Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Catnap Tuesday # 8

This is Penny, named after the first cat I ever raised (1976-1988). She's the neighborhood kitty who lives outside, and goes from house to house on our street. As you can see, she's a beautiful calico with what appears to be a broken lip. Penny is very sweet, but doesn't like to be touched - naturally, considering her circumstances. I feel (and fear...) she's been abused by neighborhood kids over her lifetime (and we think she's at least 9 or 10.)

We put out a bowl of water and food for Penny every day, and we consider her our "outdoor" cat, our fourth "adoptee." She likes to sleep on our car at night, and spends a lot of the day on our front porch. We love Penny a lot, but can't get her to come inside, so we respect her boundaries and just take care of her as an outdoor cat the best we can. She meows for attention and rubs our legs incessantly, but scrambles away when we try to pet her, so we have played it hands-off, for fear she'll run across (our busy street).

We just like to keep her close, because we know she's safe here.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Cult TV Flashback # 7: The X-Files: "Home"

From 1993 to 2001 - on Fox TV, of all places - The X-Files produced some of the best genre programming in two decades. Chris Carter's landmark series (a child, perhaps, of Kolchak: The Night Stalker [1974]) featured two F.B.I. agents - Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigating unusual criminal cases involving the paranormal; so-called "X" files. The series ran for nine spectacular years, and drew the raves of critics everywhere for its sharp-as-a-razor presentation of material that could have been classified as "hokey" or "marginal."

"The direction is atmospheric, the scripts are tight, the dialogue is crisp, the tone uneasy and grim...How can anyone not love this show?" asked Omni columnist David Bischoff (December 1994, pages 43-50). Matt Roush, the TV Guide critic at the time, agreed: "Many weeks...The X-Files is as good as any movie, satirizing the characters' obsessions while still delivering shudders." "What's erotic about the show," suggested reviewer James Wolcott in The New Leader ("X Factor,'" April 18, 1994, pages 98-100), "is its slow progression from reverie to revelation, stopping just short of rapture. It wants to swoon, but swooning would mean shutting its eyes, and there's so much to see..."

All these critics are right on the money, and The X-Files, I believe, is right up there with the best genre programming in TV's long history: Star Trek (1966-1969), The Prisoner (1969), The Twilight Zone (1959-64) and my own personal - and highly controversial - favorites, Space: 1999 (1975-1977), Chris Carter's Millennium (1996-1998), Sapphire & Steel (1979-81), and Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2002).

I could pick any number of X-Files episodes to feature in this flashback edition (most of 'em from the show's exemplary first six seasons...). There's the brilliant and highly literary "Milagro," which gazes deep into the heart of agent Dana Scully. There's the Roshomon-like fifth season entry, "Bad Blood," which shows us (quite comically...) how Scully and Mulder see themselves, and each other. There's "The Host," the story of a flukeman living in the New Jersey sewers(!), "War of the Coprophages" - about extra-terrestrial cockroaches, "Unruhe," a serial-killer piece done extraordinarywell, and on-and on. For years, this show never produced a stinker.

But the best - and most disgusting - episode, has to be the one that was banned from network television after its initial airing on October 11, 1996. The episode I write of is the second of the program's best year, the fourth season. It is called "Home," and was written by Glen Morgan and James Wong, and directed by Kim Manners. For those who don't recall the episode, it concerns a a small Pennsylvania town, "Home." There, a family of deformed brothers (with their crippled, limbless mother...) - The Peacocks - dwell in an isolated farmhouse, minding their own business. But when a dead fetus is found near the imposing, dilipadated house, Sheriff Andy Taylor (Tucker Smallwood) calls in Mulder and Scully to investigate. What the F.B.I. agents discover inside the Peacock home s a rotten, stinking farm filled with sharp-edged, home-made booby traps, and four monsters who barely qualify as "human." The wrecked Peacock home - filthy in the extreme - is reminiscent of the Leatherface estate in Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the savage family dynamic presented in the early Wes Craven chiller, The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The savage cinema returns!

I have never seen anything like "Home" on TV. It features: a bloody murder with a baseball bat, scenes of the brothers Peacock chewing their mother's food for her (though, thankfully, her impregnation occurs off-screen...) and the corpse of a deformed infant, who was buried alive. The show is cutthroat, terrrifying, and a sense of danger goes waaaay beyond the "safety" and decorum we expect (or used to expect...) from our boob tube programming.

But the show is artistic and worthwhile for other reasons. The horror creds are unimpeachable, but the hour is truly memorable for the way in which it sets up the locale of the town and its unspoken "rules." The Peacocks mind their own business - and so do the police - and each faction is left alone. However, the death of the infant and the subsequent arrival of the F.B.I throws these long-standing "rules" out of synch, and the Peacocks engage the police with brutal, animal ferocity. In the 1990s, this kind of encounter reflected the Zeitgeist - call it Waco or Ruby Ridge - but the idea of people dwelling out in the wilderness, waiting for a spark to go off and begin killing, was certainly one ripped from the headlines.

The episode also takes great pains to develop the dramatis personae. Scully is deeply affected by the discovery of the dead baby, and wonders "what a mother must go through," dealing with a deformed child. Later in the episode, the Peacock Mommy makes it explicit: telling Scully how "proud" she is of her boys. In Mulder's case, we not only get a great reminiscence from him about pick-up baseball games in his youth (a terrific, heartfelt moment...), but his sudden realization that Scully could be..well...maternal. "I've never thought of you as a mother before," he says at one point; and clearly, he likes the notion. (Later in the series, Mulder and Scully do have a baby together).

The X-Files almost always features some kind of satirical edge, and indeed, "Home" includes this element. Sheriff "Andy Taylor" should ring a bell. That's the name of Andy Griffith's character on The Andy Griffith Show. It could be a cheap joke to name the sheriff of a town after this character, but much of the episode actually concerns the manner in which modern America is changing, how the Mayberrys of our nation are no longer places, perhaps, where you can leave the door unlocked and still remain safe. It is a chilling premise, and the use of the name "Andy Taylor" explicitly alludes to a gentler time in America, and certainly in American TV.

So as August becomes September, as hot summer turns autumnal, let's remember the scariest, most dynamic, and pulse-pounding X-Files episode produced in nine years. "Home" is where the heart of this great show resides. To this day, it still chills, and raises questions about the small towns where we live. From a terrifying teaser, which commences with the unholy birth, to the final moment, wherein two Peacocks escape the house of horrors and drive away to the tune of "Wonderful," "Home" fits in beautifully with a recurring X-Files obsession: terror underneath the surface of so-called "normal" America. Other episodes (including the exemplary "Our Town" and "Die Hand der Verletz") also tread through this queasy territory, but "Home" surpasses the already high gross-out factor in the series, and is an episode that anyone who has seen, never forgets. As I wrote in my 2001 book, Terror Television, "Home" represents "terror TV at an apex of both style and substance."

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Retro Toy Thursday Flashback # 7: Ideal's S*t*a*r* Team

Back in that magical and happy year, 1977 (when I was but seven...), when Kenner's Star Wars action-figures were tearing up the toy market in a way not seen since Mego's Planet of the Apes line, a number of other companies wanted to get in on the outer space action too. From that great company called Ideal came a toy line with a special place in my heart, a modification of a long-standing toy-line called Zeroids (from the 1960s). These robot figures and ships were brought out of mothballs and re-imagined for the post-Star Wars kids, and christened...S*T*A*R* TEAM!

My grandmother and grandfather on my father's side bought me my first toys from the line for my eighth birthday, in particular, a red and white flying-saucer like spaceship called STAR HAWK (No. 4601-1). This is, as described by the box, "the spacecraft of ZEROID." Zeroid, in case you are wondering, is a nifty robot with a "twin tread base" that looks a little bit like R2-D2, if you're inclined to make comparisons (pictured left, with the ship). His arms have positive/negative symbols for hands, and his head dome lights up and flashes when activated with the two AA batteries (not included).

Anyway, the STAR HAWK came complete withfour gray landing "pods," the ZEROID robot himself, and a special motor that would rotate the canopy and open the ship's front hatch. All I can say is that with this toy, I was in Heaven. It was great. I sent that little 'droid and his spacecraft on a number of cosmic adventures, mixing-and-matching with G.I. Joes, and Mego superhero kits to build a universe around the toy.

But soon, I really got into the STAR TEAM action when I found at a yard sale somewhere in New Jersey the Zeroid's mortal Enemy, KNIGHT OF DARKNESS (Number 4603-7). "This fearsome enemy of Zeroid and ZEM-21" is a Lord Darth Vader look-alike (again, if you're into comparisons), with a neat black and silver uniform (and cape). He comes equipped with a nasty laser gun, and in his black boots and control panel belt stands at 11' tall. The Knight of Darkness is indeed a fearsome adversary, and now I had a new villain to chase Zeroid's Star Hawk around outer space. Though I still lacked minions and so had to rely on Apes figures, Six-Million Dollar Man figures (like Bigfoot or Maskatron!) and the like. The Knight of Darkness is pictured to the right.

And hey, did the box mention a fella called ZEM-21? Whoa! I soon found out who he is. Well, Zemmy Baby is sort of the C-3PO of this particular toy line, (No. 4602-9), a bipedal, green-faced "metal plated humanoid robot." His metallic skin is silver, and he proved to be the perfect companion to ZEROID on those adventures. He is pictured immediately to the left. You can see, his box isn't in such good condition these days.

Last week, I wrote a little bit about the joy of my Starcruiser 1 model kit, from Gerry Anderson, and how I liked to invent the universe around the kit. I found the same joy with these robots, their neat spaceship, and their black-and-silver nemesis, designed by Ideal for ages 5 & up. Even if the toys appear modestly derivative of Star Wars, this was yet another opportunity (as a kid) to put my own imprint on original adventures. I'm sure that somehow, someway, these toys contributed to me becoming a writer in adulthood.

Anyway, it was a lot of fun sharing time with these 28-year old toys, and today, the Star Hawk, Zeroid, Zem-21 and the Knight of Darkness have a shelf of honor in my office (see below). Does anyone out there remember the Zeroids? I know there are a lot of collectors of the 1960s versions (which are some friggin' awesome toys). But can anyone remember having played with or seen on shelves the S*T*A*R* Team? Sometimes I think I'm the only one who remembers 'em...

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Book Review: A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis

To be honest, for the longest time I pussy-footed around the B-movie cinema of Herschell Gordon Lewis, maestro of such cinematic creations as Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs, and The Wizard of Gore. Don't ask me why I did it. I'm a horror lover since pre-adolescence, since my baptism by fire watching Tobe Hooper's 1981 grueling flick The Funhouse at a friend's eighth grade party. Yet for years throughout my adulthood - even as I wrote books with titles like Terror Television or Wes Craven: The Art of Horror, some deep-seated part of me feared the fringe world of Lewis. His efforts (what I had seen of 'em...) seemed so raw; so bare; so unrefined and therefore totally and utterly dangerous.

Of course, a feeling of endangerment is precisely the mood one desires to achieve while watching a horror film, so my feelings about Mr. Lewis's films were paradoxical and confusing, to say the least, and I'm glad I got over my own moral cowardice and watched a few of his crimson-stained pics in recent years. They're important historically, and they certainly resonate with a kind of low-budget energy that can't easily be dismissed. Seeing them also helped me understand horror of the 1960s, a world I needed to understand to write some of my later books for McFarland, including Horror Films of the 1970s and Eaten Alive at a Chainsaw Massacre: The Films of Tobe Hooper.

But even watching a few of his films, I always felt I was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle, and it is for that reason that I recently picked up a film book co-authored by Christopher Wayne Curry and John W. Curry, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis (Creating Cinema Collection, volume 14, 1998).

First off, I must establish that this is a beautifully designed and illustrated work, and even a valuable time-capsule after a fashion - featuring pages upon pages of original newspaper artwork and advertising copy ("Nothing so appalling in the annals of horror!" shouts an advert for Blood Feast). The book also boasts a color insert (dripping with blood...), and a great selection of rare photographs, virtually all of which I've never seen before.

But that's just icing on the cake, or blood spraying off the corpse, so-to-speak. When I began reading the text, I immediately felt comfortable with the prose of the authors. They explain in their easy-going but succinct introduction how (Christopher Curry in particular...) came to intersect with world of Monsieur Lewis in 1985...and from there an obsession grew. This is, perhaps, a universal theme for the hard-core horror aficionado. We've all been there - checking out the racks of mom and pop video stores in the late eighties and early nineties for buried treasures that have somehow escaped the notice of the genre press - but that common experience, re-told well in these pages, let me sigh a breath of relief. I understood immediately that the Currys are my peeps. This is a world and a journey I could understand and appreciate - even if the subject matter somehow frightened me - and so I knew I wasn't going to be scandalized, or subjected to any weird analysis or hardcore claims for Gordon's pure artistry.

The authors maintain their friendly, highly-readable tone throughout the book, and the style really keeps the reader at ease. Perhaps understanding that their subject matter is a bit - well, controversial - in these politically correct days of PG-13 horror films, the authors don't attempt to articulate some kind of grand case for Gordon's genius. They merely appreciate his work, and escort us on a guided tour of his long and remarkably successful career. I found this straightforward approach refreshing, and the book is simultaneously unpretentious and infectiously enthusiastic in its presentation. The authors are smart - and they present copious amounts of information - but they don't make you feel like you should be taking notes because there's going to be a test later.

While reading, I found the details of Gordon's career compelling. I knew something about Gordon's ethos from the horror films I had watched, but I learned about another whole world here - particularly his work outside the genre. As the authors insightfully and knowledgeably enumerate in their prologue:

"Herschell Gordon Lewis is unsurpassed in the number of subjects he exploited in his films. In keeping with 'making pictures that either the majors (in Hollywood) couldn't or wouldn't make,' Lewis took taboos and ran with them. Whether it be rock'n'roll, birth control, juvenile delinquency, wife swapping, or extreme violence, a Lewis picture was sure to be an unpredictable, unpretentious treat."

Therefore, Gordon made films like Suburban Roulette, The Girl, The Body And The Pill and She-Devils on Wheels. I haven't seen any of these, but boy would I like to. They sound intriguing, and rife with the Zeitgeist of the era from which they sprang. In reading about these works, I felt like a new avenue in film history had opened up to me, and I devoured these chapters with special interest.

The second part of the book is equally illuminating, devoted to several interviews with key players, and the first one is with H.G. Lewis himself. The director comes off particularly well here, waxing philosophical about everything from his childhood (and favorite films), to reflections on his career and the actors who appeared in the movies. One senses that he's really a decent guy, and that those horrorific, bloody images are just part of his work; part of presenting the best "horror package" he could imagine.

In toto, A Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordo n Lewis is filled with energy, valuable primary sources (both photographic and textual), and therefore an endearing addition to my reference film library. Since I began writing film books myself back in 1996, I have found it harder and harder to enjoy many horror film books - for reasons too numerous to count. But that simply wasn't the case here. I was enlightened, intrigued and immersed in a world of independent filmmaking that doesn't really exist anymore. So, If you're interested in this director, or just what it was like to make so-called "exploitation" films in the decade of Kennedy, the Vietnam War and Martin Luther King Jr., I wholeheartedly recommend the work of Christopher and Wayne Curry. They've done their homework and presented a refreshing, behind-the-scenes glimpse of a so-called "fringe" filmmaker.

Now, if they can just be persuaded to do a book on my latest obsession, Basket Case and Brain Damage director Frank Henenlotter...

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Tuesday Catnap # 7

Though she sometimes is mistaken as aggressive and skittish, Ezri (pictured here) is actually one of the most affectionate cats I've ever known. She's a sweet lap kitty, and she likes to sleep on my back at night. In the mornings, when she's ready for breakfast, she jumps on an end table beside the bed and rattles a fragile Victorian lamp to wake me and Kathryn up. Then she jumps on my kidneys and kneads them relentlessly till I get up. If that doesn't work, she starts strumming the window-shades. Anyway, Ezri's a tad big-boned, but absolutely adorable. Here she is showing off her tummy, and her beautiful white tuft of hair.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback # 5: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (A Marvel Super Special Magazine)

On December 7, 1979, Star Trek: The Motion Picture premiered in theatres around America and the response was decidedly mixed. Some critics (including Roger Ebert) liked the film a lot; many others found it boring or somehow tepid. I had just turned ten (on December 3rd) when I saw the first film in the long-running movie franchise at Essex Green in suburban New and...I was immediately taken with it. In many ways, Star Trek: The Motion Picture remains the only film in the 10-strong canon that actually looks and feels cinematic, rather than the unholy offshoot of a TV production. I believe that much of the film's look comes from director Robert Wise - master-storyteller of such films as The Andromeda Strain, Audrey Rose, The Day The Earth Stood Still and West Side Story . In particular, I remember the glorious and spectacular opening sequence, one involving the destruction of three Klingon cruisers pursuing a space cloud of unknown origin and intent. Another fantastic scene (though often criticized for its lengthy duration...) saw Scotty and Kirk circle the refurbished U.S.S. Enterprise in drydock. At that time, I had never seen a space movie that felt more real.

As an intrepid fourth grader weaned on Space:1999, Star Trek and Star Wars, I was fascinated with Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and I quickly went about collecting every bit of merchandise from the film that I could get my pre-adolescent hands on. This included Mego's 3 inch action figures, the Gene Roddenberry "novelization" from Pocket books and - of course - the Marvel comic books.

I'll never forget the day I brought home the Marvel "super special magazine" and got to relive the grand big-screen adventure through comic-form. Marv Wolfman was the story adapter, and Dave Cockrum and Klaus Janson were responsible for the art. Like the Star Wars # 1 issue that I featured in my last flashback, this Star Trek adaptation was cool because it featured scenes that didn't make it into the actual feature film.

For instance, late in the film, Mr. Spock takes a spacewalk through the interior of the cloud ship and mind-melds with V'ger to determine that it is a living machine. The comic adaptation reflects an earlier draft (and a scene actually shot...) in which Captain Kirk joins Spock for that mission and is attacked by a swarm of antibody-like crystals. After Spock phasers the crystals attempting to crush the good captain, the duo heads out into V'ger's vast memory core and sees the destroyed Klingon ships stored there, another visual not featured in the film. The space walk is surely one of Star Trek: The Motion Picture's most inspiring and visually appealing moments, but this alternate version seems to capture the essence of Star Trek pretty well- particularly in the give-and-take between Kirk and Spock as they solve a mystery together.

But what really makes the Star Trek: The Motion Picture magazine from Marvel such a total and delightful immersion in Star Trek lore is that following the adaptation of the film are pages and pages of articles about Star Trek. There's Tom Rogers' "Star Trek - The Phenomenon," which looks at the history of the series from inception to cancellation, to big screen re-birth. There's "Touching Base with Reality: An Interview with Jesco von Puttkamer" by Marian Stensgard, a Q&A that gazes at the science behind the motion picture and also probes the NASA scientist about the future shuttle program! Finally, Tom Rogers offers a "Star Trek - The Motion Picture Glossary," a three page concordance of people, technology and vehicles featured in the film. There are useful entries on everything from "Air Tram," to "Wormhole distortion."

For a kid Trekker living only with repeats and one new film, this stuff was just fantastic. I devoured every bit of this special magazine. And Star Trek: The Motion Picture - flaws and all - still holds a special place in my heart from that magic movie year of 1979. (The year of The Black Hole, Alien, Moonraker, and ST: TMP).

Friday, August 19, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 6: Battlestar Galactica: "Lost Planet of the Gods"

During the long wait between Star Wars (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980), there was only one good way to make the time go faster: watching Glen Larson's ABC epic space saga, Battlestar Galactica (1978-1979) every Sunday night. Although the series got on the prime-time schedule because of Star Wars' powerhouse influence on the box office and the industry, I've always felt that the series quickly and confidently staked out its own terrain in a rather interesting fashion, so much so that a "re-imagination" of the concept wasn't really necessary. The ingredients in the first series always had the potential, as far as I was concerned, to carry a Galactica franchise well into the future.

As I write in my study of the series,
An Analytical Guide to Television's Battlestar Galactica (1998; McFarland and Company Inc., Pub), due to be re-printed this month in soft-cover form, Battlestar Galactica boasted "some rather remarkable and memorable strengths." After just a few short weeks on the air, the series regulars, including Richard Hatch as Apollo, Dirk Benedict as Starbuck, and Lorne Greene as Commander Adama, were "entrenched as interesting, surprisingly believable people whom audiences found they truly cared for. Like Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983) or even Lassie (1954-71), Battlestar Galactica featured a tragedy each and every week: an emotional, family-oriented tearjerker."

Sadly, most critics didn't view the series in this fashion, perhaps because they were inclined only to see the similarities to Star Wars. "Star Wars was fun and I enjoyed it. But Battlestar Galactica was Star Wars all over again and I couldn't enjoy it without amnesia," wrote Isaac Asimov in his article "Science Fiction is More Than a Space Age Western," (Knight-Ridder Newspapers, September 17, 1978). Phil Hardly, in The Film Encyclopedia: Science Fiction (William and Morrow Company, page 339), called the series "a charmless clone" of the George Lucas epic, and Time Magazine, on September 18, 1978, page 98, noted that Galactica was perhaps "the most blatant rip-off ever to appear on the small screen."

Despite the blasts (Stephen King even called Galactica a "deep space turkey"), some astute reviewers began to detect that the series had value and its own identity, in part because TV can be a much more intimate medium than the movies. By mere virtue of the fact that Galactica was on the air every week - beaming into our living rooms - its dramatis personae boasted a deeper "inner life" than those featured in the delightful Star Wars. On Galactica, characters developed, changed, and evolved, and I submit that it is this character development that is actually the reason for the series' sustained popularity over more than a quarter century. We liked these people. We cared about them. We wanted to know what would happen to them; how they would survive.

"For the most part, the characters are given more psychological dimension than the comic-strip cutouts engaged in Star Wars, and Galactica creator Larson has a deft knack for spaced out humor...Expensive, ingeniously crafted and singularly fun-filled," critic Harry Waters described Galactica for Newsweek on September 11, 1978. "It's amazing that Battlestar Galactica looked as good as it did," noted critic Tom Shales at the time, and in 1995 a book called Net Trek (page 311) commented insightfully that Battlestar Galactica was..."immensely enjoyable, and few shows since have matched it for pure entertainment value." Amen.

An episode that shows off the dramatic series at its very best is "Lost Planet of the Gods." This is the episode that aired immediately after the three-hour premiere, "Saga of a Star World," and it was broadcast on September 24, 1978 and October 1, 1978. Written by Glen A. Larson and Donald Bellisario, and directed by Christian Nyby, Jr., this episode guest stars Jane Seymour as Serina, Boxey's mother, and tells the tale of a deadly plague that incapacitates the rag-tag fleet's warrior contingent, forcing Apollo and Starbuck (both unaffected by the disease...) to train a group of raw recruits including Athena (Maren Jensen) and Serina. At the same time, the Galactica and her wards run across a strange void - an area of unremitting darkness -in space, and Adama believes this strange phenomenon is actually the hallowed path to the legendary planet called Kobol, the planet where the 13 tribes originated long, long ago. He believes that somewhere in Kobol's ancient cities may be the answer to the location of Earth, the Galactica's destination. Although the Cylons (and Baltar...) are in pursuit, the Galactica stops at Kobol to explore the cities,( after a star is detected in the void right at the height of Apollo and Serina's joining [marriage] ceremony.) In the end, the Cylons attack Kobol, and there is another tragedy...

The first hour of this two-part of Battlestar Galactica focuses mainly on the warriors coming down with a disease, a genre trope of not much interest, but what makes both segments work so well is the chemistry and character fireworks between Richard Hatch's Captain Apollo and Jane Seymour's Serina. There's a real romantic spark there, and the moments wherein Apollo and Serina bicker over her decision to become a viper pilot, have a real kitchen-sink reality to them, something you just won't find anywhere in Star Wars. These scenes - played out against the cramped, gray-battleship set design of Battlestar Galactica - evoke what remains best about the series; that it can focus on the loves and losses of the Colonials, a kind of From Here to Eternity in space.

"Lost Planet of the Gods," follows this couple from their fight in Apollo's quarters, to a tender marriage ceremony, to utter despair and loss when Serina is shot in the back on Kobol by a Cylon Centurion. The episode's coda - one of Galactica's very best - sees young Boxey (Noah Hathaway) and Apollo visit Serina's bedside as she lays dying. It's a horribly sad goodbye. Out in the hallway beyond, all of Apollo's friends and family gather in mourning. For me, this in particular is just a lovely touch to the show. The large cast is gathered to grieve with Apollo, and this is precisely the kind of moment that is missing on the new Galactica which - well-written though it may be - never quite manages to tug at the heartstrings (in part because it is too busy scoring political points about Abu Ghraib, 9/11, religious fanaticism, whathaveyou.)

The new cast - accomplished as it is - never seems actually be working together on the same show, instead seeming fragmented and at odds, chewing away at various and sundry sub-plots (and quoting from great war movies such as Patton or pop culture touchstones like Top Gun).

This "Lost Planet of the Gods" coda reveals that in the original Battlestar Galactica at least, the characters do care about each other, and there is growth, change, mourning, etc. Apollo is married, and loses Serina after the equivalent of five episodes (five hours of the series), so it isn't like a guest star just popped on and got killed. As viewers, we felt the attachment to Serina that Apollo did, and now watch as he must raise her little son alone. The death of Serina is a 20-Kleenex tearjerker, and the characters' reaction to this loss puts truth to the lie that Galactica was just about dogfights and Star Wars, just a "popcorn" show. On the contrary, the series often concerned itself with very human characters and the sacrifices they had to endure.

Richard Hatch - who is so good as the revolutionary Tom Zarek in the new Sci-Fi Channel Battlestar Galactica - gives a touching, heart-wrenching and thoroughly honest performance in "Lost Planet of the Gods," and it may be his best work in Galactica's canon. It isn't shmaltzy or histrionic, just very, very genuine. It is for that performance -and for the touching, human - emotional - finale that sees the cast gathered in grief, that I recall Battlestar Galactica's "Lost Planet of the Gods" for this sixth Friday Cult TV Flashback. The next time somebody remarks that the characters were just ciphers, or rip-offs from Star Wars, pop this episode in the DVD player and prove 'em wrong.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Retro-Toy Thursday Flashback # 6: Gerry Anderson's Starcruiser 1

In the late 1970s, Space:1999 and UFO co-creator Gerry Anderson and writer David Hirsch contributed "Gerry Anderson's Space Report" as a regular column to Starlog Magazine. As a ten-year old kid, I was a regular subscriber to Starlog and an avid reader of the magazine. In particular, I liked reading about what was going on with Space:1999, and I dreamed of a revival, or in its stead, something new from Gerry Anderson. When issue # 21 arrived in the mail in April of 1979, I was in heaven at what I saw.

Emblazoned on the back cover of the magazine was a huge advert for a spanking new sci-fi model kit/toy from the US Airfix company (P.O. Box 850, Hewitt Texas, 76643). It was called "Starcruiser 1." This "new-snap-together space kit" was an amazingly detailed spacecraft created by Gerry Anderson (copyright Gerry Anderson Marketing Ltd., 1978). Not far removed from the technology of Space:1999, the unique craft was actually four spaceships in one, a heavily-armed (with defensive weaponry called "neutropedos" ) interceptor unit, a command module (where the pilots would sit...), a main unit with seven engines, which housed the top secret "Kryten Reactor," which was powered "by laser-fusion, using pellets of deuterium as fuel."), and a command base (a kind of all-terrain vehicle that could explore a planet surface). Even better, A Starcruiser 1 implicitly promised a Starcruiser 2...

On page 32 of Starlog # 21, all sorts of helpful information about this spaceship design (and model kit) was contained in an article called "The Birth of Starcruiser 1," that came along with an "Interestellar Command Technical Profile" of the ship and crew. In the article, Mr. Anderson explained that with his business partner Keith Shackleton, he had come to understand that the vehicles for his programs (such as Thunderbirds, Stingray, Captain Scarlet, and the aforementioned UFO and Space:1999) were popular model kits even in regions where the programming did not air on TV. In other words, kids had a fascination with unique space vehicles, even if they weren't big fans. This gave the Anderson people the idea to market Starcruiser 1, an inventive spaceship design that had no media tie-in, but which nonetheless could be quite popular. It was an original model design, and as anyone who reads this blogs remembers, I had a true love affair with TV/movie model-kits growing up. That Gerry Anderson had designed this special craft just made it all the more appealing to me as a kid. And best of all, I didn't have to limit my adventures to S.H.A.D.O. or Moonbase Alpha. My imagination could man this ship, and create its universe.

But the "Intersteller Command Technicle Profile" certainly helped pave the way for specific and fun adventures with the model by listing a prospective crew, which included Mission Commander, Captain Christopher Stevens, Navigator/Astrophysicist Lt. Andrew Dehner, Medical Officer Dr. Brian Moore, Technical Officer Professor Melita Alterra who was "also responsible for the design and construction of Starcruiser 1." The Head of Intersteller Command was "Commander Edward Damion." I remember many days of play and imagination thinking up what these characters would be like. In my head, the captain and the astrophysicist were romantically linked, and my Professor Alterra was an older guy with a heavy German accent. Commander Edward Damion was the hard-ass superior who would occasionally tag along on Starcruiser 1 for especially difficult diplomatic missions. Not especially original? Perhaps not, but hey, I was frigging ten years old.

Of course, I bought the Starcruiser 1 model (in fact, I've had three of 'em over my lifetime...) at a Toys R Us in Paramus, New Jersey, and to my delight, the directions for the kit also came with a dynamic eight panel comic-strip that revealed A "Starcruiser 1 Typical Mission Sequence" (see panels). Again, I thought it was great that Gerry Anderson was fueling the imagination of his young fans by showing how the ship worked in a prospective adventure, while also keeping the universe "loose" enough for imagination to play a key role. As the last frame of the comic noted, "You can enact the story once you have assembled your Starcruiser kit and then....why not make up a Starcruiser story of your own." That's precisely what I did. For months...

Needless to stay, Starcruiser 1 became one of my favorite kits (and still is...), and I even outfitted my own modified Starcruiser 2 when I bought my second kit. I decaled it differently, painted it, and made it a different design. A year or so later, a actual second multi-unit ship came along from Airfix, called the Cosmic Clipper, and I loved that one just as much. Alas, I haven't seen that one available on E-bay at all in the last several years, but I was able to pick up my third Starcruiser 1 there as a birthday present a few years back.

So in a world where model kits aren't that popular anymore, this week I wanted to highlight one such kit - an original one - that I absolutely loved, and takes me back to the year 1979. This was the era when Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Alien, Star Trek: the Motion Picture, Moonraker, Destination Moonbase Alpha and The Black Hole were all inspiring me to imagine my own adventures in the deepest regions of outer space.

I hope kids today have some kind of toys or kits like these...

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

King Kong, Seventies Style

In December, Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings; Bad Taste) unveils to the world his remake of the 1933 fantasy masterpiece King Kong. No doubt it will be the ticket to beat at the box office come Christmas time. But I must wonder, will long-time Kong fans respond to this new film the way they did when King Kong was first re-made almost thirty years ago, back in 1976? That film was also a big Christmas time ticket, made with the (then...) most current special effects, and a big budget.

Granted, this new, 2005 Kong looks more faithful than the John Guillermin, Dino De Laurentiis remake of 1976, being set in the 1930s like the original, but as a child of the 1970s - and at the risk of incurring the wrath of the purists - there's still something special about the disco decade version of the film. It still holds a special place in this Generation X'er's heart. It's the version I (and many others...) grew up with, so I'm not ashamed to say I like it. That is not a view shared by many long-time genre fans, however. In fact, I remember I once had a book editor who called it a "bomb" and said that I couldn't refer to it in one of my books, because it wasn't the real Kong. That's the sort of nonsense I occasionally run into when the older generation attempts to keep its icons at the top of the heap, at the expense of my generation's.

As director John Guillermin noted in Starlog # 160, in an interview with Lowell Goldman (November 1990, page 61),
"The film simply isn't allowed to speak for itself...It was totally different from the original, which is now considered a classic. That was an enormous thing to overcome..."

But that's all prologue. The 1976 King Kong starring Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin and Jessica Lange is actually a very strong film - at least from an objective critical opinion - because it accomplishes what few remakes have: it takes all the elements that made the material so strong and powerful in the 1930s, and then updates those elements for the world of the 1970s. The original film - made and set during the Great Depression - showcased a magnficent fantasy to find and bring back something to the civilized world that had never before been seen - "The Eighth Wonder of the World," and all that. In general, the attitude was one of American ingenuity, can-do and bravura as Carl Denham, with his new-fangled gas grenades, braved a dangerous (read non-white, non Christian...) world to bring back surpreme entertainment for a proud people who had been brought low by economic misfortune. The original (and brilliant...) film was about man against beast, man against nature, and in it America strode above the world. Our airplanes - our superior technology - finally took down Kong during an "attack" on our City, and there was little doubt about the value of American might.

It would have been very difficult to tell that same story in the 1970s Kong, and it was wise of the filmmakers to choose otherwise. As the disco decade commenced, there was not Depression, but an an Energy Crisis. The Vietnam War had discolored permanently American attitudes about foreign intervention, and the fall of President Nixon because of Watergate disillusioned Americans who believed that a president was supposed to be a "hero."

Thus it is appropriate and interesting that the King Kong of our Bicentennial year featured a journey not of open-ended exploration aboard a ship called "Venture," but rather one of desperation, a search for limited resources serving as the reason behind visiting Kong's island. And since the Watergate scandal had fueled cynicism about authority figures, Lorenzo Semple's screenplay re-imagined moviemaker Carl Denham as Fred Wilson, someone far less trustworthy; an anti-hero, an opportunist, a greedy, nature-raping corporate type. This is what Richard Eder of The New York Times wrote about King Kong's thematic shift from the 1930s to the 1970s in his story "Hollywood is Having an Affair with the Anti-Hero" (January 2, 1977, Section 2, page 1):

"The impulse to explore, to discover, to bring back what you've discovered [ - that which we found in] the first King Kong is now replaced by simple greed - the greed of the oil company representative Fred Wilson, to find a gusher; his greed in trying to convert King Kong into a gusher of a different sort."

He's right, and beyond that, the mission to Skull Island in the remake serves also as an allegory for American involvement in Vietnam. It is a mission whereby the enemy is neither understood nor respected, but deadly and powerful nonetheless. "Six of my guys are cut off in the bush and you're building monkey traps?" one shell-shocked Kong hunter complains to Wilson at a critical moment, making the Vietnam connection clear. Thus, the audience detects Wilson is applying, or rather mis-applying, American technology in a so-called "primitive" land without comprehending the consequences of his actions. His men may as well be soldiers out there "in the bush," trying to fight an enemy who is smarter than his appearance lets on. Many of 'em learn the error of their ways on a fallen log connecting the two walls of a ravine...

But the 1970s King Kong also goes far beyond the original in another way. The first film utilized show business as the avenue to Kong's island. In the Great Depression, many moviegoers forgot their troubles in the darkness of of movie theatres, and King Kong was the latest such diversion. In the re-make, corporations exploit the "show business," celebrity-driven, commercial culture of America in the 1970s. Wilson is both an oil company executive and the host of the Kong party. Dwan - Kong's lady love in this version - is a failed actress hoping to achieve her 15 minutes of fame; obsessed with her own celebrity. The oil company requires a mascot, and so the mighty Kong himself becomes a celebrity of sorts. Yet all these characters become trapped by their prominence in the public eye: Wilson is crushed by Kong while performing his duties as host; Dwan loses Jack - the man she loves; and Kong is murdered when he breaks fee of his commercial shackles. This time, his murder does not champion technology and American might, but is seen as a tragedy, or as Jack Prescott (Jeff Bridges) calls it, " a farce." The helicopters circle and destroy a proud animal, one who should never have been brought to the States. In the 1970s Kong, even the final attack is a mis-application of American power.

Considering these points, the 1970s King Kong is evocative of a far less romantic aesthetic than that imagined in the early 1930s. For all the free love and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and the 1970s, as a nation we were much less romantic and idealistic than we were in the 1930s, and this King Kong reflects that fact. King Kong fans may prefer the more child-like, wondrous, fantasy-world imagined by the 1930s adventure (in part because they experienced it in their youth...), but the 1970s version reflects a different (but no less valuable) Zeitgeist. It is the "cynical" and "realistic" version of King Kong; in contrast to the fantasy version of the Great Depression.

This is just one reason to laud the remake. It could have tried - note for note - to accomplish the exact same thing as the 1930s version. Instead, we get a companion piece that speaks powerfully to a different generation and a different time. The remake attempts to expand and re-imagine Kong's universe (and importance to American myth...) rather than merely rehash that which cannot be surpassed...the fantastic original. Where the new Kong really succeeds, perhaps, is in the humanization and sentimentalization of Kong. During the conclusion on the World Trade Centers, the mighty ape is literally a guy fighting City Hall.

So this cynical, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, Energy Crisis era King Kong is as much a product and reflection of its time as was the original, but in the 21st century, it is - ironically - the 1970s Kong that still resonates with us and carries such currency. The Energy Crisis of 2005, the quagmire in the Iraq War -- these are all "remakes" of 1970s issues, aren't they? And so the Guillermin Kong seems more timely than ever. And in an age where CGI monsters evoke little human feeling, this depiction of the mighty Kong still pulls at the heartstrings. He may appear low-tech in the age of Jar-Jar Binks and Gollum, but low-tech isn't always such a bad thing.

I look forward to Peter Jackson's revival of Kong, and I hope the director remembers that audiences require a King Kong for 2005, one that speaks to us the way the 1976 version spoke to audiences of that age. We don't need a light, fluffy, nostalgic Kong that accomplishes exactly the same things as the original film. Because, after all, we already have seen that movie, and you just can't beat a masterpiece by copying it note for note. So that's why I appreciate the 1970s version. It is different from its progenitor, and bold in those differences. It serves to remind us how King Kong - as a cornerstone of American modern mythology - can adapt with the times and remain valuable.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Catnap Tuesday # 6

Here's my beautiful Lila (the Scarlett O'Hara of my cats). She's sleeping on the entertainment center, above the TV and cable box, and right in front of all my book titles. Yes, it looks like my books put her to sleep. This is the area where my first cat, Lulu, used to sleep and hang out a lot - high over everybody else. When Lulu passed away in 2003, Lila decided it was time for her to move into Lulu's apartment, and, well, there she is.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Saturday Comic-Book Flashback # 4: Marvel's Star Wars, Issue 1

Pictured here is the "fabulous first issue" of Marvel's Star Wars adaptation, from July of 1977. My copy, as you can no doubt tell from the illustration, is wrinkled, torn and tatty, because, well, I've had it since I was in third grade, or thereabouts. I've probably read this book dozens of times over the years, though lately its been stored in a plastic bag, on display in my home office.

Marvel Comics adapted the famous George Lucas film, "the greatest space-fantasy of all" in six parts back in 1977, with Roy Thomas scripting/editing and Howard Chaykin illustrating. What's kind of interesting (and you can see it from the cover art), is how much this visual interpretation of Stars Wars (both inside the book and on the cover...) deviates from the art design we're all so familiar with these days. On the cover illustration, for instance, Darth Vader's helmet is mysteriously forest green (and he has fiery flames in his eyes...), Princess Leia has red hair and no eye pupils - like she's a zombie or something - and Han Solo dons an orange shirt instead of a black vest and white shirt. Both Jedi light sabers are red, instead of blue. The design for the ships is also subtly different than what we're used to -- the Star Destroyer from the movie's opening attack over Tatooine looks in the comic more like a slice of pizza with a pyramid on top of it than the battle cruiser for the Galactic Empire.

But these, of course are quibbles. Often movie adaptations differ substantially from the actual movies, because artists have had the chance only to view production designs, not the actual film. And sometimes, writers work from an earlier draft of the script, or cut of the picture, as was the case with this first issue of Star Wars. For instance, on page 7, the issue presents us with Luke Skywalker's visit to the Tatooine metropolis of Anchorhead. There he meets his buddy Biggs Darklighter, and gets razzed by a tech chick who apparently gives Luke the nickname of "Wormie." Luke is there to tell the visiting Biggs (of the cruiser, Rand Ecliptic...) that he sighted a battle in the skies above Tatooine (Star Destroyer vs. Blockade Runner). In these scenes, Luke also wears - unfortunately - a Gilligan hat and big goggles.

Before Star Wars was available on VHS, or the script was produced by NPR for the radio, an additional scene like this one at Anchorhead - expanding the SW universe - was like a gift from Heaven. At that young age (eight, I guess...) I remember wanting more Star Wars, more Star Wars, more Star Wars. And every little detail, like the fact that Han Solo was a "Corellian" - which I gleaned from the Star Wars Storybook - was like a scrap of food for a starving man. This particular issue of Star Wars ends early in the film, at the point just before the introduction of Ben Kenobi, as Luke is beset by Sand People (Tusken Raiders), so it doesn't even dramatize the whole movie, but that doesn't reduce its importance or uniqueness for me. As a kid, I just read this thing over and over. To me, there's always something special about the beginning of a saga. About seeing how everything starts. I just find it fascinating.

Today, I appreciate the cover art on Star Wars # 1 a little more than I once did, in part because I like the blaring legend on the lower left side:

"Enter: Luke Skywalker! Will he save the galaxy or destroy it?"

I don't know how Marvel formulated this sentence, but in a way, it represents the very core of the Star Wars ethos as we know it today. Anakin Skywalker was once the great hope of the galaxy, before faltering and going down the path of the Dark Side, and at plenty of spots in the original trilogy (particularly in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) , we wonder if Luke will indeed repeat the same mistake, and succumb to that outstretched hand of Lord Darth Vader on Bespin. It's probably just happy coincidence that Marvel narrowed down the point of the still-fledgling series down to this valuable bit of copy, but boy does it hold up well today, now that we've seen all six episodes of the space epic.

Even today, I get a shiver from watching the original Star Wars, and in particular that early scene wherein Luke confronts his Uncle Owen. "Luke's just not a farmer, Owen. He's got too much of his father in him," warns kindly Aunt Beru. "That's what I'm afraid of..." replies Owen testily, his line carrying tons of foreboding. That exchange - which resonates throughout all six episodes of Lucas's work - appears in this issue of Marvel's Star Wars (which cost only 35 cents at the time...) on page 23, and it has lost none of its frisson today. In fact, it works better than ever, now that we've seen the fall of the Republic and the "birth" of Darth Vader.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Friday Cult TV Flashback # 4: Doctor Who: "The War Games"

Doctor Who ran for 26 years on the BBC. It's the longest running science fiction TV program of all time, and for good reason. Although far too many serials featured that hoary old idea of an alien invasion of Earth (on Doctor Who by Daleks, Cybermen, The Kraal, the Krynoids, Sutekh, the Terileptil, etcetera etcetera), other stories during the two-decade-plus run proved absolutely brilliant. The series is being re-imagined in England as I write (now in its second season...), and most folks already know what the show is about: the adventures in time and space of a strange bird called the Doctor, a Time Lord from Gallifrey and a consummate scientist, meddler and philosopher. Although seven actors played the lead character from the 1960s to 1989, the original series never lost its identity, its sense of fun, low-budget ingenuity and social conscience.

The change in lead actors (and companions...) actually granted the show a sense of re-birth and re-vivification every few years, and each Doctor's era is remarkably different in tone and concept from the one before. The landmark first Doctor (William Hartnell), a crankly, curmudgeonly fellow, oversaw a span of mostly historical adventures set during Earth's past. The second Doctor (Patrick Troughton) was a more affectionate and child-like traveler through space, and some of his stories were quite horrific ("Tomb of the Cybermen"). Dashing Jon Pertwee played the Third Doctor as a kind of Quatermass/James Bond swashbuckler, relegated mostly to Earthly adventures in the 20th century. Tom Baker - the best known Time Lord to American audiences - oversaw what many believe is the series' golden-age, a post-Star Trek voyage through time and space incorporating horror ("Planet of Evil"), heist-comedy ("The Ribos Operation"), political drama ("The Deadly Assassin"), the fantastic and just about anything else you can imagine. And on the show went, until the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy), who was a slightly darker Time Lord, one with secrets and mysteries...a master manipulator and chess player.

Critic John Baxter called Doctor Who a "good example of what may be done with limited facilities if a producer has imagination," (Science Fiction in The Cinema: A Complete Review of SF Films from A Trip to the Moon [1902] to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Paperback Library, 1970, page 187). Scholars Jone Clute and Peter Nicholls have noted it is a "notably self-confident series juggling expertly with many of the great tropes and images of the genre...At its worst merely silly, at its best it has been spellbinding, (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, St. Martin's Press, 1993, page 346.)

In the early 1990s, Epilog Magazine hailed the program as "perhaps the greatest science fiction series of all time..." (Epilog 11, October 1991, page 29). As you might guess, I've been a long-time admirer of the series myself, and in 1997 I wrote a book about the show entitled
A Critical History of Dr. Who on Television. The Earthbound Time Lords called my book "the strongest of critical works on the program...the definitive work on the program, one that will be used for years to come," Cult Movies called it "necessary reading," and Doctor Who Magazine noted that "spending time with Muir will breathe fresh life into your view of a series you thought you had sussed." Given my love of the series, it was only a matter of time before I included it here for a Friday Cult TV flashback.

And the serial I want to focus on, in particular, is one that I believe doesn't garner nearly enough attention among the fans, at least not anymore. There are any number of great serials I could focus on (and may do so in the future), including personal favorites like "Robots of Death," "Ark in Space," The Talons of Weng-Chiang," "The Aztecs," "Genesis of the Daleks" and "Tomb of the Cybermen," but I wanted to go back in time to a period when the universe of the Doctor was still a dark mystery, and we didn't necessarily understand his origins or his people. The serial I refer to is "The War Games," a 243-minute, ten-part epic that aired from April to June of 1969, and was written by Malcolm Hulke and Terrance Dicks, and directed by David Maloney. This story finds our good Doctor (played by the late Patrick Troughton; pictured above) and his companions Jamie and Zoe landing the T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time and Relative Dimensions in Space) in what seems to be a World War I battlefield. However, they soon learn they have landed on alien planet filled with war zones from various Earth time periods (including the American Civil War, World War I, the Crimean War, and so on.)

Fifty-thousand abducted humans are being made to fight in these wars at the pleasure of a deadly alien being known as the War Lord, a tyrant hoping to construct the ultimate army for his strategy of galactic conquest. After much running around, the Doctor defeats the alien War Lord with the aid of the human resistors, but comes to realize he cannot send all 50,000 humans home using the T.A.R.D.I.S. It is simply beyond his capabilities. He needs help, and so must summon the Time Lords - the very people he ran away from - for help. In doing so, he exposes himself. The Doctor is captured by the Time Lords, put on trial for interference, and before the tenth episode (a season finale...) ends, the Time Lords mete out a terrible justice not just to the War Lord, but to the Doctor as well. This is, lest we forget, Patrick Troughton's final show as the star of the show.

I want to focus on "The War Games" because it is a beautifully-shot addition to the Who canon. Fans like to complain how cheap the series looks, but in the early, black-and-white days of Hartnell and Troughton, the series compensated for its low-budget with some exquisite visuals and beautiful camerawork, and this serial, perhaps, takes the cake in that regard. The first episode of "The War Games" opens with a long shot view of what seems a barren World War I battlefield. A slow tilt down by Maloney's camera reveals a pool of muddy water and flotsam, and then - in the pool's reflective surface - we see the T.A.R.D.I.S. materialize. Taken by itself, this is an artistic alternative to the "standard" opening of many a serial, a simple landscape shot with the T.A.R.D.I.S. merely appearing suddenly. But much more than that, the pan across this battlefield and the appearance of the T.A.R.D.I.S. in a kind of swamp uniquely expresses the isolation and desolation of this war zone. It's just an artistic and beautiful way to begin a show, and it's appropriate we see a reflection of the T.A.R.D.I.S. first, because in some senses, this serial is about a "reflection" of Earth, a simulation of Earth Wars, but not the real thing.

The War Games" also features a break-neck staccato pace, often to the cacophany of blaring German machine guns. When the Doctor, Jamie and Zoe are assaulted, there are fast cuts in the show, and every episode is like that, moving at cliff-hanger speed. But then comes the final turnaround in the ninth half-hour. After episodes and episodes of rapid-fire battles, hair-raising escapes, last-minute rescues and the like, we have hardly had time to catch our breaths. But then, after the Doctor has summoned his people and is trying to escape so as to continue his adventures, slow-motion photography is employed to denote the inescapable fact that the Doctor can no longer continue to run, His very enemy is time itself - the enigmatic Time Lords. No matter how fast the Doctor runs, he cannot escape. The dramatic utilization of slow-motion photography in the closing portion of episode 9 is made doubly effective by all the staccato editing in the previous parts. By this point, the audience has been through one fast-paced scrape with the Doctor after another, and so we are not prepared for the impact of the slow-motion interlude, the fact that the Time Lords can and do intervene, and actually slow time to a crawl, hindering our hero's escape.

Yet dynamic visuals alone are not the only reason to remember the season closer for Doctor Who's sixth year. More importantly, "The War Games" tells a great story (and one repeated on Star Trek Voyager many years later, featuring the Hirogen and holodeck simulations of World War II and other battle scenarios...). And it isn't just about endless war. "The War Games" is one of the best examples of the Doctor's personal heroism. Here, his life and very future are at stake, but he puts that aside to help the human fighters. He contacts the Time Lords, even though he knows for him it will spell certain doom. And let us not forget that this serial came at a time in the series history when the Time Lords are a mysterious and frightening people.

In fact, as depicted in "The War Games," they are the most frightening villains the series has ever dramatized. They are invincible and powerful, able to control time. And they have a cold, draconian sense of law and justice. They punish the War Lord (after torturing him...) by wiping his existence from the record of time, a horrendous and heartless fate. Then, in an act of vengeance almost totally unjustified, these Lords of Time trap the War Lord's entire planet in a kind of stasis/forcefield. Cleverly, the final episode of "The War Games" shows us this evil, merciless "Time Lord" justice first, and then proceeds to the trial of the Doctor second. By this time, audiences understand that there will be no mercy. In the end, the Time Lords kill this incarnation of the Doctor, make his companions (Jamie and Zoe) forget their time with him, and exile the new incarnation of the Doctor to 20th century Earth. At the end of the show, it is quite sad and touching to see the forced separation of the Doctor from his companions, but still the Doctor knew that in saving the humans from the War Lord, he would face consequences. Talk about courage...

As a fan of mystery and unanswered questions in my drama (see my entry on Space:1999's "Force of Life,") I love this depiction of the Time Lords as strange and terrifying, and was saddened as I watched this element of the drama change with time. By the Pertwee years, the Time Lords were like "M" in the James Bond flicks, occasionally dispatching Pertwee's Doctor on important assignments and missions. By the Baker and Davison years (and serials such as "The Invasion of Time" and "Arc of Infinity,") the Time Lords were just another alien race - like the Vulcans or Klingons. Yes, they controlled time, but they were vulnerable to invasion, mired in their own petty politics, and in all, theTime Lords had lost their sense of menace and awe. This just reminds me how series' change ideas and conceits as they go forward over the years, and Doctor Who - being so long-lived - naturally had more of this kind of change than any other series.

So on this Cult TV Friday Flashback, I remember the visually dynamic, frightening and even touching Dr. Who serial from 1969, "The War Games" - the last gasp of the Patrick Troughton era. See it if you can. If for no other reason than Patrick Troughton's goodbye to his companion Jamie, and his admonition to remember that "time is relative."

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Thursday Retro Toy Flashback # 5: Little Golden Books

In previous Thursday retro-toy flashbacks I've highlighted the 2-XL Robot (which plays 8-track tapes...) lunch-boxes, model kits, and Colorform Adventure Playsets, but this week I want to make note of another glorious bit of my 1970s childhood: The Little Golden Books!

The story of the Little Golden Book goes back to September 1942 - during World War II - when Simon & Schuster began publishing these books with the sturdy golden spine for children. Sold at 25 cents a piece, these books sold by the millions. By the late 1970s, the books were selling for 69 cents a piece and had come to mirror "children's popular culture over the years," according to the official history, which you can find here.

Over the years, Little Golden Books have completed their commendable stated mission of reflecting childrens' pop culture by featuring books on such characters as Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Sesame Street, Barbie, Scooby Doo and Pokemon, but - as usual - I'm thinking of the genre-related movie/TV-related books from my own youth (the 1970s), of which you can see several examples here. Among them: Sid & Marty Krofft's Land of the Lost ("The Surprise Guests,") Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and the Children of Hopetown, and even one based on the Disney sci-fi movie from Christmas of 1979, The Black Hole, ("A Spaceship Adventure for Robots).

See, I have a theory about these wonderful Little Golden Books and our "geek generation" (see
Geek Philosophy). I think that before many of us were old enough to get into comic-books, and before many of us were ready to move to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit, we began our reading careers with these books. For me, I was young when the Land of the Lost book came out (in 1975...) and it allowed me to pursue my interest of the TV characters into a reading format. For those born later, they might have done the same with Buck Rogers or The Black Hole. And today, the same thing is happening. Young fans of Pokemon can turn first to a Little Golden Story Book and then beyond. It's an introduction to reading, spurred by the popularity of a TV show, and I believe it's a very good thing. It certainly helped me.

As The Little Golden Book
Timeline notes, these books have existed for more than sixty years, and in the process have become an "icon." The Smithsonian Institute, for instance, includes them in its Division of Cultural History, and in 2001, the books won a Dr. Toy Award for "Best Classic Toy." It's easy to see why, they are primers for good readers, and - for my generation at least - eased us from TV watching into reading. And for that, I know I'm very grateful.

Today I have several Little Golden Books, and you can see a few from my collection pictured here.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Summer Movie Wrap-Up

We've arrived at the end of another blockbuster movie summer, and many in the industry and press have already written an epitaph for the season. There were a lot of failures at the box office in the summer of 2005, and some surprise hits too. Revealing once more the critical community's general disconnect from the vast movie-going populace, some of the least well-received films by critics (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Fantastic Four) are doing great business. And - in a reversal of the Seabiscuit Principle - some fine, well reviewed films (like Cinderella Man) have bombed.

A few articles on the topic of the summer box office sweepstakes can be found
here at the Post-Gazette, and also at The Chronicle, here. Box Office Mojo has the skinny on Michael Bay's The Island, and its weak debut here.

I realize that for many studios and films, this summer meant "flat" earnings, and some voices have decried the domination of re-makes and sequels at the box office, but - in the science fiction and horror genres at least - I'd say that overall filmmakers got things just about right this summer. We had some very fine films to enjoy, and ones that often succeeded on an artistic basis.

This is how I would rank the "big" genre offerings this summer:

1.) George A Romero's Land of the Dead: This is the sequel I waited 20 years for (literally...) and it did not disappoint. Although I was surprised to see a traditional white male "hero" take center stage in the zombie saga since Romero has a tradition of casting African-Americans (Night of the Living Dead) and women (Day of the Dead) as protagonists, otherwise this film surpassed expectations. Set in a future, post-zombie/post-apocalyptic world where the rich, greedy and white live in luxury in a skyrise called Fiddler's Green and everybody else lives in squalor, Romero's movie is the perfect metaphor for "Fortress America" and post-September 11th thinking. It reveals the folly in the notion that we can just lock ourselves up, ignore the rest of the world, and hope that global problems don't reach us. Dennis Hopper's line about not negotiating with terrorists got a huge laugh from the audience I saw the film with.

Beyond the rich subtext, however, I was also delighted to see that Romero hadn't lost his master's touch at scaring the wits out of audiences. I saw this film in a full auditorium of mostly over-thirty-year-old married couples, and people jumped and screamed through the whole show. The movie kept all of us on-edge. Both a brilliant reflection of our times and a scary date-movie at the same time, Land of the Dead is the best genre film of the summer, regardless of its box-office take. By its own rules, and by the standards of Romero's zombie series, this film is a winner.

2.) Batman Begins: Who knew that a re-boot could give this ailing franchise such a shot in the arm? No bones about it, this is the best Batman movie yet produced, invigorated by Christopher Nolan's freedom to start over and take everything a step at a time. I love that - for once - a Batman film focuses on Batman's technology, and the reality of how he creates his world of batmobiles, batarangs and the like. Other movies treat these gadgets and vehicles as a "given," and that just amps up the fantasy aspects. This is a movie that - a sign of the times, no doubt - is grounded in reality and earns every step it takes. I do think the film falls down a bit in the last act, but this is a minor quibble. Nolan's action scenes are claustrophobic and confusing (though I can see what he was going for...) and there are massive holes in the climax (hundreds of Gothamites must have been killed...), but at the center of all this is a rock-solid force named Christian Bale. He gives a great performance as Wayne/Batman, and shows what a talented actor can do with the role when he isn't being upstaged by silly one-liners or fantastic (but improbable...) set-pieces. With Batman Begins and Spider-Man I & II, the age of the Superhero Triumphant is truly upon us. Like Land of the Dead, there is also a splendid subtext here: the idea that the world is in our hands, and it is up to each one of us to stand up to corruption and graft. Take that Tom Delay!

The film's biggest weakness is the miscasting of Katie Holmes as a high-powered assistant district attorney. This isn't a slight against Holmes - I've enjoyed her performances in many films (including Sam Raimi's The Gift), but she doesn't appear old enough to have graduated from law school, let alone have risen through the ranks of a DA's office. And that Betty Boop voice makes it hard to take her line-readings seriously.

3.) Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith: I suppose this is a sentimental choice more than a solid critical one. This is the best of the prequel trilogy, but as many have pointed out, perhaps that isn't really saying much. This film - like Phantom Menace and Attack of The Clones - suffers from weak dialogue, poor plotting, and an obsession on juvenile genre concepts (a wheezing war droid that is built up as a terror but then easily dispatched; a giant lizard steed for Obi-Wan, etcetera).

Yet the last forty-five minutes or so of Sith are incredibly powerful, and unfold with an inevitability that is grand, and quite touching. As the film leads us back to the beginning of the saga, the original Star Wars, this film truly takes flight. We've known for years the fate of Obi-Wan, Vader, Yoda, etcetera, but to see it unfold before us is still amazing, and touching. Some critics have compared the film to The Godfather, and in some odd way, that's apt. Like Coppola's masterpiece, the last sequences of Revenge of the Sith don't play favorites; don't candy-coat the darkness for the Jar-Jar crowd, and don't minimize the terror of the Empire's ascent. The sequence that involves the assassination of the Jedi Order is one of the best set-pieces Lucas has yet directed, and utterly, totally chilling.

Again, I felt there was a rich sub-text in this film. "Only a Sith thinks in absolutes," is Kenobi's response to Anakin's George W. Bush-like assertion that Obi Wan is either with him or against him. And the moment when the Emperor seizes power and Amidala notes that this "how democracy dies") - reminded me of the passage of the Patriot Act and how Americans have been asked to trade civil liberties for security. Positively chilling.

Overall, I enjoyed Revenge of the Sith tremendously, but again - I felt this way about Attack of the Clones in the theaters too. Then when I got the DVD home and watched it again, I realized just how flat and cartoony the whole enterprise was. I hope the same won't happen with Revenge of the Sith.

4. War of the Worlds: Frankly, I resisted seeing this Steven Spielberg film for weeks. Tom Cruise has made such a royal ass of himself between "couch jumping" on Oprah and haranguing Matt Lauer about psychiatric drugs that it drained every bit of desire I had to see the film. I'm not alone, either. There isn't one person in my circle of friends and associates who hasn't felt the same way. So if War of the Worlds isn't the mega-hit that some folks predicted, I say blame Cruise's oddball TV antics. It's probably not fair to judge the film based solely on a dislike of Cruise's behavior, but said behavior killed a lot of folks' interest in what should have been a must-see project, that's for sure.

As for the movie itself, it is actually a very powerful film at moments, picking up on and amplifying a subconscious dread at work in the culture; a fear of another September 11th, except on a grander scale. The special effects are great, the alien attacks are horrific, and the film garners major points for opening and closing with the eloquent words of H.G. Wells (read beautifully by narrator Morgan Freeman). The film is dark, substantial and serious, and at times, you almost want to turn away from the screen because it is clear that humans are, as Tim Robbins' character states - being ruthlessly exterminated. The sound of the alien "horn" becomes a signal for fear to the audiences, and gives one a bad case of the creeps.

But by the second half of the film, one begins to realize that Spielberg may have an unhealthy obsession with children. There are so many inherently interesting ideas about an alien invasion of Earth - and the impact on humanity - and yet Spielberg repeats the hackneyed subplot of Jurassic Park and makes it all about Tom Cruise learning to be a better father. This is not only contrived, but a bit insulting. There are so many other important stories one could tell in this sitaution - stories of personal courage, of sacrifice, helping those who AREN'T blood, of holding on to one's humanity in a time of the mob mentality, to name but a few. I wish Spielberg would focused more heavily on some of those themes.

And the film's ending is a total Hollywood cop-out. I'm not talking about the destruction of the aliens by Earth's germs - that's a given from the novel - but rather the idea that Tom Cruise's son would show up alive and unharmed in Boston. That's flatly unacceptable dramatically. No way. Again - and we've seen this in A.I. and other Spielberg films - there's a terrible tendency to oversentimentalize; to go for the maudlin and the cute rather than the authentic. So at the end of the War of the Worlds - Cruise's character Ray has lost nobody? Not one family member? Nope, cuz he's learned to be a good dad. He knew when to let his son go. Ugh. How much more powerful would the film have been had his son been killed, a casualty of the extermination? But as it stands, not one major character dies in the film, except Robbins (and Cruise, not the alien invaders, kills him,...). Even Ray's ex-wife, her parents, and the boyfriend are alive and well in Boston when the curtain falls.

I guess I'd give War of the Worlds a modest three stars. Much of it works well, and yet often in the film I would find myself thinking that it was just a long chase, and one that ends without a real climax to boot.

Any thoughts out there on this summer and the movies? What are your favorites? Least favorites? Why? Let me know!

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Catnap Tuesday # 5

My littlest cat, Lily, picks some strange places to sleep. She likes the sink in our downstairs bathroom. And heck, even if there's a pot around...she's in it! So enjoy my Lily on this fifth Catnap Tuesday.

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...