Monday, October 31, 2005

Happy Halloween!!!

Watch out for the Boogeyman tonight. He's wearing a William Shatner mask...

Sunday, October 30, 2005

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "The Capture"

Oh no, why'd they do it?! It's yet another TV version of The Most Dangerous Game! We all know that story; it's the one where a hunter decides that the best prey is humankind and sets about hunting nice decent folk on his big estate. It's a great story, but it's also a science fiction TV cliche, alas.

The Most Dangerous Game was done as an episode of The Incredible Hulk on December 7, 1979 ("The Snare") and Space:1999 even took a kind of swipe at it called "Devil's Planet" during Year Two. Well, now, it looks like Logan's Run's third episode "The Capture" is The Most Dangerous Game redux.

In "The Capture (written by Michael Richards and directed by Irving J. Moore), Francis - a.k.a. the Hapless Pursuer - finally captures Logan, Jessica and REM. It's not hard, since they're laying around by the shore of a lake taking it easy. Anyway, Francis plans to take the "criminals" back to the City of Domes. But soon they all runs afoul of a married couple, James Borden (Horst Bucholtz) and Irene (Mary Woronov), who share an unhealthy passion for hunting. They've been hunting Runners lately (you can tell by their trophy board consisting entirely of Ankhs...), but now is their opportunity for some real prey: Sandmen! While Jessica is imprisoned on the grounds of the Borden estate, Logan and Francis are forced to work together to beat the hunter at his own game. But, Borden has planted all kinds of booby traps in the wilderness, including a pit, and a cage that materializes out of nowhere.

I have so many questions about this episode, I almost don't know where to begin. Like, where do Irene and James get the power to run their house? How is that they came to have this house and its collection of fine 17th-through-21st century weaponry in the first place? How did they survive the war? Where did they come from, if not from the City of Domes or one of the primitive settlements? I mean, they must have had parents, right? Then they must have met and married at some point? So where's their underlying social circle? Where were they educated in the history and use of these weapons? There are no answers here.

Lastly, why does it seem that each Logan's Run episode has the budget for precisely two and no more than two "name" guest stars? You'd think they'd do a better job of hiding that deficit, but in each story so far, we've gotten exactly two major guest roles/villains. In the pilot it was Siri and Draco. In "The Collectors" it was John and Joanna. Here, it's James and Irene. Methinks the producers of Logan's Run could be more subtle.

I must also say, I'm really not impressed with Sandmen anymore. Given their pedigree from the novel and the movie, you'd think they'd be impressive killers. You would think that, at least until you get a load of Logan and Francis engaged in an ultra-lame fistfight with each other this week. Jeez! They walk around in a circle, hunched over and pawing at each other like little kids. It's ridiculous. I thought these guys were the best of the best? Then, as if they didn't seem goofy enough, they proceed to fall into pits, get snared in cages, and only manage to survive the hunt at all because Francis is armed. Like the "Riders" segment of the pilot, there's a problem dramatically when gunplay solves all the plot problems. Imagine if on Star Trek, a good blast from a phaser solved the dilemma every week. That's what it's like on Logan's Run, at least so far.

That said, I love the design of the Sandman flare gun (from the movie), and there are several wonderful close-up shots of the gun in action in this episode; flaring in all four quadrants of the nozzle. Very cool, but I would have preferred a solution that didn't again involve the winner possessing only the superior weapon.

I guess the thing that most bums me out about "The Capture" is that, like "The Collectors," it feels as though the makers of this series don't know what the series is about. How realistic is it that a couple living alone in the woods in a post-apocalyptic society would be gun aficionados who want to hunt living prey? There's no underlying basis or reality to these characters, so the whole story just seems ridiculous. Again, Logan's Run should be exploring a messed-up post-apocalyptic world, as Logan and Jessica grapple with the idea of starting over, of seeing what exists outside the Domed City. There could be all kind of savagery and weird civilizations out there, but so far we've seen androids, aliens and now mean old hunters. That just doesn't feel true.

But fear not, Runners, for the series is about to take a turn for the better with a teleplay from none other than David Gerrold! Yes, it's true that he took his name off the episode and was featured under the alias Noah Ward (get it?). Still, his story ain't half bad. But that's a post and an episode for another day!

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Dark Crystal (1982)

"Another World. Another Time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good...until the Crystal cracked. A single piece was lost, a shard of the Crystal. Then strife began and two new races appeared: the cruel Skeksis and the gentle Mystics..."

And so begins The Dark Crystal, a remarkable Jim Henson genre film from the early 1980s. It's an elaborate film fantasy packed with scope, color, and vibrant, fascinating creations the likes of which the movies have never witnessed...not in over a hundred years of cinema history. And best of all, there's nary a human being in sight. This is an alien world complete unto itself, shared with the audience through the creative auspices of conceptual designer Brian Froud, production designer Harry Lange, scenarist David Odell and co-directors Frank Oz and Henson. Simply stated, the craftsmanship of this film is just astonishing.

By my assessment, The Dark Crystal is as rich and rewarding a fantasy enterprise as has yet been released theatrically (and yes, I'm counting the Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy). This isn't a world of human beings in elaborate prosthetics or with pointed ears, or shrunken to appear as though they are gnome-like/hobbit creatures. On the contrary, this is the richly-imagined dimension of wonders like Aughra the Witch, Podlings, Land-Striders, Garthim, Gelfings, Fizzgigg, Crystal-Bats, and other fabulous inventions. It's the world of "Dream Fasting," "The Great Conjunction," and the Skeksis "Trial by Stone."

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is that each of these creations had to actually exist to be filmed. By that, I mean they weren't created by a few keystrokes on a computer and then added to a live-action sequence later on. These things - the denizens of this unique world - had to be designed and built. They had to be a real physical presence on the set. They had to be puppeteered, wrangled and managed for the camera. Really, when you pause to think about what that means, you can detect what a labor of love this film must have been.

The Dark Crystal opens as the next "Great Conjunction" of three stars grows near. The Mystics and the Skeksis, two sides of the same coin, but splintered into two "opposite" races, await this cosmic coming together with vastly different emotions. The Skeksis fear it, for prophecy indicates that a Gelfling will heal the schism caused by the shattering of the Crystal, thus ending the Skeksis reign. In fact, the Skeksis are so afraid that they murdered all the Gelflings they could find to prevent a "Chosen One" from aborting their rule. On the other hand, the Mystics look forward to their eventual re-unification, and know that if the Gelfling fails now, evil will reign in the land for another thousand eternity of darkness.

On the day that the elderly Skeksis Emperor and his opposite number among the Mystics finally dies, young Jen, a Gelfling is told of his role in the scheme of things by his dying master. He sets off on a dangerous quest to find the shard, the missing piece of the Crystal that can heal the land. His first stop takes him to Aughra's home in the mountains, where he locates the shard and escapes from the grasp of the skittering, clicking, hard-shelled foot-soldiers of the Skeksis, the Garthim. Later, Jen meets the only other surviving Gelfing, a female named Kira and her pet, Fizzgigg. She joins his quest, and together they make for the Skeksis castle, where the Dark Crystal awaits. But treachery is just around the corner as an outcast Skeksis, the Chamberlain plots for a triumphant return to the new Emperor's Court...

Although unfortunately derided by many critics upon its release (December 17, 1982) as nothing but another "muppet movie," The Dark Crystal is actually a robustly entertaining fantasy epic with a rich, mythological theme that went mostly unnoticed by people looking to detect the wires.

But instead the creators of the film make a great effort - both in word and in imagery - to countenance the theme of a world split down the middle, and suffering for the disunion. Several times throughout the opening narration, the voice-over reminds us that a "ritual grants no comfort on this day." Not for the Emperor of the Skeksis. Not for the Mystic either. And in terms of visualization, we see this theme repeatedly - for when a Skeksis dies (like the Emperor), the same thing happens to his opposite number among the gentle mystics. A bloody hand on a Skeksis results in a wound on the hand of a Mystic, and so forth. This is a literalization of the idea that united we stand, divided we fall. And that an action against an enemy may actually rebound and hurt an ally. In the United States today, we often hear how our citizens are "more divided" than ever; how the Red State vs. Blue State conflict is the prevailing dynamic. Yet what The Dark Crystal skillfully makes clear is that all races on this faraway planet (like all Americans, or all humans for that matter...) share the same fate. As the "angel"-like creature at the end of the film (the reunification of the Skeksis/Mystics) informs Jen, we are all a part of each other.

Delightfully, this unique theme is not treated in a heavy-handed fashion, and instead the filmmakers primarily get in their points via the auspices of canny visualizations. Again, production design is critically important in any reading of this film. The Mystics - gentle, wise creatures - are adorned in loose fitting robes, and seen in sandy earth tones. Their realm is of the "earth," an abode cut out of stone and clay. They seem to have few possessions and are hence not material creatures. They represent conventional "good" traits like humility, modesty, love of nature and environment.

By contrast, the Skeksis represent the dark side of humanity. Greed, avarice, malice. Their territory looks like a strip-mined wasteland, save for the castle. The Skeksis dress in elaborate, ostentatious robes of ornate design and bold color (crimson, gold, purple, and orange) and surround themselves with material wealth: giant hanging tapestries, high-backed banquet chairs, wide cushioned beds, and so forth. These material possessions are so important to the Skeksis that they appear literally hunched over by the weight of their cloaks and the elaborate, bony gear they wear over their spines.

Above all else, these creatures (who resemble nothing so much as giant buzzards...) value possessions. That's why it is the ultimate punishment in this society to be stripped of robes, as the Chamberlain is after his failed bid for leadership. When stripped of his costuming and place in Skeksis society, Chamberlain is revealed to be nothing but a scrawny, bony creation with bad posture. Underneath the costuming, these creatures are physically corrupt. In the case of both the Skeksis and the Mystics, the colors that we see, the costumes that they wear, the very imagery tells the viewer everything you need to know to understand their world.

The Dark Crystal is a movie that lives up to the often-utilized adjective, "wondrous," and it is a visual treat the likes of which has rarely been seen. Aughra's mountaintop residence, replete with a gigantic, metallic, spinning machine of a hundred parts, is a gorgeous bit of arcane design. The notorious banquet scene involving the Skekses is a truly disgusting set-piece, revealing the appetite of these creatures (and setting the stage, a year later, for Jabba the Hutt's appetites, one might guess...). And Kira's beautiful, overgrown forest is a splendid, lively creation...a place of overflowing life, where the very shrubbery seems to breathe.

One could make the argument that The Dark Crystal concerns a class society where the rich (the Skeksis) lord it over the poor (the Podlings), literally draining their vital life energies. You could debate Jen's role as "the Chosen One" and the prophecy he is so crucial a part of. And yes, all that is built-in, but what doesn't seem debatable here is the brawny visual imagination evidenced by the production team. This is a film that makes full use of the frame, and in many gorgeous location shots, stands far enough back for the audience to gain a real sense of scale....of the epic. The view of the Mystics on the march to the Castle -- a sun rise behind them -- is merely one example of the film's ability to capture and evoke a genuine sense of place. You must remember, after all, that these marching creatures set against a clouded sky and a low-hanging sun, are not real, but manmade creations. Yet placed against a real landscape, the illusion is impossible to see through.

Ultimately, The Dark Crystal succeeds beyond expectations because even in the midst of an utterly alien, utterly convincing landscape, the story speaks to a critical aspect of human nature. Aren't we all split, in some senses, right down the middle, just like the Skeksis and the Mystics? Hoping for the best, yet often clinging to the worst angels of our nature? This is a movie that "crystallizes" that dichotomy in an artistic fashion, and the result is a rare fantasy film of beauty, vision and epic scope.

The Dark Crystal is available on DVD.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Retro-Toy Flashback # 15: Movie and TV Trading Cards

Well, as regular readers have probably noticed, I've been falling behind on the blog this week. I didn't get to post this on Thursday (or Friday...) because I was working on a deadline, but here - just a few days late - is Retro Toy Flashback # 15!! And the subject is indeed one close to my heart: trading cards!

My childhood fascination with movie and TV-related trading cards started with - of all things - a loaf of Wonder Bread.

It must have been late 1977 or early 1978, and Star Wars was the one-and-only blockbuster of the day and my constant obsession (I was 8, I guess...). Well, those canny makers of Wonder Bread decided to slip special collectors cards from the George Lucas space opera in each and every loaf of their product, and that made every trip to the local Shop-Rite a wondrous one! What an incentive to eat loads of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!! In fact, I remember trying to slip my beautiful calico cat, Penny, some pieces of wonder bread when no one was looking, so we could get the next loaf faster.

But then I discovered (thanks to my parents), a flea market in New Jersey called Englishtown, and one cold Saturday morning in the late 1970s, I found a vendor there selling packs of bonafide Star Wars cards from a manufacturer named Topps! About ten or so cards came in each carefully wrapped pack, and each pack included a stick of crumbly chewing gum, stickers (which I quickly adhered to everything I could...) and information about the making of the movie on the back side of the cards. The front of the cards always featured wonderful photos from the movie and were even sequentially numbered for easy collecting.

Naturally, I had to have them all. But then the first "blue" set of Star Wars cards gave way to the "red" set, and I was still collecting. Then the red set gave way to the yellow set, and I kept buying. I also remember an orange set...but the point was, there were something like 300 frickin' cards to collect just from the first Star Wars movie. Honestly, I don't actually remember trading many of these cards with friends, just keeping them in a drawer and trying to find the ones I didn't yet have. Today, I have what's left of my Star Wars collection (and I fear I've misplaced many over the decades...) in a nice loose-leaf notebook, with each card in a plastic holder. Geek alert! Geek alert!

Yet Star Wars was merely the gateway for more and more hardcore (!) trading card experiences. I've written on this blog before about how 1979 was one of the greatest years of my childhood because it saw the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Black Hole, Moonraker, Alien and on TV, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and Battlestar Galactica. It was a hell of a time to be a young fan of science fiction "space adventures," and it was just great (especially that Christmas...)

Well, I lived in a town named Glen Ridge in New Jersey, on a street called Clinton Road, and our house was only about two blocks away from Bloomfield, where there was a small convenience store (we called it a "milk store" back then for some reason). Anyway, that store sold -- wait for it - trading cards from all these great sci-fi productions. My grandfather (who passed last January after a long illness), used to give my sister and me silver fifty-cent pieces every time we saw him, and I would save these up and use them to purchase trading cards.

I think that even as a kid, I was most "into" collecting things from Star Trek. And Star Trek: The Motion Picture truly fascinated me. It seemed so different from the space combat shows like Star Wars, Galactica, Buck Rogers and even, to some extent The Black Hole and Moonraker. Well, Topps did a great job with their set of 88 cards (and 22 stickers) from the movie. Many of their cards featured close-up views of the re-crafted U.S.S. Enterprise, the new "pajamas" uniforms and other interesting details. For one thing, there were a lot of new and really weird aliens in Star Trek: The Motion Picture that barely appeared in the film. But suddenly, on the cards, you could see all the weird costumes and make-ups close-up, and I thought that was fantastic. It opened up my eyes to the diversity of the Star Trek universe, So I enjoyed these cards tremendously. I still have 'em too. A complete set. Also stored safe and proudly in a notebook.

I was only nine or ten when the Sigourney Weaver blockbuster Alien came out, so I understand why my parents wouldn't let me see it. It was R-Rated, after all. But my next door neighbor, David, was the same age as me and he got to see it, and consequently was always talking about it. The movie sounded so cool, and naturally I felt inferior for not having seen it, so it was back off to the "Milk Store" (by then operated by Krausers, maybe...) to purchase cards from the Ridley Scott movie. Like the Star Trek: The Motion Picture set, these trading cards were fascinating to me because some of them revealed early designs of the spacecraft and set designs (By Ron Cobb). The cards were also - frankly - my first look at this now-classic alien design and the movies' main characters.

By 1983 and the advent of Return of the Jedi, I felt I was too old to be collecting trading cards, so I put my various collections away, and didn't think about them much. But, by 1992, I was back on my crazy science fiction kick, this time as a young adult. I was working at a chemical "flavoring" factory in New Jersey that summer, and I met a guy in the warehouse who was selling trading cards from Alien 3. Although a lot of people hated that David Fincher film, I thought it was pretty awesome - even artistic - and the price was right, so I bought the whole series and re-commenced my long tradition buying whole collections and displaying them in books.

The Alien 3 cards were nicely done, and fascinating because - again - some of the cards seemed to refer to events that weren't in the film. For instance, in the movie released, a dog was infected with the alien chestburster, but in an earlier version, it had been an ox, I believe. So there were some interesting discrepancies to chart in the set.

In 1993 and 1994, I began my adult obsession with the mid-1970s TV series, Space:1999. I collected all the laserdiscs, bought a laser disc player, and set about watching all of the episodes and recording my observations in a journal. This is how my first book, published by McFarland, actually came about.

I wanted to feature a section in my Exploring Space:1999 book about collectibles (how convenient!) and my then-girlfriend-soon-to-be-wife, Kathryn, patiently indulged me buying up comic books, magazines, action figures, model kits, water pistols and the inevitable trading cards from the series. The card set had been produced by Donruss in 1976. There were 66 cards in all, but no stickers, and all the scenes were from the first year. Hence no Maya, to my dismay. Still, these cards are great because they adroitly capture the minimalist, visual appeal of the series, and many cards display the fantastic miniature special effects work from the show (particularly the hanger bay where the Eagles are grounded between flights).

During the years from 1995 - 2005, I've been on a sometimes-passionate mission to collect trading cards from the franchises I missed between 1966 and 1992. One of my favorite finds (and I paid 35 dollars for it) was the entire trading card series from the short-lived 1974 Planet of the Apes series starring Mark Lenard, Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper and James Naughton. I had a special Planet of the Apes day at a flea market called Metrolina in Charlotte: I picked up the trading card set and a Planet of the Apes lunch box on the same day (total price: $70.00).

Over the years, I have also begun collecting cards from the 1984 David Lynch film, Dune (which I guess turned out to be a bomb...), from Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters, from the Bond flick, Moonraker and on and on.

I have to say, I enjoy owning trading cards from almost any TV series -- from Happy Days to ALF. Also, my dear friend, Christopher Curry, recently gave me as a gift an unopened pack of Jaws 3-D cards from 1983. I'll tell you, I didn't even know that Jaws 3-D card existed.

Anyway, I think that as a rule, trading cards provide the same joy that colorforms, novelizations, storybooks and Little Golden books do. They're a way to nicely experience a favorite production again and again, but without a VCR or DVD player. Collecting trading cards isn't as passive an experience as watching TV can be, and I think it even teaches one a degree of patience. It also happens to be an entertaining pastime.

You'll notice I haven't ventured into the modern world of trading cards here. I'm aware that this collecting niche/market has just really, really taken off in recent years, but ultimately I'm a nostalgia freak. I like the cards from the productions of my childhood, and the new cards just don't hold the same appeal for me. Not that there's anything wrong with collecting or enjoying them, it's just that I prefer the universe of Space:1999, Planet of the Apes, and so forth.

So, let me hear your stories, folks! Who collected trading cards growing up? Who still does? And what's your greatest trading card story?

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "The Hunt"

Okay, this show is really getting good now. I don't know if it just took me a while to get into Invasion's slow-moving (but atmospheric...) vibe or what, but I'm enjoying each succeeding episode more and more.

This week, one of the "alien" (?) kids, Derek admits that his experience in the water "changed" him, and consequently goes about making a move on Dr. Mariel Underlay. The sparks fly when Sheriff Underlay finds out that this teenager is hot-to-trot for his (admittedly very fine-looking...) wife and goes after the kid. And then, there's that surprising resolution that makes it absolutely clear that the Sheriff is the leader of this "colony" of extra-terrestrials.

Meanwhile, Russell tags one of those glow-in-the-water orange fishy-things in the Everglades (shades of Surface, which two weeks ago also aired a story involving the tagging of a water beastie...). Here, Russell tracks the fish all the way onto dry land, to a no trespassing - finally - a human being!! So, holy cow, are we supposed to understand that these "alienated" humans can go back and forth in form, sometimes appearing as an orange sea-creature and sometimes as a human?! I guess this explains why Mariel is so drawn to the water (and loves taking baths so much...). Still, it will be interesting to see how this develops.

Invasion is better than the hackneyed Threshold (which aired a rerun of the pilot last night...), but Surface is coming on strong the last few weeks, so I'm glad that this Shaun Cassidy series is taking matters up a notch. I want to know more about these characters and what they're going through, and I guess that's a sign that - like Russell's sea critter - I'm "hooked."

CULT TV BLOGGING: Logan's Run: "The Collectors"

The second Logan's Run episode, "The Collectors" aired on September 23, 1977, and was written by James Schmerer and directed by Alexander Singer. And, bluntly stated, it's an episode that doesn't live up to the potential of the series. The episode is well-directed by helmer Singer, a veteran director many programs, including Star Trek: The Next Generation, but the story is hopelessly cliched, and just doesn't fit well in the Logan's Run universe.

Here's what happens: After their solar-powered hovercraft breaks down in the desert, Jessica (Heather Menzies) and Logan (Gregory Harrison) leave REM behind to repair it while they explore. Two aliens, Joanna (Leslie Parrish) and John (Linden Chiles) are secretly monitoring the humans, and decide to test them by granting their every wish. They create the illusion of "Sanctuary" for Logan and Jessica, in order to determine if these two humans are worth taking back to their home world, Kasorla. Seems their ship is wandering the galaxy collecting two specimens from each planet's dominant species and probing them for fatal defects as a prelude to conquering them. Jessica doesn't see through the illusion, but Logan does, and with REM's assistance, plans to pull a fast one on the aliens, releasing all of their specimens and staging an insurrection.

After a careful watching, I have to say that "The Collectors" would have been much more successful if, as viewers, we believed that the alien spaceship really were that grand destination, Sanctuary, along with Jessica and Logan. Instead, the episode undercuts the tension it should generate by revealing instantly that "evil" aliens are behind the illusion. This is bad TV plotting. We had to be spoonfed all the information INSTANTLY. Of course, had the aliens not been revealed, we still would have had doubts about whether this place was really Sanctuary, but we would have been sharing that doubt with the characters, and therefore grown closer to them. But this way - with the aliens revealed from nearly the beginning of the show - that just doesn't happen.

Secondly, the episode really treats Jessica really poorly. I thought she was slightly insipid in the pilot episode, but here this character - a revolutionary from an oppressive society, we should remember - throws caution to the wind and immediately believes that they have located Sanctuary. She falls for the deception hook, line and sinker. She doesn't think it odd that she imagines Sanctuary, and the next moment it appears. She doesn't think it strange that she imagines a runner friend named Martin, and the next minute, he materializes. Jessica is simply not served well by a willing and blind acceptance of what seems farfetched at best; impossible at worst.

Because Logan is our hero, he's the suspicious one, which fits in with his character, I suppose. After all, he is the only Sandman to have an introspective, questioning side. But I do think there is some "premise" drift here. Logan is basically an innocent: under 30; never been outside the City of Domes; raised to believe the propaganda of the State. And now, suddenly, in "The Collectors" he comes on all Captain Kirk-like, fitting the pieces of the puzzle together flawlessly. Yes, he should be suspicious, like Jessica, but would he be able to say flat out, lines like: "If I'm right, our minds our being manipulated. Our thoughts are being made real?" I'm not certain that his education and training would provide him that much information. Again, it's good that he would be suspicious (unlike Jessica, alas...) but I think he would be baffled and confused and questioning, not aggressively solving the problem. He just doesn't have that kind of experience. That should have been left to REM, a machine that can't be cowed by illusions. Logan should have just "felt" that things were off, but not have been able to verbalize it and plot against the enemy so rapidly, confidently and aggressively. He didn't attend Starfleet Academy. He's not the Commander of a Moonbase. He's the lone questioner from a "we don't question" totalitarian society. That gives him a leg up, but he's not a genius.

Even beyond these issues of character and plotting, the storyline of "The Collectors" is just trite. How many times over the years have we met aliens who want to collect Earth specimens in a kind of zoo and bring them back to their planet, only to be dissuaded by the wiles of humankind? Too many, I'd say. It feels a little too Star Trekkish, which - of course - was the yardstick for sci-fi programs in the 1970s.

But most sadly, "The Collectors" just doesn't address the themes and ideas that should be at the heart of a series like Logan's Run. This is a series about the mess man has made of his own planet. It's a post-apocalyptic world set in a dystopic future. It's about the growing pains of starting over. About trying to build a world right, this time. Invading alliens shouldn't even enter the picture. And certainly not so early in the program's run. There is a wealth of post-apocalyptic stories and villains worth telling without ever resorting to an otherworldly invasion or similar menace, and frankly I was disappointed to see this drift away from the core concept so quickly.

But then again, early episodes of a series often have difficulty finding their footing. The pilot is usually strong (it must be, to sell the series), and then the first few episodes dip in quality while everybody gets their legs, and then the show - if it is lucky - comes back strong. So I'm hoping Logan's Run recovers fully after this sophomore slip-up.

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Castaways in Time and Space"

This week, on the CBS live-action kid vid series (from 1977) Space Academy, Commander Gampu (Jonathan Harris) and cadet Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin) investigate a nearby black hole from the relative safety of a Seeker (a kind of space mini-van). Results are "negative," but then the ship disappears inside the black hole, and the personnel are feared lost.

Meanwhile, back on Space Academy, Laura's brother Chris (Ric Carrott) is desperate to rescue his sister but meets with resistance from Paul Jerome (Ty Henderson), a new cadet on the team. He's from a "pioneer planet" where "survival was the name of the game" and hasn't gotten used to being part of a team yet. He only wants to look after himself.

But Chris is adamant, and on a Seeker mission with Jerome and Tee Gar Soom (and Peepo, the resident robot...) Gentry detects Laura's presence via their unusual mind-linking ability. The Seeker goes to "star speed" through the black hole, and emerges on the other side, at a desolate planet. There, on the surface, the team confronts a giant stop-motion dinosaur (with chin whiskers...). The creature is angry and also powerful, capable of rendering itself invisible for short spells. Paul saves the day by distracting the creature while Chris and Tee Gar rescue Laura and Commander Gampu.

At first, Tee Gar and Chris think that Paul is running back to the ship, protecting his own hide, but then they realize that he has bravely lured the monster away. Lesson of the week: "People learn and change."

Remember, this is a sci-fi space series designed for children, so it's typical that Space Academy hammers home (without much subtlety...) a valuable moral lesson each week. Frankly, I found this episode a lot less entertaining than the opener about Zalon, but I guess a child wouldn't find it so ponderous. A bigger helping of science might have helped -- more detail about a black hole and what it can do. But maybe that's just asking too much of a 22-minute 1970s space adventure for children.

What do we learn about the universe of Space Academy this week? Well, a Seeker can attain "star speed" (light speed?) and fire a "gravity ray" that can render big stop-motion dinosaurs sleepy (a non-violent way of removing a threat...). We also hear the series' catchphrase, Loki's exclamation of "Camalopartis," meaning "Wow!", in case you were wondering. The actual word "Camalopartis," we learn from Paul, is derived from the name of a distant star cluster.

Also, Loki and Peepo play "computer" tic-tac-toe this week, and when Loki loses, the computer scrawls out the legend: "You lose, Turkey." Nice to know that in the year 3732 AD and beyond, people will still be using the word "Turkey" as an insult...just like in the 1970s!

Finally, I have to say, I love good old-fashioned Saturday morning TV, even though I'm an adult. After watching this Space Academy episode, I flipped through the channels on "live TV" this Saturday morning. And you know what I found? Paid programming, paid programming, paid programming and more paid other words, informercials.

So if you ask me the question how has our world changed since the glorious and groovy 1970s, I'd say that once upon a time in our culture, we had time for top-notch programming designed for children - with good lessons included - but today, all we want to do is make money, and sell more beauty products or grills.

Sad, really...

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

CULT TV Blogging: Logan's Run: The Series - "Pilot"

"Two hundred years have passed since the nuclear war raged to an end and the computers took over what was left of the world, sealed it off from the outside, and made it perfect. Now, in the domed city of this year, 2319, living is unending joy. Every wish is granted. Every sensual dream is realized. And all the world is young, for in this perfect society, nobody is allowed to live past thirty..."

That's the opening narration (or rather a chunk of it,) that starts off the CBS series from 1977-1978, Logan's Run. The series was an adaptation of William F. Nolan's highly successful (and literate) novel about a future society in which citizens lived in bliss, but only got twenty-one years to do it. The TV show came after the movie, which meant that many of the modifications of the 1976 feature film starring Michael York and Jenny Agutter were also translated to the weekly show. For instance, the original book did not feature "Carousel," the public ritual wherein denizens of the City of Domes watched their brethren "renew" (or not...) in a blaze of energy. But the TV series retained that concept. In fact, the costumes, props and much stock footage from the popular film were all recycled into the TV series. So the Logan's Run series felt twice removed from the Nolan novel, if that makes sense...

The idea for a Logan's Run TV series came while Nolan was on the set of the film, developing a 40-page treatment for a sequel with writer Saul David, Mr. Nolan told me during an interview a few years back. His preference was actually to produce a trilogy of films, but CBS wanted a TV series and paid nine million dollars for the rights to one. Nolan was offered the position of story editor, but wasn't thrilled with the series' concept. "Their idea," he told me for the Cinescape piece, "was to run Logan around in a car every week and encounter new societies underground. After solving their problems, he would return to the surface, get in his car and drive away. I felt that wasn't the way to handle the concept." (John K. Muir, Cinescape: "The Running Man," 2000, page 63.)

Logan's Run: The TV Series thus became a "civilization of the week"-style sci-fi TV series, partly inspired by the concept of Star Trek (exploring a different culture on a different planet every week) and partly by the post-apocalyptic film and TV craze of the mid-1970s, which included the Canadian Starlost, the popular Planet of the Apes films and the short-lived 1974 Apes series. Where the Apes film and TV series dealt with the concept of race and racism translated to a future universe, Logan's Run primarily concerned overpopulation, the idea of an unquestioning and easily-controlled populace, and an overreliance on machinery (computers). The proverb "never trust anybody over 30" - so popular in the 1960s and early 1970s - was made literal in Logan's universe. In the City of Domes, you were either young, or you were dead, and the result was a callow population, unconcerned with anything but its own pleasure (enhanced by drugs and lots and lots of sex). One also senses in this theme an understanding about the "youth culture" dominating Hollywood and the film industry, an age-ism that is even more prevalent today in the heyday of the WB. Their motto seems to be "never cast anybody over 30."

"Logan's Run was dropped in our laps because there was a big problem about how to make this into a TV series," said executive producer Ben Roberts in a Starlog interview back in the seventies. (David Houston, "Ivan Goff & Ben Roberts, Executive Producers of Logan's Run," Starlog # 9, October 1977, page 42.) "When you're faced with Star Wars, or even Logan's Run as a movie, you're talking about nine to ten-million dollar projects. Here we're dealing only with hundreds of thousands of dollars..."

The ninety-minute Logan's Run pilot aired on September 16, 1977, with credits indicating a teleplay by William Nolan, Saul David and producer Leonard Katzman. The effort was directed by Robert Day, and like the movie, opens in the City of Domes as a young Sandman (police officer) in the City of Domes named Logan (Gregory Harrison) watches citizens "renew" at Carousel, the mandatory ritual undergone by all citizens at age 30. Although Sandmen are taught not to question, Logan wonders about Carousel and asks his partner, Francis 7 (Randy Powell) if he has ever actually seen anybody renew. After this conversation, Logan and Francis are called back to duty to terminate a "runner," a citizen who has shunned Carousel and is attempting to escape the closed city for a promised land called "Sanctuary."

Logan meets Jessica (Heather Menzies), a revolutionary who is helping runners escape the city, and after Francis murders the runner in cold blood, Logan clocks him and teams up with Jessica to flee the City of Domes for Sanctuary...somewhere outside, on the surface that Logan had once believed to be barren and poisonous. Meanwhile Francis is summoned to the Domed City's "White Quadrant One," where he meets a Council of Elders...the real power behind the metropolis. All the Council Members are old men - well beyond thirty - and Francis is shocked to learn of their existence. "You're looking at old age," one of the Council Members (Morgan Woodward) informs him, and then offers Francis a position at his side if - and only if - he can capture Logan and Jessica and return them to the city to renounce their heretical beliefs about Sanctuary. So Francis heads off after his former friend...

Meanwhile - outside - Logan and Jessica find a bomb shelter in the grown-over remains of "Greater" Washington D.C. (more stock footage from the MGM movie...). They locate a solar-power hovercraft and use it to begin their quest for Sanctuary. The first society they encounter is one where pacifists hide underground from malevolent, tyrannical "Riders" on horseback who use them as slaves. Logan and Jessica teach the sheep-like underdwellers that some things are worth fighting for, and subsequently defeat the Riders and free the slaves.

Next up, Logan and Jessica run across the Mountain City, a paradise run by robots Siri (Lina Raymond) and Draco (Keene Curtis). Their only wish is to serve Logan and Jessica...permanently, since their Masters are dead. Logan and Jessica realize they have stumbled into a gilded cage, and with the help of the city's advanced android repairman, REM (Donald Moffatt), escape in the hover craft for greener pastures, and hopefully, Sanctuary...

In a nutshell, that's the pilot. I haven't seen it in a few years, and I must say that I enjoyed it quite a bit...more than I expected. I had always remembered the series as an interesting and pleasant failure, but the pilot hits some interesting and successful notes. The three part structure (Domed City/Riders/Mountain City) keeps the story moving at quite a clip, and there are some moments of depth here that I didn't recall. One of my favorite scenes occurs after the escape from the Domed City when Logan and Jessica settle down for the night in a bomb shelter from a time before "the Great War." They're cold and they use bundles and bundles of American dollars (as well as top secret "classified" Defense papers") to stoke their fire. The money and the government documents are totally worthless in this culture, a relic of the past, and Logan and Jessica neither recognize these items as important, nor pay them any mind. This is almost a throwaway moment, but I found it one of Logan Run's most powerful: the idea that a nuclear war would render our currency, our secrets, our very way of life absolutely meaningless. Unlike some other points, this isn't accomplished in heavy-handed fashion, a big preachy moment. It just happens, and the characters don't even comment on it.

Perhaps it's my post-September 11th mentality, but also I felt that the pilot actually covered the idea of an uninformed, distracted populace rather well. An unquestioning people is a lot easier for a government to control - and lie to - isn't it? "Don't question the order of things" is a theme that keeps re-appearing in the early portion of the episode, and I found it particularly noteworthy. I didn't remember this much social subtext was present in the TV show. I know that many people and fans don't like the inclusion of a "Council of Elders" here (and the City of Domes was run by Computer in the movie and novels...), but again - given today's context - it works. A group of corrupt men, a "cabal" if you will, making damning, corrupt policy for the rest of an in-the-dark population is something that our world and our nation is all too familiar with today. I half-expected Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney to be charter members of the Council. The Elders may have been a corruption of Logan's original concept, but oddly enough, I think it works in terms of "human nature." Especially now.

Some other aspects of the first show are not so welcome, however. The interlude involving the Riders, for instance, is the weakest element of the pilot. Why? Well, as always, TV has a way of making pacifism equal to cowardice. Here, Logan and Jessica teach the peaceful denizens of a bomb shelter to fight back against their overlords, rather than cling to their beliefs about not spilling blood. "Look what bloodshed has brought to this world!," one pacifist decries...and he's absolutely right. But when he finally fights, he quickly changes his mind and tells Logan that he "feels like a man again." Ugh!
American cowboy values dictate, apparently, that TV shows always hold strong to the belief that there are some things worth fighting the bitter, bloody, apocalyptic end. I wonder if that wasn't the cause of the Nuclear War in Logan's Run...a stubborn, insular belief that our Christian values are alwaysunquestionably the correct ones and we must defend them with violence and destruction. Anyway, I found it particularly distasteful that this portion of the pilot concludes with Logan victorious for the simple reason that he wields a more powerful weapon (the Sandman 'flare' gun...) than the Riders. Brute force beats brute force. This is a mixed message, given the rest of Logan's anti-war message (and the visual of the burned cash on the fire...unrecognized and unimportant).

Getting to the characters: Logan and Jessica are fine; though Jessica is a little insipid somehow. Logan is a nice guy, a more conscientious citizen of the City of Domes than many, though one wonders how he came to be more introspective since he went through the same training regimen (since birth!) that Francis did. I did miss the sexual component of the movie - where Jessica and Logan were casual lovers - and hated to see "family values" creep into the series here. Logan and Jessica hardly make eyes at one another in the pilot and instead are defined simply as "good friends." Kinda like brother and sister. I would have preferred an adult, romantic relationship.

And then there's REM. Donald Moffatt is a splendid actor, and he's Logan's Run version of Mr. Spock. Instead of saying that plot developments are "illogical," he notes that they "do not compute." Almost every science fiction TV show in the 1970s had its own version of the inquisitive, peaceful half-Vulcan Spock, the resident outsider -- not always an alien -- who could comment on humanity and its confusing ways from a super-advanced or at least highly-intelligent viewpoint. Space:1999 (Year Two) had Maya. Planet of the Apes had Galen. The Fantastic Journey had Varian (a man from the future), and Land of the Lost had the Altrusian, Enik. I guess it's just par for the course, and as far as Spock-copies go, REM is just fine. I notice that Star Trek returned the favor by featuring an intelligent, pacifist Android in its next incarnation, one not named REM, but rather Data.

In all, I rather liked this hour-and-a-half introduction to the world of Logan's Run. I'm a sucker for post-apocalyptic stories of new societies starting over from the ruins of an old culture, I guess. I'm always fascinated by the idea of an "old" civilization leaving behind its artifacts and religions and technology...only to have them subverted and misunderstood by those who come next. Growing up, I was fascinated by Mad Max, Planet of the Apes and, yes, Logan's Run. Perhaps because during my adolescence the specter of nuclear war seemed very real. In some senses, these programs (and programs like Genesis II and Planet Earth and Strange New World) offered a strange sense of hope. Yes, mankind destroyed himself, but he got a second chance. And this time...this time, things could be different. We could fix the mistakes that plague our overpopulated, war-weary world.

Logan's Run is a particularly interesting example of post-apocalyptic entertainment because Logan and Jessica come from a flawed society themselves. They are innocents who don't live in a utopia (like the characters of Star Trek), so it will be interesting to see how they confront other cultures that are misguided. They can't lead by being examples of a "shining city" on a hill, and as I watch the series again, I hope the creators remembers that fact.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Sandman Cometh...Blogging Logan's Run: The TV Series

Well, my Kolchak and American Gothic DVD box sets haven't arrived yet (nor has Revenge of the Sith), so the blogging of those shows and the Star Wars saga will have to wait a week or two. But, starting in this space tomorrow, I'll be blogging a classic bit of 1970s science-fiction television, the short-lived Logan's Run: The TV Series, starring Gregory Harrison and Heather Menzies. Every episode, every trip to Carousel, every opportunity to'll see it here. This space is Sanctuary!

Catnap Tuesday # 15: "Ezri..."

Today is a sad cat-blogging day...

Yesterday, we took one of our beloved cats, Ezri, to the vet's office to see what we could do about a sudden outbreak of kitty acne on her chin. What the doctor found, to our surprise and terror, was that Ezri has a heart murmur (a "squishy" sound in addition to the regular thump-thump). I took her to a specialist yesterday afternoon and Ezri's chest was shaved, and the poor thing was given a 90 minute ultrasound (with doppler). What the doctor found is that Ezri's mitral valve has "thickened" mysteriously, and is leaking blood. This is bad (though it could have been worse, had Ezri's aorta been damaged...).

The good news is that Ezri is not lethargic, that Ezri's blood pressure is good, and that the blood leak volume is low, but the bad news is that she could be suffering from the beginning of a heart disease that could cut her down in her prime (she's only six, for chrissake).

What we're hoping is this: the outbreak of acne and the thickened valve are symptoms of the same thing: some form of bacteriological infection. If that's the case, we can treat her with antiobiotics and in six weeks, get her completely back to normal. Right now, she's taking her medicine, but we don't know what we'll be facing with her until December, after the regimen ends. The bad news is that right now - and for the future - Ezri's thickened valve could cause a blood clot, and therefore an infarction. That means she could have a stroke/heart attack at any moment and die. I pray that the antibiotics work fast and reduce the inflammation on her mitral valve. So if you love cats, please think a kind thought for my Ezri today!

TV Review: Surface, Episode #6

Hey, Surface is really (and finally...) heating up! In last night's episode, the tide really, really turned. Dr. Aleksander Cirko (Rade Serbedzija - currently in The Fog...) triumphantly declared that he had discovered the origin of the mysterious sea creatures. But before he could tell the Powers-That-Be in Washington (or the audience, for that matter...), he was executed by forces of the Government Conspiracy. Next up on the chopping block was Singh (Shishir Kurup), Cirko's research associate, who at least managed to get some information to Laura before a sample of some strange marine life to boot.

Hell, I just love it when series turn a corner unexpectedly, and puts regular (or recurring...) characters up for the chopping block. I had believed that Cirko and Singh were going to be long-term regulars, and that the series would continue down the same road it has for several weks, with Laura being recruited by these guys to conduct further research. Instead, the opposite happened! I should have known that would be the case, considering that the Pate Brothers (G vs. E) are behind this series.

I think the Pates lulled us into thinking things were going to stay the same. We were "safe." Every week, we'd get a cute vignette about Nimrod, the toddler monster, while more information is gathered by Rich and Laura about the sea monsters. Instead, death and destruction reigns, Laura ditches her son, and we're off to the races. Even Nimrod appears to have turned murderous! Great stuff.

I think this show is getting better. I still haven't seen any reports, however, if it has been renewed past the initial order of 13 episodes. Hope you're still watching. The show just ratcheted things up...

The Brown Bunny and "Come Wander with Me"

I watched Vincent Gallo's controversial film The Brown Bunny this weekend, and really enjoyed it. In fact, I felt it was one of the strongest and most individual American-made films I'd seen in some time; like maybe in six years. This is the notorious motion picture, you'll recall, that climaxes, shall we say, with actress Chloe Sevigny performing (on-screen) oral sex on director Gallo. Yep, you read that right.

I hate to begin a review of a fine, artistic film with a discussion of the most exploitable angle when there are better things to mention, like the fact that The Brown Bunny is truly an emotional bomb-shell and a moving filmic experience. But no doubt the scene with the blow job is exactly what the press focused on; how critics framed the film - as that one with fellatio performed by a major actress. Honestly, I see that scene in the context of a filmmaker who is trying to show us something different; giving audiences a truly individual kind of art.

I think I may have taken for granted how "similar" all movies have become in 2005. They all look the same, they all move at the same pace, they all exist within a certain (relatively narrow...) set of boundaries. The Brown Bunny is refreshing because it exists wholly outside such boundaries and limitations. That doesn't mean it is perfect, but it is genuinely artistic and also - I believe - genuinely revolutionary.

The Brown Bunny is the story of a motorcyle racer named Bud Clay (Vincent Gallo). He sets out on a road trip back to California after a race. He stops at a house on the way, and meets the two strangely disengaged parents of his girlfriend, Daisy (Sevigny). They don't recognize him, but ask about their daughter, whom they haven't heard from. He tells her that he and Daisy rent a small house together and that she was pregant, but lost the baby. They seem confused, and he leaves. He continues driving, and driving. Later, Bud stops at a rest-stop and kisses a troubled-appearing stranger (Cheryl Tiegs) but then gets back on the road, heading ever westward. He returns to his home in California, and goes to Daisy's house. She isn't there, but he leaves her a note to meet him up in his hotel room. From here, I can't say much that doesn't give the film away, but suffice it to say that Bud experiences an emotionally-shattering reckoning with Daisy, and the events of a party that happened some time ago. What Daisy did there; and what Bud failed to do; is at the center of the film's revelatory climax. A flashback makes everything plain, and suddenly we understand who Bud is, and what he has been grappling - unsuccessfully -with.

More important, I think, than the story itself, is how Vincent Gallo dramatizes it in The Brown Bunny. I haven't seen a major film that feels this unshackled from narrative convention since Easy Rider and the late 1960s-1970s. The film moves at its own pace, and often there are shots that continue for a long, long time. For instance, there's a sequence at the start of the film where we see Bud riding his motorcycle. The camera follows him for a long, long time, and doesn't cut where a conventional movie would. Instead, it continues two, three times as long, and the sound comes in and out. As the shot continues and continues, you are left to ponder the image, and also, perhaps, to detect something about the main character. Bluntly stated, he's stuck in a rut, going round and round in a circle. The race is a metaphor for his personal life. I don't think you could have understood this if the shot had just existed long enough to "establish" the location.

Later, Bud drives his van on the highway, and we see over his shoulder, through the windshield, and onto the yawning, endless highway ahead, and again, the shot just goes and goes, with no end in sight. The conventional, kneejerk reaction to this kind of extended sequence in which "nothing" appears to happen is to complain that the narrative has stalled. That this is somehow "boring." But uniquely, these lengthy, quiet interludes actually forge what I can only call a tangiblel mood of melancholy. As viewers, we inevitably get the feeling of the trip that Bud is making, even of his fractured mental state. Gallo's approach goes beyond linear filmmaking into a form of visual poetry. It's difficult to explain, but I appreciate that Gallo hasn't let the thinking of others affect his filmmaking choices; instead he moves his own way, letting the sound come and go, holding a shot far past the point convention demands. By doing so, he forges a film of utter originality, a triumph.

And that goes for the oral sex scene as well. Again, this is the equivalent of a shot held at great length, being something that defies our expectations and conditioning by Hollywood to look only at plot and pace, only at forward momentum. This scene - and the entire movie - is a shock to the system; not merely Bud's, but ours. Film needn't exist in a narrow, carefully diagrammed world. It can operate outside the perimeters Hollywood demands, and emerge with something lyrical, something elegaic.

As a genre fan, one thing that struck me like a bolt of lightning was a choice of soundtrack music. Early in the film, as Bud drives his van on the way to visit Daisy's out-of-it parents, a song comes up on the soundtrack that I instantly placed, and which - truth be told - provides an early and valuable clue as to the nature of this story. That song is "Come Wander with Me," and it comes from CBS Productions, from one of the last three original Twilight Zones ever produced. The episode aired on May 22, 1964, some forty years before the premiere of The Brown Bunny, and it tells the story of a folk singer (played by Gary Crosby) who is in search of new material because he desperately needs a hit. He heads up into red-neck, mountain country and meets this beautiful girl in the backwoods, played by Bonnie Beecher. She sings a haunting tune, "Come Wander with Me" (also the title of the episode...), but the thing is, the song keeps changing; keeps evolving. New verses keep getting added by the singer, as events in her relationship with Crosby change. Crosby, the popular singer, gets in trouble with some of the locals, for instance, and the song starts to reflect his experience. It's eerie (and one of my all time favorite Zone episodes...). What the song ultimately represents - like The Brown Bunny - is a tragic love story. About a relationship that is doomed, and about a "ghost" from the past, living in the present, unaware (or in denial...) about reality.

"Come Wander with Me" is a haunting Twilight Zone episode, and a haunting song. If you've heard it once, you'll never forget it, and it adds yet another layer of interest and artistry to The Brown Bunny.

Okay, so this isn't a film for everybody. You mustapproach it with patience, and perhaps more than that, openness. But if you do, you'll find The Brown Bunny an incredibly rewarding venture, an effort that cuts to the heart of emotional truths with unblinking eye and revolutionary stylistics. And "Come Wander with Me" - straight from the Twilight Zone - is your clue to what it's all about.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

CULT MOVIE BLOGGING: The Vampire Lovers (1970) and Lust for a Vampire (1970)

What a gruesome (and entertaining) twosome - two seminal horror flicks from a late Hammer Studios (in decline?) in the 1970s. Both films are part of the so-called Karnstein saga (the third was called Twins of Evil), and both dramatize the twisted tale of a female vampire known as Carmilla/Mircalla. The stories are loosely based on Sheridan Le Fanu's (1814-1873) novella, Carmilla, first published in 1872.

In The Vampire Lovers, a vampire from the Karnstein clan, Mircalla (Ingrid Pitt), makes a deadly enemy of Peter Cushing's steel-spined military general after she drains the blood of his beautiful and innocent daughter, Laura. Mircalla moves on to seduce another virginal beauty, Emma (Madeline Smith), but the General and a cadre of other Karnstein enemies gather to end the vampire curse.

In Lust for a Vampire, Mircalla is played by sexy Yutte Stensgaard and the story picks up in 1830, as the vampire mistress masquerades as a student and methodically sucks her way through a bevy of school girls.

The Vampire Lovers is a notch above some of the typical Hammer horror fare produced in the early 1970s, for a few notable reasons. First, it's the film (I believe...) that really makes a full-fledged star of Ingrid Pitt, a capable actress with not only the beauty and charisma to play a powerful vampire, but the gravitas too. Secondly, the film boasts the courage to offer interesting insights about Mircalla's cursed existence rather than relying merely on bloodletting and heaving bosoms (though there is plenty of each here, too, so breathe easy...)

"I want you to love me for all your life," a jealous Mircalla says to her dearly beloved Emma, a beautiful girl destined to be her victim in The Vampire Lovers. "It's not the same," Emma replies thoughtlessly, comparing her "fraternal" love for Carmilla to her more romantic feelings for a "boyfriend." This conversation highlights The Vampire Lovers' interesting decision to confront the sexual preference of its villain, and what it means in a society that clearly forbids "alternative" couplings.

For Mircalla genuinely loves Emma and, actually, each and every one of the women she seduces and kills. She doesn't want them to die, but nor does she want to lose them (specifically to men...) either. If they live, they will eventually be "taken" by their boyfriends, never to be hers again. Yet if Mircalla murders the girls she desires, draining their blood, they are just as lost to her. What a terrible dilemma. Accordingly, there is serious melancholy in this vampire...she is truly cursed.

In one monologue, Mircalla spells it all out, making it clear that she despises death for the things and people it takes away from her. This awareness of death, of her role in fostering it, differentiates Mircalla from Hammer's Dracula (usually Christopher Lee). He thrives on death, on seduction, on the corruption of life and innocence. By contrast, one feels fof Mircalla that she is a woman trapped by her nature and her preferences. Her appetites are unacceptable (i.e. lesbianism/vampirism), but she bows to them out of a sense of a biological imperative, out of desperation, also out of a sense of jealousy, perhaps.

In a strange way, these qualities make this cinematic vampire almost human...sympathetic. Are not all of us, at one time or another, slaves to desire? For most of us, those desires, those appetites, fall well into the consensus of "normal" society (heterosexuality). But what of those with "alternative" orientations? Are they merely to hide their needs in dark and secret, like vampires? That is the argument that The Vampire Lovers makes, and one it states rather successfully, I believe.

It is clear that Mircalla despises herself, and how her appetites force her to hurt the very people she longs to share life with. By facing this duality and dilemma in Mircalla's nature (she is both killer and lover to the objects of her desire), The Vampire Lovers offers something that many Hammer films - if I'm being brutaly honest - kinda lack: social subtext. The movie is not all period detail, lush forestry and beautiful woman in diaphanous gowns. There's a point to the violence, to the terror, and that makes it a worthwhile character study, and consequently, a worthwhile film.

And Ingrid Pitt - in my opinion - is the perfect actress to vet this material. She can be simultaneously seductress and vampire, or tragic anti-hero, depending on how the audience seeks to view her. Her portrayal has layers, something that probably cannot fairly be said of the fetching and charming Yutte Stensgaard in Lust for a Vampire. In that film, one does not truly understand who Mircalla is, or why she is that way. But Pitt is a strong actress, a powerful central presence that dominates this film in an unusually masculine and potent fashion. She has the raw power a vampire should embody, but is burdened with the seeds of a conscience as well. Pitt gives the role her all, embodying both the vampire and lover.

The remainder of the movie is, alasm the standard dated vampire thing. The ubiquitous Peter Cushing is present as an aggrieved father, out for revenge, and there are the requisite (and welcome) shots of Pitt's breasts and pubic zone, but The Vampire Lovers works well because it captures the core of the vampire aesthetic: the haunted soul, the eternal torment, the loneliness, the love lost forever. Mircalla is beutiful, powerful, and evil...but tortured. The Vampire Lovers works best when it remebers that even in monsters, the audience looks for identification, for itself.

Lust for a Vampire, as the title indicates, is another breed entirely. This movie is more a romp, as it throws humor, thrills and horrors into a blender yet doesn't emerge as anything of much nutritional substance. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before Hammer Studios set a horror film at an all girl's school, and this setting permits for many lascivious moments, all wonderfully lit and composed. In one notable sequence, a bevy of adolescent girls frolic and dance on the school grounds in skimpy dresses that have slits cut all the way up their legs. In another scene, set in a dormitory room, the luscious Pippa Steel thoughtfully massages Mircalla's shoulders, and her blouse "inadvertently" (right!) drops to reveal her ample breasts. Then, because there may indeed by a God in Heaven, Steel obligingly suggest a midnight visit to the nearby lake...and a skinny dip.

At this point in the film, I was totally mesmerized, but my wife was grumbling, and, truth be told, growing a little suspicious. As the camera lingered longingly on the two beautiful girls mixing it up in the water - mostly topless - my wife thoughtfully pointed out that it still appeared to be broad daylight. "Midnight is really bright in England, isn't it?" she quipped with a hint of irritation.

All the better to see those breasts, my dear.

I counted no less than eight shots of beautiful female cleavage s in the film. And then came the immortal love scene in which Mircalla (Iron Willed Queen of the Damned!) is seduced against her will by a randy school teacher. Stensgaard's eyes go crossed and then roll back in her head as she makes love. Humorously, this all happens to the strains of a very seventies pop song entitled "Strange Love."

Predictably, the elements of Lust for a Vampire not involving female pulchritude don't really work at all. For instance, I like how a flaming two-by-four conveniently falls from a ceiling and stakes Mircalla right through the heart. Talk about a lucky shot! And of course, there's the ridiculous and sexist double standard at work here. Mircalla clearly enjoys going both ways (seducing men and women with equal aplomb), but gee, the audience never sees Christopher Lee's Dracula seducing a man, does it? Even more to the point, Mircalla is "taken" by that teacher, not vice-versa. Again, Dracula would hardly be so weak to fall victim to his own prey, right? Poor Mircalla. She's got a long way to go, baby.

All in all, Lust for A Vampire is a brilliantly-constructed male fantasy, but not nearly as interesting, memorable or as thematically resonant, in my opinion, as The Vampire Lovers.

TV Review: Threshold: "The Order"

In a ripped-from-the-headlines storyline, there's a "leak" inside Molly Caffrey's inner circle this week on the Threshold episode "The Order." On Night Stalker on Thursday, we saw a medititation on journalistic standards and "sources" and now we have this, the effect of a "leak" on government workers. I like that genre TV is attempting to address the "big" issues going on in the world, especially as indictments look imminent in the Valerie Plame scandal.

But, as far as Threshold is concerned, let me make my argument as to why I feel this show just isn't working. Last week's episode climaxed with the stalwart Threshold team detonating an electromagnetic pulse in Miami, and rendering the entiry city dead. This was an effort to stop the spread of the bio-forming (and we learn this week, terra-forming...) alien signal. That's a pretty big thing, even if Baylock (Dutton) claimed that the Corp of Engineers was already in the city and ready to bring the power grid back up within 24 hours.

So, I ask you, if we assume in series time that "The Order" takes place a week, maybe less, after the events of "Pulse," do you believe for a minute that a single journalist or newspaper or cable news network would be at all concerned with a small story about the Threshold project (the leak that so concerns everybody this week)? Of late, our media has proven it can't really walk and chew gum at the same time. I mean, when Natalee Holloway disappeared, did the media still cover the CIA leak? Where was the CIA leak probe coverage when, say, Katrina hit? When Rita was coming? Given the fact that in Threshold's fictional world an entire American city went without power just days/hours before this leak revelation, are we to seriously believe that Miami wouldn't be the topic du jour? No one would notice that little piece about Threshold in some little paper, sorry. And if they did, by chance, it wouldn't register.

And I see that as the primary problem with this show. The plotting is very reminiscent of later (and weaker) Star Treks, where huge crises are dramatically wrapped up in the last two minutes of the episode, and then never referred to again. I can accept that on an outer space show, because, let's face it, a massive starship goes to different planets every day (almost...) and solves all kinds of crises. That's just the nature of Star Trek as drama. I want to see Captain Picard divert an asteroid away from an endangered planet one week; then preserve our very timeline the next. It's built-in. It's expected.

But Threshold is supposed to be occurring in the "real world" in 2005. So I have some difficulty accepting that America wouldn't react in some major way to the Miami electromagnetic pulse, even if it was just thought to be a power outage caused by solar storms. There would still be a Congressional committee investigating it, and every two-bit pundit on the tube would be - as President Bush might say - "O-pining" about our lack of preparation in case of another solar flare.

To make matters worse, Threshold pulls the same thing this week. In the last two minutes, Molly orders an air force strike team to shoot down a jet with two U.S. Senators aboard! It's infected by aliens, so it's the right call, but it's the story equivalent of last week's climactic EM pulse. Will we hear about people in Washington D.C. in mourning next week? Will we hear about officials attending the funerals? (Remember what a big deal it was when Senator Paul Wellstone died? Or Governor Carnahan?) These events don't occur in a vacuum, never to come up again, but thus far I see no evidence that Threshold's writers are aware of this. Every episode starts with a "re-set," like everything is normal again. The team is just merrily out alien artifact hunting, "data mining," as they like to say. La-dee-da. La-dee-da.

People might wonder why I don't criticize Invasion or Surface like this. Here's why. Surface is staying true to the internal story, building up event after event, so that the existence of the sea creatures is rapidly becoming undeniable. They are still at the "unexplained phenomena" stage. Now, I don't know where the series is going, but it has taken off on a consistent trajectory, and keeps going step-by-step. As far as Invasion is concerned, it occurs on a much more personal level, the story is of a "blended" family and only now (several episodes in) are suspicions being raised about the behavior and nature of certain characters. Again, the trajectory is a consistent, building one. Both of these series may ultimately crap themselves if they don't face the ramifications of their plot, but they haven't done so yet. Threshold, by contrast, attempts to work up excitement for a "big" climax every week, like it's the end of the world (and let's face it, shooting down a jet with two U.S. Senators on board, or pulsing an entire American City is BIG), but then the next week, we're back to normal, just following up a lead on another element of the alien signal. This week, it's a piece of contaminated driftwood from the ship, Big Horn, they're hunting.

So as drama Threshold goes up and down in fits and starts, and seems to lack a real plan. Internet buzz suggests there is a plan for the series, a really interesting one, but I just don't see it yet. This series is still spending too much time "hunting" the threat of the week, and making big gestures, then re-setting the following week and starting all over again. This is the kind of genre plotting that can drive a guy crazy.

And don't even get me started on the ridiculous alien-signal infected cat that appeared on last night's episode.

SATURDAY MORNING TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "The Survivors of Zalon"

"Welcome to the most magnificent achievement in space, the man-made planetoid...Space Academy...founded in the star year 3732.

Here we have gathered young people from the farthest reaches of the known worlds. They have been chosen for their unique abilities, and are being trained to cope with the mysterious, the unknown, the unpredictable dangers lurking in the vast darkness of space."

With that opening narration, provided by Lost in Space's Dr. Smith, Jonathan Harris, so began the live-action, 1977 CBS TV series from Filmation (and producers Norm Prescott and Lou Scheimer), entitled Space Academy. Created by Allen Ducovny, the series involved a group of cadets manning an asteroid complex called - naturally - Space Academy. Their teacher, mentor and commanding officer was the kindly, patient Isaac Gampu (Harris), and the group consisted of an eclectic group of students.

There was Chris Gentry (Ric Carrot), a hot-shot blond pilot who could "mind link" with his telepathic sister, Laura Gentry (Pamelyn Ferdin). Chris's love interest was another cadet, the dark-haired Adrian (Maggie Cooper). The headstrong Asian, Tee-Gar Soom (Brian Tochi) and African-American Paul (Ty Henderson) rounded out the diverse group. Watching over them (in case things got out of hand...) was a diminutive robot called Peepo.

In the first episode of Space Academy, "The Survivors of Zalon" (written by Lynn Barker and directed by Jeffrey Hayden), a confused Adrian detects an unusual "burst of red" on her computer monitor while scanning the mysterious planet Zalon, which is due to explode in just 48 hours. This means that there could be life on Zalon, even though the last survey two years indicated no life-forms existed there.

Gampu authorizes a (quick...) visit to Zalon's surface, and accompanies the cadets to the planet's barren, orange-hued surface, a trip they take via Academy shuttle, the sleek craft known as a "Seeker." But a strange scarlet energy field cripples communications with the Academy, and Gampu drops off the others on the surface while he returns to space to attempt to re-establish contact.

On the planet below, the intrepid cadets discover a young, flute-playing waif, a curly haired orphan (Eric Greene). He has no memory of how he arrived on Zalon, but the energy field from space has provided for his continued existence in return for his care of two small, glowing crystals. It turns out that these two orbs are the energy field's young ones. The destruction of the planet Zalon is actually a critical part of a "great life transformation process" for them, and the cadets- by collecting the crystals as samples - are interfering.

The crimson energy field in space permits Gampu to retrieve his cadets before the destruction of Zalon, provided he lets the evolution process of their kind continue unimpeded . Gampu agrees and returns to Zalon's surface. There, he agrees to adopt the waif - whom he names Loki, after the Norse God of Mischief. It turns out that Loki will prove quite a handful, since the youngster boasts "special vision" (the ability to see through walls...) and teleportation powers.

Space Academy comes from the same tradition that gave us great series like the live-action Land of the Lost. It's a show designed for children that aired on Saturday mornings, but it's no cartoon or time-waster. In fact, this series featured superb production values and special effects that were state of the art for 1977. The Seeker shuttlecraft, (though based on the Ark II design...) was represented both in full-size mock-up and highly-detailed miniature. In "The Survivors of Zalon," (which first aired September 10, 1977) the outer space and miniature sequences (supervised by Robert A. Maine and Chuck Comisky) are extensive, and accomplished with remarkable skill. There are no less than four in-depth shots of the craft departing from the Academy's hanger and heading out into space. These shots, so effective here, would also be repeated as "stock footage" in future episodes. Each episode of the series was 22 minutes long (to accommodate a half-hour block) and shot in 35mm, an unusual decision since most of its contemporaries were lensed on 16 mm.

Thematically, Space Academy is straight from the Star Trek/Space Patrol/Tom Corbett, Space Cadet school or morally-uplifting, "up with humans" space adventuring. The acting is slightly over-dramatic, as it is aimed at children, but the stories, including this one, reveal an attempt to grapple with some grown-up genre concepts (including alien biological diversity, evolution processes and the like), as well as "valuable" moral lessons (peacable first contact, general decency to others). The series had an educational advisor from U.C.L.A., Dr. Gordon L. Berry, and it's clear there was an effort to make the series educational as well as highly entertaining.

Though this is a show for kids, it's one of the Saturday morning TV series that (like Land of the Lost) adults can get into...given a little patience...especially if one is willing to overlook the "gee whiz!" enthusiastic demeanor of the over-enthusiastic (but solid) cast.

Saturday Morning TV was a wonderful facet of our pop culture in the 1970s and 1980s, and I miss it dearly in our corporate contemporary culture, so I decided I wanted to feature it on the blog as a regular feature (every Saturday). Again, I'm not arguing that Space Academy is artistic or great TV, only that it was fun, and that I've always remembered it with fondness. Im sure that - along with Land of the Lost, Jason of Star Command, and The Super Friends, it had some deep impact on the way in which I view the world as an adult. It's morally valuable, fun and for the 1970s, exquisitely-rendered.

And there are lots of cool spaceships and explosions.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Cult TV Friday Flashback # 14: Rod Serling's Night Gallery: "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar"

For many years, critics have openly dismissed Rod Serling's second TV series, the genre anthology Night Gallery (1970-1973) as nothing but an inferior rip-off of The Twilight Zone. Because Serling (1921-1975) often voiced very public disappointment with some elements of the horror series, it seems like a Pandora's Box - or perhaps a can of whup-ass - was opened up on the program and hasn't ever been closed, not really even to this very day.

And yet, Night Gallery features so much of Rod Serling's original - and brilliant - creative voice. So it isn't that easy for me just to dismiss or neglect it. After all, Serling did pen some thirty segments for the series, and that number symbolizes a sizable chunk of work. It represents a whole new opportunity to examine Serling the artist as a writer, a storyteller and social moralist. To ignore or downgrade Night Gallery because it wasn't as consistently brilliant as The Twilight Zone is to basically close ourselves off to an entire work by one of TV's few undeniable geniuses. I just won't do it.

No less an authority than Stephen King called Night Gallery a "watered down Thriller with Serling doing the Boris Karloff hosting job..."(Danse Macabre, page 243). Christopher Wicking and Tise Vahigimi noted in their book, The American Vein: Directors and Directions in Television that the series "was a sad departure from series activity for Serling," but also commented that the show did "contain moments of true horror and mood-drenched atmosphere."(E.P. Dutton, 1979, page 252). On the plus said, TV Zone magazine has called the series "occasionally inspired" (November 1992), and Bob Wisehard in The Best of Science Fiction Television opined that the series "was like the dark side of Rod Serling...a real change for television..."(Harmony Books, 1987, page 126).

The dark side of Rod Serling, imagine that! Or don't. Simply watch the stirring and emotionally-wrenching installment titled "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar."

In this deeply-moving work of "paint, pigment and desperation," a man named Randolph Lane (played by William Windom) copes with the inevitable march of time. Although he was a heroic paratrooper in World War II (as was Serling himself...) Lane has spent the 25 years since his service selling plastics and not feeling particularly special. His company doesn't value him, he has to fight every young upstart on the way up, ("with assistants like that, who needs assassins," he quips), and also there's the guilt. The terrible, haunting guilt. His beloved wife Katie died years ago of pneumonia. He wasn't there to help her, to take her to the hospital. Nope, he was "working," making a name for himself. And now, 25 years to the day that he began employment with Pritkin's Plastic Products, he gets fired without so much as a gold watch for compensation. Worse, a demolition company is getting ready to destroy his favorite drinking spot, Tim Riley's Bar. This is the very place where Randy's homecoming from Europe was celebrated in 1945. The very place where his Dad sang "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" to him. Where Katie and he used to go together and gaze into each other's eyes. Where Lane experienced what he now considers "the best years of his life."

Randy just can't let go of Tim Riley's bar. It's part of his very existence, and the past beckons to him there in a way that the empty present simply never can. He peers in at the bar's interior through dusty window panes and sees his dead father, his dead wife...his past inside. He sees 1945 laid out before him. Ghosts. But that wrecking ball is still coming, threatening to destroy the very past that he loves, all in the name of "progress." Soon a 20-floor banking establishment (replete with underground parking garage) will occupy the space where his memories live...

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is not your typical Night Gallery episode. It isn't overtly horrific. There aren't big "scares" in it anywhere. There's almost no touch at all of the supernatural. The only horror is, indeed, the melancholy passage of time and the inevitable sense of aging too quickly. It is about, as Serling states so eloquently in his opening narration, "the quiet desperation of men over 40 who keep hearing heavy footsteps behind them and are torn between a fear and compulsion to look over their shoulders."

Randolph Lane is not just a man facing hallucinations from 1945, but a man who realizes with acute accuracy and insight that the best days of his life are far behind him. That he's had his shot, his one chance, and it will all soon be over. Done. In many ways, this episode is autobiographical, I'm sure, and it is important to note that Serling died just five years after writing it. In the episode, Windom's character makes note that he is 48 years old, and that his father passed away when he was just six years older (at 52). In a weird and sad twist of fate, that was just about the very age at which Mr. Serling himself passed away. It's as if Serling knew - like his protagonist, Randolph Lane - that he was fast running out of time.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" serves as an excellent companion piece to the episode of The Twilight Zone called "Walking Distance," in which a harried businessman walks over a hill one day and finds himself back in a favorite summer from his long-gone youth. He encounters himself as a child at a merry-go-round and desperately urges the boy to cherish this time, because it will soon be gone. He is chastened, however, by his father, who tells him - a bit sadly - that we all get allotted just "one summer." Just one. And that this one belongs to the boy with a future, not the man living in the past. He must go home; must go back to the unhappy present.

"They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" is the logical and (very sad) continuation, after a fashion, of "Walking Distance," proving again the adage "you can't go home again." I guess this is kinda personal to me. The message resonates. I am 35 years old (36 on December 3rd...) and both of these stories grip me in ways I don't fully comprehend. I don't really think I'm old, and yet I have lived long enough now to see the artifacts of my past begin to age and disappear. There are people walking around in this world who weren't born when Star Wars was released, and furthermore don't understand why it's a touchstone. I mention Battlestar Galactica, and they discuss the remake. My sixth grade English teacher whom I loved and cherished as an early mentor, is long dead of cancer. Both my Grandfathers are from Parkinsons and the other Leukemia. A new family resides in the house where I grew up in Glen Ridge. I've now been with my beautiful wife for ten years of marriage, and six years of dating beyond even that benchmark. So I see and understand and - honestly - fear the march of time. I feel too close to that recognition that life is going by fast, and already the things and people that I have loved are disappearing into the mists of time; never to be seen again. I have not witnessed such emotions better expressed than in this episode Night Gallery. Rod Serling was grappling in this extraordinary story with nothing less than his own mortality, the eclipse and sunset of life itself.

And so I can think of no better reason than that to feature "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" as my fourteenth friday cult TV flashback. Especially because we lost this artist far too soon. He died just about thirty years ago, now. Yet Rod Serling had a special and singular perspective on life and on humanity, and this world we all share. Barry Eysman eulogized Mr. Serling in this fashion, in Writers' Digest (in November of 1975):

"Rod Serling saw dignity in people like this. He showed us the shadow people, the ones who dwell on the periphery, who dwell in the dark out-of-the-way bars, reliving, subsisting on past times. He showed us people we'd rather not think about. But with that keen perception and sparse dialogue, he grabbed you...and told you in no uncertain terms that these people deserved at least a little victory, breathing space, someone to care for, someone to care about."

Rod Serling's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," is about one man hoping to be treated with dignity after a life of service and of sacrifices. It's about a man taking stock at the mid-point of his life and deciding where, ultimately, to dwell -- the past or the present. I suppose I find it a little shocking that Rod Serling could ever have, even for a second, doubted that his legacy would stretch decades far into the future, and that he would be remembered and honored as one of the greats of the medium. But perhaps it was that gnawing self-doubt, that deep-seated insecurity that drew him again and again to the typewriter; that made him create art in the first place; that forced him to top himself over and over. In the end, Serling need not have feared his own death as any kind of ending, because his writing -episodes of Twilight Zone such as "Walking Distance or Night Gallery's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar" - has granted him the very immortality that I suppose we all seek.

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...