Thursday, January 31, 2008

The House Between Director's Notes: "Separated"

Okay, honesty in blogging here. This episode of The House Between's second season, “Separated,” should actually be titled “Twisted.” It’s dark, sad and scary - a real emotional roller coaster ride. I also think it’s the best script I’ve ever written, and by far the strangest…and most dangerous.

“Separated” began with my good friend, Jim Blanton, who plays Arlo. At some point when we were developing the story arc for the second season of The House Between, I happened to post here on the blog an article about “Arena,” the short story by Frederic Brown that pits humans against aliens in some kind of arena/battle setting. It’s a story that virtually every science fiction TV series in history has done a variation on. The Outer Limits called it “Fun and Games.” On Star Trek it was actually “Arena.” On Space: 1999 it was “The Rules of Luton.” You can also find variations of the theme on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Blakes 7 and even Farscape. It's a durable story that can be adapted to virtually any franchise.

So Jim mentioned to me that it would be really fascinating to do a story in which Arlo has to – for some strange reason – do battle with an Outdweller to get back together to the others in the house. I loved the idea and then Jim had another great suggestion: he wanted to incorporate a small moment of homage to one of our favorite Carpenter flicks, Escape from New York. Particularly an incident between chase and fight interludes wherein the hero, Snake Plissken, stopped, pulled up a chair and paused for a moment of introspection before resuming the fight. I liked that idea too. I knew all along I wanted this to be a good Arlo story, and who better to provide some thoughts and insights than the actor who gives him life?

So the original meme on “Separated” was what I unofficially referred to in various communiqués with the cast and crew as “Arlo in Wonderland.” It was going to be a story of Arlo plunged between quantum realities. There would be one universe where he would encounter evil counterparts of his friends (like “Mirror, Mirror”), one where he was shrunken to tiny size, like The Incredible Shrinking Man, and one, finally, where he could get back home…if only he could get past an Outdweller.

But then, as I was writing, I went off on a tangent, and the rest of the script sort of wrote itself, in an odd way. I can’t really say precisely how it happened, but what I can establish for certain, my friends, is that this episode represents a fork in the road on The House Between.

For better or worse, I decided that instead of phantasmagoria and action, I was going to re-focus the entire season on stories that excavate the inner hearts of darkness of each of my beloved characters. And the core of “Separated” is still the same, but it is no longer the story of Arlo breezing through alternate realities. Instead, it’s the story of Arlo landing in one particularly dark and grim quantum reality and having to deal with life there, full-on.

You see, what’s always bothered me a little about alternate universe stories on Star Trek and its progeny is that the heroic characters, after immediately accepting their dilemma, put forward and execute intricate plans of escape to return to their universes For lack of a better word, they’re tourists. They gawk at the sights (look, a lesbianic Major Kira Nerys!), execute their plans, and leave, usually by the skin of their teeth.

I knew I didn’t want to make the same mistake. Instead, I wanted to make this a story not about alternate dimensions, but about Arlo himself. He’s a strange kid who never grew up with a real home or family, and so created “the house between” in the image of the only home he ever knew: his grandmother’s.

Suddenly, and in a very dramatic way, “Separated” became the story of Arlo's search for home, and how he countenances an unpleasant world. What he is willing to accept; and what he isn’t. It’s nothing that I had in mind originally…but that’s what "Separated" became.

The hook for “Separated” is a scientific paper I read which posits that all of us have identical twins somewhere else in this galaxy, and also in other quantum realities. So I began to obsess on the notion of Arlo landing in a universe not where the characters were traditional black hats, but where their lives had brought them to different points than “our” characters in the canon universe. Imagine pulling a single incident out of your life, and watching the present untangle without it, and you'll get an idea what I mean. Maybe you attended a different college; maybe you didn’t get divorced; maybe you chose chocolate instead of vanilla ice cream last night. How would these changes make you a different person? Are we, in the end, the results of the decisions we made (or didn’t make), and would we recognize ourselves if we chose differently?

I realize this is a weird digression, but this concept of "there but for the grace of God..." is actually something I’ve been haunted by for a long time. When I was going to college as a sophomore, driving from New Jersey to Virginia with my Mom and Dad, a strange incident happened. We were on the highway doing seventy when a heavy surfboard on the roof of the car in front of us broke free of restraints, glided through the air like a missile, and smashed into the front grille of the van we were driving. We were shocked by the collision, but unharmed.

Two days later, I met Kathryn, the love of my life, my beautiful wife, and the mother of my child.

What would have happened had I gone with my original plan, and not taken the van on that trip, but gone in the family car instead? A car where the windshield was lower; exactly where the grille was on the van?

Would we have been killed? Hurt? Would the path of my life that led to Kathryn and all the happiness I have known since, been irrevocably changed? Who would I be today (and would I be six feet under?) if just one little life choice was different?

So this notion underlies “Separated” too. We encounter a universe where, for several characters, things have taken bad turns. We still recognize Astrid, Bill, Travis and Theresa…but their experiences are different. And this has made them different too. "Separated" carries a lot of emotional weight. It's about being lost, it's about what fear and loss can to do a person, it's about the nature of religion when it is misused, and so forth. It's exactly the sort of story I want The House Between to tell.

We shot “Separated” on a Saturday, the first day of shooting the second season. Even though it’s the second episode in the queue, we wanted to shoot it first because it was the script that several of the actors had rehearsed together during readings arranged by our script assistant, Phyllis Floyd. It was a complex, long script, and it seemed like a good idea to get it out of the way.

On the day of photography, we shot the episode in a unique way. We did all of the alternate universe scenes first, and then – at the end of the day – came back to shoot the “canon” universe material.

This was distinctly strange because it was the cast & crew’s very first day assembled together after a long year apart. And the first thing we did was not re-establish the familiar (except for Jim, who played Arlo – our stranger in a strange land), but go off into this very odd, very gloomy territory. I remember being absolutely delighted with the quality of the performances and the lighting and the make-up, but I just kept thinking it was like we had all returned to a Bizarro version of The House Between.

I can’t compliment my cast enough on the acting in this episode. It’s pretty amazing to craft individual personalities and maintain them with integrity throughout a season, and then come back a year later and resurrect and improve on that work without skipping a beat. But it’s something else all together to look into these characters and be able to tweak them, and edge them in a different direction, without losing their essence or recognizability. I can't say anything else specifically, for fear of spoiling the show.

As far as incidents on the set, this is the day that Jim Blanton got punched in the jaw rehearsing a fight sequence. He was a trooper, and I think I was more upset about it than he was. He just took it in stride. But between being punched ("Separated"), frozen ("Returned") and sick with a 103 degree fever ("Distressed"), Jim had quite the week at the house at the end of the universe.

Editing "Separated" has been tough, honestly. My producer Joseph Maddrey gave me great notes, as always, and Rick Coulter (my DP) also watched an intermediate cut and provided feedback...that was exactly the opposite of Joe's. Because of my inability to reconcile these solid but contradictory opinions, I hid under my bed for a day. No, I actually took the unusual step of seeking yet ANOTHER opinion. I talked to Jim during the editing process to see how he felt, since he understands Arlo better than anyone. Usually I can decide these things for myself, weighing opinions and all, but not this time. I decided that Jim cast the deciding vote, and I think he made a good call.

And so heck - this episode is now 37 minutes long -- our longest yet!

I'm also really delighted with "Separated" because Mateo composed some fantastic music for the episode. He gave me a theme, entitled "Sympathy," which plays over a conversation between Jim and Theresa in the alternate universe. Without exaggeration, this is the most beautiful, heartbreaking piece he's yet composed (which is saying something). He also gave me amazing themes for alternate universe Astrid, alternate universe Bill, and something called "Outdweller Thoughts" which will give you the deep-down creeps. I must say, Mateo's new compositions really enhanced the show in a dramatic way.

So that's the journey we took bringing "Separated" to the (computer) screen. Hope you like it. Tune in tomorrow to see the results!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

COLLECTIBLE OF THE WEEK: 2007 Star Trek Ornaments!

It's Christmas in January! My mother-in-law in Richmond, Virginia, who always hunts Star Trek collectibles for me across the yard sales and flea markets of the state, was upset during the holidays because she couldn't find some of the gifts she had purchased for me.

Let me explain: she has two houses where she splits her time, four daughters, four son-and-laws and a whopping twelve grandchildren to buy gifts for, and understandably, it's hard to keep track of everything. And hey, it's cool -- because I found a package on my porch yesterday morning with...surprise, my Christmas presents inside. Nana came through again. Whoo-hoo.

Anyway, as you can see from the photos, I found in the package three 2007 Star Trek keepsake ornaments from Hallmark, dated 2007 (and one stamped "limited quantity.") My favorite of the three is undoubtedly this amazing ornament from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Battery operated, you "press the button on the base of the ornament to activate the sights and sounds of an epic battle scene from one of the most action-packed Star Trek films ever."

I know this next comment will reveal my utterly geeky nature, but what the heck. I love this ornament in part because of the incredible detail. In particular, Sulu's helm panel and the navigation station are pinpoint accurate in terms of the layout and design of the controls. How do I know? Well, in The Wrath of Khan there's this sweeping pan across the same console on Reliant ("The override, where's the override!"), and when I was sick in high school for like a month (carbon monoxide poisoning from a malfunctioning furnace in our old house...) I watched The Wrath of Khan every day. Over and over. Obsessively. Sometimes I would freeze-frame shots, or watch them in slow motion. So yes, I remember the controls EXACTLY. And so does this ornament. Lovely.

Next up we have gorgeous Lt. Uhura, as played by Nichelle Nichols. Even in ornament form, the lieutenant looks mighty fine in a mini-skirt. She's got that funny little listening device in one ear, and again - the console (from the original series) is very accurately depicted here. Cool!

Finally, there's the three-nacelle Enterprise D from the future, and the final episode of Next Gen, "All Good Things." I also have a Playmates toy of this ship somewhere in storage, I think. This is a cool ornament but I have to admit it bugs me a little that this was supposed to be the design o the Enterprise twenty five-years after the series, but by the time of First Contact, when a new Enterprise was built, this design was scrapped and a totally new Enterprise designed instead. Still, it's a lovely piece to own, and you can "press the button on the bottom of the ornament to see the ship's deflector dish and engines illuminate."

I have so many of these ornaments, going back to 1992, that I need three trees on which to display them. So this was a very nice post-holiday surprise and three terrific ornaments. .

Monday, January 28, 2008

Kitty Litter

I'm putting the finishing touches on the second volume of my Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film and Television and scooting it out the door to the publisher today. When I submitted the first volume in 2003, we were just beginning (thanks to Spider-Man) this current glut of genre films. Now, five years later we've seen a lot of good (Spider-Man 2, Batman Begins, Hellboy, Superman Returns) and a whole ot of bad.

In 2008 we can expect a re-boot of a re-imagination, The Incredible Hulk, and an adaptation of Iron Man. Not to mention The Dark Knight.

And that brings me to my question for the day. Which is the lowest of the low? Which production represents the absolute nadir of superhero films of the 21st century so far? I'd certainly count the first Fantastic Four (2005) as one of the most disappointing, primarily because I always thought the comic-books were clever and intelligent, and the movie was mind-numbingly stupid. I also know that many folks would select Elektra (2005), but it's almost too modest in its badness to generate that much enmity, in my opinion. It's not a great film by any means, but it plays okay as a low-rent action flick, and it doesn't have super pretensions. So many superhero films feel overwrought and overthought, and this one at least avoids that trap. Elektra might not be very good, but it isn't suffocated with digital effects and watching it isn't an exhausting, overstimulating experience.

So I guess my pick is no surprise (especially since there's a photo at the top of the post...).

Catwoman (2004), is a picture-perfect recipe for genre disaster, the Titanic of bad superhero flicks. Here's how you make a steaming cat turd like this film: Take a beloved character with sixty years of established history...and then discard every last bit of it. Then, take a universe with rich locations and connections (the DC Comic Universe)...then discard that entirely too. Finally, just go right ahead and discard the central character (Selina Kyle) and make the film about a different catwoman (Patience Phillips) instead...but still be sure to call the film Catwoman (brand naming and all). Essentially, this would be like going to a Superman movie and finding out it is not about Kal-El, but Fal-El, his less-intelligent third cousin from Krypton, who also boasts super powers. I can hear the producers laughing all the way to the bank. "You thought I meant that Superman? No, no. Sorry, but enjoy this flick about this new guy now that you're in the theater..."

Then, just to put the icing on the cake...throw in as much lousy CGI as possible. You know, before I saw the film, I used to think there had to be worse ways to spend ninety minutes than ogling Halle Berry in a cat outfit. Now, I gotta say...there really aren't. Catwoman makes you pay a high price for the thrill of this modest voyeurism. It's too high a cost, even for me, a red-blooded American male. And that's saying something.

So what's your least favorite superhero flick of recent vintage?

Friday, January 25, 2008

The House Between 2.1: "RETURNED"

This is the first episode of the second season of the online science fiction drama, THE HOUSE BETWEEN. In "Returned" (written and directed by John Kenneth Muir), the former denizens at the mysterious house at the end of the universe - Astrid (Kim Breeding), Arlo (Jim Blanton), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill T. Clark (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) - are returned to their imprisonment in the strange house, but with startling gaps in their memories. Where did they go when they left the house? How did they return? Why is the house in lockdown mode and failing to operate as before? Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The House Between 2.0 Director's Notes: "Returned"

Well, tomorrow is the big day, the launch of The House Between's second season. I re-watched the first episode last night just to make sure there were no glitches in the cut I am uploading this morning...if I can get Veoh to work. Kathryn viewed the finished show with me all the way through (she's seen scenes and earlier cuts) and told me that she got "sucked in" by the actors and the story. That's good. It's the same feedback I've heard from a few others.

"Returned" is the eighth episode of the series, the one that follows on the heels of the first season finale, "Departed?" Going back to my notes, it appears my first draft of "Returned" is dated 12/28/06, and I recall that it is the script that - from start to finish - actually took me the longest to write.

That makes sense, I suppose, since the script had to accomplish several things: in particular re-establishing the characters, relationships and central situation of the series. It then also had to push things off in a new direction for the season. Thus it was kind of a "pilot" episode all over again, both familiar and different at the same time. Given this criteria, "Returned" is "between" all right, between first season past and second season future, but watching it last night I felt confident that it also manages to tell an interesting story in and of itself.

I wrote a second draft on this story too, after I sent it to the cast and crew and got some feedback. It's amazing how you think everything is perfect and then someone else reads your work, comments on it, and you can't believe you missed some things. That's what happened here.

As you all know from reading this blog, I'm eternally inspired by the history of science fiction television and film, and watching "Returned" I catch some resonances of the form and other productions. In one character's dilemma, there's a bit of Return to Oz (1985), but then anyone writing about The House Between would have to note, I think, the multitudinous allusions to the Wizard of Oz saga in the show. There's a little taste of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, I think, in the return of one character who comes back rather cold and distant, a little like a post-Kolinahr Spock.

In theme and meaning, I don't want to give too much away before anyone has seen the show, but I think it focuses on a few ideas I find fascinating. One is the question, "what is life?" The second is my comment on guns, I suppose. Overall, if I had to choose, I'd say that underlying this story is one overriding emotion: obsession. Every character, in some way, faces an obsession about something or someone.

As far as visualizations, DP Rick Coulter and I decided that for "Returned" we would repeat as many visuals as we could from "Arrived," the first episode of the first season. This was so audiences would get the idea that things were starting over again, not just in terms of what the characters were experiencing, but how things actually looked. Form echoing content and all.

Otherwise, for me, "Returned" was one of the worst days of shooting, though there are a few days, frankly, that could easily merit that title. We shot "Returned" second in the sequence of episodes and shot our second episode, "Separated" first, because of complexities involving the actors and costume changes. Bottom line, we didn't finish "Separated" the first day, which meant that on the day we were slated to do "Returned," we were starting on the episode late. Consequently, we didn't finish "Returned" until well after 1:00 am.

To save time on a day we knew we'd be racing against the clock anyway, I made a controversial and difficult decision: we decided to shoot "Returned" totally out of sequence to hopefully make up lost hours. This meant doing all the scenes occurring in one room in the script, and then moving to another room and doing the same. Rinse and repeat. This isn't the way we usually do things on The House Between. This isn't the way I prefer to do things. I find that shooting sequentially helps the actors and me - the director - excavate the emotional content of scenes in a pretty significant way. Because of "Returned's" nature, however, we had to not only shoot sequences entirely out of script order, but shoot half-a-scene, move to another scene, and then come back to the same scene to film the opposite angle so as to feature an actor in heavy make-up. We shot one scene in the kitchen over three different time blocks.

It was difficult and stressful and weird. More to the point, it was disconcerting. I never felt that I had a good sense of "where" we were in the episode, and I know several actors complained to me that they felt the same way. And jeez, I wrote the script, so if I was disconcerted, I'm sure they were. By Day Three, we decided making time wasn't as important as sanity, and went back to shooting mostly in order (with some notable exceptions).

Oddly, when I started cutting "Returned" together, there was no trace of any problem related to our new shooting arrangement. There's always a problem with time when shooting The House Between, and we deal with that in our own ways, but I shit you not when I say that "Returned" is the best episode of the first eight.

It's weird, because I didn't feel good about it on the day of the shoot, but now watching it...I'm very happy. This has taught me that no matter how much I pontificate, I can never predict before the editing stage how an episode is actually going to turn out. I remember I had the happiest day on THB last year shooting our Outdweller show, "Visited" but my first cut wasn't - plainly speaking - very good. I had to re-think the whole show and go with some impressionistic editing and it ultimately turned out pretty good. But if you had asked me on the day we shot, I was sure I had directed a masterpiece. The opposite was true here: during shooting of "Returned" I had a sinking feeling the episode was slipping away from me. Watching the episode, it's - as Kathryn described it - tight.

So the editing process went well, except that a 39 page script ended up being over forty-four minutes long on screen.

Mateo has scored some new pieces for "Returned," and there's one I particularly like, called "Hypnosis." It somehow manages to evoke the more chilling moments of 1960s Doctor Who or possibly Sapphire & Steel. It's nice to know that even after a year and an entirely new set of stories, we haven't fallen too far astray from my original notion of paying homage to that style of Brit sci-fi TV (with visual reference to Twilight Zone and One Step Beyond).

So that's the tale behind-the-scenes on "Returned." I will be opening up a "Returned" thread on The House Between discussion board tomorrow, when the episode goes up. I'd really love to hear from y'all about your thoughts on the show. Audience feedback is part of the learning experience too.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK #47: The Prisoner (1967-68): "Arrival"

In the Valhalla of genre television there is nothing even remotely like The Prisoner, the late-1960s British allegory that focuses explicitly on the idea that "no man is just a number." 

With steadfast zeal and an almost radical sense of dedication and single-mindedness The Prisoner devotes itself to the ideals of individual freedom and liberty, and finds that contemporary Western society -- here represented by a hermetically-sealed Village -- doesn't measure up.

The Prisoner opens with a beautifully-photographed and symbolic montage that is seen in every one of the seventeen hour-long segments. 

Images of dark clouds form before our eyes as a thunderclap blares on the soundtrack. Next, we are gazing at an image of pure personal freedom: a solitary man driving a small sports car down a long, empty road, the wind blowing his hair. 

He appears confident and liberated, unfettered by anything or anyone. 

The driver then pulls into 1960s metropolitan London, enters a parking deck, and marches decisively through two doors marked with the legend "way out" visible in the frame. It's clear at this point that the man, Patrick McGoohan has a full-head of steam and -- in his quest for self-determination -- indeed seeks a "way out." We see him walk a long, narrow hall, his feet accelerating. A low-angle shot reveals him swinging open double doors with anger; the angle telling us he is powerful, menacing even, and about to establish his independence.

This man is next depicted in what appears to be a government office as he lectures his superior, and throws down a resignation letter in a white envelope. 

Two things about this portion of the opening montage feel ominous. First, there is no "live" sound (meaning no voice), so that even as this courageous man asserts his freedom of self-determination and free speech, the audience is denied the substance of his arguments. Literally, his individual voice is squelched. 

Secondly, the only sound we do hear is another series of menacing thunderclaps.

 Clearly, this is a portentous moment. All is not as the Man believes it is. He is expressing himself loudly, but to the audience this is futile...he is silenced. His words are drowned out.

The man, a government agent we presume, then leaves the office and returns to his apartment, where he begins to pack his bags. 

Here, The Prisoner's opening montage trenchantly inter-cuts between a free man who has asserted his will and the automatic mechanisms of a vast, overreaching, impersonal bureaucracy.

As the man plans his future his own way, the State initiates a contradictory strategy: a robotic machine stamps out his personal ID Card with a row of "XXXXXX", and then dumps it in a file cabinet marked "RESIGNED." 

A plan is set into motion.

In short order, our protagonist is then gassed by strangers (representatives of a government either foreign or domestic...) and rendered unconscious. He awakes some time later to find himself in a different locale, a strange little burg, "The Village;" a place that's a bizarre melange of Old World architectural-styles and modern conveniences. It's an odd combination of idyllic past (where almost everyone wears a hat and carries an umbrella) with the impersonal technological present (public telephones, information kiosks, etc.).

As the Prisoner soon learns, everything about this place is uncomfortably generic. There are labels everywhere, but the labels are so vague as to be virtually meaningless. There's "The Cafe," "The Restaurant" and so forth. When the Prisoner reads a map (which he gets at a "General Store"), it is equally useless, pinpointing landmarks such as ""The Mountains," "The Sea," and "The Beach."

On the map, the strange town is labeled not merely as the Village, but importantly as "Your Village," meaning it ostensibly belongs to the denizens; meaning it belongs to the Prisoner himself.

As "Arrival" continues, The Prisoner begins to explore his digs ("your home from home," a welcome card reads on a small table in his new apartment), and as he takes a taxi through the center of the town there are several point-of-view, first-person subjective shots of his ride.

This selection of angles is efficacious for a number of reasons. The first-person perspective puts us in the Prisoner's position, permitting the viewer to feel as though we are the ones trapped. 

However, it also affords us a continuous look at the Village, so that as viewers we immediately understand this is not some Hollywood set or constructed sound stage. 

One of the facets that I've always admired about The Prisoner is this powerful sense of place, of another world (and the Village is, in fact, a place called Portmeiron in North Wales.) The series would not be so effective if the Village seemed fake or like a set. This is the oddest "jail" you've ever seen, yet it feels real, not gimmicky or the product of special effects.

The taxi ride ends precisely where it started, and returning to where we started is a common theme on The Prisoner, taken right up through the climax of the ultimate episode. 

The Prisoner is then left to learn more about his odd new environs on foot. Loudspeakers in the public square pipe in generic music and make civic announcements. A disembodied voice makes selections for the denizens. "The flavor of the day is strawberry," is an example of one such proclamation, indicating that all the denizens - regardless of personal preference - will enjoy strawberry on this occasion. 

Welcome to the totalitarian village, where the State regulates every aspect of private, public and civic behavior. Even your ice cream will be chosen for you.

The Prisoner is invited to the building with the green dome to share breakfast with a man who identifies himself as # 2. 

Inside the traditional interior of #2's house is a bizarre inner sanctum reflective of some 1960s concepts of futurism. There are bowl-style rotating chairs, giant view screens (displaying strange floating globules...) and James Bond-ian low ceilings and interiors; ones where chairs rise suddenly from subterranean platforms.

It is here that # 2 and his diminutive manservant -- a silent dwarf -- seem to be aware of the Prisoner's meal preferences before he states them aloud. This is another indicator that Big Brother - the State - has been paying close attention. The State knows their new ward prefers lemon in his tea and two eggs with his bacon. 

Nothing has gone unnoticed.

Before long, this "working breakfast" gets down to business. Number # 2 reveals that The Prisoner is being held at the Village (his Village, mind you), over a "question" of his resignation. He has had a "brilliant career," and "impeccable records" and is now a "valuable property" on the open market. It is Number # 2's job to check his motives and allegiances. Why did this man, this loyal man, resign his post?

The Prisoner informs Number # 2 of nothing, but then sees images from his entire life (his schooling, his youth, his morning bathroom routine...) displayed before him on a large screen. His society has been watching him all along, collecting data, gathering information. 

"One likes to know everything," asserts Number #2. 

He makes it sound harmless, but it isn't. Privacy is a myth. A government that believes it knows what is best for you needs to protect you at all times...and to do that, it needs to watch you at all times, doesn't it?

At this intrusion, the Prisoner responds with a comment that has become the mantra of this classic series: "I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own."

Bold words, and this Prisoner, who is designated uncooperative and aggressive by the Powers that Be for his refusal to comply with the State, refuses to bend. He is given a number (Six), and subsequently refuses that number. "I am not a number. I am a person," he insists.

"Everyone has a number," #2 counters. 

And he's right. Today (in America), we all do have numbers. They're called Social Security Numbers. They're called Driver's License Numbers. If you want to own a business, they are called Tax ID numbers, or Employee Identification Numbers. If your computer breaks down, the first thing you have to do is give a tech (in India) your model number and serial number. If the police want to find you for some reason, they will key off another number, your license plate number. If someone wants to contact you, they dial your telephone number. Want to access your bank account, well what's the account number? 

You get the picture. The numbering and filing (and thus categorizing) of people has increased exponentially since the time of The Prisoner and in that sense, this classic series certainly qualifies as prophetic.

The remainder of "Arrival" follows Number Six's attempts to escape the Village by air, by sea, by whatever means necessary. Blocking his path is a roaring, whistling, bouncing white balloon of colossal proportions. 

What is it? 

"That would be telling" is the only, cryptic answer.Those who disobey or attempt to escape are absorbed by this strange device. Number Six also learns that various denizens of the Village are agents, double agents or spies with their own agenda. He can trust no one.

In accordance with this realization, the episode (and all episodes of the series) end with a highly expressionistic and powerful image. 

As we gaze at a high-angle, long-distance shot of the spires and towers of the Village (a shining city on a hill?), we suddenly spy the Prisoner's determined face racing towards the camera, increasing in size and velocity as it hurtles at us. 

Just as it is about to break the fourth wall and smash into us, two grey doors -- barred jail doors -- slam shut on his face (with a reverberating clang), demonstrating his continued and eternal entrapment. 

And make no mistake, this represents our entrapment too, according to The Prisoner.

At the heart of "Arrival" and all the episodes of The Prisoner is the notion that modern Western Civilizations are making inappropriate intrusions into the private lives of citizenry.

The Village is a perfect example of a totalitarian state because of the methods it utilizes to control the people it "benevolently" safeguards. 

One such method is propaganda. For example, in "Arrival," Number Six visits the Labour Exchange and there are several placards hanging on the wall, ones decorated with Village slogans. 

Among them: "a still tongue makes a happy life," and my personal favorite, "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself." 

Such slogans are a mind-numbing short-cut to thinking for ourselves.

Another way a totalitarian state controls its people is by the use of mass surveillance, again another tact demonstrated by the Village. There are whole control rooms filled with technicians watching the citizenry. 

In fact, even Number # 2 is being watched. There are bugs in the phones, in the lamps -- everywhere.With GPS technology, satellites in space and the NSA, there is no such thing as privacy in America anymore. We are the Village or soon will be, in a very real sense.  And again, this isn't about being a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative.

I also had to laugh at a moment in "Arrival" when a bald technician announced an "orange alert" since in this War on Terror Age, we have quickly grown accustomed to color coded alert systems just like this to tell us just how afraid we should be. Again - inciting fear and citing security are other ways a totalitarian state grasps and holds power.

But most importantly, a totalitarian state truly comes into power when the state begins to control religion and the media, blurring the separation between church and state and controlling the messages people receive. In The Prisoner, the Village runs its own newspaper, has its own health care system (which looks a lot like torture...), controls commerce and job creation (through the Labor Exchange) and yet claims to have democratic elections. Again, in the last eight years, we've seen government pushing propaganda as legitimate news reports ("this is Karen Ryan reporting..."), and the line between government and religion was crossed with "faith-based" initiatives. Again, The Prisoner has been proven positively prophetic in its depiction of a totalitarian state in which technology wipes out personal freedom and individual liberties (not to mention privacy).

Patrick McGoohan, star and executive producer of the series has gone on record saying (in a 1977 interview with Warner Troyer): 

"I think progress is the biggest enemy on earth, apart from oneself...We're run by the Pentagon, we're run by Madison Avenue, we're run by television, and as long as we accept those things and don't revolt we'll have to go along with the stream to the eventual avalanche… As long as we go out and buy stuff, we're at their mercy. We're at the mercy of the advertiser and of course there are certain things that we need, but a lot of the stuff that is bought is not needed…We all live in a little Village… Your village may be different from other people's villages but we are all prisoners."
In explicitly discussing "progress," I believe McGoohan was pointing out the ways that so much new technology - especially in the hands of Big Government - can be corrupted or perverted to steal away the things we hold most precious; the freedom to do as we choose, when we choose, with whom we choose. Men like Number Six find this social contract unacceptable. Do you? If so, I highly recommend The Prisoner, an artistic series that is to science fiction television what Orwell's 1984 is to literature.

The Village's salute -"Be seeing you" - is not just a pleasant way of saying au revoir, it's an acknowledgment that your neighbor and "democratically elected" representative will - in fact, be seeing you. On monitors, in computer rooms, on spread sheets. You are being watched.

Monday, January 21, 2008

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 73: Electroman (Ideal; 1977)

In the mid 1970s, post-Watergate, post-Vietnam, post-Energy Crisis, America was looking for nostalgic superheroes, ones who could wash away the national blues with the time-honored principles of truth, justice and the American way. On television, The Six Million Dollar Man, Wonder Woman and The Bionic Woman spoke meaningfully to that urgent desire, racking up considerable ratings and meeting with tremendous popularity.

On toy shelves, it was the same story, The Six Million Dollar Man line from Kenner was big business, and left the other toy companies scrambling to compete. Mattel came up with Pulsar: The Ultimate Man of Adventure (a man in a black-and-red jogging suit with a transparent torso). Hasbro re-fitted G.I. Joe as the futuristic SuperJoe. And Ideal came up with an even more bizarre superhero, the 16 inch-tall super dude, Electroman!

Described as "Ideal's amazing electronic sentinel," Electroman (we don't know his secret identity...) wears a bright red, black and yellow uniform with a dazzling "E" (for Electroman, we presume..) emblazoned on his barrel-sized torso. He also wears tall black boots and a yellow cape.

The hero's oddest fashion statement, however, is no doubt his elaborate helmet, a clunky red affair that shoots laser beams (really just a flashlight, okay?). By adjusting a knob on the base of Electroman's neck, you can change the settings of the laser ray from Stun, to Radar, to Guard. Toy catalogs described the settings this way: "Electroman's computer brain can detect the slightest movement and sound a warning...In radar position, he sends out flickering light that changes to a steady beam when he finds an enemy position." Electroman runs on three C size batteries.

Electroman's nemesis was sold separately, a brown hulking monster ("half man/half monster") with red eyes, white fangs and a reflector embedded in his head, "Zogg The Terrible." Zogg was described on his black box as "A Creature so awesome only Electroman or you can defeat him." Zogg also came with a black and red laser gun which you could use to zap him, if you didn't want to summon Electroman and his strange head gear. When hit with Electroman's laser ray, Zogg would topple over. Mission accomplished.
An odd historical footnote: Electroman actually shared his colorful costume (but not his helmet) with a foxy chick named Black Magic Crissy, a tall African-American woman in white platform shoes. She came with five different hair attachments, but I'm not sure what her superpowers were.

You can see images of Electroman and his foe in action (with catalog copy) at Plaid Stallions, one of my current Internet obsessions (which gazes at all facets of 1970s culture, including toys).

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Treat Her Like a Lady

In short, that's the sum total of my advice to producer/director J.J. Abrams.

Treat the starship Enterprise in the new Star Trek movie like a lady...and she'll always bring you (and the box office...) home.

In fairness, this philosophy appears to be precisely the approach Abrams has already adopted. Like every other geek on the net, I've seen images from the teaser trailer, which reveal the new Enterprise, NCC-1701, under construction, and I have to admit...I'm very impressed. The design of the ship, no matter what the nitpickers say, is certainly as close to the 1960s design as was the 1979 Motion Picture version. This isn't an "almost totally new Enterprise" as Commander Decker might say, but a familiar ship with familiar details. It looks beautiful and awe-inspiring; like a lady I could very much fall in love with.

In the months ahead, we're all going to be tempted to second guess the new movie. Is the right actor playing young Kirk? Do the Vulcans look like Romulans? Where is Gary Mitchell? Didn't Kirk serve on the Farragut before serving on the Enterprise? That's what fans like us do. We can't help it. I know I can't help it.

But we should also remember the inconvenient truth that Star Trek has never been 100% faithful to its own history. Remember when it was set in the 28th century ("The Squire of Gothos") or when Spock was a "Vulcanian?" Remember how the Enterprise served in that famous organization called UESPA (United Earth Space Probe Agency...)? Remember how the bridge of the Klingon Bird of Prey inexplicably changed designs between Star Trek III and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home? Peel back a few layers of Star Trek and you can see that there are plenty of contradictions and continuity errors.

Now don't misinterpret me. I want a faithful Star Trek movie, but at the same time, I desperately want a Star Trek movie that my son Joel, when he is old enough, will love. I want a film that will inspire a generation of kids. I want today's kids to grow up with a reinvigorated, exciting, adventurous and bold Star Trek...a moral, progressive and heartfelt franchise like the one I grew up with and which, in many ways, made me the person I am today. I don't want Next Gen political correctness, I don't want the Love Boat in Space where the crew's family beams up to the Enterprise to go through some uninspiring family drama. I don't want fictional adventures in Holodecks...that's masturbation, not boldly going. And I don't want the United Nations in Space. I want what Star Trek was once about: space exploration....going where no man has gone before. I want excitement, adventure, and heart. I want Captain Horatio Hornblower in space again...not some kind of incestuous, insular vision that only a few die-hard Trekkies can appreciate. We must re-define faithful, I believe, in this case. I want a film that is faithful to Star Trek's pioneer spirit and Star Trek's swashbuckling heart. If I get that, but Kirk never served on the Farragut, be it.

So let's hope Abrams treats the Enterprise like that bold lady of the stars that launched on TV screens on September 8, 1966. Today - watching that teaser trailer - I feel that's exactly what he's going to do. I must admit, it makes me feel...young.

Listen to last night's Destinies!

My wonderful friend (and fellow Space:1999 aficionado) Phil Merkel has uploaded last night's Destinies episode, in which Howard Margolin and I discuss Season Two of The House Between. I had a great time doing the show (my ninth appearance on Destinies...) and as usual Howard was a thorough, prepared and witty host. You can listen to the entire broadcast here.

Also, at Phil's super cool site, you can see he has created a pretty nifty collage of The House Between images. How cool is that? I posted one banner above, but he's assembled a number of images from the updcoming second season, and tied them all together with - what else? - that mysterious house at the end of the universe.

Thanks, Phil! Thanks, Howard!

Friday, January 18, 2008

Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction in 30 Minutes

Hey everybody, don't forget, I'm on live with Dr. Howard Margolin at 11:30 pm, EST, on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction. We're talking about The House Between and the upcoming second season. Join us, won't you?

The House Between: "Returned" Teaser

I can't believe it, but it's just one short week until The House Between 2.0 begins. The premiere episode is titled "Returned," and today I wanted to feature a teaser for the episode. Next week, I'll be blogging my director's notes for the episode, covering the writing, shooting and editing of "Returned." And boy do I have some stories to tell...

And don't forget, I'm on Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction tonight to talk about the entire second season with Dr. Howard Margolin. Tune in

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The House Between Meets Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction

I'm honored and happy to be appearing as a guest on Dr. Howard Margolin's long-running genre radio talk show, Destinies: The Voice of Science Fiction, this Friday night, January 18, at 11:30 pm.

We will be discussing the return of The House Between and its second season (which begins a week from Friday, the 25th.)

This will be my ninth appearance on Destinies, and I'm looking forward to it with great anticipation, in no small part because it's a special occasion for the long-running radio show. My appearance on Friday will mark Howard's 850th consecutive show. Wow! I'm glad I'll get the chance to congratulate him on this achievement.

Make sure you tune in to see if I reveal any series spoilers. (My producers will kill me...). You can tune in here.

CULT TV FLASHBACK #46: Prey: "Existence"

"We've just been bumped down the food chain."

That was the tag line for ABC's short-lived science-fiction/horror TV series from 1998. Entitled Prey, the series was created by William Schmidt and featured a pre-stardom Debra Messing (of Will & Grace fame) as intrepid Sloane Parker, a geneticist at Whitney University's Department of Anthropology. In the first episode, she discovered that a hostile new species - a lookalike species - was gaining power in North America.

"Neanderthals ruled for 300,000 years," the first episode of Prey (entitled "Existence") reminds viewers. "They must have thought nothing would ever stand in the way of their dominance," lectures Sloane's boss, Dr. Ann Coulter (no, not her...). She also informs the audience that "two species cannot occupy the same ecological niche at the same time."

This warning means that homo sapiens and the new species, known as homo dominants, are bound for a clash. Throughout the thirteen hour-long episodes of Prey that aired from January 15, 1998 to July 9, 1998, that's precisely what happened, with Sloane, her assistant, Dr. Ed Tate (Vincent Ventresca) and one of the dominants, Tom Daniels (Adam Storke) investigating the history, evolution and plans of this new threat to mankind.

It is learned in "Existence," for instance, that not only do the dominants Walk Among Us, but they may have originated from what Sloane describes as "environmental disruption," in particular global warming. She describes the phenomenon as being one that's been occurring for a hundred years, not a decade. Paging Al Gore! We also learn that the homo dominants share less in common with humans than we do with chimps. There's just a 1.1 gene differentiation between humans and chimps, while there's a 1.6 differentiation between human and dominant. Sloan and Ed also find out in "Existence" (to their dismay) that there are at least six of the dominants somewhere in Southern California...and many of them are murderers and monsters like the serial killer Richard Lynch.

Prey originated in the Golden Age of X-Files-spawned television. You remember, don't you? The epoch of Dark Skies (1996), Sleepwalkers (1997), The Burning Zone (1997), Strange World (1999) and the like. None of these series lasted very long, though some (like Dark Skies and Prey) showed tremendous promise.

Over the course of Prey's dozen or so episodes, Sloan grew close to Tom Daniels, and learned that the dominants were utterly lacking in human emotions but had ESP ("Discovery"), and were bent on the total domination of the human race. One episode, "Progeny" gazed at the issue of high school violence just months before Columbine. Yet Prey was truly prophetic in the sense that it forecasted the pervasive Age of Terror fear that the person beside you is actually a scary "other," not a sleeper agent, insurgent or suicide bomber, but a malevolent extra-species agent out to get you.

Prey was an efficient horror initiative because it focused on the ultimate apocalypse scenario for our species, mankind's involuntary replacement at the hands of superior beings. Yet those beings are not aliens or monsters, as is typical for the genre, but rather personifications the process of evolution, Mother Nature herself. Since Darwin and his theories are the incipient force behind Prey, the series raised provocative questions about survival of the fittest, our own prehistory (we supplanted the Neanderthals 40,000 years ago, why shouldn't the same happen to us now?) and of course, our own assumed destiny as the dominant life form on the planet.

Each episode of Prey handled these ideas well, and in extremely entertaining fashion, making it a series which ultimately obsessed on the nature of humanity. For instance, emotions do not exist in the Homo dominants. Does this fact reveal that emotions are actually destructive, an impediment to human survival, and therefore a quality to be bred out of our successors? Or does the lack of emotion in the new species signal the fact that Homo dominants represent a blind alley, genetically speaking, a creature less perfect than the one who came before?

Such notions of evolution are played out here on a stage filled with paranoia. The Homo dominants look like us, so they can infiltrate government agencies, hospitals, schools, law enforcement and the like, and do grave damage to human institutions. Prey thus remembers that the one essential fact of human existence is that all persons stand alone and separate inside their own head. We do not know what other people are thinking because we are individual, lonely organisms who depend on clumsy tools like the written word or spoken language to convey ideas. Prey exploits this fact by putting its protagonists into situations where it is difficult, if not impossible, to guess who is "the real enemy." To coin a phrase, Sloane can trust no one. At least not without conducting a DNA test first.

Given such a contemporary, relevant premise (in the War on Terror Age), Prey's only big flaw as a genre initiative was that it was ahead of its time.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Saturday Morning Blast from the Past

What I'm Reading Now...

From the back cover: "When Star Trek debuted in 1966, it presented an inspiring vision of a voyage into the unknown reaches of space. Now one of the longest running and most multifaceted franchises in television history, Star Trek has addressed everything from social, political, philosophical, and ethical issues to progressive and humanist representations of race, gender and class.

These essays contend that Star Trek is not just a set of television series, but part of the identity of the millions who watch and read the films, television episodes, books and fan stories..."

Some of the essays in the book include: "Crossing the Racial Frontier: Star Trek and Mixed Heritage Identities," "Save the Whales and Beware Wilderness: Star Trek and American Environmental Views," and "Eight Days That Changed American Television: Kirk's Opening Narration."

I'm looking forward to delving more deeply into this one.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Don't You Need An Arlo Apron?

Or perhaps I could interest you in a Midnight Wall Clock?

The House Between
Merchandise Store is now open for business (with all receipts going to production of the third season...) . Go ahead, you know you want that apron...

McFarland's Latest Film Books

Here's what's currently on tap from McFarland, the premier publisher of film and television reference books. I'm particularly interested in the Kubrick and Chaplin books. In college, I participated in the making of a modern Chaplin-style film short, and I know from first-hand experience how he made the incredibly difficult look positively effortless. As for Kubrick, I never get tired of re-visiting his work, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to A Clockwork Orange to Full Metal Jacket to Eyes Wide Shut.

This comprehensive reference guide introduces James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon for contemporary students and general readers. The opening section provides a summary of Hilton’s life and describes his circumstances at the time of writing the novel. This is followed with a chapter-by-chapter summary of the plot, a glossary of words and phrases which may be helpful to twenty-first century readers, and an alphabetically arranged guide to the novel’s characters. In addition, the author examines the initial critical reception of the book, its publishing history, and the success of its major film adaptations in separate chapters. Several appendices provide recommended questions for discussion and Hilton’s original preface to Lost Horizon.

Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick had a great talent for creating memorable images—such as his famous jump cut from a bone tossed into the prehistoric sky to a spaceship orbiting the earth in 2001. Like the composer of a great symphony, Kubrick also had the ability to draw his memorable moments into a lyrical whole. Balancing harmony with discord, he kept viewers on edge by constantly shifting relationships among the dramatic elements in his movies. The results often confounded expectations and provoked controversy, right up through Eyes Wide Shut, the last film of his life.This book is an intensive, scene-by-scene analysis of Kubrick’s most mature work—seven meticulously wrought films, from Dr. Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut. In these films, Kubrick dramatized the complexity and mutability of the human struggle, in settings so diverse that some critics have failed to see the common threads. Rasmussen traces those threads and reveals the always shifting, always memorable, always passionately rendered pattern

The Art of Charlie Chaplin
This thorough critical study of Chaplin’s films traces his acting career chronologically, from his initial appearance in 1914’s Making a Living to his final starring role in 1957’s A King in New York. Emphasizing Chaplin’s technique and the steady evolution of his Tramp character, the author frames the biographical details of Chaplin’s life within the context of his acting and filmmaking career, giving special attention to the films Chaplin directed/produced.

Music and Mythmaking in Film
This work studies the conventions of music scoring in major film genres (e.g., science fiction, hardboiled detective, horror, historical romance, western), focusing on the artistic and technical methods that modern composers employ to underscore and accompany the visual events. Each chapter begins with an analysis of the major narrative and scoring conventions of a particular genre and concludes with an in-depth analysis of two film examples from different time periods. Several photographic stills and sheet music excerpts are included throughout the work, along with a select bibliography and discography.

Theme Song of the Week # 13: VR.5 (1995)

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Report to the Transporter Room (For Landing Party Duty):

Friday, January 11, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 45: The Next Step Beyond (1978-1979): "The Haunted Inn"

"The dramatization you are about to see is based on an actual investigated and documented case of psychic phenomenon. It is...the next step beyond."
-Opening narration for
The Next Step Beyond

The original One Step Beyond, a paranormal anthology which ran on network television from 1959-1961, remains one of television's classic ventures: a stylish, beautifully-shot and impeccably written) creepfest. Hosted by the late, great John Newland (who also directed all 96 installments of the show), the series always attempted to present its stories of the paranormal in accurate fashion (while still allowing for dramatic license).

Some of the great One Step Beyond episodes include 'If You See Sally," about a trucker picking up a strange young girl on a lonely road by thick of night. Or "Night of April 14," concerning the web of psychic events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. Or "The Haunted U-Boat," or "The Clown," or the truly outlandish (and utterly disturbing...) "Ordeal on Locust Street," which concerned...well, I can't tell you because that would ruin it.

Despite the artistic and popular success of this black-and-white series, not many viewers recall that almost twenty years after the premiere of One Step Beyond, John Newland was back on the air fronting a sequel or follow-up series, a 1978 effort that ran in syndication for one season, entitled The Next Step Beyond.

Unfortunately, this sequel had a meager budget ($92,000 per half-hour installment), and could not afford to shoot on film. Instead, the still-distinctly imperfect medium of videotape was recruited for the series. This was a severe blow to the look, atmosphere and feel of the series, a true and lasting pleasure of the original. In an interview with me for my book An Analytical Guide to TV's One Step Beyond, Mr. Newland spoke to me about the video-taped look of The Next Step Beyond. "It was very inferior quality," he readily acknowledged.
"We thought videotape was the medium of the future, but the results were not what we had in mind. We switched to 16mm half way through the series..."

Another problem with The Next Step Beyond was perhaps more serious in nature: the stories were -- for the most part - remakes of tales already dramatized on One Step Beyond.
"The remakes were a bad idea," Newland admitted to me. "We thought we could fool the audience, and we soon learned we couldn't."

It was for these reasons that John Newland counted The Next Step Beyond as the most disappointing experience of his long and auspicious Hollywood career. Fatally flawed by a cheap look and stale narratives, the sequel to a genuine treasure was a series that pleased no one...and then disappeared entirely from view; not granted even a cursory second hearing in reruns during the heyday of cable stations such as the Sci-Fi Channel.

One of the few episodes of The Next Step Beyond that was not a remake was "The Haunted Inn," written by Harry Spalding and directed by Alan Jay Factor. It stars James Keach as a wandering painter named Chris Stabler. As the episode opens he is on a road trip in a rural area - near "the crossroads" - but he misses his exit by sixty miles and is subsequently given directions to a nearby inn by a mysterious woman wearing a white dress. He proceeds to the inn, and promptly heads into what Newland's narration terms "an area of experience denied to most of us. He will find it by turns intriguing, puzzling, moving and eventually threatening, shocking and terrifying. It will leave him with a memory that will haunt him the rest of his days."

At the Inn, Chris is welcomed by a gaunt, creepy innkeeper named Peter Combs, and the other two guests staying there: an elderly ghost story writer named Mrs. Argus and lovely Lucianne...the very woman in white who directed him to the inn, but who enigmatically claims to have never met him before.

By night, Chris has trouble sleeping because he keeps hearing the raucous sounds of partying in the inn. When he goes to check on those rowdy guests, however, he learns there is no one there. There is no party...or so it seems. Investigating later, he and Mrs. Argus come across physical evidence of a party (overturned chairs and so forth), but actual party guests.

Chris and Mrs. Argus continue to hear the strange sounds as the days progress, and Chris decides to take Lucianne and get out before something dangerous happens. He invites Mrs. Argus to join them, but she wants to stay. "I've never actually seen a ghost," she says. "I have to see what I have to see."

His last night in the Inn, Chris is visited in his bedroom not by the lover he expects, but a transformed Lucianne: a milky-eyed terror, a cackling demoness and apparition. Chris flees the supernatural siren and the inn after he spies the innkeeper - also with dead white eyes - strangling Mrs. Argus.

Chris goes to the police, who report to him that the Inn burned down several years ago. It once belonged to a wealthy young woman who liked to throw wild parties there. She committed suicide after one such event, and the townspeople - tired of the drama - torched the inn. It's been nothing but cinders for years. So Chris was staying in...what?

The episode's kicker: the sheriff and Chris find Mrs. Argus's twister body; her face frozen in an expression of sheer terror. She was murdered by an apparition, the ghost she just had to see for herself...

There are other episodes of The Next Step Beyond which are more accurate to the details of paranormal literature, but none which go for balls-to-the-wall, visceral horror like "The Haunted Inn." The goal here is simply to scare and there's something about the cheap look of the videotape and the simplicity of this "ghost story" that works in tandem to create an occasionally unnerving half-hour. Not a great show, but a decent one. And sadly, it's probably the best The Next Step Beyond ever got.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

SyFy Portal Visits The House Between!

Sy Fy Portal's Marx Pyle just published an in-depth interview with me on the subject of my returning online sci-fi series, The House Between at the popular genre web site. Here's a snippet of a "Conversation in The House Between":

It doesn’t have the budget of some of the more popular Web series, but it does have heart. It also has on board Muir, best known as an award-winning author of more than 20 reference books covering film and television including "An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith," "The Encyclopedia of Superhero on Film and Television," "Horror Films of the 1970s," and "Terror Television."

Last year, however, Muir decided to take the plunge and try his own hand at creating a TV series by avoiding the middleman and airing it on the Internet..."

Check out the rest of the article!

Star Trek Blogging: "The Naked Time"

Stardate 1704.2: The U.S.S. Enterprise (NCC-1701) orbits distant Psi 2000, an ancient world on the verge of breaking up. The crew's mission: to recover the planet-bound science team, and monitor the disintegration of the planet.

Unfortunately, the landing party (consisting of half-Vulcan science officer Spock [Leonard Nimoy] and Joe Tormolen) discovers that the entirety of the science team is dead...and dead under very odd conditions indeed. 

One woman has been strangled. An engineer is dead at his post, frozen to death because life support was de-activated, and another man died in the shower fully-clothed. 

Tormolen unwittingly brings this unique form of "space madness" back to the starship after removing a protective glove (to scratch his nose...), and coming into contact with a contaminated console.

This "disease" spreads rapidly aboard the Enterprise as Captain Kirk and the others see "hidden personality traits forced" into the open among their comrades. 

This symptom means that Mr. Sulu (George Takei) becomes a swashbuckler. 

This means that Nurse Christine Chapel (Majel Barrett) confesses her undying love to Mr. Spock. 

Even the logical Mr. Spock is infected too, lamenting the fact that he could never tell his mother that he loved her. Kirk is not immune, either.  He admits the personal cost he's paid to serve as captain of the Enterprise, not the least of which is his isolation from the men and women he leads.

"No beach to walk on," Kirk muses wistfully.

Soon, events spiral out of control. A contaminated Lt. Kevin Riley commandeers Engineering  and shuts down the engines. This means that as the planet breaks up, the Enterprise can't escape orbit. Scotty (James Doohan) proclaims dramatically that he "can't change the laws of Physics" and re-start the engines cold.   

Things look grim until Kirk snaps Spock out of his crying jag.  Once rational again, Spock realizes that there is a formula for cold engine start up, one that has never been tested.  

In the end, Dr. McCoy (DeForest Kelley) finds a cure for the disease, and the Enterprise barely escapes Psi 2000 as it cracks up, utilizing a dangerous new intermix formula which generates a time warp. 

"The Naked Time" (By John D.F. Black and directed by Marc Daniels) is not just an exciting Star Trek story from early in the series' historic first season, but the prototype and creative wellspring for much of episodic science fiction television. 

In essence, "The Naked Time" finds a useful plot device -- here an alien molecule/disease that acts on the human blood stream like alcohol intoxication -- by which the writer can excavate the hidden, buried, or repressed facets of the lead characters. This is important because there are things that characters will never realistically reveal to others, all things being equal. 

All things aren't equal, here, however, and the characters reveal new, deeper shades.

Star Trek went back to this "Naked Time" well at least a few times over is three seasons, with variable results. "This Side of Paradise" employs alien spores to give Spock a love story, to great emotional effect. 

Oppositely, the third season's "And the Children Shall Lead" uses Gorgon-powered evil tykes to reveal that Uhura is afraid of aging, and expose Kirk's fear -- again --  of losing command. That episode is generally considered one of the worst of the seriesStar Trek: The Next Generation went boldly where the original series had gone before in a story called "The Naked Now" in 1987, which revived the threat (alien disease) to vex the crew of the Enterprise-D.  Ironically, the disease there seemed to reveal less diverse behavior among the crew; basically that all the women on the ship (Crusher, Troi and Yar) were sexually-deprived.  The answer to this deprivation, amazingly, was more suppression.  Captain Picard opined in the episode's coda that they would make a fine crew "if" they could "avoid temptation."

Another facet of "The Naked Time" that bears repeating: technically, it's the first time travel episode on the classic series. 

Spock develops a formula that sends the Enterprise back in time three days, or seventy-one hours.. In the final scene, he says to Kirk that time travel is now longer a theory but a reality. Kirk opens up the door to a whole bunch of stories by replying "we may risk it some day." 

Ironically -- despite the overt set-up here -- follow-up Star Trek time travel stories utilized a different method of time travel all together: a slingshot around the sun at high warp velocities. This technique appeared in "Tomorrow is Yesterday," "Assignment: Earth" and Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.

Focusing on the episode itself, "The Naked Time" expresses something unique and very individual about the series, and this may element prove the dividing line between adherents and detractors. 

Specifically, all the havoc in the episode commences when Tormolen takes off a glove to scratch his nose, and is contaminated by the infection. Some people will complain about this plot point. They'll ask: how did a man ascend to a position of authority on board the U.S.S. Enterprise, after presumably rigorous training in Starfleet, and then turn around and do something so stupid, so thoughtless, so reckless? I sympathize with those literal-thinkers who have a problem with this. 

However (and this is where I fall on the subject), the glory of the original Star Trek (and one largely sacrificed to catsuits and soap opera plotting in later generations), is the continuing recognition of mankind's foibles. 

Humans do make mistakes from time-to-time, and many stories in the original Star Trek canon are possible only because humans do something wrong, or reckless, or silly. I happen to appreciate this facet of "The Naked Time" and Star Trek. I believe that even when we reach the stars, we'll still be the same flawed creatures we are today. That doesn't make us bad. As Kirk would say, it just makes us human.

What else happens in "The Naked Time"?

Well, Nurse Chapel alludes to some kinky rumors about Vulcans. "The men from Vulcan treat their women...strangely," she muses with a look that suggests she wouldn't mind playing the willing victim if Spock were her victimizer. This is another reason I love the original Star Trek series: it can be downright perverse and kinky.

We learn from Kevin Riley that there's a bowling alley on the Enterprise. That's a little strange. So TV doesn't survive past 2020 in Star Trek, according to "The Big Goodbye," but bowling thrives into the 23rd century?
Nimoy is terrific in this episode. No surprise there. He has good writing on his side, of course, but he brings a lot to the table. I love how Mr. Spock attempts to hold himself together by quoting multiplication tables. There's something very right about that: the logic of Math/Order trying to hold down the chaos of emotional distress. It doesn't work, but it's a noble attempt.

Finally, "The Naked Time" reveals another element of Star Trek that disappeared after this generation: the captain's undying love for his ship. "Never lose you," Kirk says here, while under the influence. He's referring to the Enterprise, and talking about her like she's his lover.  His passion for the ship borders on obsession.  
In the original series, the Enterprise was a main character, and a love for this particular ship by Kirk and others is an element that informed many of the best stories. 

One might contrast this obsession with Captain Picard's blase response at the destruction of the Enterprise D (paraphrased) in Generations: "I'm sure this won't be the last ship to carry the name Enterprise..." 

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

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