Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Which Superhero are you?

Hey everybody, check this out! I was over visiting one of my favorite blogs, The Ramblings of Marx, and I read the January 12, 2006 post. I saw this superhero test on the Net, wherein you get to figure out "who you are" in terms of caped-ones. I was hoping for a Superman call (he's my favorite), but I'm pretty happy with who I ended up with...

Has everybody else seen this already? If so, sorry I'm behind the eight-ball (as usual), but I thought it was fun anyway. Take the test and comment below to let the readers know what secret identity you're harboring...

You are Spider-Man

Green Lantern

Iron Man


The Flash


Wonder Woman





You are intelligent, witty,
a bit geeky and have great
power and responsibility.
Click here to take the Superhero Personality Quiz

Horror Wisdom of the Week:

Most people do, actually. I mean, like to be scared. It’s something primal, something basic. Horror movies and roller coasters and the house of horrors ride. You can face death without any real fear of dying. It’s safe. You can leave the movie or get off the ride with a vicarious thrill and feeling that you’ve just conquered death. It’s one hell of a first class rush.”

-A young Tom Hanks makes the case for the value of horror films in He Knows You’re Alone (1980).

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week:

Obi-Wan Kenobi: "Your new Empire? Anakin, my allegiance is to the Republic! To Democracy!"

Anakin: "If you're not with me, then you're my enemy."

: "Only a Sith deals in absolutes. I will do what I must."

- Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 14

Based on last night's very exciting trailer for Surface's fifteenth episode, I'd guess NBC hasn't decided yet the ultimate fate of this program (which - I admit it - I love.) Last week, it seemed we were perched to get "all the answers" leading up to a series finale. But last night, the advertisement was plugging the season finale. There's a world of difference in that distinction, so I suppose we can hope that Surface may see a sophomore season.

This is a good thing, because the show improves every week. Last night, more pieces of the puzzle came together. We now know that Lee is not the same guy who appeared in the archival film in last week's installment. Though, by incredible coincidence, he has precisely the same crew-cut. Instead, Lee's a clone, and he's not too pleased about that fact. I liked this twist, and I suppose I should have seen it coming. I had thought the scientists were doing longevity experiments or something, but that guess was off the mark.

Secondly, Rich traveled to North Carolina and found a SPECTRE/Blofeld-ian-type "scientific headquarters" for a mysterious company that specializes in cryo-stasis. After (easily) hijacking a truck, Rich learned that this company is freezing and storing samples of every life-form on Earth...a kind of Noah's ark, as he suggests to Daughtery in a hurried cell-phone call. I hope they're also including one of those rabid Cha-Ka creatures from last week...

Meanwhile, in Wilmington, Miles' spider-senses are really developing. Er, I mean, he gets back at a nasty bully by electrocuting the guy. Nimh also makes a guest appearance in a local diner. He's still adorable. I know his species is about to unleash holy hell on the human race, but Nimh would be a welcome pet in my house any time. As long as he promises not to eat my cats, like he did that poodle a couple of months ago.

The episode ended on a crescendo of tension as a massive earthquake (apparently caused by the sea monsters...) rattles Puerto Rico and the Eastern seaboard. It's the Day After Tomorrow redux, as a huge tidal wave approaches land. Carnage candy!

I can't wait for next week's season finale...

Here's my guess on what's really going on: The tidal wave is a planned event, a predicted outcome based on the creatures' behavior - a way of removing some of the pesky human population. In fact, I think the scientist behind this (Kessler, the 110 year old guy) is furthering his own "final solution" and the monsters are but a means to that end. He's using the monsters to devastate the planet and kill off the human race, but then after the tidal waves and other disasters subside, I predict the monsters will die off (a pre-programmed gene in their DNA) and Kessler will now have the opportunity to begin life on the planet all over again with his Noah's Ark of specimens. And he will be the master of his domain, if you know what I mean.

Of course, I'm probably wrong. Forgive me, I just watched Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow not long ago, and it featured roughly the same plot. If Kessler turns out to be a computer-generated Laurence Olivier, I'll be really disappointed.

See, I like to make all these snarky comments about Surface, because it's so cheesy and derivative. The special effects are cheap-o (but I love 'em), and the plot plays like a dozen or so cinematic blockbusters of the last quarter century. But I just can't help it, I'm addicted to the program and really enjoy it.

CATNAP #29: I Can't Do My Work!

Pictured above, you see why it's hard for me to stay on schedule. All three of my beloved cats (Lila, Ezri and Lily) really like to sit on my desk (in front of my monitor) so I can't see what I'm typing. I like to have them close, that's for sure, and I enjoy the show. But sometimes, I just have to scoot 'em out of the way to see the monitor. Not pictured, but to the left of the screen is a cat-mattress where they can sleep if they choose. Guess how often they use it instead of standing in front of the screen? Never! Their favorite recent hobby has been to knock my toy Dalek over the edge of the desk onto the floor. It has wheels, so this is particularly enjoyable for the felines. If the Dalek is already down (or exterminated...), they'll send Luke's landspeeder over the edge...

Monday, January 30, 2006

Space Babe?

The last few weeks here on the blog, readers have been selecting their fantasy spaceship (The Enterprise, NCC-1701-A), and ideal crew members. So far, we've looked at robot sidekicks like R2-D2, Muffit, Twiki and Peeop, and also, last week, irritating kids (including Anakin, Wesley Crusher, Adric and Loki).

Now it's time to pick another team-mate from the shelf of sci-fi TV cliches: our favorite "space babe!" Now, I realize that "space babe" probaby isn't a politically correct term (any more than is "Bond girl"), but over the years so many talented and beautiful women have graced the decks of spaceships. And well, space babe just seems like an easy...uhm... shorthand to describe them. For our purposes, let's define a "space babe" as an officer or crew member of a space vessel, one who is highly intelligent, charismatic, capable, very skilled, and drop-dead gorgeous.

Ground rules: this week, I want to leave out medical officers, because doctors will be the subject for another week, so we're automatically disqualifying Helena Russell, Cassiopiea, and Dr. Beverly Crusher, in case anyone cared to nominate them for "space babe" status. They'll be included during the next go-round (before we select our "enemies" and type of "mission.")

So many gorgeous, capable women have memorably been brought to life as "space babes" on so many programs over the years that I'm sure I'll miss some important ones. The best way to catch as many as I can is to start chronologically and work up to the present. Write-ins are also welcome.

So, first off, waaaay back in 1964, we have our inaugural nominee, the lovely Judy Robinson (Marta Kristen) of the Jupiter 2 on Lost in Space. Not only the ideal big sister and girl next door, she looks great in a silver jumpsuit. Mark Goddard's character, Major Don West, thought so too. Watch out, though, her Dad is an officer too..

Over the years, no franchise has given audiences more lovely ladies than Gene Roddenberry's Star Trek. In "The Cage," Majel Barrett's cerebral "Number One" did a bang job as Captain Pike's first officer. Radiant and intelligent, Number One is a great character who disappeared before her time and certainly would have made a terrific regular.

But then, on the original series, two additional lovely Starfleet Officers strutted their stuff for three full seasons. Nichelle Nichols plays the multi-talented communications officer, Lt. Uhura. This officer not only possesses a great singing voice, she can translate Klingon. And, in a pinch, Uhura can also perform a striptease in the desert with nothing but a few palm leaves. Uhura's finest "space babe" moment probably arrived in the second season episode, "Mirror, Mirror" in which she showed off her impressive washboard abdomen (in a fetching two piece Starfleet uniform). The Mirror Sulu sure liked her, but this Uhura was a kitten with a whip!

And I don't know any red-blooded American geek boy who hasn't also fallen head over heels in love with Grace Lee Whitney's beehive-wearingJanice Rand. Janice boasts great legs (and she wishes the Captain would notice 'em more, in "Miri"), and we can understand why Charlie Evans had such a thing for her. Soft, sweet, and infinitely resourceful (she used a phaser to heat up some coffee once...) Rand was the perfect captain's yeoman. Later, she became transporter chief and the Excelsior's communications officer.

After Star Trek came Space:1999 in the mid-1970s. Zienia Merton played Sandra, Moonbase Alpha's data analyst. Sandra Benes' finest moment came in the episode "Full Circle" in which tiny Sahn was abducted by cavemen (!) and forced to wear a skimpy set of animal skins. Yeah, baby!

Year Two of Space:1999 saw the addition to the cast of Maya (Catherine Schell), whom I have already voted for as the "sexiest resident alien" of all time in another post, last summer. A brilliant historian, mathematician and computer expert, Maya also possesses the unique ability to shapeshift. As a Psychon, she can transform into any living being in the universe and hold that form for an hour. So she's pretty useful to have at your side on a mission. She's right at home piloting an eagle, firing stun guns, or turning into a leaping lizard.

In 1978, Battlestar Galactica aired on ABC TV and introduced the world to such lovely women as the TV reporter, Serina (Jane Seymour), the warrior captain from the Pegasus's Silver Spar Squadron, Sheba (Anne Lockhart), and Adama's intrepid daughter, Athena (Maren Jensen). Athena is a bridge officer, a shuttle pilot, and one of Starbuck's many, many girlfriends. She's a pretty good tactician, and has also trained to fly a viper. So Athena is a good solid "tech" choice.

In 1979, Glen Larson gave us another TV series, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. Colonel Wilma Deering (played by Erin Grey) set hearts afluttering in the tightest red and blue spandex hip huggers you've ever seen. The suits revealed Deering's long, athletic, gorgeous form, and - come on - who can't love a lady in shiny lip gloss? Wilma Deering serves as an agent in the Earth Defense Directorate, and is a seasoned operative in undercover missions (where she frequently disguises herself as a bimbo...). She's good with a blaster, and - with a little confidence-building from Buck - a hell of a starfighter pilot too. Deering is extremely resourceful as well, as revealed in "Planet of the Slave Girls," when she escapes from a boiler room filled with lava. Later, she became an officer aboard The Searcher.

Rounding out the 1970s, we musn't forget two important imports. Blake's 7 featured space smuggler named Jenna Stannis (Sally Knyvette), who donned a Farrah Fawcett haircut, as well as a telepath from Auron named Cally. Later seasons saw new characters board the Liberator and the Scorpio, including a gunslinger named Soolin and a warrior named Dayna. Also, on Doctor Who, there have been lovely companions aplenty inside the TARDIS, from Victoria and Zoe to Sarah Jane, Leela and Romana. Wow, this field is getting crowded!

The 1980s brought the return of Star Trek and a new generation of space babes. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, Denise Crosby essayed the role of Tasha Yar for one season. And, in a memorable turn, the actress also graced a Playboy centerfold. Wow! But Tasha is not only a great security chief aboard the Enterprise, she's rather casual about her sex life, which is cool.

I fell in love with Tasha Yar in "The Naked Now" when she inquired about Data's - ahem - full functionality. Tasha died at the hand (puddle?) of a malevolent oil slick in "Skin of Evil," and I always missed her. She'd be a great addition to the crew, manning the phaser banks and photon torpedoes and always urging attack. And just make sure that every now and then she gets that virus that acts like "alcohol intoxication."

Then, of course, there was Marina Sirtis's Betazoid, Troi. I like the actress very much (and she was great in Crash this year), but I never really cared for the concept of the character. In Encounter at Farpoint, Troi looked like a cheerleader of something. Still, it couldn't hurt, I guess, to have an empath around telling us that our enemies are "hiding something."

Deep Space Nine gave us Nana Visitor's Major Kira Nerys, a resistance fighter against the Cardassians during the occupation of Bajor. She's tough, ruthless, and a hell of tactician too. She kicks ass, and I always kind of wished she was in command of DS9. If we get Kira, let's make sure we also get her sexually aggressive "mirror" counterpart, the Intendant...

The same series also introduced the world to two lovely "Dax" women from the far off world called Trill (which is, oddly, the sound my throat made every time either Dax appeared on tv...). Jadzia Dax made spotted skin look good, could go toe-to-toe with Klingon warriors in hand-to-hand combat, and was fun to have around on a vacation to Risa. A gambler and a party-goer, Jadzia was Sisko's confident.

The other Dax is Ezri (for whom I named my cat). She's as cute as a button, and downright adorable, as played by sexy Nicole De Boer. Frankly, people tell me every time I go to a sci-fi convention that my wife Kathryn resembles Ezri Dax, so I have a soft spot for this character and actress. Ezri Dax is a counselor like Troi, but somehow less annoying.

Voyager beamed onto our TV sets in 1995, and half the crew was composed of "space babes." Personally, I've always been very fond of Captain Janeway myself, but I would be court-martialed for calling her a babe. I wouldn't mind serving under her, though, cuz I think she's a good captain. Sh'es my second favorite Captain after Kirk, actually. But anyway...Kes? B'Elanna Torres? That Amazon Borg, Seven of Nine? Who would you pick? Jeri Ryan's Seven is quite a physical specimen, no doubt, and boasts an intellect to match the bod. She would be a helpful crewmember, no doubt, despite some of her social adjustment problems.

If logic is a qualification for our crewmember, than Enterprise's T'Pol (Jolene Blalock) would be another ideal choice. She too, strikes me as poorly socialized, however. But she's a hell of a science officer.

Babylon 5 presented the character of Ivanova, played by Claudia Christian. I've had a thing for Claudia Christian ever since I saw The Hidden in theaters back in high school (back in 1987). In that movie, lest you've forgotten, she plays a stripper who performs a pole dance (and is good with a machine gun.) But Ivanova is a tough officer and a solid, capable XO, but a little neurotic for my tastes. Not that she wouldn't be welcome aboard.

One of my favorite "space babes" from recent years is a character who would probably rip out my throat if I called her that. I'm talking about the hot-blooded, leather-clad Aeryn Sun, the renegade, former Peacekeeper from Farscape. But thinking about Farscape, what about Chiana? Or Zhaan? Not traditional space babes, but totally babe-o-licious, nonetheless.

And then there's Firefly (Zoe! Inara! Kaylee!), and the new Battlestar Galactica (Boomer! Starbuck!). So this week, there are virtually endless choices, and I don't think it'll be easy coming to a consensus.

Personally, I'm leaning towards Maya or Ezri Dax. Although, I can't get Wilma Deering out of my mind...

What about you? And female readers of this blog, if you don't care to choose a space babe, feel free to add a comment below with your choice for space "hunk." This is equal opportunity sexism...

Fantasmo Cult Cinema Explosion

Calling all John Carpenter worshippers!

This Friday evening, February 3rd, at the Chesapeake Central Library in Chesapeake, Virginia, Team Fantasmo will be hosting the 11th episode of their "cult cinema explosion" series, this one spotlighting the works of a Hollywood maverick and a great film artist; the director who brought the world such efforts as Dark Star, Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, Escape from New York, Starman, Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, etc., etc.

Fantasmo has selected two great 1980s Carpenter flicks for the evening's double feature. The first is 1980's supernatural shocker, The Fog, starring Adrienne Barbeau, Jamie Lee Curtis and Janet Leigh. And the second is They Live, the Roddy Piper epic from 1988.

The evening's festivities begin at 7:30 pm, when I'll introduce Carpenter's work, and in particular, discuss the specifics of that double feature.

The Fog is a literate ghost story, and I'll talk a little bit about how the film artfully mimics the the format of the traditional ghost story (folklore that is repeated verbally - replete with mnemonics - from one generation to another).

And They Live -- which was released just days shy of the Bush/Quayle vs. Dukakis electoral college smackdown, takes on a decade of Republican politics, capitalism, homelessness, yuppies...and pro-wrestling.

I'll also be signing and selling some of my books, and catching up with my buddies in Chesapeake. It's going to be a fun night, so if you happen to be in town, drop on by Friday night. I'd love to see you! Read more about Fantasmo right here.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Link of the Week: Inner Toob

Now here's a fun and original idea for an entertainment blog, and one well-executed at that. Toby, over in "Joyville, TV Land" has put together a site called Inner Toob that "explores and celebrates the reality of an alternate universe in which everything that ever happened on TV takes place."

This means Toby can meditate on a cameo by Senator John McCain in an upcoming episode of the Kiefer Sutherland series, 24, and consider that maybe - in this cathode tube world - McCain went to work for CTU instead of representing Arizona in the Senate. This means that the blog can feature a "crossover of the week," and imagine such couplings as Veronica Mars meets Gilmore Girls, or more bizarrely, CSI:NY meets Entertainment Tonight. Personally, I'd like to see a three-way smack down between Medium, Ghost Whisperer and The Book of Daniel. Or how about the ultimate alien invasion crossover, Invasion/Surface/Threshold?

Other questions to ponder: Does James Spader's character on Boston Legal know that he's actually living in a TV show since he comments (in a recent installment) to Shatner's Denny Crane that he hasn't seen him much during "this episode?" Hmmm.

At Inner Toob, you'll also find actor bios aplenty (for the late Tony Franciosa and Chris Penn, for example) an appreciation of the sitcom Grounded for Life, and other goodies (like a look at classic TV such as The Night Stalker, News Radio and Maverick).

So beam on over to Inner Toob and take a gander!

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "The Phantom Planet"

This episode of the Filmation series Space Academy opens with the base on high alert. "Chris, have you ever seen a ghost?" Commander Gampu (Jonathan Hurris) urgently demands from the control room, revealing on the main screen how a strange world keeps materializing and de-materializing in space near the unstable asteroid, Proteus 9B.

Gampu sends the Blue Team in a Seeker to demolish the asteroid, despite the presence of the 'phantom planet' and Peepo is afraid. Loki is excited. "If you see a ghost," he tells Gentry, "let me know right away."

While Chris, Tee-Gar, and Paul set "technite" charges to destroy the asteroid, Laura, Adrian and Peepo are confronted by a raggedy ghost in a gray cloak who moans and howls, and beckons them to a cave. Adrian blasts the cave open with a laser gun that looks like an office water dispenser jug, and inside the cave, she and Laura discover a jeweled cavern. A bunch of golden eggs are ensconced there, and the ghost appears to be protective of them. Laura and Adrian take one at the ghost's urging, and return to the Academy with the others, beginning the countdown to the destruction of Proteus.

But just when you're thinking - oh, I've seen this on "The Devil in the Dark," those eggs are ghostly offspring, the story, by Samuel A. Peeples, takes a weird turn. It seems these golden eggs are not Jim Henson ghost babies at all, but rather memory "vessels," as Gampu calls them, devices that contain the ancient the wisdom of a civilization. They will "one day open and enrich the lives of people yet to be born," Gampu declares, after a seance in which he is possessed by the ghostly guardian.

Since the planet is due to explode any minute from those Technite charges, the only way to safely retrieve the other golden eggs is for Laura and Chris to use their newly honed powers of "astroportation." Thus they astral project themselves to the planet and retrieve all the eggs before the asteroid goes up in flames. Pleased, the Guardian now vanishes for all time...

Talk about laying a golden egg, this is a crazy episode of Space Academy. The ghost is a ridiculous-looking creation, like a refugee from a stage production of A Christmas Carol, and his "howls" are obviously just somebody standing off-stage bellowing like a kid trying to be "spooky" on Halloween night. And then - out of the blue - Laura and Chris develop the power to astral project? Huh?

"There's a lot of things we don't know here in space," Paul states in "The Phantom Planet,"
"we can't let them frighten us."

The only thing frightening about this episode of Space Academy is just how badly the plot all fits together. Why is the Academy intent on destroying the asteroid (even if it is unstable) once it's known a civilization once thrived there? Seems an archaeology professor somewhere would object...

But - of course - this was all intended for young kids, so I guess the message is a good one. Don't be afraid of what you don't understand. And if a funny-looking ghost hands you a golden egg...take it.

Friday, January 27, 2006

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "Redemption"

As opposed to Lost, which grows increasingly irritating each week, Invasion just keeps getting more compelling. Now that the action has begun in earnest, all those early episodes (some rather slow-paced...) dealing with inter-family crises are yielding interesting dividends. I find that having gone through those early shows with this talented ensemble, I really like the characters, and more so, feel curious, even anxious, to see what occurs next.

If anyone has been snubbed in Invasion's history, it's actor William Fichtner. He's top-billed on the series, but because of his role as (ostensibly) the series' villain, he's felt the most opaque at times. Tom Underlay, his character, is clearly up to no good in Homestead, Florida, but his motives, even his very nature, have remained mostly unexplored. We know he loves his wife; we know he's shipping weapons to the so-called "Hybrids"; we know he's protecting a secret. And yet something about him has remained remote, confusing.

Until this episode, "Redemption."

Yes, I know - I just finished a post reporting about how irritating the flashbacks are on Lost, but I'm going to do a course-adjustment here and state that this flashback-heavy episode of Invasion is terrific because it clues us in about where Tom has been. And let's face it, Invasion is only in its first season, and hasn't relied on the flashback heavily before, so this feels like a clever use of the technique, not overkill or time-wasting.

I was fascinated to see the history of these characters unfurl, going back some nine years (to August, 1996), and the first fateful meeting of Tom and Mariel in a hospital, following his plane crash. I've always wondered what it is that Mariel saw in Tom and made her leave Russell, and previous episodes have given us precious little in terms of information on that subject. "Redemption," written by Michael Alaimo and Shaun Cassidy, and well-directed by Bill Eagles, corrects that oversight. The audience sees here the beginning of their emotional bond; and also the "distance" in Mariel's marriage to Russell. She's apparently been unhappy for some time...

Equally interesting in "Redemption" is Russell's theory that Tom must survive (after he is brutally shot in the stomach three times; a gory sequence...) because the sheriff is the glue that holds the alien hybrids together. Remember, we learned from previous episodes of Invasion that the hybrids ultimately went wacko in places like Cuba and Argentina. They killed their children, and ultimately themselves. That hasn't happened here, and the working postulate is that this is because of Tom - who was changed all those years ago and yet has survived. I think the riddle of his "adjustment" after his rebirth involves his connection to Mariel - the human emotion of love. This sorta makes sense and kind of doesn't, but it sends the series off on an interesting new tangent. Especially because it means Russell and Tom must work together, at least for a while, rather than merely eye each other suspiciously. Underlay must live...

I do have a problem with the fact that Mariel has lived with Tom for some time and never asked him what he has padlocked in the hall closet. (Maybe she assumes it's his guns? He is a law man after all...) Anyway, I would want to know what my spouse has locked away in storage.

We do, ultimately find out in this episode, and the answer represents Tom's mental state. It's a flower he first gave to Mariel nine years earlier, one signifying hope. The flower symbolizes his love for Mariel, as well as his hope, no doubt, regarding the settlement of the Hybrids in Homestead.

Mariel looks more beautiful than ever in this episode, and Larkin - by contrast - is getting more irritating. Although she ultimately makes the right decision and doesn't air a TV expose about Tom and his "true nature," Larkin sure takes a lot of convincing. The character is coming off as a little self-righteous here, but I think she's just trying to get back at Russell for spending so much time with his hottie ex.

I don't know where Invasion is headed, but I enjoyed "Redemption" for giving us a peek into Tom's life; where he'd been and how he survived. The sheriff comes off as more three dimensional and - dare I say it? - more human - than he has in many episodes. And that's a good thing.

TV REVIEW: Lost: "Fire & Water"

It was a Charlie (Dominic Monaghan) episode on Lost, Wednesday night, in an installment written by Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis. "Fire & Water" found our favorite member of the rock band, Drive Shaft experiencing some pretty terrifying "waking dreams," some of which included portentous Christian imagery.

The other islanders, including a sanctimonious Locke and a frightened Claire, simply feared that Charlie had begun using drugs again. Interestingly, the episode didn't provide concrete proof either way. We didn't see Charlie using the heroin he had stashed in a tree stump, but he sure looked like he was using, didn't he? And Charlie really broke bad when he set a fire in the woods (as a distraction) so he could steal Claire's baby and baptize the kid in the surf. If you ask me, Locke did the right thing to punch the bastard. Several times.

And all this led up to a religious ritual conducted by our resident priest, Mr. Eko. Yes, Mother (Claire) and child received baptisms in the episode's denouement. I wonder if this preventive measure will keep "The Others" from taking the infant. Or quite the contrary. We know the Others only take people they deem good. Now that Claire's offspring has been officially baptized, I suppose the little guy actually qualifies for abduction...

This week's episode - another flashback heavy one - treaded territory we've seen before, charting the relationship between Charlie and his drug-addled brother, Liam. This week, we see Liam sell Charlie's prized sleigh, Rosebud, er - piano, given to him one Christmas morn by his doting mother. "You're special, Charlie," she tells him.

Much of this material feels like a rerun, because, as viewers who pay attention, we already understand the abusive dynamic between siblings Charlie and Liam. We caught the flashbacks last season, after all...

I like Lost; I really do. Some weeks, it's absolutely the best show on television. And others - it's the most intensely frustrating.

"Fire & Water" was more of the latter. It felt like another place holder with just one function: to prevent the audience from learning more about the mysteries of the island. A new mystery was added to the laundry list of puzzles the series is accumulating at warp speed. In particular, are Charlie's dreams real, and why is he getting them? And no answer presented itself. Honestly, at this point, I never expect one.

As far as the other narrative questions? No progress on Ana Lucia and Jack's army; no sign of Michael (I don't even think he was mentioned); no talk of rescuing Walt; no comment by Mr. Eko to the other islanders that he had come face-to-face with a monstrous black smoke entity; no mourning by Sayid about Shannon; no further explanation of those important numbers (which, by contrast, did appear on that night's episode of Veronica Mars...).

Actually, this was the first week that I taped Lost for later viewing, and watched Veronica Mars live instead. That UPN detective series features some pretty big mysteries too (like who was behind the bus accident...), but that mystery actually develops and is explored each week. We don't merely get character flashbacks.

On TV, this is the season of the flashback (we've got 'em on Invasion; we've got 'em on Lost; we've got 'em on Prison Break) and on and on. I don't object to the use of this now-popular technique (and indeed, the flashbacks on Invasion's "Redemption" were pretty bloody useful and fascinating), but I increasingly object to the time spent on 'em in Lost. We already know who these characters were before they arrived on the island. We know what they've done; who they've hurt, and why they suffer. Now is the time to see them take those pains in their past, put them aside, and deal with life on the island. It's time to address the situation they're facing; not the emotions of the past.

I understand that not all answers can be provided at once. I love ambiguity (hence my longstanding affection for Space:1999, X-Files, Sapphire & Steel etc.) and think that, in general, ambiguity can be a really marvelous thing. But when mysteries are ignored rather than acknowledged as the puzzles they are, believability goes out the window. For instance, I just don't believe, week-in-and-week out, that nobody is running around terrified or at least surprised by the fact that there's sentient black smoke hovering about, rattling trees. Charlie saw this "monster" for himself a few weeks back, and he's told absolutely nobody! At least not on screen. Not Claire, not Locke, not Jack! And ditto Mr. Eko. And here's the rub, it could have been acknowledged and fit into the storyline this week. Everybody would really think Charlie was using drugs if he ran around talking about the black smoke monster!!!

We're spending so much time in the emotionally tortured past of these castaways that the castaways themselves are forgetting where they are, what they're doing, and what dangers they're confronting. Why don't they talk to each other about the important stuff. Like the fact that last week, Jack met other inhabitants of the island, ones who threatened war and terror if our guys crossed a certain point in the forest? Isn't that worth a mention?

Next week, Lost will probably be great. About one in every four episodes this season is outstanding. I'd estimate that last season, the ratio was more like three out of four. At this rate, by next season, it will be one of eight episodes that is worth watching. I can't wait for the flashback episode about how Jack filled out the wrong medicare form for one of his elderly patients, and felt terrible guilt when the old guy couldn't get his medicine in a timely fashion. Or the one where Charlie is surprised when his brother Liam hocks his favorite amp (the one that goes up to 11). Or the one where Kate commits a terrible crime, but for noble reasons. Or where Sawyer remembers his troubled childhood, or where Hurley goes out on a date, or where Michael loses custody of Walt...again.

Come on Lost, get with it!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 27: Communicators: "Beam Me up, Mr. Scott!"

Last week for the blog's 26th retro toy Thursday flashback, I featured a variety of Star Trek phasers that I have owned over the years, and described my love of these (toy) weapons that can be set to stun.

One of the comments on that post came from my dear friend, Chris, in Chesapeake, VA. He noted that as a child, he really wanted a communicator toy or model, and always believed that if he could just get one, he could join up with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise crew.

I'm right there with you, Chris. To this day, I find something absolutely magical and thrilling about holding one of those compact devices in my hand, flipping open that copper grill, and uttering the words, "Kirk to Enterprise, come in Enterprise."

On my happier days, I'll say, "Khan...you have Genesis, but you don't have me. You were going to kill me, Khan. Now you're going to have to come down here. You're going to HAVE to come DOWN Here."

Or another favorite: "Klingon Commander: This is Admiral James T. Kirk. I know this will come as a pleasant surprise to you, but my ship was the victim of an unfortunate accident. Sorry about your crew, but as we say on Earth, c'est la vie! I have what you want. I have the secret of Genesis. But you're going to have to bring us up there to get it..."

Man, I could just keep writing this stuff all day!!

The point is, it's a great feeling to grasp a communicator, and imagine a direct line to Starfleet, Lt. Uhura, the Enterprise, Gorns, Romulans, Orion Slave women...you name it.

And I guess that's why so many toy companies over the years have produced toy replicas based on this classic communicator design. Last week, I wrote about the AMT Exploration Set model kit. It included a communicator along with a phaser and tricorder, and by my memory, that's the first communicator replica I ever owned. I played that thing out as a kid. I can't believe I still have it today; but I can tell you that the silver grill has been repaired many a time, and doesn't actually really flip up anymore. Where's Scotty when you need him?

But then, not long after, came something even better. That wonderful and much mourned company, Mego produced a set of two "Star Trek Communicators" (U.S. Patent No. 3,939,418). These solid state transistorized walkie talkies could send and receive voice communications or produce two "phase warp" sounds. Produced in 1974 (can you believe it was that long ago?) these communicators were molded in blue, and came replete with clips so you could attach them to your belt (just in case you needed both hands to wrestle with a Klingon or something).

The flip-up grill on this version of the communicator was blue, and was adorned with the Star Trek, U.S.S. Enterprise logo. I loved this toy when I was a kid. Several years ago, I got my hands on a mint pair, still in the plastic bubble. Today, these things go for like $250.00

Then came Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and the design of the Starfleet communicator changed. Suddenly, communicators were worn on the wrist...like a watch or something. These devices looked pretty cool in the movie - what you could see of them - but the toy produced later by Playmates (pictured here) was oversized and a little dorky-looking.

By 1987, Star Trek: The Next Generation came along, and suddenly the classic communicator was nothing more than a piece of damn golden jewelry. Tap it once, and you could talk to the "Away Team" (personally, I always preferred the term landing party...). Anyway, tapping a communicator on your shirt could never match the feeling of pulling out a little black device from under your velour uniform shirt, and flipping open the grill. Sorry. I know, I'm an old school Trekker, what can I say?

And really, let's face it, it's that fantastic 1960s design that is surely the model for so many cell phones in use today, with their flip-up function and compact appeal, right? I mean, Star Trek surely influenced American society with that revolutionary concept! When we all start talking into jewelry worn over our chest, I'll give the Next Gen its props. Promise.

Some of the best communicator replica designs have come along in the last decade. The wonderful Playmates company produced a "talk back" communicator in 1996. You could program up to three seconds of messages in your own voice into the machine, and then play it back. You could store the communicator on your waistband for "emergency transmissions"(!) and the communicator featured a working status light indicating that you were sending "a strong subspace signal." This was the most accurate version of the communicator yet, I would wager.

But then - IPI created a version of the device in 1998 that takes the cake. This communicator features "authentic sounds and lights", a digital recorder, a clock and a calculator. And man does it look cool!!! I don't know how it plays, because I've never taken it out of the box. I want to, but my wife won't let me.

So today's flashback is to that influential communicator design, and in particular, the toy replicas over the years. "Beam me up, Scotty."

And don't we wish that could really happen? When's the first full-size, working transporter replica coming out?

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Guess the Movie # 2

Okay film fanatics, the last "guess the movie" was apparently too easy, so I've selected a more difficult one this time.

I'll give you a hint: that mother/daughter embrace is about to turn real ugly.

So, what movie is the above-photograph from? And - can you come up with a funny caption for it?

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY #9: An Analytical Guide to Television's One Step Beyond, 1959-1961

I guess every author has written a book or two that he or she wishes received more attention. In the late 1990s, I composed a series of "analytical"-type guides to science fiction TV series, including ones on Space:1999, Battlestar Galactica, Blake's 7 and Doctor Who. Some of these books earned very positive attention, and some proved extremely controversial with fans, but all sold astonishingly well (and many have gone to second and third printings, and release in softcover).

But one book I wrote that got little attention at all (though Filmfax did call it "the definitive" book on the series) was my final installment in this unofficial monograph series: An Analytical Guide to Television's One Step Beyond, 1959-1961, a study of the once-popular paranormal TV anthology. The book gazes at a black-and-white series which ran for three seasons and 96 episodes (all hosted and directed by the late John Newland), and which focused exclusively on supposedly true stories of the paranormal.

I've always wondered if the book didn't garner that much notice at the time of its release in 2001 simply because a lot of young folks today don't remember the series, even though it was once revered as a genre-heavyweight, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits.

Anyway, I thought that for my ninth Wednesday looking at JKM Books, I'd focus on my forgotten literary child!

Here's a sample from the introduction:

Have you ever stayed awake into the wee hours of the night and turned on your television set only to discover a smiling and good-natured (but sardonic) face staring back in stark shades of black-and-white photography? Have you ever listened, spellbound, as this mellifluous-voiced "guide to the world of the unknown" informed you, straight faced, that the events you were about to watch unfold were "a matter of human record?" Have you ever felt your heart skip a beat as you then witnessed the "personal record" of a character who survived a terrifying and perplexing experience in the world of the paranormal or the inexplicable? If the answer to any of these questions is affirmative, then you have already taken a small step beyond. Now take a giant one...

for the uninitiated, the preceding paragraph revises and re-phrases the inaugural narration from of television's true classics, the horror/paranormal anthology series known as Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond (1959-1961).

Your guide to the world of the unknown was none other than Golden Age TV star John Newland, veteran actor of every notable TV production from that era, from Tales of Tomorrow (1951-53) to The Loretta Young Show (1953-61). And for three remarkable seasons and 96 half-hour episodes on ABC television, this noted performer conducted prime-time audiences through a twisted dark alley that most viewers had never envisioned: a voyage into the shadowy universe of paranormal and psychic phenomenon.

Long before Chris Carter's The X-Files made such sojourns a commonplace venture, One Step Beyond led viewers through gripping human ordeals concerning core parapsychological concepts such as ESP, clairvoyance, reincarnation, precognition, poltergeists, apparitions, automatic writing, spirit possession, out-of-body experiences, Bigfoot sightings and even, on one occasion, alien abductions.

Before this unique anthology series was finished unspooling, it had also dramatized for amazed audiences the mysterious psychic web that surrounded the sinking of the Titanic ("Night of April 14"), examined premonitions about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln ("The Day the World Wept: The Lincoln Story"), studied the world's foremost psychic investigator ("The Peter Hurkos Story"), recounted a peculiar true story about a phenomenon in Chico, California ("Where Are They?") and even conducted a "hands on" study of the psychoactive properties of hallucinogenic mushrooms ("The Sacred Mushroom").

Today, this TV series might accurately be described as a little off-kilter; in conservative 1959 it was positively "out there."

Each half hour segment of this imaginative black-and-white anthology TV program was unique, not only for its highly unorthodox content, but also for its distinctly eerie atmosphere. Effectively directed by Newland, One Step Beyond remains a textbook example of low-budget, economical horror filmmaking at its very best. With intense performances from the likes of Cloris Leachman ("The Dark Room"), Warren Beatty ("The Visitor"), "Jack Lord ("Father Image"), Christopher Lee ("The Sorcerer"), Donald Pleasence ("The Confession"), William Shatner ("The Promise"), Louise Fletcher ("The Open Window") and Yvette Mimieux ("The Clown"), One Step Beyond was impecabbly performed, as well as intelligently crafted.

And coupled with the timeless, chill-inducing music of composer Harry Lubin, the overall impact of One Step Beyond's many paranormal excursions was a sense of pure terror, a case of the creeps so bad it would not go away.

...A prime purpose in re-examining One Step Beyond conerns its oft-noted claim that its stories are based on documented and authentic cases of the paranormal and the inexplicable. Indeed, much of One Step Beyond's horrifying texture stems from this remarkable claim of accuracy and realism. The stories are frightening enough as mere drama, but buttressed by the claim of being "true," many episodes linger in the consciousness like unending nightmares.

This author has learned that many episodes of One Step Beyond do indeed report the "facts" of famous parapsychological incidents, if not the exact personal details (which were often rearranged for purposes of drama and pacing on the TV series). Additionally, One Step Beyond shepherded its core concepts (possession, reincarnation and the like) with a special care, accurately reflecting the literature of parapsychology of the day (and for the most part, of today as well).

Because One Step Beyond respected its audience and demonstrated this highly unusual dedication to accuracy, this reference book shall return that favor. It will honor One Step Beyond, by - wherever relevant - noting the research (and the cases) supporting One Step Beyond's claim that it is based on matters of "human record."

...Why were so many characters in One Step Beyond modern Cassandra figures, doomed to know the future but never to be believed? Why were so many of the characters who faced psychic phenomena also battling to save their marraiges? Where were so many of the protagonists recovering alcoholics or mental cases on the mend? These and other questions will be addressed as One Step Beyond's assumptions about people, psychic phenomena, drama and television are investigated. John Newland's personal feelings and remembrances about One Step Beyond have also been including in the following text, thanks to Newland himself, who, shortly before his death, granted a rare first person-account of the creativity, hard work and fun that went into producing this television classic.

...So let's take that giant step...

An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond
is available now! If you've got the dough, and you remember the show (hey, I rhymed...) then seek it out.

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"I can feel it. My soul. it's really there! Kinda stings..."
-Spike, "Chosen," Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

TV REVIEW: Medium: "Raising Cain"

Cutting to the chase, NBC's Medium is one of the very best shows airing on network television today.

"Raising Cain," last night's segment, is a prime example why this is so. This episode (and indeed, virtually every installment so far this season...) boasts more twists and turns, more tantalizing moral and philosophical dilemmas, and cleverer writing, than a dozen other programs in the crime solving and horror genres stacked on top of one another. Even better, Glenn Gordon Caron's series is visually dazzling, loaded with stylistic flourishes that make it infinitely more appealing than your average boilerplate hour of prime time "drama."

To wit, "Raising Cain" opens with a grainy film reel meant to represent a 1950s era "educational film." Lensed in black and white, and replete with a booming voiceover from a VOICE OF AUTHORITY, this "Dubois Educational Film" (really one of Allison's prophetic dreams) sets up the dynamic for the remainder of the episode.

The film concerns the social dilemma of "the outsider," a trench coat mafia-type, disenfranchised youth "who may be tempted to act out" at school. The little film goes on to describe this character in a manner reminiscent of the fashion just such documentary shorts detailed personal hygiene, sexually-transmitted diseases, and dating in the 1950s. This is a brilliant and original way to introduce the subject matter of the episode, and Medium vets material like this each and every week, whether it be a 3-D presentation, or an introduction from the late Rod Serling.

The subject of "Raising Cain" is a variation on that classic temporal chestnut about Adolf Hitler. Knowing what Hitler would become as an adult, if you could go back in time and shoot the dictator in his crib, would you do so? Is it right to kill an innocent because he will one day become a monster? Or, can you change that innocent in a different way - a more positive way - by keeping him alive? I've seen this premise explored on Doctor Who ("Genesis of the Daleks") and Star Trek: The Next Generation ("A Matter of Time,") and Medium adds another fine meditation on the subject.

Here, Allison is drawn into a criminal case in which a very devout suburban mother ends up shooting her seven year old son, Tyler, in the head, because she has experienced the same prescient dream Allison has. She believes Tyler will grow up to become a murderous school shooter, and so therefore attempts to murder the "devil's spawn" before that destiny can arrive.

At first, Allison is horrified by the mother's brutal act.

And boy is it brutal - Mom wraps the boy's sleeping (sedated...) body up in a plastic bag and tosses it on a trash heap next to a discarded toilet bowl. Then she fires a pistol at him and leaves him to die amongst the dirt and garbage. Later, we see the image of the boy breathing inside the plastic bag, and it's disturbing.

Yet - after a time - Allison comes to wonder what the right answer is in this situation. If she fingers the mother as the shooter, the boy (who has miraculously survived the attempt on his life) could grow up and indeed become a killer. If she doesn't, the mother has a second chance, an opportunity to embrace the boy (instead of condemning him as evil), and take him down a path that could culminate with him the valedictorian of his high school class. Allison sees this second possible fate in another black-and-white 1950s style film entitled "The Power of a Positive influence."

This is a terrific, involving and difficult dilemma for Allison to deal with, and as always, she seeks guidance and advice from her much-put-upon spouse, Joe. I simply love how this series depicts the spousal relationship. It's one of occasional exasperation, petty quarreling...and deep, unspoken love and unending trust. Joe - always looking ruffled and half-asleep - may be awakened by his wife at 2:45 in the morning to talk over a riddle like this; but after his initial irritation, he's on board with Allison's mission, and is there when she needs him. As I've written before, so much of this program's best drama occurs in the Dubois bedroom - at odd hours of the night. During that time when husband and wife speak in whispers to each other about hopes and dreams, fears and uncertainties. This aspect of the show makes the show not just compelling, but very intimate.

The promos for Medium now make note of the resounding critical praise the series has earned. One major media outlet apparently called Medium "insanely good."

I agree wholeheartedly with that assessment.

TV REVIEW: Surface, Episode # 13

Only two episodes remain of the NBC sci-fi series, Surface. At one point, I had heard reports of a second-season renewal, but apparently that's not the case. All the advertising on the program now indicates that "our questions will be answered" in the next two weeks, as the series concludes.

It's a shame to lose Surface at this point, because it's outlived one of its brethren (Threshold), and rivaled Invasion in terms of producing compelling drama. It's true that Surface is more of a crowd-pleasing, epic "rollercoaster ride" than the taut, intimate family drama of Invasion, but there's certainly room for it on the TV schedule. As my wife said after last night's installment, "If Surface had been this good all along, it wouldn't be getting cancelled..."

I tend to agree with her. I'm a big fan of the Spielberg canon, which Surface has cribbed from liberally, borrowing subplots from Close Encounter of the Third Kind, E.T., Jaws and even Jurassic Park. I can overlook this derivative storytelling because - gee whiz -- this is a show about giant sea monsters! As a longtime fan of monster movies and the like, I'm almost hard-wired to love it.

But last night's episode was a legitimate winner, despite my inclination to like the show anyway. What happened? The suspense was ramped up, and the story arc really took a turn. Young Miles became a sort of pied piper to Nimh (after a startling betrayal of his lizardly buddy) and the other critters...leading them out to sea. And Rich got attacked by a strange, genetically-engineered monkey thing, a kind of rabid Cha-Ka from Land of the Lost, that could speak English just like a sweet little girl. The ambush was a creepy, unnerving and bloody scene. But then the kicker came near episode's climax: Laura and Rich found an old film reel from the Dharma Initiative...

No just kidding, they found a film of one scientist's expedition in Tibet in 1957. The film revealed a crater amidst a mountainous landscape (a meteor impact or a crashed spaceship?), the possible origin of the sea beasties' DNA. More dramatically, the film revealed that Lee - the government agent tracking Laura since the beginning - was on that expedition. And that he has not aged a day since 1957. Guess who got an infusion of alien DNA?

I wish some of these plot riddles had been introduced earlier in the series' run, because now everything has to get wrapped up in two 42 minute installments. Great.

But the impending cancellation of Surface makes me realize just how bizarre the TV ratings game has gotten these days. A show like Surface pulls the same ratings (or better) than Sci-Fi Channel's Battlestar Galactica, and yet because Galactica airs on the "smaller" brother to NBC it is deemed a blockbuster hit (which is kind of laughable if you actually look at its numbers, and the percentage of the audience watching), while Surface gets axed and deemed a failure. I think the Sci-Fi Channel should pick up Surface for another season. It would be called an instant hit on that network if it retained the audience from NBC. I know reruns of Surface have been running on Sci-Fi, so how about a 12 episode pick-up?

Alas, I don't know if this show has a devoted fan following willing to start a grass-roots campaign for it.

CATNAP TUESDAY #28: Ezri's Heart...

Well, yesterday our beloved cat, Ezri, just six years old, went for her return ultrasound/echocardiogram. To refresh everybody's memory, our veterinarian discovered that Ezri had mysteriously developed a heart murmur back in late October 2005. This was the follow-up appointment with the ultra-sound doctor after a course of anti-biotics and a few months on a heart pill, which I believe was a beta-blocker.

The good news is that Ezri's heart murmur has been reduced to a gallup rhythm. The really bad news is that it is not an infection causing this condition, as we had hoped, but rather the early stages of Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (IVS mainly), a progressive disease that will eventually take her life. One of Ezri's heart valves is slowly but surely thickening, and as it gets worse, it will be more difficult for her heart to pump enough blood. This leads to complications like blood clots, heart failure, stroke, and so forth.

Kathryn and I are pretty devastated. Not the least of which is because Cardiomyopathy of this type is most often a hereditary condition, and Lila, one of our other cats, is Ezri's litter mate. We'll be taking her to the vet soon too, to see if she is suffering from the same condition. So we may lose two of our cats from this disease.

Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy is known in some quarters as "the silent killer," because cats who suffer from it can show no symptoms for a long time, and then just suddenly die. So, it's really a very terrifying thing to be confronted with. We can only hope by finding the disease at such an early stage, we can control it for a period of years, rather than months. But Ezri's chances of living a long life are now severely diminished.

Ezri still has a good, strong appetite, and doesn't seem lethargic at all, so those are indicators, I hope, that she's up for the long fight and will respond to the treatment (new medicine which will help her heart relax...). Unfortunately, Ezri is showing some signs of depression...she's been overgrooming a section of her tummy, and that's also a sign of the disease, I think; an indicator that she may not be getting enough blood.

I'm depressed as hell too...

Sunday, January 22, 2006

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The Deceivers (1988)

Before he assumed the role of 007, James Bond in 1995's Goldeneye, actor Pierce Brosnan starred in some very interesting and noteworthy - if not particularly well-known - productions, including the John McTiernan horror film Nomads (1987), and this Nicholas Meyer period piece, The Deceivers. In both of these films, Brosnan reveals remarkable depths and subtlety. These are strong, internal performances from an actor who is best known for playing it cool and sleek in such popular films and TV series as The Thomas Crown Affair and Remington Steele.

The Deceivers commences in India in 1825, as a likeable, upstanding British soldier, Captain William Savage (Brosnan) returns to his province after his wedding to discover a peculiar problem. It seems that one of the local women desires to commit suicide because her husband disappeared a year ago and has not been seen since. As a good Christian and a Good Samaritan, Savage is needled by his wife, Sarah (Helena Michell) to undertake a trick to preserve her life. Because he's of roughly the same body-build as the widow's missing husband, Savage will double as the M.I.A. husband briefly -- just to keep hope alive. He will appear to the widow and then flee, and then her family will not let her be burned alive as tradition demands.

But on the night of this trick, something unexpected happens. In Indian gear (and with swarthy make-up on too...) Savage happens upon a massacre in the forest by blackest night. Behind the crime is a vicious cult know as "the Thuggee." This gang is a Kali-worshiping band of murderers who strangle and gut wayward travelers, then hide their bodies in mass-graves. Ever the hero and the "do-gooder", Savage acts immediately to stop the Thuggees. He captures several of the perpetrators, over the complaints of his superior, and befriends and reforms one of the killers, a man named Hussein (played by Saeed Jaffrey).

Hussein then reluctantly agrees to take Savage deep undercover to infiltrate the cult of Kali to expose the murderers, the so-called "deceivers" of the film's title, who are believed responsible for more than two million brutal deaths in India.

But once ensconced inside the cult, Savage finds his Christian faith tested, especially after he tastes some of Kali's narcotic-like "gifts." Always in danger of being exposed as a white man, a British colonial, Savage must forge a choice about his future when Hussein is exposed, and Savage is ordered to strangle his friend before the other members of the cult...

The Deceivers, produced by Merchant & Ivory, is really a good old fashioned "heart of darkness" tale, a 19th century Donnie Brasco, in which a good man - one convinced of his own morality and religion - loses himself and his identity to a wicked "cult" that captures his imagination, his allegiance, and almost his soul. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the tacit, visual comparison of the Thuggee and the British; or as Westerners might put it, "pagans" vs. "Christians."

In particular, one of the Thuggee religious rituals portrayed in the films involves incense, a penitent pose among the practitioners, and the tasting of sugar cubes (rather than Communion wafers). The director, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan's (1982) Nicholas Meyer makes the most out of the moment by letting the audience detect the similarity itself. It's clear in the staging of the religious pract that there's very little difference, at least in this particular rite, between Christianity and the Thuggee. But Meyer doesn't make the fact trite or cliched by drawing attention to this thesis with heavy-handed dialogue.

Ahh, but - of course - Christians don't terrorize people, you say? Well, uhm, that's not strictly true, since the Westerners (Brits) in this film occupy and subjugate India's men and women in the colonizing and occupying of that country. And, as the film makes clear, some Brits take bribes to look the other way regarding the Thuggee, and others simply don't want to get involved. Instead, they'd rather just keep taking India's treasures and shipping them back to England. The m.o. of Brosnan's uptight superior is to keep the Indian people in poverty and ignorance. Don't improve their schools; don't improve their infrastructure. Do nothing except what benefits England.

Where The Deceivers works most successfully is in its depiction of Brosnan's steady psychological decline into barbarism as he becomes as fanatical and dangerous as the other Thuggee. Captain Savage strangles a man with his bare hands when his identity is threatened. He takes drugs, and - though he is married - makes love to a beautiful harlot who has been given to him for one night of debauchery.

This love-making scene represents one of the film's best, and trippiest moments. During the act, the lovely harlot transforms first into Brosnan's virginal love, the English, (and oh so porcelain) Sarah, then into the widow whom Brosnan first hoped to protect in his act of Good Samaritanism. But his lover's real identity is made clear when director Meyer cuts to the shadows on the wall behind them. Brosnan and his lover are seen intertwined there...and - out of the blue - an extra set of hands grasp Savage's torso. In other words, he is making love to the six-armed Goddess, Kali, herself. She has embraced him, this Goddess of Destruction, and he is truly hers now. Or, is this just the drugs in Savage's system, making him hallucinate? You decide...

Perhaps more intellectually fascinating than genuinely scary, The Deceivers boasts its fair share of suspense. It remains an artful, challenging film, one that makes its point visually rather than attempting to score points through clever words in a screenplay. For instance, at the film's opening, Brosnan's character hunts a wounded tiger in the brush without a second thought. He is arrogant in his superiority over the beast. However, by the movie's end, it is Savage himself who is hunted in the brush, wounded and desperate like the tiger he killed. The point, never reinforced through hokey dialogue, is that Savage - as his name indicates - has lapsed into animal barbarism by killing with his bare hands...and liking it. He is literally an animal, and Savage even attempts to strangle a child in his murderous state. That's the low point of his soul. It is in that brutal act that he realizes he has forsaken his humanity; and finally attempts to reclaim it.

Nicholas Meyer has contributed wonderful films to the genre, including Time after Time (1979), and The Deceivers represents one of his most artful, most restrained, cinematic efforts. The climax, in which a cavalry literally rides over the hill at precisely the right moment to save the endangered Captain, is the film's biggest weakness, though at times it is also a bit slow-paced, especially if you're expecting this to be an action-thriller. Instead, consider The Deceivers as Apocalypse Now, The Wicker Man, and Donnie Brasco meets Merchant and Ivory, and you'll have a good sense of what to expect. And I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Singing a New Tune in The Washington Post

Theater critic Celia Wren reviews my latest book, Singing a New Tune this weekend in The Washington Post (Sunday Books Section; page BW09) and gives it...a resounding "meh."

The reviewer, who kindly terms me a "prolific chronicler of popular culture" notes that:

"he [meaning me] rustles up a few smart apercus about releases from the last decade, -- for example his eye-opening analysis of how the movie South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut lampooned musical comedy tropes."

But then Wren objects to the fact that I quoted Joss Whedon frequently; and dislikes my "painstaking" critiques of such bombs as Spice World and From Justin to Kelly.

So this is a solid "thumbs horizontal."

Pick Your Favorite Irritating Sci-Fi Kid!

Watching Space Academy this week, I was reminded that little Loki makes trouble every single week. He stows away on missions, steals Seekers and generally, he's a pain in the you know what.

And then I realized, this character is as much a "stock" plot device in the sci-fi genre as the robotic sidekick. And since here on the blog we've been picking dream crew (like a robot sidekick) aboard our dream ship (the movie version of the Enterprise, per your choice), it occurs to me we have to take the bad with the good.

So here's the deal. You're assembling your "perfect" crew, and yet sci-fi genre conventions require that - as captain of your vessel - you select an obnoxious kid as part of the team. After all, who are we going to rescue from danger when we stop facing evil twins, living machines, alternature universes and parallel planet evolutions?

The first obnoxious kid up for consideration is none other than Anakin Skywalker. He's a little too enthusiastic for my taste (prone to shouting "yahoo"), but he's cute as a button and can pilot a racing pod like nobody's business. He gets into trouble constantly (stowing away on a Naboo fighter) and hanging out with Jar-Jar, but the upside is that Anakin's midochlorian count is through the roof, and therefore he has a way with the Force. So he's our first selection. Just, uh, let's ditch him before he turns twenty or so...he's got a dark side.

Our second nominee is Wesley Crusher, son of Dr. Bev. He's been known to block off Main Engineering with a home-made forcefield when intoxicated. And in the episode "Justice," he caused an interstellar incident when he trampled on the grass and interfered in another culture. Wesley is smart (but insecure), yet he does have a knack for saving the ship. We might want to consider him. When he gets really annoying, let's just contact the Traveller again, and Wesley will go off to the end of the universe or something, only showing up for crew weddings ("Nemesis.")

Then there's the aforementioned Loki. From Space Academy. This orphan is always getting into trouble. He's been known to unwittingly conspire with aliens ("There's No Place Like Home,") take seekers out on joy rides, and even stow away on critical missions (with chimpanzees and robots, no less). Looking at the bright side for this curly-haired moppet, Loki possesses the power to transport himself across small distances, and has x-ray vision. Those abilities could come in handy.

Adric, anybody? I'm talkin' bout the Doctor's doomed companion on the British television series, Doctor Who. He's extremely bright, but like the others, has a knack for getting himself into trouble. If we pick him, let's be sure to encounter the Cybermen quickly...

Apollo's son, Boxey, on Battlestar Galactica, is another candidate. He's basically obsessed with his robotic dog, Muffit, and that's how he gets into trouble all the time. In "Saga of a Star World," he chases Muffit out onto the barren surface of Carillon and is promptly captured by Ovions. In "Gun on Ice Planet Zero," Boxey stows away on a shuttle craft to be near his dad. And worst of all, he grows up to ride a flying motorcycle in Galactica: 1980. Boxey is less irritating than most of the other candidates here, but unluckily for him, he possesses no super powers. Maybe we could throw in the robot dog?

And then there's Will Robinson from the original Lost in Space in the 1960s. Frankly, I don't think Will's really irritating at all. In fact, he saves the Jupiter 2, Dr. Smith and the Robot constantly. He's resourceful, intelligent, and can play the guitar.

Other candidates include Jake on Deep Space Nine...but honestly, I never found him irritating. I liked the fact that he became a journalist (rather than going into Starfleet), and I thought the actor did a great job with the character. Other possibilities (let's not be sexist here): Holly on Land of the Lost, and Buffy's prone-to-trouble sister, Dawn, on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

So who's it gonna be, folks? Which kid gets a berth on our "fantasy" starship and crew? Don't demure. You must pick one...

SATURDAY MORNING CULT TV BLOGGING: Space Academy: "Monkey Business"

I've been blogging Space Academy (one episode a week) for a while now, and re-acquainting myself with this nearly thirty-year old Saturday morning, live action show. It's been an enjoyable experience for the most part, mainly because I watched the series as a child and feel tremendous nostalgia for those bygone days of the 1970s.

But, every now and then, an episode of this Filmation series is just not very good. "Monkey Business" is one of those. As if an explanation is in order, just let me state, the episode involves a chimpanzee named Jake. You see, Adrian is working on an experiment involving chimpanzee/human communications. At around the same time, there's a disaster on a nearby asteroid mirror array, and Tee Gar and Professor Bolt are trapped on a planetoid as it freezes. As the temperature drops, both men are reduced to cowering underneath what appear to be tarps. This is actually an improvement, because the professor had been wearing what looks like a gold velour jogging outfit.

Anyway, Chris Gentry and Paul set out in a Seeker to help, but Loki and Jake the ape have stowed away in the ship's rear compartment. Loki stows away every week, I've noticed. I'm serious. Jeez.

Anyway, in attempting to repair the array, Chris must climb the scaffolding of a tower to reach a malfunctioning circuit board. But then he falls, and can't get up. So guess who has to fix the machinery? Yep, it's Jake the monkey, who just happens to be there on that mission. Exactly when he's needed. With Adrian's experiment and Laura's psychic abilities, the monkey does good.

Afterwards, Loki gets grounded for two weeks. His punishment should have been watching this episode again...

Friday, January 20, 2006

Open City Dialogue Posted!

Hey friendly readers, my friend George (a frequent comment writer here on the blog) just posted an e-mail dialogue with me that he conducted the other day, on the films of John Carpenter (the subject of my upcoming talk at Fantasmo, February 3rd, 2006), and in particular, the 1988 Carpenter film, They Live.

George's questions were really good, and very detailed, and I answered 'em the best I could, but then I had to run off towards the end and get back to writing Horror Films of the 1980s. It's still a great piece, though! Check it out here!

TV REVIEW: Invasion: "Power"

I think there's a big, green pod growing somewhere in Invasion's collective basement. The molasses-slow, short-on-information ABC series I've been watching with interest (and occasional irritation...) for a few months now has been "snatched" away all the sudden and replaced by a compelling, funny, rich - and fast moving drama. In fact, Wednesday's episode of Invasion was far superior to its lead-in (another Jack-centric, flashback-heavy episode of Lost).

I hope audiences are still watching...

The appropriately titled "Power" deals with Sheriff Tom Underlay's power play to get his wife back. He's taken the kids (Kira, Jessie and Rose) on vacation to a remote cabin, but as far as Mariel and Russell are concerned, it's an abduction. While these former spouses try to figure things out, the Underlay house is plagued with mysterious phone calls. "You betrayed me," the caller says at one point. "You poisoned my house," he says later. Then Russell confronts hooded prowlers...who may just be Tom's minions on the police force. Creepy.

By the end of the day, Mariel has reconciled with Tom, but the cost is her children. She grants temporary custody to Russell, an act that devastates her, but protects the kids.

This episode is so good and so strong in character fireworks, I almost don't know where to begin. Russell and Mariel are clearly feeling drawn to each other again, and they almost kiss a second time in "Power." Their attraction to one another is now palpable, and I wonder where this is going to go. The expecting Larkin is now highly suspicious of Russell, and thinks his affections have been alienated (literally). Meanwhile, Tom - singing a hybrid Karoake version of Frank Sinatra's My Way - orchestrates everything from afar like the puppet master he is. Yes, he's a fan of Sun Tzu, which means that this is all part of his strategy. And in the end, the bad guy wins.

Amazingly, some of Tom's strategy is actually being revealed. This is a new thing for Invasion, which has depended on misdirection and miscues for a while now. In the closing minutes of "Power," we see that Tom is shipping firearms to castaway hybrids inhabiting a key 122 miles from Miami. Oh yeah, the invasion is coming...

But what I really enjoyed most about this installment of Invasion is that for the first time, the writer (in this case, creator Shaun Cassidy) appears to let himself have a bit of fun with the premise and the characters. The protagonists aren't so lugubrious in this installment, and there are jokes about The Shining (a tale of another father gone bonkers...), about the aliens "eating their young," and the like. And then there's Tom's Karoake duet with Rose, a song that clearly has a double thematic meaning. Perhaps more to the point, there's significant suspense generated here, as the audience wonders what Tom is hiding in the duffle bag (in two duffle bags, actually).

This episode moves along at a fast clip, evidences a droll sense of with and humor, and even has a jolt or two. If Invasion had been this good from the beginning, it would have Lost-sized ratings right now.

TV REVIEW: Book of Daniel: "Temptation," & "Forgiveness"

Well, I finally watched Book of Daniel's first two episodes (presented as a two-hour event on NBC January 6 of this year. All I can say is...Heaven help me!

Meet the Webster family. Here's the score card (and believe me, you'll need one): There's a pill-popping father/Episcopal minister, Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn), his gay son, Peter, and his adopted Asian son. There's his daughter Grace, who has been arrested selling drugs (to make money for her manga comic), and Daniel's wife Judith (former Borg Queen, Suzanna Thompson), who enjoyeth the "occasional" martini too much, methinks.

Wait, I'm still going down my list. There's also Daniel's mother, Catherine...who suffers from the worst case of TV Alzheimers I've ever seen, meaning that she makes funny comments at the Sunday dinner table and then, every now and then, says something poignant, like the interrogative to Daniel, "I'm your mother?" All together now: Awwwwwww.

Oh, and Judith's brother-in-law, Charlie, has left his wife (Judith's sister...) and stolen 3.2 million dollars from Daniel's church. Meanwhile, Judith's sister seems to be engaged in a lesbian affair with Charlie's secretary. And Daniel's father (James Rebhorn) is an intolerant bigot. Oh, and in "Temptation," Daniel must deal with a "sensitive" Terri Schiavo/euthanasia, end-of-life-type issue amongst his flock at St. Barnabus.

All this, and a Buddy Christ too...

I can't remember another drama/soap-opera so front-loaded with contrived elements. And frankly, it is contrived. It's hackneyed, trite, and as far from reality as anything airing on the Sci-Fi Channel. The result is that Book of Daniel wobbles and lurches from one quasi-meaningful "issue of the day" to another without really substantively focusing on anything. The template here appears to be Desperate Housewives, and Book of Daniel attempts to walk the same fine line of humor/melodrama as that popular ABC show. Yet - and this is important - Book of Daniel is staggeringly unfunny. Near the end of "Temptation," for example, there's a scene set at a funeral in which an angry widow (Judith's sister) spots the mistress of her dead husband, and goes on a rampage in the cemetery. It should be funny, but there's not a laugh or giggle to be found. It goes over like a lead balloon. I didn't even crack a smile....

I also have a real problem with the way the "Buddy Christ" (a term from Kevin Smith's Dogma) is utilized in the TV show. If he's supposed to really be Christ, and not a fantasy in Daniel's head, then the program is guilty of trivializing a figure that millions worship and revere. I'm not a religious wacko or anything, but really - could you imagine a Hollywood film with a Buddy Buddha or a Buddy Allah? How many special interest groups would be up in arms about that? Personally - and again, this is just my opinion - I believe that some radical Republicans have hijacked Christianity for personal political purposes, (Pat Robertson, Rick Santorum -- I'm talking to you!), but I don't think that unfortunate fact should grant TV the license to commit the same crime. I point this out in regards to politics, so I would be a hypocrite not to point it out in entertainment. It's wrong when the right does it; it's equally wrong when the left does it.

And if the Buddy Christ in Book of Daniel is merely a fantasy, part of Daniel's interior dialogue with himself, then he's really just a self-righteous crutch of the character. Why? Because in these episodes at least, Jesus is constantly soothing Daniel and making Webster feel that his decisions are okay. In other words, Daniel is rest assured in his self-righteousness, because Jesus is literally his co-pilot.

Ironically, Jesus Christ as depicted in The Book of Daniel, doesn't object to the fact that the Webster family employs, essentially, an African-American manservant. One who has very few lines, and just looks at the other characters with angelic disapproval. Even more to the point, Jesus doesn't object to a WASP-ish American family living in the lap of luxury in a wealthy community and huge house, while much of the outside world (and parts of America too...) suffer from hunger and live in poverty. Nope, instead, Jesus is fully engaged in the family's petty drama. Should Grandpa know that Peter is gay? Should Daniel just learn to "talk to his daughter?" To me, this approach merely reinforces the worst notions of modern American Christianity: that Jesus is perched on your shoulder, validating your personal, chosen lifestyle, instead of challenging it. By chosen, I refer to the choice to pursue the almighty dollar as the One True God. Just wanted to be clear about that. I think that's probably a worse sin than drug abuse, alcoholism or anything else. Because doesn't the Bible state something along the lines that a "rich man in heaven is like a camel through the eye of a needle," (roughly paraphrased). So why is Jesus even bothering with Daniel?

I find all this really insulting. I'm no Jesus expert, but I think that if Christ exists, God's son has more important things to do with his time than ride shotgun beside a wealthy priest with a prescription pill habit. Here's a sample of Jesus's homespun wisdom: "Life is hard for everyone, Daniel. That's why there's a nice reward at the end of it." You know, that should be on a hallmark card. "Life is Hard." Deep.

Yes my friends, this show's philosophy is feel-good pabulum. As is all of Book of Daniel. Heretofore, I will refer to this program as Jesus Whisperer, because it's at about that level of maturity and depth.

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...