Wednesday, October 31, 2007


COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: The Bionic Woman Sports Car (1976)

"Designed for action packed bionic adventures," is this impressive vehicle from Kenner. You are looking at the sports car for the world's first bionic woman (no, not Katee Sackhoff..) but Lindsay Wagner's Jaime Sommers. Why a bionic woman (who can run very, very fast...) needs a sports car is another question all together.

Anyway, this spiffy and (very large) toy from the heyday of The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman in the 1970s is a great collectible. The sports car features a "front storage area with "bionic plug-in for first aid and repairs" as well as a back storage area "for extra clothing, shoes and mission purse." Of course, that last bit is kinda sexist, no? This is a secret agent for OSI and she gets a mission "purse?" The trunk is The extra clothing I understand, since Jaime was always going undercover as a cop or a nun or the like. But

The car also has an interesting bionic adventure feature. As the box reads: "Emergency brakes failed! Don't worry, door swings open to help Jaime make bionic stops." Ah, maybe that's why she needs extra shoes? Stopping a speeding car with your toes is hell on footwear, I'm told. Yes, that must be it, since this car originally came packaged with special shoes.

The Bionic Woman Sports car came fully assembled, with no batteries needed. However, figures and "mission purse" were not included.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Same Time Next Centon: A Tale of Two Battlestars

Number Six, the blonde Cylon seductress of the contemporary Battlestar Galactica, often informs a wavering Gaius Balter that in terms of cosmic events, “this has all happened before; this will all happen again.” Battlestar Galactica fans understand from interviews with re-imaginer Ronald D. Moore that her warning adheres to Moore’s overarching thesis about a cyclical galactic timeline, about history repeating itself.

However, there’s another way to read the remake. Indeed “this has all happened before”...because Moore’s Battlestar Galactica is a 21st century re-imagination of the original 1978-1979 series, and the two efforts intertwine in a complicated, multi-faceted way. The programs share many significant ingredients: characters, central situations, mythologies, settings and antagonists. Moore’s notation that series events will “happen again” may even represent a joke about the cutthroat Hollywood scene; that given the industry’s predilection for remakes, it is just a matter of time before Battlestar Galactica is remade again, depicting the same incidents a third time. Understanding that we have seen these characters before and that all this is cyclical, let's compare some of the events, characters and contexts of each Battlestar Galactica.

The Story So Far

A side-by-side survey of Battlestar Galactica 1978 and Battlestar Galactica 2003 reveals several narrative similarities worth noting. Let’s pick out these plot details and look at some points of commonality.

Firstly, both series involve the same premise: a surprise attack on the Twelve Colonies of Man in a distant solar system. In both universes, a Cylon ambush renders mankind virtually extinct, leaving a handful of survivors to board a “rag tag” fleet of spaceships in search of a quasi-mythical planet called Earth.

Following the Cylon assault, the fleet’s first order of business in both universes is identical: the procurement of much-needed supplies for a long trek across the stars. In “Saga of a Star World,” the first episode of Glen A. Larson’s series, the Galactica clears a path through the Nova of Madagon and arrives at a distant outpost called Carillon. There the Colonials acquire stores of the precious fuel, Tylium.

In Ronald D. Moore’s re-telling, the 2003 miniseries, the about-to-be-decommissioned Galactica requires supplies too, only this time it is ammo (bullets, specifically). This Galactica jumps to a distant outpost called Ragnarok Anchorage.

These destinations differ, but Carillon and Ragnarok Anchorage both tellingly cloak insidious Cylon traps. In the case of the former, it’s the Ovion feeding grounds (where fleet members are devoured), as well as a nearby Cylon base star. At Ragnarok, a Cylon fleet circles above the atmospheric disturbance while below a Cylon agent, Leoben, tangles with Commander Adama on the station. In both situations, the Cylons have planned better than the humans. After the first strike, the enemy has already plotted a second strike.

Following an escape from Cylon terrain, the Galacticas of both universes navigate to the planet Kobol (based on the Mormon “Planet of the Gods,” Kolob.) There the quest for Earth – a subplot both series share – takes shape. This is important: if you're going to have a space odyssey, it's good to have a defined destination, and that order of business arrives in both series not terribly long after the escape from the Cylon attack. Also, the existence of Earth (The Thirteenth Colony) in both series is considered shaky: a “fable.” In the original series, Baltar even calls it “a myth of half-drunken star travelers.”

In the episode “Lost Planet of the Gods,” Commander Adama searches for the path to Earth on Kobol in a subterranean, Egyptian-style pharaoh’s tomb. He translates ancient hieroglyphs before a Cylon air assault forces a hasty retreat. What he makes out however is enigmatic: a spotty record of the exodus, the departure of the Twelve Tribes, and finally, the last days of the planet and the second exodus, that of the Thirteenth Tribe.

On the new Galactica, President Roslin assigns Kara Thrace to obtain the Arrow of Apollo, an ancient artifact which unseals the tomb of Athena on Kobol and point the direction to Earth. In “Home,” a two part story, the tomb of Athena is opened on Kobol and a “map” is activated, a virtual reality affair revealing the constellations of the Twelve Colonies in Earth’s night sky. In both cases, the map serves as an incomplete and ambiguous clue, a first step to Earth, but not the last puzzle piece.

Kobol also adversely affects both versions of Commander Adama. The dignified military leader in both instances uncharacteristically resorts to physical violence on the planet surface, strangling a treacherous enemy. In “Lost Planet of the Gods,” Adama lunges for Baltar’s throat, and Apollo and Serina physically restrain him.

In “Home Part II,” Adama chokes Boomer, the Cylon who shot him in first season cliffhanger, “Kobol’s Last Gleaming Part II,” and Apollo and Starbuck hold him back.

The narrative similarities hardly end with these incidents. The final episode of the original Battlestar Galactica, “The Hand of God” features the Colonials tiring of their long retreat from the Cylons and opting to launch a surprise attack against an unsuspecting base ship. The traitorous Baltar provides critical knowledge of the Cylon spacecraft so that Apollo and Starback can successfully destroy it.

In the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, the episode identically titled “Hand of God” also sees the Colonials retaliating, punching the Cylon “bully” in the nose by destroying a supply depot on a desolate planet. Cementing the connection to the earlier series, it is Baltar whose expertise is required for the raid. Is this fact just coincidence? No - not at all. It's all happened before, and here we see it happening again.

Both versions of Battlestar Galactica also feature adventures in which our stalwart crew(s) encounter another surviving Battlestar, the Pegasus. In the original version (“Living Legend”), Cain is a charismatic Patton-type commander; in the re-imagination (“Pegasus”), Caine is a psychotic, murderous female admiral who acts like she might have worked for Blackwater. In both stories, the Galactica and Pegasus teams clash, then eventually join-up to take out Cylon forces. In the 1970s version, the target is a Cylon base on the planet Gamorray; in the post-9/11 re-do, it’s a Cylon “resurrection ship.” Both attacks are successful.

Another similarity in storytelling involves “missing pilot” stories, episodes wherein a viper pilot is feared lost after crash landing on a planet. Search parties look for the missing hero until a last minute rescue. On the original Battlestar Galactica, Captain Apollo was stranded for a time on a “frontier” planet with a Cylon enforcer named Red Eye.

In “The Young Lords,” it was Starbuck who found himself trapped on a swamp-covered world of unicorns and forests. There he aided teenagers in their organized resistance against a Cylon garrison.

In the revamped series, Kara fights for survival on an inhospitable world following a crash in ‘You Can’t Go Home Again.” And in “The Farm,” she is stranded on Caprica with navigator Helo. Together, they join the resistance forces led by ex-Buccaneer Simon Anders.

Other events from the adventures of the original rag-tag fleet resonate across the new series. In both universes, convicted criminals are deployed for a difficult mission in an extreme environment (an ice-world). In the classic series, “Gun on Ice Planet Zero” sees hardened thugs launching a mission to destroy a Cylon pulsar cannon. In the re-imagination, Tom Zarek’s ship of prisoners, the Astral Queen, is needed to work subterranean ice into water during a water shortage (“Bastille Day.”)

Also, the training of new “raw” recruits (called nuggets on the new series) crops up in both ventures. Starbuck trains shuttle pilots and (gasp!) women including Athena and Serina to fly vipers during “Lost Planet of the Gods” while his successor trains raw recruits in “Act of Contrition.” Notably, both Starbucks offer the same guidance to the rookies: “stick to your leader.”

The second season episode of Sci-Fi Channel’s Galactica, “Valley of Darkness,” shares elements with the original series installment “Fire in Space.” In both cases, a Cylon ship crashes into one of Galactica’s hangar bays, setting off a series of disasters. In the earlier show, a fire rages out of control aboard; in the latter, a Cylon attack party aims to depressurize the ship. In both stories, Adama lays incapacitated in a surgical theater while Colonel Tigh takes the bridge (or CIC, as the case may be).

It is conventional wisdom that that the two series are quite different, but just look here at all the common ground in terms of the overall story. It is not the text itself that is so different from show to show. As Roger Ebert often writes about movies, it isn't what a movie is about, it is "how" it is about it that's important. The differences in Galacticas fall under the same category, if you think about it. We begin to see differences more clearly when we examine the characters populating each show.

The Face in the Mirror

Characters in different Battlestar Galactica incarnations often share name and rank, but differ in substantial fashion. First an issue of nomenclature: in the original series, characters boasted one name: Apollo, Starbuck, Baltar, or Athena. The new series more closely resembles Earth-style names with familiar-sounding monikers like Laura Roslin and Saul Tigh. The mythological names such as “Apollo” are retained but converted to pilot call-signs, much like “Maverick” in the 1986 film Top Gun.

A man named Adama commands Galactica in both versions of the Larson-based material, but is truly a different man depending on incarnation. In both worlds, he is the father-figure of the fleet and the biological father of Zac (or Zak) and Apollo. The most important difference between leaders is that Lorne Greene’s character serves the religious, political and military commander of the fleet, rather like Pat Robertson holding the posts of U.S. President and commander of the U.S.S. Nimitz simultaneously. The first Adama also believes with all his heart that the planet Earth is real and that the legends handed down from the Book of the Word are true.

In the new series, Adama’s religious beliefs have been transferred to a new character, the President of the Colonies, Laura Roslin. The new Adama is not a man of faith nor a political leader who sits on the Quorum of Twelve. Instead, his duties are restricted to military functions. Like his namesake on the original series, this William "Husker" Adama came up through the ranks and is a former viper pilot.

Adama’s right-hand man in both incarnations is Colonel Tigh. Both men share a long history in the military alongside Adama but the first Tigh is a black man who doesn’t share Saul Tigh’s primary vice: alcoholism. Nor is the original Tigh married. What the two Colonel Tighs do share is a reputation as a hard-nosed officer and enforcer of wayward pilots. We also now know the "new" Tigh is a Cylon sleeper, which also differentiates him from his predecessor.

In the earlier Battlestar Galactica. Boomer and Starbuck - both male – served as viper pilots, and their characters have countenanced dramatic change in the re-vamp. The original Boomer was a black man, not an Asian female, and was raised on Caprica. Sharon “Boomer” Valerii by way of comparison, was raised on Sagitarron and is actually a Cylon sleeper agent.

Kara Thrace adopts many characteristics of Dirk Benedict’s Lt. Starbuck yet is also quite different. She boasts a fondness for card games (Pyramid, specifically), regularly chomps a cigar, is sexually promiscuous (counting Baltar, Zak, and Simon Anders among her conquests), and most importantly, one hell of a viper pilot. The original Starbuck, an orphan, was a fun-loving scoundrel, a rogue, whereas the new Starbuck is angrier and meaner, a product, perhaps, of her abusive childhood. Kara is confrontational and disrespectful, particularly to Colonel Tigh, whereas the original Starbuck was easy-going and charming.

Baltar is a very different man in each version of this material. In the original, Adama states that he possesses “the tongue of an angel” and the “soul of a serpent.” The original Baltar commands his own battlestar and sits on the Council of the Twelve, but it is he who engineers the destruction of the Colonies with his Cylon allies. His goal is to subjugate the survivors of the massacre under his command, a plan which never materializes. Later, Baltar commands a base star in the Cylon Empire and pursues the Galactica through the stars.

Gaius Baltar is a different animal. One of the most brilliant minds on Caprica, Baltar is a scientist and advisor to President Adar. His crime is not the betrayal of the human race, but rather permitting a personal relationship with a woman (a Cylon agent), to cloud his judgment. He allows her access to Caprica’s Defense Main Frame, which paves the way for Cylon nuclear bombardment. An important distinction: the re-imagined Baltar never intended to collude with the Cylons or harm humanity. Instead, he is left trying to cover-up his complicity in the attack, knowing he will be executed as a traitor if discovered.

Of all the main characters, perhaps it is Captain Apollo who has changed least from one version of this space saga to the next. In both universes, Apollo is a man of integrity. He is an accomplished pilot, a respected officer, a son of Adama and a thoughtful, heroic man. In the original, Apollo faces many personal tragedies (including the deaths of a brother and wife), and broaches fatherhood by adopting Boxey.

Lee “Apollo” Adama has lost his brother, Zak, a death which estranges him from his father as the mini-series begins. This breach is repaired in time but re-asserted when Lee takes Roslin’s side during a military coup in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming.” The original Apollo never sided against his father publicly, not even when the evil Count Iblis became a popular figure in the fleet or Cain arrived with the Pegasus.

It is the Cylons who have changed the most on Battlestar Galactica. In the original series, a race of lizard-people called Cylons long ago constructed humanoid robot servants. Eventually, the Lizard people became extinct, but their malevolent machines lived on. The Cylon Centurions on the series appear mechanical in nature, including Lucifer’s IL series, but the Imperious Leader retains a more lizard-like appearance.

On the re-imagination, Centurions survive in more advanced mechanical form. However, a new Cylon breed also exists: Twelve humanoid models that function as sleeper agents inside human communities; very much like the Terminators in James Cameron's 1984 Schwarzenegger film. They are sometimes referred to as "skin jobs," which is how human-appearing and acting replicants were verbally denigrated in Ridley Scott's 1982 film, Blade Runner. However, the real difference in the Cylon races involves genesis. In Moore’s version, man played Frankenstein and created the Cylons. They are not the product of an alien culture, but man’s own children, grown-up and resentful.

Supporting characters from the original Battlestar Galactica appear in the remake occasionally, particularly Boxey and Jolly. Some, however, including the “socialator” Cassiopiea, viper pilot Sheba, and the mechanical drone Muffit, remain M.I.A.

Ronald Moore introduced in 2003 a whole raft of new dramatis personae, including President Laura Roslin, Number Six, Chief Tyrol, bridge officers Dualla and Gaeta, Tom Zarek, and Billy.

The new series has attempted at times to appear faithful to the vehicle designs of the original. Several ship designs in “new” rag-tag fleet, including the Astral Queen derive almost entirely from the source material. The Galactica herself maintains - in very broad terms - the same outline: roughly crocodilian, but with markedly different surface detail and markings. A modification of the vessel for the new series involves the hangers, which can now be retracted during a “jump” to light-speed.

Vipers are similar to their predecessors, but Cylon Raiders and base ships have undergone a dramatic face lift. In the original series, three Cylon Centurions worked in “communist” unison to fly a raider. In today’s remake, the raider (which resembles the Dark Knight's batwing) is a living machine, a Cylon pet requiring no pilots. The new series resurrects the colonial shuttle design nd is seen in such episodes as “Kobol’s Last Gleaming” and “Home,” while also introducing a new design: the Raptor.

If one considers “music” as an important character on a TV series, one could note that the majestic Battlestar Galactica fanfare by Stu Phillips and Glen A. Larson has been brought out of mothballs for the new series, particularly for the mini-series and the second season episode “Final Cut.”

Strange Bedfellows

Where Battlestar Galacticas most controversially and dramatically differ is in the arena of political persuasion. The original series was crafted during an unpopular Presidency, Democrat Jimmy Carter’s, in a time of war, specifically The Cold War with the Soviet Union. Powerful forces in the opposition party, the Republicans, criticized the President for engaging in defeatist negotiations with the enemy. Treaties like SALT II were dismissed as “giving away the nuclear store” and weakening America. As a response, the Republican Party adopted as its platform the notion of “Peace through Strength,” meaning that diplomacy could only be carried out with military force backing it up.

In the original series, civilian leaders proposed unilateral disarmament with the Cylons (“The Saga of the Star World”), fell under the sway of a charismatic Devil, Iblis, (“War of the Gods”), and attempted to negotiate a peace with the untrustworthy Eastern Alliance (“Baltar’s Escape.”) Political leaders were seen as well-meaning fools while the military was lauded as heroic. In “Baltar’s Escape” it was revealed that the fleet had been living under martial law since the Colonies’ destruction…and it was viewed as a good thing! In “Experiment in Terra,” Apollo stood before the government of an imperiled world fighting the “Eastern Alliance” (Eastern Bloc?) and told the members of the administration that the opposite of peace is not war, but slavery, echoing Ronald Reagan's 1964 speech in support of presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Ronald D. Moore’s remake airs during another unpopular presidency, that of Republican George W. Bush, and during a time of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. It adopts the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001 as its central metaphor (rather than the original's Cold War context) and, much like its predecessor, espouses the philosophies of those in opposition to the Administration. In this case, the show offers a leftist, moral-relativist stance on hot-button issues.

The traditional, moral absolutes of the original Battlestar Galactica have given way to a sense of moral equivalency. Cylons are often treated with sympathy by the new series. Viewers see that “the enemy” possesses a competing religious faith for instance; that Cylons were wronged by the Colonials (treated as slaves), and that they have emotions just like any human being would. Even after a Sharon model attempts to assassinate Adama in “Kobol’s Last Gleaming,” Starbuck fights for another Sharon’s “rights” because she helped her escape from occupied Caprica.

Another way to look at this: the original Battlestar Galactica was about certainty – about the concrete belief that for democracy to survive it must remain strong (militarily, economically and spiritually) and “stay the course.” By contrast, the new Battlestar Galactica is about uncertainty, about a fear that we don’t know who our enemies are. That, in dangerous times, civil liberties will be jeopardized (as they are when Tigh declares martial law) or that controversial techniques to fight enemies (including congressional-style investigations) can be turned into witch-hunts against lawful citizens (“Litmus.’) A military out of control leads to torture in “Flesh and Blood” and rape in “Pegasus,” just like at Iraq’s prison, Abu-Ghraib.

Pop Culture Influences:

In his 1968 treatise, Chariots of the Gods, Swiss author Erich Von Daniken proposed the notion that ancient astronauts traveled to our planet and were regarded by our ancestors as Gods because of their advanced technology in the realms of construction, flight, and medicine. He pointed to the Egyptian Pyramids, the statues of Eastern Island and Paleolithic cave paintings (which depicted men in what might have been space helmets) as evidence of extra-terrestrial hands in early human affairs.

Von Daniken’s speculation about ancient astronauts in human prehistory, though dismissed by scientists, proved vastly popular to a wide readership in the 1970s, and Daniken penned sequels including Gods from Outer Space (1971), Gold of the Gods (1973), Miracles of the Gods (1975), and In Search of Ancient Gods (1976). Glen Larson credited Chariots of the Gods as a key inspiration for Battlestar Galactica. Taking into account this popular theory about the origin of man, Larson seeded his space opera with names and references related to early Earth cultures and mythology. Colonial gamblers thus played a card game called “Pyramid,” and the Viper pilots wore helmets with a distinctly Egyptian flair. Characters were named for Greek gods, including Apollo and Athena.

The name “Adama” was derived from the Old Testament name for the first man to inhabit the Garden of Eden, Adam. In Hebrew, “Adam” also means Earth. Adama’s grand mission also relates to early human mythology. He is the cosmic version of Moses, who led his people out of Egypt circa 1250 B.C. in the Great Exodus. In Battlestar Galactica, Adama does not split the red sea, but leads his people through the red-colored Nova of Madagon.

The name “Baltar” comes from Baal, the ancient Canaanite god of darkness. The name Lucifer – Baltar’s servant – is a name from Christian mythology for the Devil, and “Cylon” – a creature with one eye – alludes to the mythical creature called a Cyclops, who also had a single orb.

These references tie extra-terrestrial characters on Battlestar Galactica to early Christian mythology and Greek myth on Earth, and in conjunction with the opening narration (which states “life here began out there”), reinforce the then-in-vogue belief that ancient astronauts had visited Earth; and that “brothers of man,” might still exist in other parts of the galaxy.

Battlestar Galactica premiered in autumn of 1978, a little over a year after George Lucas’s Star Wars took the world by storm and became the highest-grossing film of all time. John Dykstra, Star Wars special effects maestro, jumped ship to join Galactica, so clearly Star Wars remains a powerful pop culture influence on the series.

By contrast, the new Battlestar Galactica was forged in an epoch of TV and cinematic “re-imaginations” including Godzilla (1998), Lost in Space (1998), The Wild, Wild West (1999), Planet of the Apes (2001) and Smallville (2001 - ). Much as original Battlestar leap-frogged off the success of Star Wars and the newfound popularity of outer space adventures, Moore’s Galactica exploits a pop culture trend that sees nostalgic genre favorites re-booted for a new generation; offering a product with easy and instant brand name identification.

The new Battlestar Galactica also adopts the herky-jerky, hand-held camera techniques of Fox’s “War of Terror” action series 24 to grant the re-imagination a new sense of visual immediacy. As for its dazzling scenes of space combat, Battlestar Galactica builds on the visual effects breakthroughs established by Joss Whedon’s late lamented Firefly (2002), which was the first TV series to incorporate shaky zooms and pans into the space adventure format.

Pick Your Poison: Popular or Acclaimed?

Now the 64,000 dollar question. Which Battlestar Galactica is more successful? That depends entirely on one’s definition of success. The original was inarguably more popular with audiences, drawing sixty-five million viewers to the tube the night it premiered on ABC, September 17, 1978. It was the sixth-highest rated new show of the 1978-1979 season, as well as the highest-rated science fiction TV series of all time until The X-Files premiered in 1993. And when Battlestar Galactica was re-cut and released theatrically, in Sensurround, its surpassed the international box office grosses of mega-hits Grease and Jaws II in Japan, Canada and Great Britain.

Inarguably, the original Battlestar Galactica passed the “test of time.” A one season TV series from 1978 proved so popular and enduring with rabid fans that it survived a quarter-century to become the subject of the 2003 remake. Unsuccessful TV shows don’t get re-imagined; that’s a Hollywood edict.

New Battlestar Galactica has never earned a tenth of the ratings success its predecessor enjoyed, but by contrast has survived longer: airing for four seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel Network. Finally, Ronald Moore’s new Galactica by far and away is the victor in terms of critical acclaim. It has won Emmy Awards, a Peabody, and is a regular staple on critics’ annual “Best Shows on TV” lists. Recently, Time Magazine listed the series as one of the one hundred best in the history of the medium.

Similar stories, different characters, opposite political leanings, different cultural contexts. Which Galactica suits you best?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Don't Forget Destinies! Tonight

Hey everybody, don't forget to tune in to Destinies at 11:30 pm, EST tonight, to hear host Dr. Howard Margolin and me talk about Horror Films of the 1980s and The House Between. Howard never does a bad show, so it should be great fun.

Here's the

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 68: Star Bird (Milton Bradley; 1978-1980)

I've posted about my favorite toys from childhood here, including my Mattel Eagle One over sized spaceship (from the series Space:1999), and today I want to spotlight yet another favorite from the bygone days of the post-Star Wars craze (1978-1980). The spaceship you are gazing at is the Milton Bradley Star Bird, or in this case, the second incarnation of the cruiser, the Star Bird Avenger. Featuring "new exciting electronics" this nicely-designed "space transport" features "exciting engine sounds, firing photon beams, battle sounds, and special target!"

The Star Bird (sans the specification "Avenger") was first released by Milton Bradley in 1978, shortly after Star Wars took the world by storm, and my next door neighbor and best friend from West Milford, David, was the first kid in Glen Ridge (and particularly on Clinton Road...) to have one. The ship was truly state of the art for the time, because if you had two Star Birds they could electronically duel with each other. Or as the box put it: "Fire your photon beams and hit the alien spaceship. Hear distress signals and sputtering engine sounds!" In other words, the Star Birds were relatively interactive (for the disco decade). In the event you didn't have two ships, the Star Bird also came was sold with an "alien target." The box noted: "Attack the special target with the flashing photon beams and Avenger signals your victory!"

The other interesting aspect of the Star Bird was that it was actually several starships housed in one. For instance, mounted on the dorsal rear of the ship was an "escape pod" and cannon, in case of battle damage. Per the box: "Rotating gun turret - rear gun turret doubles as an escape pod. Just release the retainer and go whirling through space."

Also, perched on each magnificent wing of the large star bird was a small one-man "interceptor" fighter" that could be removed for snub-nosed combat. On the Star Bird, the interceptors were molded in gray. On the re-vamped, Avenger, they were jet black. The box described the interceptors like this: "Detachable Interceptors - Interceptors fit onto the wing tips. Deploy them for battle action."

Finally, the Star Bird itself could be disassembled to create a smaller fighter by detaching the engine and the cockpit section, and then re-assembling them together without the main hull. ("Removable fighter: detach the front section and add the power thruster engine. You still command photon fire and engine power.") As a kid, this idea seemed extremely cool (kind of like saucer separation on the starship Enterprise). An added bonus: the cockpit housing could be removed in this mode too and you'd get a third fighter, the so-called "power orbiter." "For the fastest craft in the galaxy," read the description, "release the orbiter from the front hull. Even this stream-lined orbiter controls full power over photon beams and engines."

Released at the same time as the first incarnation of Star Bird was the "Command Base," where your craft could dock for repairs and re-supply. This two story heavy-cardboard construct stood over a foot tall when assembled, and featured defensive cannons on the roof as well as a functioning orange winch. The command base even came with several repair crew plastic figures. It was described thusly: "It's a great action packed accessory that you assemble from sturdy fiber board and plastic parts. The base serves as a center of operations for Star Bird, Avenger, or Intruder. Your crew staffs the Control Tower with its fully rotating gun turrets, workable crane, maintenance tunnel, and special interceptor landing deck."

Finally, in 1980 came along the "enemy," the Star Bird Intruder, a compact alien craft molded entirely in black. "A menacing spaceship invades the galaxy - a sleek black craft with amazing electronics. Hear powerful engines roar as it races through space. Control photon lights and sounds as you fire at the special target included with the intruder. You can duel other intruders or Avengers and hear the blazing photon beams scoring a hit and the realistic response of faltering engines."

The primary difference between the Star Bird and the upgraded "Avenger" is the decals that came with the ship. Avenger could be emblazoned with a giant bird of prey on its cockpit, which was very cool. It was also labeled "Avenger" on both sides of the forward section. Apparently, there was a third version of the ship as well, one called Star Bird Space Avenger. I never actually saw that variant.

For Christmas 1980, my parents bought me the Intruder (which - alas - I no longer have...), but I still didn't have the Star Bird, which vexed my young self to no end. Then, I spent a day visiting with my grandfather (who passed in 2003), and we scoured most of New Jersey trying to find an Avenger one for me. We went to KB Toys, Toys R Us, and other stores across Jersey, only - at the last minute - to find a Star Bird Avenger at a small kiosk in Willowbrook Mall. It was perched high on a shelf, surrounded by other expensive electronic toys, and I remember my heart skipping a beat when I saw the ship. Success!! My grandfather dropped thirty bucks for the toy, and so I was finally ready for space combat! I played that Avenger out, and what remains of that ship is mostly spare parts these days. So I had to pick one up on E-Bay...

I don't know if it is simply nostalgia, but I've always loved the design of the Star Bird. It isn't overly imitative of Star Wars, but rather a very sleek, very unique craft. The Intruder - though much-harder to find these days, is not quite in the same league, since it is really a variant of the Star Bird design. Even my ten year old mind wondered how the "menacing alien" from another "galaxy" had managed to design a ship nearly identical to the heroic Avenger. But that only added to the imagination and make-believe. I remember "pretending" to be commander of the Star Bird, and going on a secret mission behind enemy lines to find out how the aliens behind the Intruder had stolen the superior design of my spacecraft. Of course, as I learned, we had a mole aboard. And I had to deploy Rom the Space Knight to kill him. Isn't make-believe great?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Meeting My Destinies...

Hey everybody, I'm returning to the radio talk show Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction this Friday night, October 26th at 11:30 pm for a Halloween-themed show. I'll be calling in to discuss with host Dr. Howard Margolin some recent work, including my hit book Horror Films of the 1980s, the second season of my independent online drama, The House Between (premiering January 25, 2008), and my new officially-licensed Space:1999 novel, Odysseus Wept.

I always enjoy sharing time with Howard. He's a great host (who asks good and occasionally very tough questions) and we could probably talk forever if we had the time! Join us, won't you? You can catch the show here. Don't miss it! You can also catch (partial) transcripts of some of my previous Destinies appearances here and here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 10: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (The Empire Strikes Back)

I have to admit, the scene from The Empire Strikes Back (1980) depicted in these three trading cards has always fascinated me. You remember the set-up, right? On Cloud City, Lando leads fugitives Han Solo, Princess Leia, C3PO and Chewbacca to dinner. However, as they walk to the dining room, he reveals that he's made a deal with the Empire that will protect his interests on Bespin forever. A door opens, and Darth Vader is revealed at the end of a very long (and fully set) dining room table. A shocked but fast Han draws his blaster and fires, Lord Vader deflects the shots, and then invites everyone to join him for a meal. Then the door closes. End of scene.

But...didn't you ever wonder what the meal was like? I mean, what did the rebels talk about while breaking bread with Darth Vader? I can't imagine Chewbacca is much for dinner conversation (or table manners, for that matter). Also, isn't it awkward eating a meal when your "host" (Lord Vader) can't uh...well, can't eat? I mean, that mask pretty much precludes eating, unless he opens a panel on his helmet and sips his food through a straw. And where do you go in terms of courteous dinner talk after the guest has attempted to shoot the host? Appetizers?

And also, in terms of continuity, Vader is back with Leia a second time (the first time was on the Death Star in Star Wars) and he still doesn't sense that she is a daughter of Skywalker, or, at the very least, "strong" with the force.

I'm only half-joking. I really would have loved to see what this scene could have been; with Leia and Vader (and Solo) at the same table together forced to face one another. Seriously: what would they have talked about? Would or could this have been an opportunity in the saga to discuss respective philosophies (the way Anakin and Amidala did in Attack of the Clones?) Democracy/Tyranny? Or would it have just been too silly?

I mean, can you imagine Lord Vader, in that deep voice, asking Han Solo to pass the salad dressing?

You tell me: what do you think the dinner conversation was about that night?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 67: Computer Perfection (Lakeside; 1979)

In recent months, I've highlighted several electronic games from the pre-video game and classic video game era, including the handheld MERLIN, Lakeside's Electronic Intercept and the ever-popular BLIP - The Digital Game (from Tomy). Today I remember another great electronic game from the groovy 1970s, Lakeside's Electronic Perfection. It is billed on the box as "the ultimate playmate" and the same legend notes "IT PUSHES YOU TO YOUR LIMIT."

Avid TV watchers may recognize Computer Perfection (The Electronic Game!) right off the bat because it appeared in a few genre sci-fi series in the 1970s and early 1980s as a "futuristic" prop. In particular, check out the second season episode of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century entitled "Mark of the Saurian." Buck is sick with a fever in this installment of the series, and there at his bedside in the Searcher's sick bay is - you guessed it - Computer Perfection. Personally, I remember playing Star Trek make believe with my friends in New Jersey in 1979, and we decided that Computer Perfection was a perfect bridge ornament, the latest variation on Mr. Spock's hooded library viewer.

Anyway, Computer Perfection is a primitive game system by today's standards. The transparent blue dome acts as "an on/off switch," according to the instructions. Once you lift the blue dome, you can select from four games, and choose from three skill levels.

Game One is "Countdown" (a one-player scenario), in which the object is "to light all 10 lights in the proper order, in the least number of moves" (or presses of the blue game buttons).

Game Two is "Black Hole" (also for one player). The object of Black Hole is the same as Countdown, lighting all the lights in the proper order. The difference: if "you press a button already lit, the computer will turn off all the lights that are ahead of that light, plus the light itself." Got it?

Game Three is "Brain Battle." This is a two player game. The player on the left must turn off all the lights starting with number one; the second player must turn all lights on, starting with number six. All right, now I'm confused...

Game Four is "Light Race" in which the object is a "Race" to turn on more than five lights. It is also for two players.

Okay, it's not exactly Resident Evil 4, but this was 1979, all right?

Listed as being suitable for ages "8 to adult", the back of the box notes that Computer Perfection provides "4 unique ELECTRONIC games..Thousands of variations. COMPUTERIZED SHOW of SOUNDS and LIGHTS."

On the back of the box, the game also addresses the player. "GREETINGS, I am COMPUTER PERFECTION," it states, "the ultimate playmate. Probe my memory to discover the electronic clues that will light my lights in the proper order. Do it as quick as you can and I will keep score. Take too long - I will turn you off. Choose a new game every time or ask me to repeat your last game to improve your score."

Computer Perfection, blue dome and all, has a trusty spot on my office display shelf.

Friday, October 19, 2007

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 66: The Six Million Dollar Man (1975)

Before Star Wars, little boys and girls in America played with an array of fantastic toys and gadgets from The Six Million Dollar Man, a TV series that began airing in 1974 on ABC. The series starred stolid Lee Majors as Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut injured during a dangerous spacecraft test. At the behest of Oscar Goldman at OSI, and harnessing the breakthroughs of Dr. Rudy Wells, Steve Austin became "Better. Stronger. Faster." For the (now cheap...) price of six million dollars, Colonel Austin became the world's first bionic man. What a bargain!

Going back over thirty years, I remember that The Six Million Dollar Man was absolutely appointment television for every kid in America. Every week, my sister and I waited on pins and needles to see his new adventures (and those of his spin-off, The Bionic Woman). In particular, we loved the episodes (almost always two-parters...) that saw Steve Austin facing off against an alien robot "Sasquatch." Yep...a Bionic Bigfoot (played by Ted Cassidy!)

Another amazing episode saw Steve Austin battling a probe from outer space. And who can forget the episode that featured William Shatner as a fellow astronaut who came back from space with unusual mental powers...and needed a smackdown from the 6 Mill Man. Steve Austin vs. Captain Kirk!!!!

Before Star Wars (and Kenner) revolutionized the action-figure industry with its line of small-sized (3 inch) action figures, most television and movie related figures were quite large (in the mold of G.I. Joe, a classic), and the impressive Six Million Dollar Man collection was no exception. Steve stood a whopping 12 inches tall, and came with all sorts of bionic accessories. As you can see from the photo of my Six Million Dollar Man, Steve is wearing the trademark red jogging suit he became famous for in the series' opening credits (which showed him running far faster than non-bionic men...), and he has a "scope" in his eye to simulate his bionic orb. You can peer through the back of his skull and see into the distance, as if you are seeing through his mechanical eye. Nice!

My Six Million Dollar Man is resting inside the 20 inch Bionic Transport and Repair Station (sold separately). This is where Steve goes for a tune-up, I presume. It is sort of like a rocket ship and a surgical theater all in one. Today, I can only wish that I had taken far better care of my Bionic buddy and his toys. At one point, I had his boss, Oscar Goldman (who was sold in a checkered 1970s jacket and with an unusual accoutrement: an exploding briefcase), Jaime Sommers, Big Foot and the villainous Maskatron (who could look like Steve or Oscar...). I had Steve's "Critical Assignment Legs" and "Critical Assignment Arms" which were special bionic limbs ("Neutralizer Arm!") for different missions. But the toy I wish I still owned today was Steve's Bionic Mission vehicle, a sort of rocket ship and car combo that the figure could drive. These are rare and expensive on E-Bay today. I loved that toy.

Looking back across Kenner's impressive collection, there were Six Million Dollar Man clothes accessories (space suits and more), a back-pack radio, Jaime Sommers' sports car, and a plastic playset of OSI HQ. Of all the many, many toys, boy do I wish I had kept these. D'oh!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The House Between: Looking Back at Season One

Over at writer Clay Hornik's Bookworm and Beyond blog, the author has written a review of The House Between's first sortie. As you may recall, The House Between is the independently-produced super-low budget (but hopefully super inventive...) online sci-fi series I created last year with the help of producer Joseph Maddrey (A Haunting; Survive This!), and a very talented and committed cast and crew.

The series is designed to emulate the look and feel of genre TV circa 1959-1964 (the era of One Step Beyond, Twilight Zone and Outer Limits), and capture some of the same creepy vibe. The shows are low cost, but well-acted, beautifully shot and lit, and the stories - I believe - are good. We've had strong word of mouth about the episodes and cultivated a devoted cadre of fans (you know who you are! And thank you!). We are currently gearing up for the January 25th 2008 premiere of Season Two. Before then, I'll be premiering a making-of video, and special edition versions of the seven first season episodes, leading up to "Returned," our season two premiere.

Here's here's an excerpt from Hornik's article:

"In The House Between, the danger isn't from something that lurks in the rooms, it's something that lurks in the characters.

And there's a lot lurking in these people, characters like onions, peel one layer away there's another beneath.

...The only negative thing I can say about The House Between is that there won't be any new episodes until next year."

Thanks for watching, Clay, and for writing about the show. I hope you'll stick around for Season Two, which should be bigger and better in every way possible...and which nearly put two or three cast members in the hospital.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Measure of a Man: The Star Trek Mythos and Identity

Ask any group of Trekkers about the enduring appeal and popularity of Star Trek and you're likely to get a dozen different answers. The series is relentlessly optimistic about the future; or the series is a futuristic version of those Hornblower sea-faring novels and thus the height of swashbuckling adventure. Or the series is about brotherhood and the acceptance of diversity, or it it brings up feelings of nostalgia and "Camelot." In terms of drama, of course, one could point to the fact that the original series is especially well-written and uniformly performed with ummatched charm (and even a degree of kinkiness). On a basic level, it is also a science fiction adventure with cool spaceships and monsters...a reason that kids have loved it for for the last several generations. When you are ten years old, nothing beats Captain Kirk battling a Gorn!

However, there is also a philosophical umbrella of unity coursing throughout Star Trek's DNA (and also its later incarnations) that bears some mention. In virtually all the franchise's myriad forms, Star Trek explicitly concerns the psychology of man, and in particular, how the rigors of alien contact and space travel illuminate and bring to the surface all aspects of that psychology. Literally almost every episode of Star Trek deals with the idea and meaning of one aspect of human psychology: identity. For our purposes today, we might define identity as "the condition of being oneself and not someone else" or a "a sense of self that provides sameness and continuity in personality over time."

As much as the new Battlestar Galactica concerns American "War on Terror" politics in space, or Space:1999 is about the technological downfall of 20th century man, a millennial imagining, I believe that Star Trek is quite explicitly - and quite powerfully - a contemplation of all aspects of the human identity. I realize that David Gerrold famously wrote that the final frontier is not outer space; but rather the human soul, and certainly I agree with that sentiment; only narrowed down a bit: the final frontier is but a mirror for mankind; a reflection, a challenge to and for his very identity. For it is "identity," - the very measure of a man (or woman; or Vulcan for that matter) - that is the concept is at the heart of every great Star Trek hour. What does it mean to be a man in the 23rd century? We get many answers in the series, and learn not just about character identity, but species identity too. I believe this came about because Gene Roddenberry was a brilliant and insightful thinker; but also because the 1960s was the era in our history in which psychoanalysis and therapy came out of the closet, so-to-speak, into mainstream American television and film. What Gene Roddenberry's series stated, essentially, is that to conquer the stars (the exterior world), you must first conquer your interior world; the world of human psychology; the mysteries and foibles of your individual and racial identity.

Think about it. In the first pilot, "The Cage" Captain Christopher Pike (Jeffrey) must see through the illusions of an alien race called the Talosians to determine the identity of Vina (Susan Oliver). More than that, by facing a world of illusions taken from images in his own mind, Pike must determine what kind of man he is: A warrior (fighting Kalars on Rigel), a family man attending a picnic with his wife, or an amoral dealer in Orion Slave Women. Pike's fantasies all force him to question the sort of man he is, but ultimately he arrives at an interesting conclusion: morally he cannot remain on Talos IV (even in a world of fantasy) because the Talosians would use him to breed a race of slaves. That result is immoral to Pike, and his identity as a moral human precludes the acceptance of slavery. Again, individual and "group" (human) identity are core issues here.

The second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before" is a more action-packed musing on the same subject. Here, an Enterprise crewman, Gary Mitchell (Gary Lockwood) is adversely affected when the Enterprise passes through a barrier at the edge of the galaxy. He begins to develop psionic powers that render him - essentially - a God. So, the question of the episode becomes: when man exceeds his built-in limitations, like mortality and morality - what does he become. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely" is the stated theme of the episode, but "Where No Man Has Gone Before" asks the viewer to accept that man's identity is tied inexorably with the things in life that are difficult. We age, we die, we have to get up and push the warp speed buttons ourselves, or get our own cups of water in sick bay. Gary Mitchell - buoyed by telekinesis - can do whatever he wants without lifting a finger or any other "physical labor." His new identity is thus distinctly inhuman.

"The Man Trap" aired on September 8, 1966, and it is the story of an alien shapeshifter, a salt vampire, the "last of its kind." Dr McCoy, Captain Kirk, Crewman Green, Yeoman Rand, and Lt. Uhura each experience the shape shifter in a different form and in a different way. Physical appearance - an outward symbol of identity - dictates how people are treated, this story reveals Uhura finds herself attracted to the alien when it turns into a tall, attractive African man who speaks Swahili (her language; a common point). This is all a ruse to kill her and extract the salt from her body, but how the creature understands identity is critically important. In particular, the salt vampire likes how McCoy views it: the affectionate, unconditional love of an old boyfriend, "Plum." It senses this is how it will be protected, by manipulating the good doctor's feelings of romantic attraction for an old flame.

"Charlie X," the story of a boy who has been raised by non-corporeal aliens on the planet Thasus, deals with the idea of what it means to be an adolescent boy: to be driven by urges you don't understand and to always feel a little awkward. Kirk also - mostly unwillingly - assumes the identity of father to the lonely Charlie.

In "The Naked Time," a mysterious disease acts on the Enterprise crew like alcohol intoxication and brings to light dark, buried aspects of the crew's various personalities. With emotional boundaries torn down, the crew spirals into chaos at the same time the Enterprise spirals out of orbit towards a planet's surface. We see in this episode that the "identity" we have pinned on each Star Trek character does not represent the whole picture. Spock is not merely a logical alien, but a little boy who couldn't tell his (human) mother that he loved her. Kirk is not merely a leader among men and a great Starfleet officer, but a man of terrible loneliness because his position in the command structure isolates him from others. There is, he laments, "no beach to walk on." Again, the issue here is the face (or identity) we present to the world, and the identity we hide, covet, and keep locked away.

"The Enemy Within" is a classic meditation on human identity and the contradictions therein. A transporter accident splits Kirk into two beings, one "good," one "evil." However, this is no ordinary Jekyll & Hyde story, because what Kirk learns - to his chagrin - is that it is his dark side, his negative self, that retains the power of command; the power of decision-making. His good side seems to possess intellect and compassion, but not will, so again, human identity is dissected and put under the microscope on a Star Trek episode.

In "Mudd's Women," scoundrel Harry Mudd provides a drug to three "homely" women to make them appear as irresistible beauties (so they can be married off to space miners...). Only thing is this: the drug is a fake, a phony. The women on the drug are "high on themselves." As Kirk says: there are only two kind of men and women in the universe; either you believe in yourself, or you don't. So this episode concerns - once more - the notion that our feelings about our identity colors how we see the world...and how the world sees us.

In "What are Little Girls Made Of," Kirk is faced with an android duplicate of himself, one who bears his every memory and ability. But one who can think faster, calculate more effectively and is physically immortal. But man is not a machine, and this episode is about the things that get lost translating "the soul" to a mechanism. Is identity something that can be transferred? Is it hard-wired into our souls? Or is it something so special that no machine can duplicate it?

Other examples:

"The Alternative Factor" - an alien man named Lazarus has been driven to madness and psychosis by the discovery of alternate universes and a "twin" who is simultaneously both him and not him (essentially sharing his identity). To the Enterprise crew, the two men are interchangeable.

"This Side of Paradise" - strange spores on Omicron Ceti III turn the Enterprise crew into mellow layabouts, even Spock (who has the "gall" to make love to a human woman!). Exposed here is the idea that being productive - working - is a core (and indispensable) part of the human identity. No doubt a comment on recreational drugs; perfect for the late 1960s.

"Amok Time" - Spock's identity is subverted again; this time by the Vulcan physiological need to "mate or die" every seven years. The normally logical and thoughtful Vulcan becomes temperamental and rageful over his body's need to go to Vulcan for a pointy-eared booty call.

"Mirror, Mirror" - what makes up our identity? Is it more than just DNA? Is it also the history of a nation or planet? This is the story of an alternate history, one in which humans have become war-like barbarians and the center of a cosmic Empire. The "good" people we know on the Enterprise - changed by some unknown event in galactic history - have set aside principle and morality for conquest and personal gain. But Spock remains the same in both universes, a bastion of goodness and decency (even with the beard).

"Metamorphosis" - an alien "Companion" and a dying human woman meld identities for the sake of love; only to run into human prejudice.

"Return to Tomorrow" - Spock, Kirk and Dr. Ann Mulhall allow three aliens to "possess" their bodies for a time; to make new android forms to house them. The only problem is that these three highly-advanced beings cannot control their emotions and desires when encased in the "flesh" packages of humanity. How much of identity is tied up in our biology? How much in our mind? How much of what we feel is emotion, how much is chemical?

"Turnabout Intruder" - all those things which make Kirk a being "special unto himself," - distinctly another descriptin for "identity" - is landed in the body of a vengeful ex-lover who wants to be a starship commander.

You get the idea. You can view virtually any Star Trek episode out there through this iluminating lens of "identity" and see how the stories of space travel are but a mirror for us to experience all sides of it. The films and later series expand on these ideas. Right off the bat, I remember another Star Trek story in which our heroic, physically fit characters, must deal with the rigors and pains of aging ("The Deadly Years"), a shock to anyone's identity. And there are Next Generation tales that find some characters experiencing amnesia ("Clues), buried memories ("The Schizoid Man") or reverting in age to childhood. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock is another meditation on identity, wherein Spock's katra (one might say his identity...) is housed inside McCoy. Until it is reunited with Spock's body, that body is just a shell. In Star Trek: Voyager I remember one of the finest installments was called "Tuvix," about a transporter accident blending the staid Vulcan Tuvok with the more jovial and likable Talaxian, Neelix. What emerged from that transporter platform was a third individual, a new identity separate from the earlier two.

In the various Star Trek series there is example after example of our heroes facing "twins" or "doubles" that confound the crews and make determining identity a difficult task. Spock must determine which version of Kirk is real, which a fake, in "Whom Gods Destroy," and Kirk himself is doubled not just in "The Enemy Within" and "What Are Little Girls Made Of," but Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Riker gets himself a transporter duplicate in one episode of the Next Generation called "Second Chances," Picard meets his "parallel" from the future in "Time Squared," and Janeway and Voyager encounter a duplicate crew in "Deadlock." Data's brother also happens to be his exact duplicate physically, and therefore vexes the crew in "Datalore," "Brothers" and other episodes. Ask yourself, if identity is not the crux of the Star Trek mythos, why so many episodes in which characters must question the identities of their friends. Is it Picard or a formless alien hitchhiker in "Lonely Among Us?" Is it Kirk or Sargon in "Return to Tomorrow?" Is it Bones McCoy or a salt vampire in "The Man Trap?" Is it Geordi La Forge or a Tarchannen alien in the appropriately named "Identity Crisis?"

Consider too that each franchise series involves at least one outsider-type character attempting to define his or her identity. Who are Odo's parents? Is he alone, or - as we learn later - a Founder of the Dominion? What of Data? In "Measure of a Man" Starfleet (and Data himself) must ask the question is he just a toaster, or a living, sentient being? For Spock is "logic" the beginning of wisdom or the end? Again and again, characters must determine "who they are" both in terms of wants and desires, and in how the universe of the Federation defines and views them. Is the EMH a life-form or a program? Is V'ger a life form or just a very advanced machine?

Also, I do not think it a coincidence that the scariest Star Trek villain in series history is likely the Borg. The Borg are scarier than the silver-toothed villains of Alien and Aliens, or the extraterrestrial hunters in Predator. Those outer space creatures may skin you alive or lay eggs down your throat and burst your chest...but in the end, all they really do is kill you. The Borg are much more nefarious and frightening. They take you and "assimilate" you, replacing the colorful identity of the individual with a heartless, colorless hive mind. They take all your knowledge, all your memories, all your humanity and download it for consumption in the collective, but your body keeps walking around - a zombie, a shadow of its former self, because the human identity has been stolen. There can be nothing scarier in a series about identity than a monster who comes along and takes that identity away.

I write about all this today because I've been reading some material about the new Star Trek movie. Generally, I'm very enthusiastic about the project. Every great legend needs to be translated from one generation to the next, and frankly, I think that Star Trek has never been better or more popular than during the Kirk and Spock years of 1966-1991 Sure, we've met new crews, loved the new captains, and encountered new villains (like the impressive Borg), but ultimately, the most human, the most colorful, the most charismatic and most adventurous Star Trek is the original series. Those classic characters deserve a chance to tell their tale to the "next generation" and I'm all for it. This isn't in conflict with my feelings or critiques of remakes for a very simple reason. We've had thirty years of Star Trek continuations already, and what's the next Star Trek movie to give us? Yet another starship? Yet another crew? Yet another Spock-like alien obsessed with humanity? We've been there and done that too often, to varying effect on Deep Space Nine, Voyager and Enterprise. Also, having Leonard Nimoy aboard the new movie project assures that this will technically not be a remake...but the revitalization the writers have promised, I believe in good faith. So I don't see a downside to a prequel featuring the classic characters. But what I do hope and pray is that the screenwriters have taken the time to gaze carefully at Star Trek lore and see that the franchises' finest stories have always concerned mankind - and our Starfleet heroes - grappling with the essentials of human identity.

TV REVIEW: Reaper: "Charged"

The 2007-2008 season may be remembered as the most uninventive and "meh" broadcast network slate in years. This is doubly so in terms of genre programming. We have Bionic Woman re-booted and full of glitches, plus variations on popular and time-worn themes and TV scenarios. There's the likable but derivative Moonlight (Angel + Forever Knight + film noir), the intriguing but also familiar Journeyman (Quantum Leap + Time Tunnel + Tru Calling), and in the CW's Reaper, we have a...shock! This is a wholly entertaining slacker variation on the 1998 Fox series, Brimstone, about a detective hunting escaped souls from Hell and experiencing a personal relationship with the Devil, there played by John Glover. Here, the Devil is Twin Peaks' Ray Wise, clearly having the time of his life. In Reaper, the guy hunting escaped souls is a harried kid, Sam (Bret Harrison), one learning to cope with the responsibilities of life and dealing with the fact that his parents sold his soul to the devil.

To my utter surprise and shock, Reaper is likely the best, and most confident of the mangy 2007-2008 genre bunch. It is lively, unpretentious, silly and more than fun enough to pass muster. Watching the second episode, "Charged," I realized the series was as much G vs. E as Brimstone, especially in its whacked-out attitude and unusual world view. A better comparison might be this: Reaper is My Name is Earl with the Devil instead of karma. It is comedy as much as "horror," and yet the episode I saw was really, really funny. The series is a perfect example of taking an old idea, putting a new spin on it, and emerging an unlikely winner. Again, no one is more shocked than me...

Again, on plot specifics, Reaper isn't going to win any awards for originality, but during this season, beggars can't be choosers. "Charged," for instance, is the story of an escaped and damned soul, one Arthur Ferry. In life, he was essentially Kenneth Lay, a corrupt "energy trader" with an Enron-type business under his thumb, and the man responsible for several rolling black-outs in California. Still, he wasn't all bad: Ferry donated a lot of money to hospitals and other foundations, and now he's returned from Hell spitting lightning - literally - because his good deeds are being buried. His reputation is such that no one wants to be associated with him or his money. His modus operandi - as in life - is the use of electricity as a weapon.

Going back into history, I remember "Executioner," a Brimstone story that aired on December 4, 1998, about a Hell escapee also using electricity to zap the living. However, the two takes on this tale are completely different. Brimstone (in general), was a series about redemption and repentance, and I view Reaper as a series about growing up and learning to balance life's responsibilities. It's about a Gen Y'er finding his place in life, when school is done, and not knowing exactly where he fits in. Here, Sam is the Devil's highly unlikely bounty hunter. He works at a Home Depot-type home improvement center called the Work Bench and has an insufferable boss named Ted, and a buddy named Sock (Invasion's Tyler Labine) that he has to constantly keep in line lest they lose their jobs. With Kevin Smith serving as a consultant, one can also look at this set-up as Clerks meets Supernatural. It is also a literalization of the proverb that idle hands are the Devil's playground.

Yet what could have been half-assed and utterly ludicrous is instead ingenious and incredibly funny. For instance, the Portal to Hell is located at the Department of Motor Vehicles -- Pandemonium on Earth, for sure. The Devil's dialogue is also delightful and clever. In one great moment, Lucifer runs across Sam watching daytime television and asks perkily, "when's Ellen on?," a joke pertaining to our culture wars and controversy over homosexuality..but who's side is the Devil on? In another moment, the Devil cherily advises a downcast Sam to "turn that frown upside down," advice that makes the Prince of Darkness sound like a modern self-help guru. This material is really sharp, especially since it overturns the preachy, ridiculous "God is my co-pilot" approach of such canceled shows as Joan of Arcadia and The Book of Daniel (2007).

Reaper also boasts its share of witty and wicked visual gags. The ending, which pits Sam and his buddies against the lightning man finds our heroes dressed up in rubber wet suits (and cowls) for the confrontation...which makes them appear utterly ridiculous on dry land. Another moment of sustained comedy arrives early in the hour, as Sam tries to shirk his responsibilities to the Devil and get rid of a wooden box that contains the "vessel" (or weapon) he needs to destroy Ferry. Last week the chosen vessel was a dust buster; this week it is a remote-controlled monster truck, and part of the fun is figuring out how these devices play into the dispatching of each villain. But the running gag involves Sock and Sam trying to ditch the box, repetitiously, and being vexed at every turn. No matter how hard they try to avoid doing their "job" for the Devil, responsibility in the form of the box keeps landing at their feet.

So Reaper is about a twenty-something kid attempting to balance friends with a rotten, low-paying job, while he tries to figure out who he is. Then one day, he finds out this burden is even greater: he's got two rotten jobs, and his boss is Satan himself. That's a good enough metaphor for a season or three surely. After all, haven't we all worked for someone we are sure - absolutely sure - is a demon put on Earth to make our lives miserable?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 35: The Fantastic Journey: "Beyond the Mountain"

In the mid-1970s, Star Trek was a gigantic hit in reruns (in syndication), and accordingly the broadcast networks were once willing to take a risk on science fiction and genre programming despite the ratings failures of high-profile productions like Planet of the Apes (1974) and Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974-1975). One such program was Bruce Lansbury's short-lived The Fantastic Journey (originally called The Incredible Island), which was a sort of "civilization of the week" series (like Trek, Space: 1999, The Starlost and other early seventies endeavors). One thing that differentiated The Fantastic Journey from those other sci-fi series was that it was determinedly "low tech." There were no spaceships or tricorders on hand (though one character, Varian, was armed with the equivalent of Dr. Who's sonic screwdriver, here a tuning-fork device of sorts), and almost the entire series was set "outdoors" in the wilds of a mysterious island.

Although it ran only ten hour-long episodes beginning in February of 1977, looking back today one can see that The Fantastic Journey featured all the elements that could have made it a huge success. The premise was fascinating and timely. There was a cultural fascination in 1970s America with Bermuda Triangle lore, and that enigmatic "zone" is at the core of The Fantastic Journey. Here, travelers from all different worlds and times become lost in the Bermuda Triangle (thanks to a green fog on the ocean..) and then trapped on a vast jungle island comprising various "time" zones (and thus various civilizations). One day, a character might encounter historic pirates (as in the pilot episode "Vortex," which featured Deadwood's Ian McShane), the next he may be dealing with futuristic civilizations ("Atlantium.") So the format was flexible enough to accommodate all sorts of stories and plot lines.

Also, the characters were interesting and diverse. Representing the audience were two people from 1977, young Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann) and an African-American physician, Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin). On their journey, they encountered a "man of the future" (from 2230), the peace-loving Varian (Jared Martin), and a psychic woman from another civilization with unique mental abilities, Liana (Katie Saylor). With Liana's cat, Sil-El, in tow, this diverse group formed an ad hoc family of sorts, and together sought the zone called "Evoland." This was a legendary realm where, according to myth, wayward travelers could be sent home to their various worlds and time periods.

The third episode of the series, "Beyond the Mountain" introduces the last piece of the character equation: Roddy McDowall's temperamental scientist, Dr. Jonathan Willaway, a man whose plane disappeared over the Sea of Japan in 1963. In this story, the other travelers are engulfed in an eerie red-colored storm and promptly separated. Liana ends up in a paradisaical, luxury villa, where Willaway - a very "strong willed man" - is tended to by subservient humanoid androids. The other characters are cast down into a misty swamp of gnarled trees and fog. The swamp (which looks like Dagobah...), is impressively-presented, having been constructed on a sound-stage and seeming very atmospheric, especially in contrast to Willaway's sunlit world, where the grass is literally always greener.

Before long, Willaway decides he wants to marry Liana and attempts to keep her from searching for her friends, even as his android "son" begins to develop emotions for the lovely woman. Down in the swamp, Scott, Fred and Varian encounter a race of green-skinned humanoids, aliens called "Arujians" (think Indians). Their leader is ill from a "bacterial disease" (malaria), and Varian and Fred heal him. Once recovered, the leader explains that Willaway came to their land, subverted the androids and banished the green-skinned humanoids to the swamp. "He does not think of us as beings of any worth," the leader comments about Willaway, and one can see how the episode's central metaphor is crafted. "Beyond the Mountain" is a comment on, for lack of a better word, "the white man's burden," and here a white westerner has re-located a race of "lesser beings" off their land for his own benefit. Just substitute green skin for red skin, and you get the idea of the symbolism.

It isn't just the relocation of Native Americans to reservations that "Beyond the Mountain" comments on, at least obliquely, but also the very idea of slavery (again - back to the white man's burden). Here, Willaway keeps a society of androids serving him and is unable to countenance the idea that they could be sentient. They are only "an amalgam of simulated flesh and bone," he says at one point. He tells his son, "your marrow is transistorized; your heart is a battery; your veins and arteries are wire filament." This might be another way of saying that because their skin is different than his; they are "less" than human, a belief of slave owners in America a hundred and fifty years ago.

Also, Willaway generally treats his androids (again, think historically: slaves) with what he believes is love and kindness, even though he is still master and they still servants. However, reflecting the dark side of the equation, when challenged by a female android, he warns her that if she misbehaves, he will "take her apart." When the enslaved androids finally rebel against him, Willaway is baffled. "I gave you a beautiful place to live. I even made you my son..." he says, feeling betrayed, unaware that his "children" are ready to chart their own destinies.

So, in the course of one episode, Willaway displaces one ethnic group (the green-skinned swamp dwellers), and enslaves another (the androids). Or as he puts it at the denouement, society and he "do have problems." In the end, with the help of the series regulars, both races are freed, and Willaway is sent packing. Surprisingly, Varian shows mercy to Willaway and allows him to travel with the group. Again, this was the final piece of the character puzzle: Varian, Fred, Liana and Scott are all likable, heroic characters, whereas Willaway (as this episode reveals) is more flawed; and more willing to strike off with his own agenda. He isn't a constant foil (like, say Lost in Space's Dr. Smith), merely a fly in the ointment and wild card. The ending solution, Willaway joining the team, so to speak, works well story-wise and is even believable because Varian is a man from a peaceful future; one where men don't hold grudges or act in petty fashion. He is the series' version of the peaceful and enlightened Spock, and a great character.

In the spirit of Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah," Space:1999's "One Moment of Humanity," Star Trek: The Next Generation's "The Offspring," and the new Battlestar Galactica's "Downloaded" this Fantastic Journey episode also involves the idea of an android (or androids, plural) attaining humanity or understanding humanity. Willaway's son in this episode dies (in love with Liana), a "tear" falling from his cheek. Again, this is sort of a de rigueur concept in science-fiction television; done on virtually every series from 1966-1978, probably. Still, it is handled here well enough; though the depiction of the androids (lanky men and women in gold lame jumpsuits with circuit panels on their backs...) reveals the age of the series (thirty years!) and the relative innocence of the genre back then.

The Fantastic Journey has always been one of my favorite mid-1970s American sci-fi series. Logan's Run (the series) pretty much adopted a similar formula later in 1977 (during the fall season), and even Sliders and the oft-forgotten Otherworld (1985) owe something to this show. What I always appreciated most about The Fantastic Journey was the well-developed characters, and the charming interplay between them. The series only lasted ten episodes but it had enormous potential. Not surprisingly, it still boasts a rabid fan base. Probably not a week goes by without someone e-mailing me about The Fantastic Journey at my web site (where I have a "retro TV file" on the show), which I believe is a testament to the solid groundwork that series writers (including Dorothy Fontana) laid down all those years ago. I suppose some audiences would look at the production values of the series today and conclude it is campy (no!!!!), but like every TV series and like every work of art, it is entirely a product of its age and original context. The Fantastic Journey is gloriously 1977 (pre-Star Wars), and fantastic indeed. I'd love to see an official DVD release soon.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: SPACE:1999 - The Alien (1975)

I was five years old when Space: 1999 premiered in syndication on American television in September of 1975. I promptly fell in love with the series (especially after the episode "Dragon's Domain," in which a giant space monster devoured unlucky astronauts and spit out their steaming bones...) I had to have every toy, model, and book related to the series. It became my new obsession and every Saturday night I watched the series on WPIX channel 11 with devotion. Soon, my father had built for me all of the great model kits from the series, including the Eagle spacecraft, the diorama of Moonbase Alpha, the warship Hawk and this toy, the Alien...which had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Space:1999.

I don't know why model kit companies used to do this. They'd get a great license like Star Trek or Space:1999 and release all these great kits...and then release an additional kit under the franchise name that was never seen on the show. AMT released, for instance, an "Interplanetary UFO" kit that was never featured on Trek. I just have to say that as a kid this marketing tactic really confused the hell out of me. I kept waiting for the characters on Space:1999 to run into an alien who was driving this groovy hot rod...and they never did.

Now I view "the alien" vehicle as a really fascinating bit of design work and 1960s futurism (at least I think it is from the sure looks that way.) A couple of years, I got a mint-in-box model of the Alien anew and appreciated it more than ever.

Still, it would have been cool if it actually appeared on the show...

Happy Birthday to Joel!

My son, Joel, is one year old today (at exactly 5:18 pm). He is the apple of my eye, and the sweetest child imaginable. I know the blog isn't the place to write lots of personal or family stuff, but Joel has absolutely changed my entire world in the last twelve months; in a variety of amazing ways. He is a jolly baby with an infectious giggle and the trademark tenacity that my wife says marks him as a Muir. He's already run rampant through my office, playing with Qui-Gonn Jinn's light saber, driving the Star Wars van I displayed here a bit ago into a wall, and - this is the cardinal sin - getting his hands on my Space:1999 Mattel 3ft eagle! I got to him as fast as I could, but in no time flat, Joel had disassembled the main engine machinery. No harm done - it's meant to be taken apart.

Since Joel has come into my life, I know without fail that I will have several minutes (if not hours...) of unfettered joy and laughter every single day. Joel and I often sit together and read a talking Star Wars book (from Golden Books). Already, he knows to press the button that shoots the TIE fighters, and the one that sends the Millennium Falcon into hyper drive. Best of all, the other day he looked at my cardboard stand-up of Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek V and said - to my delight - "Da Da!"

Monday, October 08, 2007

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 34: V:The Series - "Liberation Day"

"It can't happen here." That isn't merely the title of the satirical novel written by Sinclair Lewis in 1935, it is the very premise of Kenneth Johnson's excellent 1983 mini-series, V. The story involved alien beings called "Visitors" arriving in force on Earth, ostensibly to offer the hand of friendship.

In their spiffy red uniforms (replete with swastika-style insignias), these brothers from Sirius (actually bipedal reptiles...) promised to cure cancer, end hunger, and improve the technology of the human race. Their real agenda, however, was the takeover of the planet so that they could begin using humans as cannon fodder in their Leader's "great war" on another planet. Oh, and those humans who didn't get to die in battle would be eaten. And did I mention that the Visitors were here to steal our water supply too?

The most fascinating element of V was this powerful underlying notion of a fascist takeover of America; of the way a cowed American populace would willingly (and enthusiastically) surrender its liberties and civil rights because of "fear" and the need for "security." This is precisely what Sinclair Lewis warned against in his book, a misled (but patriotic!) populace blindly following a fascist regime and leader (one who was a far right evangelical...).

To wit, the Visitors didn't come right out and dominate the planet with force; at least not initially. No, instead the Visitors carefully created a national scapegoat - scientists, and then cast those men and women of science as "terrorists" for their beliefs.The Visitors claimed to have uncovered a conspiracy of "scientists" and before long, an enraged American citizenry was railing against those rotten scientists who wanted to ruin everything when gosh darn, those nice Visitors were just trying to help. The Visitors picked scientists because it was scientists who would first detect the "holes" and "gaps" in Visitor reasoning, and possibly expose them.

Clearly, this was a metaphor for the Nazi takeover of Germany before World War II, with scientists substituted for "Jews" as the scapegoat of a population at large. With this initial premise set, V depicted in very compelling terms how various individual Americans would react to a fascist takeover of ship and state. Some people became collaborators (especially people in big business, young picked-on kids, and more than a few voices in the media...); and some people chose to resist, at the risk of losing everything. The original miniseries managed in a breakneck four hours to comment on fascism in America, but also issues such as illegal immigration (it was a Mexican worker, in one instance, who smuggled a family of scientists past a Visitor checkpoint...), outsourcing (the Visitors were taking blue collar jobs...) and the mob mentality. Some of the miniseries' best commentary involved the ways the Visitors deliberately manipulated people with their colorful propaganda; and the series featured terrific poster art of grinning, blond Visitors (read: Nazis) helping the elderly, carrying young kids on their shoulders and extending the hand of friendship, while legends read "THE VISITORS ARE YOUR FRIENDS." Anyone who disagreed with the Visitor agenda was "disappeared" or "converted" in a torturous mind-control procedure.

For those who watched in 1983, V was the next big thing in televised sci-fi, the kind of "event" miniseries that the genre had not seen before. The mini-series was so special an initiative because great care was taken with characterization, plotting, special effects (including a night-time spaceship landing on the roof of the United Nations building), and the clever, meaningful subtext.

The mini-series boasted a good sense of humor too, particularly in a moment that found a red-state high school marching band playing the theme to Star Wars during the arrival of the first Visitor ship at a local chemical plant.

Also, the mini-series was authentically shocking. A genuine water-cooler moment - a cultural touchstone - occurred in the first installment. About half-way through the show, Mike Donovan (Marc Singer), a news crew cameraman, captured on camera the surprising and grotesque dining habits of the Visitors. In ground-breaking (but now dated) special effects, the audience saw a Visitor's jaw literally extend and distend as the alien swallowed whole a squirming, wriggling, very-much-alive guinea pig. Prolonging the terror of the moment, we saw the pig's bulk slowly sliding down the Visitor's throat...going all the way down the esophagus. This was the most freaktastic thing anyone had seen on TV up till that time, and it was the talk of the nation for at least a day or two.

V drew high ratings, which necessitated a sequel that wasn't quite as good (V: The Final Battle), and which substituted dime-store mysticism and elaborately-staged action scenes for much of Johnson's elegant and trenchant social commentary. It too was a blockbuster in the ratings, and NBC promptly ordered a regular series.

Sadly, the series was another step down in quality. The overall story became a soap opera (the series had to compete against Dallas on CBS) and V: The Series soon started to rely on tongue-in-cheek humor to an uncomfortable degree. The budget was drastically reduced too, until the human resistance seemed to consist of about three or four people and a Ford van. Still, the series was extraordinarily entertaining and added some great elements to the mythos, including a fantastic competitor for Diana, Lydia (June Chadwick of This is Spinal Tap fame...) and the biggest wedding in sci-fi TV history: that of Visitors Charles and Diana (nudge, nudge). Another episode airing about half-way through the run killed off several members of the supporting cast in a vicious but brave way, and the series ended with an edge-of-your seat cliffhanger that has never been resolved. The series is a nostalgic blast, but watching the episodes today one can see how the entire franchise was hamstrung by budgetary inadequacies and repetitive narratives. Still, that original miniseries is a genre high point.

Which brings us to "Liberation Day" by Paul Monash, the regular series premiere. V: The Final Battle had sent the alien visitors packing with the creation of a substance fatal to the Visitors, the "Red Dust" (which I always found an ironic moniker: red being the color of communism; and communism being the "antidote" some would claim, to fascism). At the end of the mini-series, the Visitors were either dead (from the Red Dust) or had escaped the planet in their giant motherships. In the last moments of V: The Final Battle, the gorgeous but evil leader of the Visitors, Diana (Jane Badler) pulled a Darth Vader and escaped from the resistance in her TIE fighter...I mean sky fighter.

So "Liberation Day" picks up with Marc Singer's character Mike Donovan going off in pursuit of the reptilian space fascist. After establishing that "she's getting away," there's an aerial dogfight over Southern California which recycles much of the battle footage from the two mini-series. Donovan shoots Diana's spaceship down, and the two adversaries then run around and tussle in the dirt. My wife Kathryn asked me at this point in the episode, why the armed Mike Donovan had not simply shot at the fleeing Diana, instead of chasing her on foot and tackling her. My point: I would have tackled and wrestled her too. Diana may be a space lizard, but she's really, really hot. She makes fascism sexy (which in a weird and effective way, really buttresses the series' main theme: that there is something seductive and appealing - one dares say "Aryan" - about this kind of evil: a gorgeous surface literally masks a dark evil; a human exterior hides a reptile brain).

Flash forward to a year later; the one year anniversary of Liberation Day, to be precise. Diana's mothership is in the hands of the American government, but the corporation Science Frontiers, run by Nathan Bates, has experienced a difficult time breaking Diana's security code and unlocking the secrets of the vast ship. Working on the project is former resistance leader Juliet Parrish (Faye Grant). Mike Donovan is jealous of Julie's friendship with Bates, and worried about his son, Sean, a boy who was "converted" (brainwashed...) by the Visitors in V: The Final Battle.

While Diana awaits trial in government custody, Elizabeth, the Visitor/human hybrid known as "The Star Child" begins to undergo metabolic change. In one scene, a news helicopter approaches Elizabeth and she uses her considerable mental powers to swat it away.

On the day of Diana's trial, Nathan Bates' arranges for the Visitor leader to be shot (courtesy of gun-for-hire, Ham Tyler [Michael Ironside]). Then a switcheroo gets pulled, and Diana is taken to Bates, where he makes a devil's bargain with her. He will provide her with the antidote to the Red Dust so she can survive, but in return she must provide a vaccine for cancer, create a pollution-free fuel, and render Earth crops pest-resistant. As Diana says, she's supposed to cure the ills of the world; but Bates points out rightly that she is already responsible for attempted genocide, not to mention cannibalism. To which she replies, "That's a matter of taste."

By episode's end, Diana has escaped from custody, murdered Mike's Visitor friend, Martin (Frank Ashmore), and reached the Southwestern Tracking Station, where she sends a signal for the Visitors to rescue her. The Visitors send a ship, and before Diana leaves the planet, she learns that the Red Dust has dissipated...and is no longer fatal to the aliens. The episode culminates with a great shot: a beautifully-composed, ominous (and cosmic...) pull back from Earth orbit, past the cratered surface of the moon itself, to a fleet of Visitor warships, just waiting to attack. The words "TO BE CONTINUED" appear on screen.

"Liberation Day" breaks with some aspects of V canon. For instance, in the miniseries all the Visitors spoke with a strange "reverb" in their voices. They no longer do so by "Liberation Day." Also, there's no mention here of the fact that the Visitors are stealing water; that item seems to have been dropped from their agenda and "to do" list.

Besides such discontinuities, "Liberation Day" bears both the strengths and weaknesses of the series as a whole. It picks up on the idea of corporations attempting to take control of assets like Diana and her mothership for profit. Nathan Bates has a real "racket" going, as Martin calls it: he developed the Red Dust that kills Visitors and then sells them the antidote pill. Also, Bates wants Diana alive so he can profit from the cancer vaccine and other advances. He says he wants human beings to profit from the alien invasion, but it is clear he'd rather just line his own pockets. Unregulated, unwatched capitalism and fascism go hand in hand, lest we forget.

The series also gives some small nod to the themes of the mini-series, particularly the "It Can't Happen Here" aesthetic. At one point, Martin (an alien) is confused that Diana is even being given a trial in the first place. On his planet, he says, "justice is swift" (which sounds like a Bushian sound-byte). Mike Donovan's reply is a championing of traditional (and now lost...) American values: "this is a democratic society. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty." That's a quaint notion (like those pesky Geneva Conventions...) that doesn't get heard much in this "War of Terror" age we now live in.

The best scene in the premiere involves the attempted assassination of Diana. The camera work is all hand-held (as if we are watching news reel footage...) when Diana - in shackles - is escorted through a crowd of protesters (carrying signs that read "Death to Diana!") and then abruptly shot by the unseen assassin. Pandemonium breaks out, and the cinema-verite feel of the scene evokes footage we saw of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald. Even here, in V's least satisfying form (episodic television), one can see that the creators are very aware of the symbolism they are crafting.

The other thing that becomes clear about V: The Series with this initial installment is that it is going to be a very, very kinky show. The Visitors eat human beings whole, and "eating" undeniably suggests a sexual connotation or component when you're talking about eating people. You'd think that a network broadcast series would shy away from that rather naughty interpretation, but the opposite is actually true. The program eventually goes whole hog in this very perverse direction. In this episode, for instance, an escaped Diana is picked up by a redneck hitchhiker in a pick-up truck. He reminds her of the Golden Rule, that he's done something nice for her and so she should do something nice for him. Well, Badler's Diana eyes up the fat cowboy lasciviously (like she's looking at a frigging menu...) and then embraces him. We cut to an exterior high angle of the pick-up truck as it begins to shake, and the cowboy's moans of pleasure quickly transform to screams of horror and pain. Implicit here is that this is an act of fellatio that ends with a new definition of "swallow." By the final episodes of the series, V had gone crazy with this kind of stuff. I remember one episode in particular, and a scene in Diana's bedroom. She orders up for supper two half-naked body-builders, all greased down for the easy devouring.

V: The Series lasted for just nineteen hour-long episodes, and every few years there are rumors of a revival or a continuation. Now would be the perfect time, if you ask me. America has drifted closer to fascism in the past seven years than I would have ever thought possible. Since Bush took office, we've seen government-authorized propaganda ("this is Karen Ryan reporting..."), the war on science (in the suppression of NASA environmental reports and even on Barbara Walter's The View...where the world is apparently flat), the scapegoating of Democrats as unpatriotic (vote for John Kerry and die in a mushroom cloud!!!), not to mention corporations brazenly profiteering off human misery (Blackwater, Halliburton, Enron, Worldcom), plus state-sanctioned torture, and the endless incarceration of people without charges ever being brought. When V was created, it was during another conservative administration (Reagan's) and it served as a parable about how all those terrible things could indeed happen here with just a little push in one direction (a push like, say, 9/11). But it was still science fiction, a leftist fantasy (and warning) about creeping fascism. Today, it really has happened here. Ann Coulter is a Visitor. At the very least, she's reptilian.

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...