Friday, September 30, 2005

TV Review: The Night Stalker, Episode # 1: "Pilot"

Well, this isn't exactly the review I was expecting to write this morning. To get the surprise out of the way, the fact is, I rather liked and enjoyed ABC's new program, The Night Stalker, a re-make of the classic Kolchak: The Night Stalker from 1974.

I wasn't expecting to like it, for many reasons. For one thing, most of the advance buzz from fans was negative. Perhaps I should have expected that. It seems there's always rampant negativity on the 'Net these days, whenever a program debuts. If there had been an Internet fan community when Star Trek premiered in 1966, the show would have lasted six episodes, never prospered in reruns, and never gained the stature it enjoys today. Too many people would have bitched about it. ("Their uniforms had two braids on the wrist this week," one talkbacker would complain, "it had three braids last week..."). So really, I have to keep my awareness of fan bitching in check. I shouldn't let it preclude my enjoyment of a new series.

The second reason I was concerned about The Night Stalker is one that reveals my age. Call it generational allegiance or nostalgia. I'm a huge fan of the original show starring Darren McGavin. It's high on the list of my top 50 genre shows, and, well, I wasn't sure what tampering with an acknowledged classic would accomplish. I mean, can't you leave it alone?

Third, I wasn't too keen on the idea of Stuart Townsend inheriting the role of Carl Kolchak. I have nothing against Townsend personally or professionally. He's a fine actor, and I'm sure a decent human being. But, Carl shouldn't be played by a traditional, good-looking leading man. He needs the edge that only a character actor (like James Wood, or Tony Shaloub) could give him. Darren McGavin was never better than as Kolchak. It was a career-defining role for the actor, and so it's rather hard to see anybody else in the part.

So for those three reasons, I was certain I was going to despise The Night Stalker, airing on Thursdays at 9:00 on ABC. But lo and behold, I liked the pilot.

It's true, this remake has a totally different vibe. I desperately miss the seedy, cramped offices of the INS, where Carl used to work...which looked like they hadn't been cleaned in...forever. I missed Kolchak's rumpled suit and his ratty, crappy demeanor. I missed the character's crusading-for-the-truth obsession, and his non-existent personal life (his work was his life). I missed his rat-a-tat banter with Vincenzo, and his combative, argumentative and probing attitude with elected officials at news conferences.

All those elements are gone with the wind, it's true.

And yet...the new show has something. Some quality. Maybe it's because Frank Spotnitz, late of The X-Files is at the helm, but I honestly felt this pilot was scary. Big time scary. The opening scene - an attack on a pregnant woman in her kitchen - was a humdinger, and more terrifying than anything I've seen on Supernatural in three weeks. Since this show is called The Night Stalker, I was happy to see that many scenes actually occurred at night (like the original series). That's another problem with Supernatural. Much of the horror there occurs in broad daylight (I'm thinking both of "Wendigo" and "Dead in the Water" here), and well, that's really hard to make work. The chill of the night air is palpable in this Kolchak remake, and it set me on edge.

Secondly, I thought the show did strive to create a unique aura that would separate it from the supernatural pack (meaning The X-Files, Supernatural, Poltergeist: The Legacy, Forever Knight, Millennium and so on...). With all the lovely nighttime shots of the city lights, gleaming silver skyscrapers, isolated cars speeding on asphalt highways, and quick cuts to lonely, strange perspectives (a rattling wind chime, a gently swaying swing on a playground), I indeed felt the vibe of an isolating, dehumanizing metropolis; a place where there may be plenty of people around, but they don't connect; don't help one another. It's a frightening phantasm of modern urban America, a place where people see, but don't help. Where people close their eyes and choose not to believe something that is unbelievable. Is this a different view of life than the original Kolchak: The Night Stalker, which was born in post-Watergate America, when Woodward and Bernstein were national heroes? Definitely, but in a sense, it's a vision that upholds the idea of the little guy vs. City Hall that was so appealing in the original incarnation. In the 1974 progenitor, Kolchak was a nobody, just a fly in the ointment, but here, it's even worse. This Kolchak is actively despised and persecuted by the establishment. Interesting.

I also very much liked Kolchak's voiceover narration. This is an ideal notion for a series about an investigative reporter, a writer. We should hear his words, understand how he puts things together, and why he does so. It gives us an "in" to his mind. The original series utilized the conceit of the tape recorder with Kolchak taping his notes, then hammering the contents out on his typewriter. Even The X-Files, in its earliest days, featured Scully and Mulder writing case reports, and reading from their findings in thoughtful voiceover. It's a technique that can be quite powerful, and I liked how it was used here, with specific words highlighted on the screen. Very artful. Very experimental. Very different.

The climax of The Night Stalker's pilot was edited with such dazzling ferocity that it was actually difficult to make out what happened to whom, and how. But you know something? I'm okay with that. I'll take ultra-fast glimpses of a monster rather than a full-on CGI shot any day of the week. I also appreciated that the story resolved literally nothing. We spent an hour hunting something (a coyote? a hellhound?) and at the end of that time still really knew not much about it. That's very different and bold for TV; it's called ambiguity. Everything wasn't resolved neatly and cleanly (again, I think of Supernatural...) and the fact that the climax was kinda hard to make out works well for this sense of ambiguity. The supernatural shouldn't be a given, the a priori answer to every riddle, and this new Night Stalker, at least in the first installment, appears to recognize that fact. We should have questions about what occurred, because indeed Kolchak has questions too.

It was also probably a smart idea to team up Kolchak with a partner. Carl Kolchak isn't written in this new version as the man of resources and charisma he once was, so he's going to need a cohort with whom he can play off of, for character fireworks.

So it's a new veneer, a new approach, and a decent program so far. Why can I find space in my heart for this new series, but say, not Battlestar Galactica on Sci-Fi Channel? Why won't I just drink the damn Kool Aid that everybody else (even astute, long-time chroniclers of the genre) are drinking these days? Well, for one thing, the new Night Stalker doesn't appear tailor-made to be a poke in the eye to fans of the original. On the new Battlestar, every character and situation feels like a kneejerk slap at the original. Cylons were robots? Let's make 'em human! Starbuck was a man? Let's make him a woman! Tigh was black? Let's make him white! Apollo and Adama have a great relationship? Let's make them fight! The old show was family friendly? Let's make this one sexed up!! Perhaps, taken in turn, each one of those choices is dramatically motivated, but taken all together, you can't help but feel that someone is giving a big fat middle finger to the 1978 series. And that's particularly shabby given that people love and recall that incarnation after twenty-five years. You shouldn't spit on icons, just to put your own stamp on them.

But I don't feel any of that from The Night Stalker. Really, the original Kolchak series was a one-of-a-kind show that could never be repeated as it was. Nobody could really adequately replace Darren McGavin, or do a show just like that today...for a lot of reasons (including our perception of the mainstream press). But what you can do is still tell stories about an obsessed investigative reporter and his brushes with the supernatural. If the stories are good, that's enough. Unlike the new Battlestar Galactica, I don't sense the new Night Stalker trying to undermine a legacy or overtly wow audiences with its ambitions and intellect.

It's just trying to scare us. And that's a good thing. And a noble mission for for a re-born Carl Kolchak.

Serenity: The Reviews are In!

Reviews of Joss Whedon's Serenity are flooding the net; and the good news is that they're overwhelmingly positive. I think we're all in for a real treat; and if I'm not mistaken, perhaps even a new cultural touchstone. I'm crossing my fingers.

Here's a cross-sampling of reviews:

MaryAnn Johanson, The Flick Filosopher herself, is celebrating Firefly/Serenity week over at her always-impressive domains (
Geek Philosophy and The Flick Filosopher). She posted her insightful and appreciative review of Serenity last night, and calls it "total immersion science fiction," noting that "the most stunning thing about Serenity may be that Whedon was allowed to make this film in his own way."

Roger Ebert awards the film a promising three stars and comments that Serenity "plays like a critique of contemporary has the rough edge and brawny energy of a good yarn..."

Derek Elley of Variety notes that what "makes "Serenity" refreshing is its avoidance of CGI, which gives the pic a much more human dimension; the evident chemistry between the cast; and a humor that doesn't rely simply on flip one-liners."

Over at The San Francisco Chronicle, Peter Hartlaub suggests that Joss Whedon will join James Cameron on the sci-fi Mount Rushmore for this flick. He calls it "a triumph...a thrillingly original science fiction creation."

The film has also earned positive reviews from Newday, The Village Voice, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, among many, many others. It currently has a 77% "fresh" reading at Rotten Tomatoes, a very high figure.

I had the honor and privileging of interviewing Joss Whedon for two hours last year while I was working on my book about movie musicals, Singing a New Tune, (yes, he's a crazy fan of movie musicals and Fred Astaire...) and he spoke at length about Serenity's fight scenes featuring Summer Glau (as River Tam) and how he choreographed them as dances of sorts. So I've known for some time that the film was going to be amazing, at least from an action-genre standpoint. But to see the film compared favorably (in all the major papers) to highwater marks of the sci-fi genre including The Matrix, Blade Runner, The Empire Strikes Back and even Aliens is more than encouraging.

I can't to see this movie. Going tomorrow with the whole family...

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 11: Joss Whedon's Firefly: The Complete Series

In celebration of Joss Whedon’s Serenity, debuting today in movie theaters nationwide, I want to focus this 11th edition of my "Retro TV Friday Flashback series" on Firefly, the late lamented sci-fi TV series from 2002; the source material that spawned this forty-million dollar feature film. As all Browncoats (fans of the series...) are aware, Firefly ran for a mere fourteen episodes (fifteen hours in all) on Fox’s Friday night line-up in the fall of 2002; airing just before another short-lived genre series, John Doe starring Dominic Purcell.

Firefly is set in a world five hundred years hence, when a “unified” human government called The Alliance has terraformed a vast swath of planets and moons to resemble an Earth environment, and dropped off settlers everywhere...sometimes without adequate supplies. On the rich central planets of the Alliance, life is good and stable, but as you travel out into the frontier worlds, it becomes increasingly difficult and primitive. And at the edge of space itself is a horror called “The Reavers,” humans who gazed into the abyss of space and were forever transformed by what they saw there; turned into self-mutilating savages known to rape, murder and eat their victims (not always in that order).

In more human terms, Firefly is the saga of Captain Mal Reynolds (played by Nathan Fillion), formerly a sergeant in the Independent Army. His side lost the war against the Alliance six years ago, and now he captains a battered Firefly class transport vessel named Serenity (after the valley where the Alliance won the war...). His crew includes his former lieutenant, the beautiful - and deadly - Zoe (Gina Torres), her husband, the wisecracking ship’s pilot, named Wash (Alan Tudyk), and the “muscle” of the group, the obnoxious, boorish Jayne (Adam Baldwin). Young Kaylee (Jewel Staite) runs the ship’s systems and could probably fix any machine in the galaxy, and then there's my favorite character: Inara (Morena Baccarin). She's the Serenity’s foremost citizen, “an ambassador” of sorts called "a Companion.” This means she's a combination psychologist/courtesan.

In the first two-hour episode of Firefly, the crew makes a pitstop on the planet Persephone after a scavenge operation gone wrong, and picks up a few new passengers: the mysterious man of God, Shepherd Book (played by Ron Glass), and Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a once-promising young physician. Without the crew’s knowledge, Simon has also brought aboard his sister, River (Summer Glau), a genius and mind-reader who is slightly nutty. She's been held hostage by the Alliance at “the Academy.” Now, Serenity is a marked ship because the Alliance and its deadly operatives want River back. She knows something important about their plans for the citizenry, and they want to protect knowledge of it from the masses.

Each week on Firefly, the crew would attempt to make some money, often illegally (in episodes like “The Train Job”) while simultaneously evading the authorities. One of the best aspects of this unique series is its fashioning of a future world where the characters speak in (untranslated) Chinese idioms, and scrap and struggle just to survive. This ain't a universe of plenty, where "technology unchained" (the mantra of Star Trek: The Next Generation) has created a virtual utopia. On the contrary, the Firefly class ship is always just a few dollars shy from falling apart, and low on fuel, and so this is the opposite of romantic views of space adventuring we've come to expect in franchises like Star Wars.

also pioneered the use of the camera “zoom” in vast outer space-shots, a facet of the series that was promptly appropriated by the new Battlestar Galactica. Other nice touches to point out in Firefly? Aping 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s no sound in space. And there ain't no alien races either. No Vulcans, Narn, Peackeepers or other humanoid representatives. Whedons' series set-up reminds me of the tagline from that old Sean Connery space western, Outland: “Even in space, the ultimate enemy is man.”

Firefly has been called (by The New York Post), “very funny, very hip, very terrific,” but its qualities bear further examination. The setting and overall story serve as a metaphor for Reconstruction era, frontier America, only set far in the future. The war for “unification,” set six years before the events of the series (and seen in flashbacks in “Serenity,” the two-part opener) is like our much own Civil War, which began when the South seceded from the Union. Though "slavery" is one reason why that war occurred (and was certainly an abomination...) it should be noted too that the South wanted to see power less centralized, and didn't like seeing much of its tax money going to support the North. The South had its own culture (corrupt or not; that's up for debate...) and didn't want to be assimilated into the Federalized central govt.

And Firefly's Mal Reynolds, on the losing side of a noble war (not unlike Rhett Butler...), is pretty obviously a Confederate. In the opening scenes of “The Train Job,” a self-satisfied proponent of Unification, played by Tom Towles, insults Mal in words that any long-time Southerner would recognize from a "superior" Yankee, hammering home the comparison to our own history. Also, in another episode, Mal notes that the Independents only lost the war of unification because the Alliance had superior numbers. That is also a common argument about the Civil War; that the Union was victorious only because it was able to put more men in uniform and more quickly (often using immigrants right off the boat to stock their ranks...)

Firefly's Reavers - those murderous and bloody space savages existing on the frontier of space (an allegory for the American West...) - play essentially the same role as American Indians once did in the Western movie genre. They are “the other” that is feared by civilization and gossiped about it; known and feared for their strange, savage ways. Had the series lasted, one wonders if the Reavers might have been portrayed in a less villainous, more three-dimensional light, given their obvious inspiration in Native American culture. Also, fair is fair, it must be stated that the Reavers in design and execution very closely resemble the Martians of John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars. Both races are self-mutilators, and both are berserkers.

It is interesting to note where Firefly diverges from American history. Slavery is indeed brought up in episodes such as “Shindig,” and it is clear that Mal doesn’t favor much the arrangement. In this universe, the Alliance - i.e. the United State's Federal Government - is turly an exploitative, fascist state out to squash all personal freedoms. It’s a police state, not the “shiny” democracy America dreamed of becoming at the turn of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Of course, some social critics could cogently make the argument that the U.S. Government, with laws like “The Patriot Act,” is currently turning our country into an Alliance-like form of overreching government (and the series was produced post-September 11th...). So there's a lot to relate to here, but the references to our time and our history is not preachy or overdone.

As any review of the series' genetic structure indicates, Firefly as a drama has a great deal on its mind. But in its heart, the series is a meditation on personal freedom. Even the theme song, written by Joss Whedon strikes this note, observing that one can take a person's "land" but you can't take the "sky" from them. This is great stuff, a paean to the pioneer spirit; these settlers just want to be left alone to live how they choose. One actually gets the sense that Mal would hate any government (or religion) in power, because it would seek to control his destiny. And that control he will simply not tolerate. Critics have compared Mal to Han Solo from the Star Wars films, but I actually think he’s much closer to Avon in Blake’s 7, a hero (or anti-hero) with charisma, intelligence, and the wherewithal to do what is necessary, even if it isn’t pretty, nice, or heroic.

That wonderful Whedon aesthetic - snappy, Hawksian dialogue and outstanding, non-traditional roles for female characters - is on full display in Firefly. Like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the mechanics of language and the art of the put-down are primary considerations, and endlessly fascinating. Character (and personality) is exposed by the way these people speak; the very words they choose; how they express themselves. And that fact alone lands Firefly head-and-shoulders above most of its brethren on network TV.

And on the latter front of sex roles, it's interesting to note how important the women are here. Zoe is Mal's secret weapon (as we see from the stagecoach caper in "Our Ms. Reynolds"), the best fighter on the team. And it is the females of "The Academy" who dominate the sex trade in Firefly’s future, beautiful and intelligent “companions” who choose their customers on the basis of spiritual kinship, and who can (as seen in “Shindig”) blacklist those “clients” who step out of bounds. In truth, a companion is something like a therapist who you can have sex with, and this is an interesting idea that reminds me of an idea dropped quickly from the family friendly Battlestar Galactica in 1978, the concept of a “socialator.” Of course, Summer, is the series' most powerful character, and Kaylee - I believe - is the series' heart. As played by Jewel Staite, Kaylee expresses herself with total forthrightness and candor. The way she dresses down Simon Tam early in "Safe" is something to behold. She isn't sarcastic or mean, only charmingly blunt and open. Her candor and purity reveals Simon's foibles.

It is easy to enumerate Firefly’s best qualities: a coherent, believable mythology; a language all its own, fascinating, realistic characters whom we grow to love, and entertaining, rip-roaring adventures stories to boot. Many have offered the same sentiment, but it’s a terrible shame the series was cancelled after half-a-season. Like many fans, my wife and I have been conducting a Firefly marathon this week in anticipation of Serenity’s release, and have lamented at least twice the fact that we should by now be enjoying a series in its fourth season. Can you imagine that? We’d be 80 or 90 episodes into the saga if not for the short-sightedness of the same people who program shows such as “Nanny 911.”

Hopefully, Serenity will prove a huge success for Joss Whedon (who wrote and directed...). I know the masterplan is to continue with a movie franchise, but there’s that part of me that longs for a continuation of the TV series instead. If the movie is a hit, is there any chance the cast would return to a weekly series, or that a network would program it on their schedule?

I always get in trouble when I make comparisons, but hell, I'm going to do it anyway. I find Firefly about 1,000 times as entertaining and stimulating as the new Battlestar Galactica, and, unlike that program, Firefly makes relevant comments on the state of humanity without obvious, pedantic and trendy metaphors based on the latest headlines. (I’m still waiting for President Roslin to nominate a conservative judge on the Council’s Supreme Court...). TV needs Firefly, if - for no other reason - than to show the Sci Fi Channel how an artistic genre series is really forged.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

TV Review: Invasion, episode # 2: "Light's Out"

The plot is thickening...

In Invasion's second episode, a cabal of, let's call 'em "compromised" individuals are beginning to consolidate power. The Sheriff is in charge, pushing for a quarantine that would cut off the town. A network executive is amongst the compromised too, appropriately played by the venerable Veronica Cartwright (Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Witches of Eastwick, and X-Files), and she's suppressing stories that might alert the outside world to the strange happenings in Homestead, Florida. A priest - another alien? - is seen administering last rites to someone who shouldn't have died...

As the aliens grab for power, terminating an air man found the Everglades and destroying (or at least stealing...) unusual skeletal remains, Invasion landss on surer and surer footing. The structure of this dramatic series is really solid. The background of two families, joined by divorce and re-marriage, suspicious of one another, is proving awfully effective in ramping up the paranoid aspects of the show. Is Mom acting strangely because we don't like her new husband (the sheriff), or because she's been compromised by an alien? Interesting question; and one that allows both internal conflicts (resentments, jealousies, etc.) and external ones (an alien invasion!) to intermingle. The discovery of the missing wedding ring in "Lights Out" indicates the true fate of one character, but does this mean that the aliens replicate humans in toto, complete with emotions and human foibles? Should be interesting to find out.

Last night, we saw for the first time, the result of alien *ahem* penetration. On the airman's body we saw weird (and awfully realistic-looking...) bite/sting marks. And we saw part of what may be an alien biology, a stinger or claw of some sort. All of it was spectacularly well-handled. It was deadpan, serious, not at all played for humor, and very creepy.

Unlike Threshold, (or Trashold, as my wife, Kathryn, terms it...) this show doesn't appear to be written by 13-year old boys hepped up on hot-pockets. Both of the episodes aired so far move at a deliberate pace, and are populated by interesting, intelligent people who we recognize as characters rather than as "types" (like the plucky lady scientist "type"; like the military ops "type"; like the "geek" type - all seen on Threshold.)

If the show continues to be this good, Invasion is going to be on the air for a good long while. The lead-in from Lost should assure decent ratings, something that Shaun Cassidy's earlier genre series, American Gothic never had, but surely deserved.

Tonight is the premiere of Night Stalker, the remake of the 1970s series Kolchak. I'll be blogging that series too, starting here tomorrow!

TV Review: Lost, Season 2, Episode #2: "Adrift"

I love Lost; I think it's a terrific drama. I'm glad it won an Emmy. But there's just no way around saying this. Last night, the makers of Lost stiffed us. As my wife said, the episode, titled "Adrift", was nothing but filler. We didn't learn anything we didn't know about the characters already, and the "big" story did not move forward a whit.

At the end of last week's episode, "Man of Science, Man of Faith," the first of the season, we saw Jack confront the man living inside the underground facility under the blown hatch. He recognized him. You would expect, this week, to pick up there, right? Well, expectations are dangerous, my friend, because "Adrift" went on and on for an hour and ended at the exact same point, just about, with Jack's moment of recognition.

Oh, it's true that this week we learn what became of Sawyer and Michael, but really, was it necessary to spend so much of the running time with the two of them paddling water at sea? And Michael's series of flashbacks adds absolutely nothing to the character. We already know he had to give up his son, Walt. That was the subject of a first season story. We have that information in our heads already, thanks to other episodes. We don't need to actually see these events to get the picture.

The result? My wife is spot-on. "Adrift" was filler. I realize that these plotlines need to stretch over a long period of time (and two-dozen or so episodes...) but come on folks, don't make time actually stand still. Don't end an episode with Jack recognizing the underground facility dude (Desmond) and then the next week end at just about the same place. That's cheating. That's cruel.

Next week's episode looks like it will introduce Michelle Rodriguez to the castaways ranks and acquaint us more fully with "The Others," the bad dudes on the island. That should be interesting. Hopefully we'll also find out more about Desmond, Jack's "buddy" from the past, and what he's been doing down there with those 1980s computers. It better be one helluva show...

Like I said, I love Lost. I watch it religiously. But "Adrift" was just that; a program absolutely adrift and determined not to play fair with the audience. Bad producers! Bad! Next week: "Orientation." How about a re-orientation?

Retro-Toy Thursday Flashback # 11: Amsco Cardboard "Adventure" Playsets

In the early-to-mid 1970s, Amsco and Milton Bradley produced three fantastic cardboard playsets that are highly-prized collectibles today, all from popular franchises of that era. In my life, I've had the good fortune to own two of the three sets, though today I only - alas - own one, and because of skyrocketing prices, will probably not possess any more!!

These giant Amsco playsets came in attractive and colorful rectangular boxes, were made of "durable" cardboard and were complete "cut" and "fun to assemble," and, hell, I absolutely loved them. Today, I don't know if kids weaned on X-Box would get a kick out of playing with cardboard toys, but these fantastic dioramas were the closest things to action figure back in the day. Of course "the day" was over thirty years ago!!!

The first set I'll describe is the one I actually still own (and which my wife bought me as an anniversary present about 10 years ago...). It's also the most common one apparently, and thus the one most affordable today (you can usually get it for around sixty to seventy-five dollars). It comes from Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's outer space epic, Space:1999 and is a diorama of the lunar installation called Moonbase Alpha. There's a landing pad, two Eagle transporters, two atomic charges (for detonating asteroids...), a cross-section of Moonbase Alpha's interior, including Main Mission tower, a yellow moonbuggy, and plenty of cardboard representations of characters and aliens.

The cardboard heroes in the Space:1999 set are made in the likenesses of Martin Landau's Commander John Koenig, Barbara Bain's Helena Russell and Barry Morse's Professor Victor Bergman (unfortunately, the set was produced pre-Maya, so there's no Catherine Schell figure...). What's great about all these sets is that some real effort was made towards accuracy. For instance, three cardboard figures in the Space:1999 set are "aliens" directly from particular Year One episodes. Peter Cushing's Raan, from "Missing Link" is here with his daughter. The popular and horrifying octopus-like monster from "Dragon's Domain" is featured. too Even the scorched Zoref (Ian McShane) from my favorite episode, "Force of Life" is included in the set.

The interior of Moonbase Alpha could be more accurate, with instrumentation that more resembles the series, but hey - there's a working elevator on one side, and that's pretty cool As you can tell from the pictures, this is a set that I cherish, (and display in my office.) unfortunately, my cats occasionally decide to sleep on it...

When I was a kid, I bought for $1.00 at a Toys R Us clearance sale the Planet of the Apes Amsco Cardboard Playset. And boy, do I wish I still had it. Somewhere in my teenage years in the 1980s, it got tossed in the trash. I know. It's a painful memory I don't want to discuss further...

This set came out in 1974 (and today sells for over four hundred dollars...), and is an interesting blend of the TV series and movies. For instance, there's a "Cave of the Doomsday Bomb," which is straight out of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. There's also a view, from Zira and Cornelius's house, of the half-buried Statue of Liberty jutting out of the sand (from the original Planet of the Apes.) But the astronaut cardboard figures are clearly Alan Virdon (Ron Harper) and Peter Burke (James Naughton), from the short-lived TV show. The Dr. Zaius featured in this set is also from the TV series, not the Maurice Evans' interpretation from the early films. The Apes play set came with a space capsule, Ape Headquarters, a jail (with a gate that opens...) and the underground ruins of a San Francisco Tram Station, featured in one of the early episodes of the TV series, "The Trap."

Finally, the holy grail of Amsco Cardboard playsets and unfortunately NOT pictured here either, is the one that I never ever owned but desperately long for. It's called The Marvel World Playset. The box promised "A complete play experience right from your favorite Marvel Comics," and the diorama was of a Manhattan City block. Included in this set (which often sells for over five hundred dollars today...) are the Baxter Building, the Daily Bugle offices, Peter Parker's apartment, The Avengers' town house, Dr. Strange's Mansion and the Fantastic Four air car. Oh man...why can't I run into this at a flea market?

Even better - and unlike the Planet of the Apes or Space:1999 set, the small cardboard representations of the characters are actually double-sided. One side features the superhero, the other side their secret identity. This is just cool beyond words. Among the characters featured in this set are: Spider-Man, Thor, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk, Dr. Strange, Daredevil, The
Red Skull, Green Goblin, The Lizard, J. Jonah Jameson, The Silver Sufer, Galactus, The Lizard, Aunt May and even MJ!

Designed for ages "5 and up," the Amsco Cardboard Playsets from TV, movie and comic franchises promised hours of fun, and I recall absolutely playing the Planet of the Apes set out. Boy, I wish I had that one today.

And I still dream of the Marvel World Playset...

Anyone out there remember - or better yet, own these? If you still have 'em, howz about sending me some jpgs so I can post photos of 'em here?

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

TV Review: Supernatural episode # 3: "Dead in the Water"

Hey, this episode of Supernatural was much better than the previous two. Of course, it helped that the gorgeous (and talented) Amy Acker, late of Angel, was a major guest star, but I discovered - to my delight - that Supernatural in its third week had already begun to take steps to improve itself. In fact, some of the criticisms I leveled at it over the last two weeks have been addressed.

To wit:

* Dad's journal. I complained that in "Pilot" and "Wendigo," the Winchesters had to do no investigating at all; only look up information in their missing father's handy-dandy journal. They needed to have no skills other than being good readers, or knowing how to use an index. Well guess what? This week, no journal. Instead, the brothers actually do some honest-to-goodness investigating, and as viewers, we feel part of the building mystery. The result? I found this episode far more engaging than either previous show. For once, I wasn't two steps ahead, and I liked that.

* The road. I've also complained about the fact that for a show that bills itself as Route 66 meets The X-Files, there's precious little feeling of being on the road in Supernatural. Well, "Dead in the Water" addresses this problem too. The episode opens with Dean and Sam in a greasy spoon diner, eating breakfast. Sprawled out before them on the table is a bunch of newspapers, with "leads" they are following up. there's even a brief flirtation with a local waitress. Okay, great - the series is starting to acknowledge what life on the road would really be like. Good job!

* Hiding the monster. The beastie was hid well in "Wendigo" too, but this week, the direction (or mis-direction) is very good, as an entity in a Wisconsin lake pulls swimmers down to their deaths, and then - eventually - gets into the plumbing. This was an effective, well-hidden monster. The opening sequence, of a lovely young bather in blackest water was pretty creepy and terrifying. And the final reveal of the monster is terrific and deeply disturbing. We see a water-logged, dead child, nosing up out of the placid surface of the black lake, just the top of his head, eyes and nose. We see him only briefly...and he's scary. Kim Manners did an extraordinary job directing this episode, and it is visually stunning. I also like Amy Acker's bath tub scene...

I know I've been a thorn in Supernatural's side, but things started to come together this week, and I must, in good conscience, report that. Yes, I still have some problems. Although I got a kick out Dean describing himself and Sam as Forest Rangers (Harrison) Ford and (Mark) Hamill, I'm getting really tired of this shtick where the boys try to pass themselves off as officials. They just don't look the part, and nobody would buy it. Ever. Especially not a town sheriff. Come on, think of another clever way to get information. I'm reminded of the late, lamented Tru Calling, in which Eliza Dushku had to inventively ingratiate herself with guest stars each and every week - sometimes with hilarious effect. If that show could manage it, why can't Supernatural?

I've also got to wonder about some of the plotting. In "Dead in the Water," a mute and traumatized little boy draws Dean an important picture of a church, a kid on a bike, and a house. It's a critical clue. The child creates his rendering right in front of his mother, Amy Acker. Yet in the very next scene, we see Sam and Dean driving in the car - with the drawing in hand - wondering where in a town of a thousand houses, they are going to find this particular one. Well, duh, why didn't you just ask the kid's mother (Acker)? She was standing right there, and she lives in the town. Chances are, if the kid knows it (even by psychic means), she probably knows where it is too. (After all, she knew where the nearest motel was...). This was just a glaring stupidity.

But I intend to pillory Supernatural no further this week. By far, this was the most involving episode broadcast yet, and the series is showing the protean signs of life and intelligence, so I don't want to jinx it.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Interview with Scott Nicholson, award-winning author of The Red Church, The Harvest, The Manor and The Home

Horror author Scott Nicholson is the South's answer to Stephen King. I'm not the first (nor will I be the last...) to make that (perhaps hackneyed) comparison. It's not that Nicholson is in any way, shape, or form imititative of King, only that - like King - Nicholson understands the darker side of human nature; and it is that nature at the core of his sterling work in the genre. When Nicholson is compared to King, I think that what is really being stated is that both writers are masters of the form, not that they actually resemble one another in terms of style.

Thus far, Nicholson has written four novels that deserve to be on every horror fan's book shelf, the award-winning The Red Church, The Harvest, The Manor, and this summer's new release, The Home. Writing in Reviewer's Bookwatch, critic Rick Mohr observed the following:

"The Manor
by Scott Nicholson should be required reading by not only every fan of horror out there, but by any who fancy themselves a writer of the genre to see how it should be done. I've said it before, and it bears repeating, buy anything you can by Scott Nicholson...."

And that kind of critical rave is the rule, not the exception for writer Scott Nicholson. I've been an e-mail acquaintance of Scott's for almost two years now, I've listened to Howard Margolin's interview with him on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, and I've read three of his four novels, so it's really my great honor to include on this blog an interview with the acclaimed writer. Speaking critically, every Scott Nicholson novel I've read thus far has entranced me, discomforted me, and made me keep the lights on well past midnight. So with that introduction, let's begin the interview.

MUIR: Scott, tell us a little bit about how you got started writing horror novels. How and when did you become a fan of the genre, and how did you turn that love into a first sale (and then a very successful career?)

NICHOLSON: I wrote a knock-off of a Vonnegut novel in high school and wrote a little in college, but didn’t get serious about it until 1996. I wrote three novels in a year, two of which are now published. It wasn’t until I started revising that I felt like I was getting a grip on things. I’d read some horror as I went along and went through a spell in the 1980s reading cheesy books like man-eating slugs and evil dolls, but I never really thought of myself as a horror writer. I still don’t, really, but it seems to fit what I do better than any other label. I always loved a good scary movie, though.

MUIR: With your debut novel, The Red Church what was it like going through the publishing process for the first time, for instance working with Pinnacle? What was your reaction when the book was announced as a Stoker Award finalist?

NICHOLSON: I was always practical about the process because my goal from the beginning was to have a professional career. So I quickly educated myself and knew what to expect by the time I finally sold a novel five years on. I was impressed by the professionalism of Pinnacle Books and the copyediting. The cover for that first book was based almost directly on a photo I’d sent of the actual church that inspired the novel. As far as the Stoker award, I wasn’t overly surprised, since so few novels qualify for the “First Novel” category each year, but I was glad people had noticed the book. After The Lovely Bones won the award, I was riding up the elevator at the Horror Writers Association conference and a guy was telling me The Red Church had the best ending of any horror novel in the last few years and it was a great book. That was better than winning an award.

MUIR: I've read three of your four published novels, and in all of them, fundamentalist Christianity plays an important role. Is this one of your obsessions? Why is religion core to your concept of horror as a genre?

NICHOLSON: I feel I’m dealing more with faith than religion in my work. Of course, to a lot of people those are the same thing, but not to me. Since I’m more familiar with Christianity, having been loosely raised a Baptist, it’s the vehicle of choice. I think religion is important in the same way the Appalachian setting of my work is important. It matters to most of the people who live here, and it would be a lie to leave it out. It’s still important here. I like to describe my little rural community this way: five Rebel flags, three churches, an old general store, and a post office. That’s the “town.”

: Are your books set in the South simply because you know the region so well, or is there another underlying reason?

NICHOLSON: There really is no single “South” in literature, and often those writing about it have different settings. Grisham knows backwoods Mississippi, James Lee Burke knows Louisiana bayou country, Erskine Caldwell knew the tobacco mill towns. I don’t know many writers who have consistently used the Southern Appalachians as a horror setting, though Manly Wade Wellman had the “Silver John” series set here. So there’s a difference between the mountain myths that I use and, say, the haunted cotton plantations of the Old South or the sweaty Gulf swamps. By the way, Florida is not the South. It’s New York with a worse wardrobe.

MUIR: You are often compared to Stephen King, and I did it myself in the opening of this post. Compliment or albatross? As a writer, what traits do you think you share with King? Where do you think you differ? I should note, you've also been compared to Clive Barker and H.P. maybe the King thing is just shorthand...

NICHOLSON: The King comparison is the easy grab for anyone in the horror field. It’s great to be mentioned in the same breath with one of the world’s most popular writers. I don’t take it seriously, and I doubt many readers do, either. I see myself about 40 novels behind King, and I still haven’t written one as good as his worst. What I admire most is his prolific and persistent attitude. That, to me, is the talent that shot him to the stars. Lots of people can write a nice paragraph. But to do it over and over for decades is incredible. I liked Barker’s early stuff and Lovecraft had a great imagination, but I don’t buy into those comparisons, either. I haven’t earned a place yet among the established names of the genre. That’s a long-term goal, though.

MUIR: I've tried my hand at writing horror fiction, and it ain't easy. Particularly creating characters that audiences want to follow, and that are distinctive. Yet you have mastered this aspect of horror fiction totally. How do you go about creating such memorable characters in your work? Do you base them on people you know, or are they created out of whole cloth? Reading your work, I get the idea that characters and mood are the most important aspects, and plot, perhaps, secondary? Would that be an accurate assessment?

NICHOLSON: Don’t tell anyone, but I don’t plot. The story just happens, usually because I trust the characters to have real motivations and feelings. I don’t try to intellectualize too much. I mean, hey, I’m a grown man writing about ghosts and demons and demented preachers and ESP and alien infections. But the weird stuff is just stage dressing. I feel each of my novels has a theme, though I usually don’t recognize it until months after publication. Scaring people is a great side effect, but not my main interest. I want readers to wonder about the mysteries of the human heart.

MUIR: Okay, this is a tough one: how do you make a book scary? Do you write what scares you, or do you think about what society seems to think is frightening?

NICHOLSON: We all love the safe scares of fiction, whether it’s a book, movie, or video game. We like the sense of control, the knowledge that we can walk out of the theater or close the book at any time, the power of understanding what we’re experiencing isn’t real. You can manipulate the audience with jump scares and cheap set-ups, or you can spend the time drawing the audience under a dark and suffocating spell. One where they second-guess their own motives and actions. Or, you can close the book and turn on the news if you want to be really shocked.

MUIR: Are you working out your own demons while writing these stories? Do you ever scare yourself with these books, or are you pretty much immune?

NICHOLSON: Once in a while I get frightened, but I’m more likely to get tense. When something really personal is going on, or a character is experiencing it, I find my gut clenched and I’m hunched over the keyboard, pecking and rattling the keys. I do think some of it is exorcism of fears or wounds in my own life, so I get some therapeutic value out of storytelling. But that’s been true of stories throughout human history. Why else would we feel the need to share our experiences? To teach, learn, and survive.

MUIR: Your latest book is The Home. Tell us a little bit about the story, and how you created it.

NICHOLSON: The Home was inspired by a child’s death at a nearby group home six years ago. The child was allegedly unruly and had been placed in a restraint hold and locked in a closet, where he died. Of course, I had to make my group home haunted, give my character manic depression and telepathy, and surround him with a strange cast of characters. Throw in secret neurological experiments and a mysterious agency, and stir. And, for good measure, the ghosts are insane.

MUIR: People ask me all the time which book I've written is my favorite. I say I can't pick favorites among my children. Do you have a favorite novel?

: I understand different stories appeal to different people. The Harvest is my least popular novel but some people tell me it’s their favorite and a movie director is looking at it because the storyline appealed to him. The Manor is my most polished because I had several months to revise it, yet some people found it a little too smooth, as if the interesting edges had been worn down. The Home went through a hasty revision or two, but really was pretty much published the way it came out of the typewriter, with no second reader. Same with The Farm next year. I never really read them once they’re out. I don’t have time, and I would probably only see the flaws. After all, I already know the ending.

: What's a writing day like for Scott Nicholson?

: My typical day means I have to squeeze writing into whatever slot I can get. My most successful periods are those when I have a fairly rigid routine, getting down two to four pages a day. Other times I wallow in the reality that consumes all of us from time to time, and once in a while I have wonderful stretches of blissful production, when I’m cruising on automatic and no crisis is at hand. I haven’t really noticed a difference in quality using any of the methods.

MUIR: Finally, where can readers can find your work? What's your next project and when can we look forward to it?

NICHOLSON: The Farm will be out in July, 2006. I have a story out right now in Red Scream #1, with stories scheduled for Black Static, The Book of Dark Wisdom, Crimewave, and the anthologies Corpse Blossoms, Deathgrip: Exit Laughing, and Poe’s Lighthouse. I recently had an outline accepted for an adventure thriller with vampires, probably out in 2007. I have a few scripts that I occasionally send around. You can keep up with all that at Haunted Computer. I have to list everything there or I’d lose track of it.

Thank you, Scott, for taking the time from a busy schedule to do this interview. Hopefully, we'll catch up with Scott again soon, and as soon as I get a chance, I intend to read and review here his new novel, The Home.

TV Review: Surface, Episode # 2

I don't hate Surface. I don't appreciate it as much as the paranoia-inducing Invasion (so far..), but nor do I consider that it blows steaming stinky chunks, like Threshold or Supernatural. This week, Surface started off slowly, and I thought it was rather dull. My mind kept wandering to the finishing the week's laundry. But then the mystery of these sea creatures started really building and - against my better judgment - I found my interest captured by them.

I also felt a really strong sense of deja vu watching this episode. As diverse characters obsessively joined together in South Carolina to investigate this new form of marine life, risking their jobs and the anger of their lonely spouses, I detected echoes of Close Encounters. As two pre-adolescents bonded together to take care of a little baby sea monster, I was reminded of E.T. As a fishing boat was eaten in one gulp by the gigantic sea monster, I couldn't help but think of Godzilla. And yet, strangely and inexplicably, I'm not terribly bothered by the references. Since Surface has the opportunity to build its story-arc over twenty-two weeks, it can eclipse these other productions and hit a lot of new notes, and build some interesting characters along the way. I submit that it's starting to do so right now. Slowly...

The mysteries on Surface? They are a-growin. What's up with the guy whose face was miraculously healed after exposure to the alien goo? What's up with the variable size of these ocean beasties? Are they just monsters, or are they "intelligent?" And really, I must say I was mighty impressed with the climactic boat attack in the waters off Australia. When has TV ever given us a real, honest-to-goodness live-action monster movie as a continuing series? I'm kinda psyched about that possibility, if you must know, having grown up with the likes of The Land That Time Forgot, King Kong, The Last Dinosaur and other productions.

I do wish that Surface's characters spoke with more distinction, individuality and intelligence. I do wish we didn't get the stereotyped military-guy and military conspiracy and curtailing of civil rights (another 9/11 reference...which is *so played out.* thanks to Battlestar Galactica exploiting it week and week out, between instances of Starbuck screwing every man in sight...) But still, I'm willing to see where Surface leads us in the next few weeks. Like Threshold, Supernatural, Invasion and all the other new series of the season, I plan to stick with Surface at least for five weeks, then make a determination if its worth the time. I'm tending to think that it is. Tonight: Supernatural episode 3.

Catnap Tuesday # 11: Ready for Breakfast

A couple of views of Lily (the black kitten and our newest adoptee) and Ezri at the breakfast nook in our kitchen at 6:00 am. They wake me up every day at 5:00 am to eat. Lily does so by climbing up on my leg and biting my inner thigh. Yikes!'s "50 Best Sci-Fi TV Shows of All Time"

Every now and then, somebody on the Net publishes a list of their top 50 genre shows of all time, and just recently, did the same. A friend of mine, James, pointed this out to me in an e-mail.

You can find the list
here. Firstly, I'd like to thank the authors of the piece for doing it; it's interesting and it gives us all a starting point to debate. We don't have to agree with it all, it's neat that they commmissioned and posted the piece.


This is an odd list. It's very superhero heavy (Batman, Lois & Clark, The Greatest American Hero, The Bionic Woman, Xena: Warrior Princess, The Six Million-Dollar Man, Wonder Woman, The Adventures of Superman, and Dark Angel all make the list), it is a little too trendy (Stargate: Atlantis, Lost and Battlestar Galactica's "re-imagination" are all rated highly even though they've been on the air not very long), and some choices are plain baffling, like the inclusion of the anthology The Hitchhiker at # 20, and sitcoms such as Third Rock From The Sun and My Favorite Martian.

Missing from the list are some of the best series including: Blake's 7, Farscape, UFO, The Prisoner, Twin Peaks, Sapphire & Steel, Kolchak: The Night Stalker, Millennium, Land of the Lost, and American Gothic. Yet included are Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Earth: Final Conflict?

I give props to the list-makers for including Mystery Science Theater 3000 at # 9, but question much of their ranking. Logan's Run: The TV Series is hardly remembered by anyone and yet it is relatively high on the list at # 15, while Space:1999, which has survived 30 years, has been released on laserdisc, DVD and is still having original novels written about it, is down at # 37? And I wonder if anybody on the list actually ever watched 1999, because the list says that Martin Landau played Commander Walter Koenig. Er, no, that was the actor who played Mr. Chekov. Martin Landau played John Koenig. Oh well.

The first problem I see with the list is this: Too much focus on the new and untested. Space:1999 and Battlestar Galactica (original) are rather low on the list (35 and 37), yet they've survived for three decades, while other shows have spiked and waned in popularity. I believe it is far too early to put the new BG, Stargate: Atlantis and Lost on this list, because we don't yet know if they will stand the test of time, and it seems like that benchmark indeed should be one of the criteria for inclusion on this list. Yes, right now the re-imagination of Battlestar Galactica is quite trendy. But how will it look in five years? Ten? Fifteen? I submit it has neither the production values nor the imagination to hold in good stead for thirty years. Maybe not even ten.

Secondly, the list includes horror-oriented series like Tales from the Crypt (23) and The Hitchhiker (20). That's cool. But including them opens the door to far superior horror series, such as Millennium, Brimstone, G vs. E, American Gothic and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Perhaps two lists should be made? No?

Thirdly, I think nostalgia plays too much of a role in the selections. I enjoy Wonder Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Lost in Space and the like, but do they really deserve to be on a list of 50 BEST? I don't really think so. And why choose to include Star Trek Voyager (#14) over the far superior Deep Space Nine? Hmmm?

As someone who's studied the genre for a lot of years - and yet still admits that any such list is totally subjective - I present a list of my own personal choices. Anyway, here's my top 50; read 'em and weep (or complain)...

The top 50 Genre (Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror) TV Series, per John Kenneth Muir:

1. Space: 1999 (1975-1977)
2. Star Trek (1966-1969)
3. The X-Files (1993-2002)
4. Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
5. Blake's 7 (1978-1981)
6. The Prisoner (1969)
7. Sapphire & Steel (1978-1982)
8. Millennium (1996-1998)
9. The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
10. Dr. Who (1963-1989)
11.The Outer Limits (original)
12. UFO (1969-1970)
13.Twin Peaks (1990-1992)
14.Farscape (1999-2004)
15.Firefly (2002)
16.Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974)
17.Battlestar Galactica (1978 original)
18. One Step Beyond (1959-1961)
19. Land of the Lost (1974-1976)
20. American Gothic (1995-96)
21. The Greatest American Hero (1980-1982)
22. Brimstone (1998-1999)
23. Now & Again (1999)
24. Star Blazers (1978)
25. Planet of the Apes (1974)
26. The Adventures of Superman (1951-1955)
27. Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999)
28. The Incredible Hulk (1978-1982)
29. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993-1999)
30. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
31. Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981)
32. V (1982 - 1985)
33. The Fantastic Journey (1977)
34. Get Smart (1966)
35. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)
36. Mission: Impossible (1966-1972)
37. 24 (2001 - )
38. Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1972)
39. The Avengers
40. Space: Above and Beyond (1995)
41. Neon Genesis: Evangelion
42. Flash Gordon (1982; animated)
43. Wizards & Warriors (1981)
44. Forever Knight
45. Alfred Hitchcock Presents (original; 1955)
46. Beauty and The Beast (1988-1990)
47. Dark Shadows (original)
48. Quark (1978)
49. The Twilight Zone (1985)
50. Werewolf (1987)

No doubt people will complain about my # 1 choice, but I'd be glad to argue it in a court of law any day. Space:1999 is a fantastic and watershed program for the following reasons:

1. Visual imagination (or scope): Never (and I mean never, to this very day...) have alien environments, spaceships and planets been portrayed with such variation and verisimilitude. If you want to know what I mean, check out the episodes "Mission of the Darians," "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link" and "All That Glisters" for a few examples. This is one of the few programs ever created that can be spoken about in the same breath as 2001: A Space Odyssey, at least in terms of visuals.

2. The written word: I submit that Space:1999 is as close to science fiction literature as has ever been achieved on television. In other words, episodes are by turns ambiguous and mysterious ("Another Time, Another Place," "Collision Course"), and even Shakespearean ("Death's Other Dominion"). The series imagines worlds, characters and more importantly, a universe that - in its mind-blowing approach - resembles the wildest and most impressive flights of genre fiction.

3.Design and execution. The environs of Moonbase Alpha and the Eagle spaceships are fantastic, streamlined, elegant, utilitarian and believable, yet beyond that, the series is directed with an understanding of how in any filmed entertainment, form must echo content. In other words, it brilliantly manipulates "film grammar," the idea that certain camera angles and positions make us -as viewers - feel certain emotions and feelings. How did this happen? Well, the British film industry was in sorry shape when Space:1999 went on the air, so many of the best and most experienced technicians (cinematographers, lighting experts, and directors) ended up working on the series. Watch "Force of Life," for instance, to see how camera flourishes enhance the suspense and terror of that episode, and literally turn Moonbase Alpha upside down.

4. On screen talent. Find one other series, please, with an Academy Award winner and three-time Emmy Award winner headlining the cast.

5. A trail blazer: Just consider this: Space:1999 was a hit in syndication, the road Star Trek: The Next Generation eventually took a decade later, showing that the genre had a vast potential outside the strictures of network sponsorship. The special-effects breakthroughs of Space:1999 went on not only to affect future TV shows, but the whole industry. Special effects magician Brian Johnson moved from his work on Space:1999 to The Empire Strikes Back, Alien, and Aliens. Finally, content wise, here's something to chew on: Victor Bergman had an artificial heart; so did Captain Picard. Commander Koenig was in love with Dr. Helena Russell, who had lost her husband on a dangerous space mission years earlier. Oh, and Captain Picard loved Dr. Beverly Crusher, who lost her husband on a dangerous space mission years earlier. Need I go on? The series was obviously influential to somebody important, because it's been imitated for years. Oh, and the last episode of the series features the line "Resistance is futile." Wonder where I've heard that before?

6. Longevity. Well, Space:1999 ran for two seasons and forty eight episodes. That might have been the end. Instead, it was still airing in reruns on WPIX in 1986 (granted, at 2:00 am), a decade after cancellation; approaching Star Trek's record. Then laserdiscs brought it back to the fans in 1990. The Sci-Fi Channel ran it in 1993-1994 on their station. Columbia House released a collector's edition in 1997. A&E released DVDs in 2000-2001. And now, a new High Definition version is being released. How many other series that lasted for only two years in the 1970s, are still this beloved, and commercially viable? (Battlestar Galactica, certainly.) Why is it still - in 2005 - being referenced in the pop culture, on shows such as The Family Guy?

7. Trademark episode or image. Ask anybody who remembers Space:1999 and what they recall, and they'll tell you one of the three things: the gorgeous woman who could change into animals (Catherine Schell's Maya, my sexiest resident alien of all time), the Eagle spaceship (pictured top left), or the episode with "the monster" ("Dragon's Domain.")

8. Consistency and individuality. Until the changes of Year Two, Space:1999 featured a consistent universe where space was a realm of terror, awe and mystery. Every episode hammered home this point; in part because the 24 episodes were created before they aired - thereby precluding the possiblity of including "viewer feedback" about what audiences liked and didn't like. This gives the series a unity of theme and aura that is hard to match. But more to the point, Space:1999 is original because it views outer space differently than other programs. In Star Trek, Babylon 5, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Doctor Who, Blake's 7, and Farscape, outer space is like the United Nations in space. There are various political factions (whether they be Klingons, Daleks, Peacekeepers, Narn, Minbari or Draconians), and our heroes must outmaneuver them. One race represents "Yankee Traders" (The Ferengi"), another represents a military dictatorship, etc, the Cardassians represent Israel and the Bajorans are Palestinians. It's all reflecting political realities here on earth. Faraway planets are really just other countries, except separated by void of space instead of oceans. Space:1999 was different, for the most part. It focused on space as a realm of bizarre physics, strange bends in time, mystery, unknown categories of order and the like. It just didn't take for granted that you could head out into space and meet people just like us (a fault of the new Galactica, where the Cylons look like us and are really just Al Qaeda sleeper agents that we can torture in cosmic Abu Ghraibs; and the destruction of the Colonies was just another 9/11. Yawn...).

Well, there you have it. You can check out some of my old blogs in the archives, my cult TV flashbacks, to read why Star Trek, One Step Beyond, Dr. Who, Blake's 7, The X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sapphire & Steel and Millennium rank so high on my list.

What's your top 10, top 25 or top 50? See any I missed. (I know that Babylon 5 isn't on the list. Neither is Star Trek: Voyager. Those weren't omissions. Voyager doesn't belong, and for me the jury is still out on Babylon 5. I have watched 20 episodes of the first season, and I think the show is horribly acted, terribly produced, and written at a high school level. But, I have friends and associates who claim that the series just goes nuts and really picks up in the second season. So I'm reserving judgment until I watch those shows. I'll be blogging my thoughts on Babylon 5 in the days to come. I may have the mother of all retractions to print here if my budz are right, but the general crappiness, pomposity and unintentional hilarity ("The name of the Babylon 5!") of the first season would still yank the series well down on my list of fifty "best" anyway. But hell, this is the Net, I can publish a revised list, can't I?)
So, absolutely despise my choices? Read me the riot act! Leave a comment!

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Link of the Week: Garn's Guides

I've been an admirer and user of this site for a long time now, and I'm glad to have the opportunity to feature it now. It's your one-stop shopping site to research television, genre television in particular. Garn's Episode Guides of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Animation is obviously a work of love from a very committed writer. The site contains several sections, including episode guides for Current Programs, Animated Series, a Live Action Archive, and even a section for genre books.

Can't remember when an episode of Millennium aired? Wondering about the title of the next Lost episode, which you might need for your blog review (as I did)? Well, then Garn's Guides is an amazing and detailed resource. What impresses me is not just the level of detail and accuracy here, but the depth of the material. Garn's Guides features information on programming back to the 1960s and seventies, like my favorite, Space:1999. It's also up-to-the-minute current with entries on Prison Break, Threshold, Surface and Invasion. That's just amazing. I wish I had known about this site when researching some of my earlier books on specific SF TV series, but boy am I glad now that it's round and I know about it! It's a well-designed and attractive site, and very user friendly. It's perfect for cross-reference and easy access, and that's why
Garn's Guides is my link of the week! Check it out!

TV Review: Threshold, Episode # 2: "Blood of the Children"

There is one reason and one reason alone to watch the underwhelming Brannon Braga produced "invasion" series Threshold (airing on CBS, Friday nights at 9:00 pm). That reason is named Brent Spiner. This charming actor plays the scientist Nigel Fenway, and brings a vitality and energy to the role that is otherwise missing from this - *ahem*- enterprise. Of course, Spiner starred as Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation and did a brilliant job there over the years, so Threshold could scarcely have a better actor to rattle off techno-babble dialogue and make it seem utterly believable. More than that, we hang on his every word, so delicious is Spiner's delivery. But more to the point, as Nigel, Spiner seems 100% unleashed to display his wicked, droll sense of humor. He is sarcastic, funny, cynical and everything else we might want from a world-weary character like this. He also gets all the best lines. His delivery of the joke about Blue Cross/Blue Shield co-pays in last evening's sophomore episode, "Blood of the Children" was utter perfection. His spinning of that line took the joke (about a 5 on a scale of 10...) up to perhaps an 8 or 9.

Alas, the rest of the show is grim. Especially the other performances. Charles Dutton is a great actor - no bones about it - but as Baylock he is bombastic and goes way over the top in his line-readings. Someone should tell him to tone it down. Carla Gugino, an actress I have admired in films such as The Singing Detective and Sin City, seems lost here, or at least though she isn't quite sure which scene she's in or what notes she's supposed to hit. And "Blood of the Children" also features the worst attempt at a Southern accent I've heard in the last decade; provided by a guest star playing a military cadet. Apparently, nobody involved in Theshold, top down, has ever been anywhere near the South. People in Virginia don't talk like that. And they probably haven't for at least a hundred and fifty years. This accent is so bad (Kevin Costner Robin Hood bad...) it literally jarred me out of the storyline. I'm married to a Richmonder, and we live in North Carolina, so I know about this stuff. After ten years living near Charlotte (following six years in Richmond...) I've never heard an accent like that.

The wildly variable performances (Spiner and the fantastic Rob Benedict, late of the much-missed Felicity, are great...and Dutton, Gugino and the bland Van Holt are not so good) aren't the only problem on this program. The story presented last night was utterly confusing. For instance, during one tense moment, team leader Molly (Gugino) is chased through an Academy Library, down a flight of stairs and into a map room. She is pursued by a group of blank-faced pre-adolescent cadets, presumably under the influence of the series' alien invaders. They look robotic, and in a quick cut, as they descend a staircase after Molly, there is an odd green glow contributing to the feeling that they are aliens. But then, a few minutes later, it is established that they are just normal cadets (pre-adolescents can't be invaded by the aliens because of the thymus, apparently...) following a possessed older cadet - Jenklow - the one with the miserable Southern accent. Okay, then why did they chase Molly looking like Body Snatchers? Why the weird green glow? Hmmm? This moment of tension is revealed to be "false tension," a cheap shot.

I'm more confused and bothered by the alien plan. Apparently, the whole invasion of the Military Academy was to gain access to the Internet. Cuz you see, if the aliens could upload their genetics-altering signal to the worldwide web, something like 33% percent of the country would be infected in hours, at least according to Molly, who uses the spread of the "Paris Hilton sex tape" as her statistical model. The first thing is, that line about Paris Hilton isn't funny; the second is that you're comparing apples and oranges here. A lot of people are going to download something called "One Night in Paris," how many will download something that basically, according to the characters in the drama, looks like spyware? Are the aliens embedding their signal in porn? Because if that's the case, then Molly's joke would have made sense. Otherwise, it's a weak reach for humor.

But the worst part of all this is the overriding alien plan. A number of humans are infected by the aliens, right? So why did the aliens choose the Military Academy, where only one room (the library...) is wired up for the Internet? Why not go somewhere else and just upload the signal, off of any home computer, out of any public library, from any dorm room in Virginia, at any Internet cafe, and on and on and on? This must be one of the weakest plot devices I've seen on TV since...last week's Supernatural. The aliens must not be much of a threat if their "big plan" is to upload a signal to the Internet....and they can't even manage that relatively modest accomplishment. Yes, the danger in Threshold is an alien race that can travel across the void of space, alter genetics with a signal...but can't upload a file on the Net. Scary...

I've got to wonder, too, where this series is really going? Next week's episode, "The Burning" is set at a mental hospital where some of the patients may have been infected. How many times has a mental hospital been a setting for science fiction/horror TV shows like this? And is this going to be the nature of the series, a lot of running around at a different signature location each week? This week a Military Academy; next week a Mental Hospital? I'll wait with eager anticipation for the episode set in Chinatown, or the one on the Indian Reservation. Come on folks!

I knew the series was in trouble when my wife turned to me and commented "This feels like an episode of Enterprise." Yikes! My advice to the makers of Threshold: Unleash Brent Spiner and Rob Benedict now! With a little creative tweaking, this show could be the Monk of alien invasion set, especially if you put the babe (Molly) and the hunk (Van Holt) on the back-burner and made these two interesting actors (Spiner and Benedict) the leads instead. Imagine the two of these guys investigating cases, confronting aliens. That would be very, very interesting.

Until that happens, I'm giving Threshold the same deal as Supernatural. Five weeks - five episodes to prove the series has the right stuff. That's how long I hang with it. If it doesn't improve in five weeks - bye bye!

So far in the 2005 Fall season, I would consider Invasion the best new drama. I enjoy and am entertained (so far...) by Prison Break, Reunion, and Surface. Threshold is the weakest of the three new "alien" dramas, but still head-and-shoulders above the worst new show of the season, Supernatural. Next week, The Night Stalker premieres, and I'll be posting about it here too.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Monsterfest 2: The Armageddon!

It's baaaaaaaack!

The second annual Monsterfest Convention has been scheduled for Saturday, October 8th, 2005 at the Chesapeake Central Library in Chesapeake, Virginia, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. I'll be there as a guest to discuss horror films of the 1980s - including the slasher paradigm, "rubber reality," horror iconography, and other trends from the "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid" Decade.

Other notable guests at Monsterfest 2: The Sequel (or Bride of Monsterfest...) include TV host Dr. Madblood and his crew, and Christopher Wayne Curry, co-author of Taste of Blood: The Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, who I interviewed on this site not too long ago. As you can tell from the cool flyer (left), the show is open and free to the public, and there'll be costume contests and the world premiere of the Madblood documentary. Very cool.

Plan to attend this great horror con if you can. Last year was a blast! I'll be there selling and signing copies of my books, peddling used horror videos (and DVDs), and I would love it if you stopped by at my table to chat.

It's gonna be a spooky good time. Find more about it the con at the Bride of Monsterfest web-site!!

Friday Retro-TV Flashback # 10: Chris Carter's Millennium: The Lucy Butler Trilogy

Has there ever been a more influential television program than Chris Carter's brilliant and underrated crime/horror program, Millennium (1996-1999)? I think not, and as evidence I suggest you merely check out the new 2005 Fall TV schedule. Millennium clones dot the schedules of all the major networks, with titles such as Bones, Criminal Minds and Killer Instinct. Don't even get me started on the immensely popular CSI and its various and sundry spin-offs. Millennium focused on forensic pathology, oddball criminals and crafty, perverted serial killers almost a decade ago, and frankly, it did it better than any of these aforementioned shows. Why someone hasn't seriously considered producing a Millennium feature film - or a spin-off/sequel series - is seriously beyond me. But then, nobody pays me to make those decisions.

Millennium ran for three glorious and all too brief seasons on FOX TV in the late nineties, in total broadcasting some sixty-six episodes. All three seasons are now available (and affordable) on DVD Box Sets and I suggest you buy them. The time is now.

Millennium starred the incredibly versatile and charismatic Lance Henriksen in the role of his career, ex-F.B.I. profiler Frank Black, a quiet, haunted man who has suffered two mental breakdowns in his life because of his capacity to "see inside" the minds of killers. As the series begins, he's just moved to a beautiful yellow house in Seattle with his wife, a therapist named Catherine (Megan Gallagher) and his young, gifted daughter, Jordan (Britanny Tiplady). Frank helps the Seattle PD solve difficult crimes from time-to-time, and consults for the mysterious Millennium Group, an organization of ex-F.B.I. professionals (based on the real like Academy Group) dedicated to understanding and apprehending criminals...and also, perhaps, cultivating The End Times. Frank's friend, and later - nemesis - is his sponsor in the Millennium Group, Peter Watts (Terry O'Quinn). After a series of catastrophic events in the second season, Frank loses confidence in the secretive Group and returns to the F.B.I. Academy at Quantico, teaming up with a young, intelligent agent, Emma Hollis (Klea Scott). Most of his cases there involve the mysterious and odd misdeeds of The Millennium Group. As fans of The X-Files remember, a closing episode of that show, titled - appropriately - "Millennium," brought some sense of closure (but not enough...) to the series.

According to Variety at the time of its premiere near Halloween in '96, Millennium "makes Twin Peaks look like a morning in Romper Room," and the magazine called the series "literate, well-acted and blessed with an irresistible hook...the best new show of the season."(Jeremy Gerard, Variety, October 21-27, 1996, page 212.) John J. O'Connor, writing for The New York Times suggests that creator "Carter pushes all the right apocalyptic buttons...The production values darkly mirror the text."(The New York Times: "The Evil That Lurks All Around," October 25, 1996, page B16). In 1999, after the program finally and sadly left the air, X-Pose Magazine insightfully commented that "Millennium surpassed itself in cultivating relationships between its principal cast" and called the show "a clear artistic success, making sense out of an often chaotic, disturbing world with consummate intelligence and powerful emotions."(X-Pose # 35, "Inner Demons," June 1999, pages 49-51.) Right on.

There are many fine episodes of Millennium that we could focus on for this blog's tenth retro-TV flashback, including the feature-film quality pilot by Chris Carter, the inspiring installment, "Luminary," or the apocalyptic season two cliffhanger "The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now," but instead I want to highlight a very special trilogy of shows. In each season of Millennium, Frank faced a truly frightening, and if truth be told, enormously sexy antagonis named: Lucy Butler. Played by the gorgeous Sarah-Jane Redmond with diabolical intensity, this was a character who might very well be the devil itself. The audience is introduced to Lucy in the eighteenth episode of the series, aired on April 18, 1997, titled "Lamentation." It's a great show, because it begins with a heavy focus on a Hannibal Lecter-type serious killer, only to shift focus suddenly to a much more evil character, Lucy herself. In this episode, we witness Lucy perform surgery on an unwilling patient...without anesthesia. Written by Chris Carter and directed by Winrich Kolbe, "Lamentation" is also a pivotal episode of Millennium because - after seventeen weeks of serial killers and odd crimes - the series makes its first (stunning...) supernatural twist. Not only is Lucy Butler able to change form into a frightening, dark-haired man at will, but also, perhaps, a horrible demon straight from Hell. You know this episode means business not just for its terrifying set-piece in Frank Black's house, wherein Jordan disappears and Catherine finds a bloody kidney on a plate in the refrigerator, but in the death of a main series character, Frank's pal at the Seattle Police Department, Bletcher (Bill Smitrovich). So powerful is this episode, so important to the evolving series mythos is it, that Lucy Butler re-appears briefly in the follow-up show, "Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions."

In the second season, Lucy Butler returned to vex Frank in what is certainly one of the best episodes of the series, if not the very best. Titled "A Room with No View," this show aired on April 24, 1998, and was written by Ken Horton and directed by series stalwart Thomas Wright. This time, Lucy is abducting exceptional young men - future leaders - and bringing them to a hotel of horrors to break their spirits. If she can succeed in making them "ordinary," she will have killed our future. This is just a brilliant show, featuring Malcolm in the Middle's Christopher Kennedy Masterson as one of the boys doomed to Lucy's tender, horrible ministrations. In horror movies, and horror TV shows, children always represent tomorrow; or the future. So if you kill or destroy the children, you are destroying the future, and this episode literalizes that metaphor. Since Millennium concerns the impending apocalypse, the end of the world by our own hands, this episode about leaders rendered "ordinary" fits in just perfectly with series tenets. After the failures we have seen recently at all levels of government in all our leaders, can anyone deny that, perhaps, Lucy Butler has succeeded?

Ms. Redmond's Lucy Butler returned in Season Three for what is probably the weakest of the three stories featuring her, though still a good one overall. In "Antipas," written by Frank Spotnitz and Chris Carter and directed by Thomas Wright, Lucy - longing for a child of her own to subvert - infiltrates the family of an up-and-coming state politician as a "nanny." Before long she is wreaking havoc on the family, killing the senator's wife and corrupting her young daughter, Divina, into a life of evil. Frank intervenes along with Emma Hollis, but Lucy is up to her devilish old tricks. Especially creepy (and sensual...) is Lucy's late-night visitation to Frank in a motel room. She mounts him and goes to town riding him, only later revealing she is pregnant with his child from this - ahem - encounter. Fortunately, she loses the baby, since that's one more crisis Frank Black just shouldn't have to handle! The final appearance of Lucy Butler in Millennium occurs in the episode "Saturn Dreaming of Mercury," when Frank discovers - again - that evil has a very distinctive face, even in comforting suburbia.

So many episodes of Millennium dealt brilliantly with the idea of "evil" as a concept; of the "End of the World" as a cerebral, intellectual fear. Were we racing to an "apocalypse of our own making?" Were we guaranteed another thousand years, and if so, would it be the "same old crap?" Yet what makes the Lucy Butler trilogy so special is the fact that in these episodes, evil boasts a beguiling and very human form, simultaneously repellant and attractive. This is sort of a perfect expression of the Gothic aesthetic. Whereas many of the lunatics in Millennium are deviant, repugnant characters, Lucy Butler makes evil charming, charismatic...and all the more frightening. It's a good thing Frank is such a steady presence in the series, because he's the only person in the world, I think, who could fight this demon- given-female-form and not be taken in by her treachery and alluring evil. Had the series gone into a fourth season, one wonders what the next clash of Lucy and Frank would have been like, especially given the personal nature of their conflict in "Antipas."

was so ahead of its time in about a million ways. Back in the 1990s, it featured stories on avian flu-type bugs ("The Fourth Horseman"), stem cell research ("Bardo Thodol"), the Human Genome Project ("Sense and Anti-Sense"), end-of-life issues ("Goodbye Charlie"), the Y2K threat ("TEOTWAWKI") and other stories that would come to dramatically affect the 21st century, and yet, despite such forward-thinking plot scenarios, you could hardly do better than to revisit the terrifying "Lamentation," the highly-disturbing and deeply resonant "Room with No View," and The Omen-like "Antipas." Just three examples of how Millennium had everything you could want in a horror TV series: style, subtext, theme, and brilliant characterization. Lucy Butler is a character - and villain - for the ages.

If you want to read more about Millennium, and other horror series aired from 1970-1999, check out my book, Terror Television. This is how I summarized Millennium there:

"For those who gave up on Millennium and never looked back, please - seek it out now in reruns [DVD!]. Commit to viewing it from start to finish. Such an undertaking will not prove a waste, and on the contrary, will leave one with a bold and invigorating universe of horror to contemplate."

, suffice it to say, is the reason my house is painted yellow...

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...