’s namesake, will leave the family his inheritance when he dies), and fail repeatedly.

The first episode of the series, “The Monster Who Came to Dinner,” establishes much of this premise. It begins with the boys carrying Sigmund home to their clubhouse on a surf-board, and nearly being run-over at a road intersection (a scene in the opening montage)

Meanwhile, Sigmund’s sea monster world is simultaneously established back in his family’s cave. The gruff, insulting Big Daddy (Sharon Baird) is voiced by Walker Edmiston, and is an obvious knock-off of All in the Family’s (1972 -1979) bigot-in-residence, Archie Bunker, right down to his memorable catchphrases “Dingbat,” “stifle” and (in the episode “Puppy Love,”) even the put-down “Meathead.”  One of the brothers, meanwhile, sounds exactly like Jim Nabor’s beloved Gomer Pyle, from the series of the same name (1962-1964).

We learn in this episode of the Krofft series that the monsters have “Shellovision” (instead of television) and watch their favorite channel: MBC (Monster Broadcasting Company.)  The series they watch in this episode is a knock-off of Sanford and Son (1972-1977) called “Serpent and Son.”  Since Sigmund and the Sea Monsters aired in 1973, both the Sanford and All in the Family references would have been considered very timely and relevant when the series first aired.

“The Monster Who Came to Dinner” may be Sigmund, himself, who nearly ruins a home-cooked dinner between Zelda and her beau, the local sheriff, Bevins (Jim Higgins), or it may be his namesake, Uncle Siggy, who comes to the family cave and is upset that his favorite sea monster, Sigmund, is nowhere to be found.

This episode, like so many episodes of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters ends with a song, sung by the boys.  In this case, the song is “Friends.” 

Next week, episode two: “Puppy Love,” but in the meantime, here’s a look at one series theme song:

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "The Zombie" (September 20, 1974)

During an investigation of the murder of several mobsters, Kolchak (Darren McGavin) learns that the victims had their spines snapped by the murderer, one with chicken blood on his person.  Looking into the case further, Kolchak learns that Francois Edmunds, a Haitian, was shot and murdered by the mob. He has returned from the grave to murder those responsible for his death. He is now a zombie, controlled by a zombie master, who leaves his earthen bed each night, and targets those who ended his life.

A frightened Kolchak plots to stop the zombie massacre. He tracks the zombie’s home to a junk yard, and there – armed with a sewing needle, threat, white candles, and salt, plans to sew the monster’s mouth shut and end the horrifying killing spree

If I could only recommend one episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975) to a friend, it would be this episode, “The Zombie,” which is suspenseful, but also serves as a perfect time capsule of the mid-1970’s. Lest we forget it, Kolchak, The Night Stalker aired in the era of "hero" journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, right after the Watergate Scandal. Embedded in the series' DNA is the then-popular belief that one man can fight City Hall; that one man can make a difference. In the series, Kolchak is always battling corrupt cops or politicians and trying (and often failing...) to get the truth out to the people. This was before the age of a corporate news business and compliant "talking points" media. Kolchak -- for all his failures as a human being -- is a sterling journalist and a paragon of virtue in the sense that he always follows a matter where it takes him. Unlike today’s media, which is more interested n ratings than the truth, he isn’t afraid to speak truth to power.

"The Zombie" reveals this "man against City Hall" aesthetic in spades. While investigating a gangland "syndicate" killing, Kolchak begins to suspect that a Mamalois, a voodoo priestess, has activated a zombie to kill the mobsters who put out a hit on her grandson, Haitian Francois Edmonds. Kolchak works every angle of the case, which allows him to consult the series' colorful recurring cast members, like John Fiedler's on-the-take "Gordy the Ghoul," an enthusiastic informant who works in City Morgue. The case also puts Kolchak in direct opposition with police captain Leo Winwood (Charles Aidman), who has a dark involvement with the mob case. In voice-over, Kolchak describes his relationship with Winwood as "long and bloody; like the Crusades...only without the chivalry."

One of the episode's best moment involves Kolchak putting Captain Winwood on the spot while he conducts an official press briefing (a ritual Kolchak derides as "a foolish game.") The Helen Thomas or Sam Donaldson of his day, Kolchak pummels the evasive Winwood with facts until the dishonest police captain threatens to have him expelled. Why our White House Press couldn't push Sarah Huckabee Sanders this way is beyond me. A liar in the service of power needs to be called out, regularly.

Another aspect of the episode involves Kolchak tangling with Monique Marmelstein, the new partner Vincenzo has assigned him. Monique is a pudgy, annoying presence who got her job at INS through what she calls "nespotism" (but she means nepotism.) Just as the Winwood character is found to be corrupt; so does Kolchak here find corruption in his INS office. It turns out Monique's uncle is a powerful figure in local politics, so Vincenzo has no choice but to accommodate her on his staff. At a police shoot-out, however, Kolchak finds an inventive way to keep Monique out of his way: the always loquacious Kolchak jaw-bones Monique into hiding in the trunk of his car; and then locks her in. Not very nice. But undeniably effective.

The political undercurrents of Kolchak and the pervasive context of Watergate are always fascinating elements of the series, but as a horror fan I admire "The Zombie" for its spine-tingling denouement. Convinced that a zombie is being resurrected nightly for revenge killings, Kolchak researches the ways to kill it. He discovers that zombies often rest in the "places of the dead" (mortuaries, graveyards, etc.) and that to kill one he must pour salt into the mouth, and then use needle and thread to sew the lips "very tightly" together. However, that mode of execution only works if the zombie is dormant. If awake, the undead can be killed by strangulation. But ever try strangling a zombie before?

Kolchak finds his living-dead quarry at an unconventional "place of the dead," an auto junkyard (where cars go to die.). In particular, Kolchak happens across the zombie in a wrecked funeral hearse. We watch with mounting suspense as Kolchak crawls in through the back of the hearse and methodically pours salt into the zombie's mouth. He slowly takes out the needle and is about to begin sewing the lips shut when...

...the zombie's eyes open and Kolchak - terrified - shrieks and hightails it out of the hearse.

I have to admit, this is one of the things I absolutely love about this character. So often in horror movies and television lately, characters face extreme situations (like vampires, zombies and werewolves) with a bit too much composure and acceptance for my taste. In keeping with Kolchak's 1970s-vibe and "everyman" nature, the character is foolhardy, but when faced with a monster, pretty damn terrified. Upon seeing the zombie awake, Kolchak turns tail and runs like hell. "Suspension of disbelief" is important in horror and science fiction, and if the characters don't respond in a truthful manner to the strange events around them, I found suspension of disbelief is lost. A lot of movies and TV shows today can't be bothered to actually generate suspense or have characters react in a realistic way. But Kolchak is a dogged everyman, and reacts how you or I might.

So Kolchak turns tail and runs through the junkyard, the white-eyed zombie hot on his heels. With a degree of ingenuity and on the fly, Kolchak manages to trick the lunging zombie into a noose, hence the necessary strangulation of the creature. But the point is that it all looks very unplanned, very spontaneous, and therefore very human. Kolchak: The Night Stalker did things in this fashion all the time, and the audience found itself rooting for the little guy not just as he battled City Hall, but as he battled terrifying monsters too (or more appropriately, a different kind of monster than he found ensconced in the hallways of power).

Of course, the very nature of episodic television assures that the protagonist survives his or her travails week-to-week, but the very fallible nature of this particular protagonist actually makes the viewer forget such convention and hold on tight to that critical suspension of disbelief. Carl has heart, but he's hapless and -- like most of us -- not exactly courageous in the face of the unknown. That's why I love the guy; he's us.

With its roving night-time camera, hand-held moments promoting immediacy, staccato character banter, sharp writing and unforgettably individual protagonist, Kolchak: The Night Stalker is really a shining jewel in genre television's crown. It's a one-of-a-kind production, and "The Zombie" reveals why. It moves effortlessly from comedy to social commentary, to monsters-on-the-loose with utter confidence, not to mention an overwhelming sense of charm and fun.

Next Week: “They Have Been, They Are, They Will Be.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Action Figures of the Week: The Simpsons (Burger King)

Comic-Book of the Week: The Simpsonsco

Video Game of the Week: The Simpsons Road Rage (Nintendo Game Cube)

Halloween Costume of the Week: The Simpsons (Ben Cooper)

The Simpsons Colorforms Playset

Trading Cards of the Week: The Simpsons (Topps; 1991)

Lunch Box of the Week: The Simpsons

Theme Song of the Week: The Simpsons (1990)

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Star Trek: The Next Generation 30th Anniversary Blogging: "Symbiosis" (4/18/88)

Stardate: Not Specified

The U.S.S Enterprise monitors a star with unusual properties, when it encounters a distress call from a malfunctioning freighter called the Sanction.

The freighter is from the planet Ornara, and its confused captain T’Jon (Merritt Buttrick), has no idea how to repair the ship. Nor does his crew. 

When the ship nears destruction, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) attempts to beam its crew to the Enterprise. The Ornarans, however, beam over cargo, instead, as well as two survivors, T’Jon and Romas (Richard Lineback).

Also recovered before the freighter’s explosion are two Brekkians: Sobi (Judson Scott), and Langor (Kimberly Farr).

Almost immediately, the two factions begin arguing over possession of the cargo, a medicine called Felicium. The Ornarans are suffering from a deadly plague, and the Felicium is the only cure.  The Brekkians are the only people with the ability to make the cure, because it grows on their planet. Each side claims the cargo belongs to it.

As Captain Picard investigates with Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), he learns that Felicium is actually a narcotic, and the Ornarans are all addicted to it. The plague was cured years earlier. The Brekkians, however, have not informed them of this situation.

Dr. Crusher wants to tell the Ornarans the truth, since they have been victimized, but Captain Picard realizes it would be a violation of the Prime Directive to interfere.  Instead, he must find another way to help the Ornarans.

“Symbiosis” is famous as the “very special” episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), or the “just say no to drugs” episode. Both of these descriptors are reductive, and don’t get at the actual quality of the episode itself.  Certainly, there is one scene that could be omitted from the episode, involving Tasha Yar’s (Denise Crosby) “just say no” speech to Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton). The rest of the episode is strong, however, as it involves Captain Picard having to arbitrate a heart-breaking, and at times, infuriating conflict between two sovereign societies.

The problem with the “Just Say No” speech is not its existence, or even “social commentary” purpose about drugs, and drug addiction. Rather, it is the character perspective of the speech in question. One of the key problems for Star Trek: The Next Generation is that the “perfect” people of the Enterprise get to (sometimes smugly…) lecture to life-forms who are outside the Federation, and don’t live in a veritable paradise. 

Here, Tasha explains to Wesley the drug addiction she witnessed on the failed colony she hails from (seen in the fourth season story “Legacy.”) Tasha lectures Wesley about drugs from that perspective, but importantly, it is still from a superior, and abstract point of view.  By contrast, this scene would have possessed real power -- and value -- had Tasha explained to Wesley that she lived with drug addiction before being rescued.  That the adults she lived with, the parents who abandoned her, what-have-you, were drug addicts, whose behavior had deleterious impact on not only their lives, but hers.  Better yet, she could have acknowledged that, on the colony, she was a drug user, before her life changed.  

Either of these revelations would have built Tasha’s character in a meaningful way, and made the point that no one sets out to make bad decisions, or become an addict. The speech would have also suggested that drug addiction doesn't have to be the end. It can be overcome.

But as delivered, Tasha’s speech is just a smug lecture from someone who has the luxury of living in a perfect world, and doesn’t understand want, need, hunger, or the desire to escape from a bad situation. In short, the speech becomes a message, instead of a philosophy that seems to come organically from Tasha's character.

Now I’ll go out on a limb and state that, in spite of the on-the-nose drug lecture, “Symbiosis” is nonetheless one of the more powerful and effective episodes of TNG’s first season.  In The Original Series, The Prime Directive is always brought up right before Kirk chooses, for various reasons, to break or bend the rule. What we don’t typically see in The Original Series, is the rule being followed, or observed.

Even in early TNG, the Prime Directive comes up when Picard must violate it (“Justice.”)  

So “Symbiosis” is that rare stand out: a story in which the wisdom of the Prime Directive is debated and, ultimately, upheld.  Crusher doesn’t like it being upheld, because she is coming from a humanitarian point of view. She wants to stop the suffering and exploitation of the Ornarans. Picard takes a broader view and realizes it is not her place, or Starfleet’s, to decide what should or should not happen in another culture.  He is still able to help the Ornarans, in the grand scheme of things, by denying them the coils that will repair their ships. This means that there will be no further shipments of Felicium, and, after withdrawal, the addiction of the people will end.  They will have to suffer, but Picard sees that suffering, no doubt, as something that should not be alleviated. It is an outgrowth of Ornaran and Brekkian choices, and so the two civilizations must contend with it.  From that suffering will come growth, and change. 

And who is Picard, or Crusher, to deny the people that change?

Although it does not concern Picard’s background, history, family, romances or other details, “Symbiosis” is actually an incredibly powerful story for the Captain. He must balance so many factors here, and demonstrate wisdom in his handling of the problem.He must rationally reason out the conflict, and determine how best to keep his oath to obey the Prime Directive, and correct a wrong.  His answer is elegant, even if, as Crusher notes, it won’t put an easy end to the Ornaran addiction.

There are no phaser battles, new planets to explore, or very memorable aliens featured in “Symbiosis.” Instead, this is a portrait of a captain grappling with his morality, and the rules that he claims to cherish and live by. We see Picard agonize over this, and more than that, live with the ambiguity that he may never know if he made the right choice, or the wrong one, for these people.  He does his best in the moment, even if Crusher disagrees with him. But Picard demonstrates why he deserves to sit in the Captain’s chair of the starship Enterprise. 

I have written at length here about how the writing of the first season of Star Trek: The Next Generation did Captain Picard no favors. We’ve seen him surrender the Enterprise twice in four episodes ("Encounter at Farpoint," "The Last Outpost.") We’ve seen him go mad and lose his mental faculties in several episodes (“The Naked Now,” “Lonely Among Us,” “The Battle,” etc.). Even though people hate “Symbiosis” for the condescending, smug “just say no” drug speech, there is room to love this installment as a portrait of a captain forced to reckon with the philosophy he has chosen to live by.

Next week: “Skin of Evil.”