Friday, February 29, 2008

The House Between 2.5: "Populated"

In the fifth episode of the second season, "Populated" the temperature rises when Bill (Tony Mercer) finds Travis (Lee Hansen) reading his diary. Before long, tempers flare and something strange occurs: a gaggle of new, strangely inhuman denizens arrive in the house. As the temperature rises to 118 degrees in the house and Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Theresa (Alicia A Wood) struggle to determine the cause, one of the strangers has a message for Arlo (Jim Blanton). Also starring Craig Eckrich as Sgt. Brick and special guest stars Craig T. Adams and Bobby Schweizer. Written by Bobby Schweizer. Directed by John Kenneth Muir. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Sy Fy Portal Reviews The House Between: Season One

Hey everybody, Marx Pyle over at Sy Fy Portal has written and posted a lengthy review of The House Between - season one! Check it out! He makes some good points about the sound and low-budget nature of the enterprise, but overall has some really terrific things to say about our independent little show.

Here's a clip:

"Things aren’t perfect, which is no big surprise for such a low-budget series. But, the well-written scripts manage to build a foundation strong enough for the actors and crew to work with. As the series progressed I became more enthusiastic and eager to see the next episode. At the end of the season finale I was disappointed that the ride was over and couldn’t wait to watch the second season.

If you are looking for a well-written science fiction series that has mystery, humor and a touch of horror then you have to check out "The House Between." Warning: The budget is low, but your love of the series will be high."

The House Between Director Notes 2.5: "Populated"

Now for something completely different...

Tomorrow we resume The House Between's second season with an episode entitled "Populated." This is the first episode in the series that I did not write, though Jim Blanton came up with the story idea for "Separated."

As I recall, the idea for "Populated" came about during shooting of the first season, when my lighting co-director Robert Schweizer pitched a great idea on the set. It was simple but perfect:
what if the house kept bringing more people into the house because of some malfunction?

I loved this notion, and I told Bobby to go ahead and write the story, and that I would rewrite it as necessary after he was finished so as to make sure it fit in with the second season story arc. (For instance, Sgt. Brick was not in Season One, nor was he conceived until late in the game for
Season Two, so he had to be added to the script.) Also, if you've been watching the show, you understand that the tone of Season Two is somewhat different than Season One...there was no way Bobby could know that.

I absolutely loved Bobby's idea about the house bringing more people in, because it allowed us to raise some interesting ideas that I wanted to explore on the series, particularly in relation to the hot-button issue of immigration in America. I mean, if there are people suddenly appearing in the house at the end of the universe, are they welcome there? Would our six denizens (Astrid, Arlo, Travis, Bill, Theresa and Brick) feel that the house was theirs, and that these newcomers had no right or claim to be there? And, what would be the impact on the environment of the smart house with an influx of new people appearing all at once? Who would feel threatened by the newcomers? Who might welcome them?

Bobby's story notion is exactly why I love science fiction. As I was saying to Rick, our DP the other day, I believe good science fiction has a responsibility to be about two things simultaneously: "the story" itself (the sci-fi scenario) and the larger -- and hopefully meaningful -- metaphor (about our real life.)

The more I thought about Bobby's idea, the more I liked it. I realized his notion gave us room to discuss issues like security (if we don't know where these people came from, can we trust them?) and also issues of human dignity. Is it ever right to treat other people as "aliens?" Another issue: By turning our backs on those who show up in "our house", what wisdom and knowledge do we risk losing? Could it be the very knowledge that could, someday, save us as a people?

Now honestly I don't have an answer for these "big" questions, I'm just fascinated by them and by the dilemma our country finds itself in today. Believe it or not, I try not to be overtly preachy on The House Between if I can help it, but what I did want in "Populated" was a tale that would gaze intelligently at all sides of the issue, without adopting either a right-wing or left-wing philosophy. It just seemed like
the house at the end of the universe was the perfect place to put the idea under the microscope.

Bobby turned in his story, and to my delight, it was one that skewed towards his favorite two characters, Travis and Arlo. I say "delighted" because I knew that I wanted to position "Populated" fifth in the second season queue, after the two-parter "Reunited"/"Estranged" that focused primarily on Bill and Astrid. I always consider The House Between an ensemble show, so I enjoy stories that give each character something new and interesting to do, and I think Bobby found that with "Populated." I knew it was a different and challenging story to tell, but our fifth slot is always our "experimental" or "off-kilter" slot. Last year, the experiment was titled "Mirrored," and this year, it's called "Populated" I say the show is experimental because the threat is unique; the new characters are unlike any you've seen on the show before, and there's also a mysterious character in the show without an overtly obvious identity. I know who he is; what he represents. I wonder if the audience will?

Here are Bobby's thoughts on conceiving the episode (and appearing in it): "The idea for "Populated" first came up during the filming of season one. We were sitting on the floor of the parlor talking about possible future episodes and started going through the tropes of other television shows. We imagined an episode where new characters are introduced without reason just to add a new dynamic. Then I thought, well what if the House was just overrun by people? I imagined an episode, sort of like a "Trouble With Tribbles," in which twenty or thirty extras just litter the house and the "gang" has to figure out how to get rid of them. Since that was unfeasible, I scaled it back to only a few new residents. These residents needed a reason for coming to the House, though, which is why I started researching population sustainability issues. The work of Thomas Malthus, a turn of the 19th century philosopher, really inspired the trajectory of the episode. Without giving too much away, I wanted to raise issues about sustainability and food-supply, xenophobia, and the symbiotic relationship of the House and its residents. Dave was named for David Ricardo, a contemporary of Malthus who developed theories of labor economies. What's a script without really obscure references?

It was difficult to write the first draft of the episode as I didn't know any of the story arc of season 2, nor that there were new characters. The shooting script was a collaboration with John, and though it was quite a bit different than my original draft, I think it ended up being a very strong episode. As a writer, it was a real challenge to "think like John" because the personality and narrative of The House Between was established so strongly in the first season. Once I got a handle on that the words came more easily. The universe of the series provides a lot of opportunities for creative episodes and I was extremely appreciative that John gave me the opportunity to work with his brain-child.

It was fun to play Dave in the episode, as it was the first time I had appeared on camera without an Outdweller mask. It gave me some perspective on what it was to be an actor--I felt the pressure of memorizing lines (I can't imagine having more than a handful!) as well as the pressure that weighs oh-so-heavy once "action!" is yelled. It was fun to work with Kevin, Phyllis, and Katherine as "pod people." We had to quickly develop a unique group identity as well as individual personalities. We sort of ended up as inquisitive zombies, more interested in the workings of the world and people than eating brains. "Pod power!" I say."

In terms of shooting this episode, I'll be honest: this was my best day. It was so much fun. We had a guest star, Craig T. Adams (of Dr. Madblood fame!), and I really enjoyed working with him. He was a professional who came to the set absolutely prepared and who took direction well. Plus we had Bobby himself as well as Kevin Flanagan in highly-amusing speaking roles. Phyllis Floyd and Katherine Dorn appeared in non-speaking roles and also did wonderful. Also adding to my enjoyment, "Populated" wasn't a life-and-death-"I'm sleeping with your wife,"-and-you "caused the holocaust"-type of show, so-to-speak. The story is important, the story is serious, but after the epic two-parter of "Reunited"/"Estranged" I find "Populated" a welcome change of pace. The House Between must always (carefully) balance the epic and the intimate, and it's nice to get back to the intimate this week.

Also, Rob had most of the crew in make-up this day, and did a tremendous job with the creation of characters we affectionately termed "pod people," or in some cases, "poddies." Also, the central threat of the episode is an up-tick in heat inside the house at the end of the universe. The heat spikes up to 118 degrees in the house before the climax, and this turn of events required that Rob continually "spritz" (or douse...) the cast with water (as sweat...) between takes. I don't think I've ever been so happy torturing the cast as on this day. I loved seeing them sprayed continually in the face, on their necks, on their shirts, etc. with cold water. In one moment I recorded for the blooper reel, Kim and Alicia indulged a fantasy for me and began spritzing each other. Yowza. That's all I'm sayin'.

Also, allow me to relate another funny story about the shoot. There's a scene involving "muffins" in "Populated" (you'll see...). Well, we had a whole tray of muffins waiting in the refrigerator for the big moment, and were planning to use two. I was in the middle of a scene directing and Kim Breeding suddenly came charging into the room with a look of pure terror plastered on her face. "We have rats, John!" she exclaimed. "There are rats in the house!" I couldn't believe it, but stranger things have happened. My old house had bats in it once. So rats...anything is possible, to coin a phrase.

So I asked Kim why she thought we had rats in the house, and she took me to the refrigerator to show me the tray of muffins. Sure enough, the tops of two muffins had been mutilated and torn apart by what Kim assumed were little rat teeth or claws, I guess. I admit, I was horrified: the muffins looked quite abused and desecrated. It looked like some beast had gnawed them to bits.

Then Rick the DP walked by and said nonchalantly that no, it wasn't rats. It was him. He just got hungry, I guess. God knows what he was doing to those muffins, but if he's ever in your house, lock up your baked goods. He's a serial abuser of danish...

Another incident shooting "Populated" - a confrontation between Bill and Travis got so out-of-hand that there was property damage (later repaired at my expense...). Talk about your method actors. The final shot of the scene (before a dissolve) reveals the actual damage (now fixed).

Editing "Populated" was a difficult haul, not because we didn't have ample coverage; not because the episode wasn't "good," not because of performances or story or any of those things. Instead, it was difficult because - as I said above - the story was not The House Between norm, and we were trying to sell a "threat" (extreme heat...) which, besides producing sweat, isn't overtly visual and doesn't have a dramatic personality. Kathryn watched the final show with me tonight and said that - again - we hooked her.

So tune in tomorrow for "Populated," and let us know how you like it! Next week is "Distressed," my ghost story.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

RETRO TOY UPDATE # 2: Unreleased Galoob Star Trek Action Figures (1988)

Back on December 14, 2006, in Retro Toy Flashback # 52, I looked at the Galoob line of toys and action figures from Star Trek: The Next Generation. At the time of that post, there was some interest generated in the comments section of the blog for the action figures that were never actually released to the public, specifically those of Acting Ensign Wesley Crusher (Wil Wheaton) and the Romulan (seen in the first season finale, "The Neutral Zone" with a flashy new look and Warbird).

A few weeks ago, a gentleman named Greg Peters contacted me with some further information on these toys. He actually owns a pair of these ultra-rare figures. Anyway, Greg was kind enough to send me the scan of his figures. (above). You can see, they are ensconced on Captain Picard cards with no original art, but still -- wow! The Galoob Holy Grail!

Greg also directed me to some background data on the toy line. In Trek Collector (Summer 1993), for instance, it was written in regards to these figures that "Galoob announced additional action figures to the line including the Romulan and acting ensign Wesley Crusher, but these were never released."

Toy Collector also had a piece on Galoob's Star Trek: The Next Generation toys in February 1996. An article by Jean Paul Vaudreuil featured photos of the unreleased "Enterprise starship action playset." Now, does anyone out there own one of those? Send pics!

Monday, February 25, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 49: Earth 2 (1994-1995): "First Contact"

The 1994-1995 NBC sci-fi series Earth 2 commences with a voice-over narration from protagonist, Devon Adair (Deborah Farentino). "My earliest memories of the Earth were stories," she notes wistfully over views of our planet, moving into a description of life on future Earth (and in Earth orbit...) in the year 2192 a.d. Most of the human race has moved to the "stations," a cluster of orbital satellites where life is "ordered, efficient" and "sterile." So much so that a new disease, "The Syndrome" has sprung up among the next generation of children. The Syndrome is caused not by a virus, but by the "absence of what nature can provide," a byproduct, we are informed, of sterile, artificial life.

This has become a personal crusade for Devon Adair because her eight year old son Ulysses is afflicted with the Syndrome. Those who suffer from it don't live past their ninth "Ullie" is rapidly running out of time. Earth science doesn't even acknowledge the presence of the disease...

In "First Contact," the two-hour premiere of the series Earth 2 (created by Billy Ray), the viewer sees Devon Adair engineer an escape from Earth, which apparently is ruled by a totalitarian-style "administration." An escape wouldn't be necessary, actually, if not for the machinations of the malicious government. You see, Devon has already been planning an official voyage to the star system G889 with 250 "Syndrome" families in tow as colonists. A planet in that distant solar system, New Pacifica, is wild, untamed and natural. Just the way Mother Earth used to be. Boasting a "habitability rating of 83," New Pacifica holds the promise of a cure for the Syndrome, but the voyage is not an easy one. To achieve this "second chance," the colonists must go into suspended animation (or "cold sleep") for the unheard of spell of twenty-two years...

But on the morning of the launch, Devon's colony ship intercepts a secret but official news transmission, one that reports the accidental destruction of their vessel upon leaving the station. In other words, the government is planning to kill Devon, Ulysses and all the colonists, rather than allow a colony to spring up (out of Earth control...) on distant New Pacifica. Devon orders an immediate launch to circumvent this eventuality and a search is begun on the colony ship for hidden explosive devices. The colony ship escapes the Stations (and detonates the bomb in space...), and begins the long, quiet journey to that distant world. Unfortunately, the hasty nature of the departure has serious repercussions: the team doctor is not aboard ship during the escape, meaning Dr. Heller - the most junior medical member of the staff - is put in charge. Devon doesn't quite trust her.

Twenty-two years after the daring escape, the crew of the advance ship is awakened from cold sleep during a disaster. Orbit around New Pacifica has been achieved, but something has gone drastically wrong, and the ship begins to buckle under the strain, losing whole cargo sections during flaming re-entry. The crew makes for the life-pods (in a harrowing and well-done action scene that seamlessly blends fine camera-work with beautiful special effects), and heads for the planet surface.

There - in the untamed wilderness - with scant supplies and little time to set up a colony before the families arrive, a new life begins for these pioneers. The series characters in addition to Devon Adair include a cyborg tutor named Yale (Sullivan Walker), a "cold sleep" pilot/jockey named Alonzo (Antonio Sabato Jr.), the colony ship engineer, Danzinger (Clancy Brown), the rookie doctor, Heller played by Jessica Steen (whose chromosomes are "skewed" to the medical arts), Zero - a robotic sentinel, Ulysses (Joey Zimmerman), and a shadowy government man, Martin (John Gegenhuber). During the first episode, these explorers get a taste of what is to come on their new home. They meet cute-but-dangerous wild animals (with poison claws...), begin to experience strange dreams about their new home, and encounter the indigenous population: mysterious "native" beings called Terrians who possess what seems a primitive culture. As the tag line for the show announced, "This Time, We Are The Aliens."

I remember watching Earth 2 on NBC -- where it lasted just one season and 21 episodes -- back in the mid-1990s and enjoying it well enough. However, watching it again in 2008 I was surprised to see how well the pilot/2-hour episode stands up. The special effects are actually very convincing. I was expecting a terrible CGI-fest because as much as I like the 1995 series Space: Above and Beyond, the space effects there have aged very, very poorly. In that program, greenscreen set-ups were obvious and poorly composited (down to green matte lines) and the spaceships had all the requisite (lack of) detail and realism of 1990s era video games. I guess Earth 2 had a higher budget, because the space effects in the pilot are downright stunning and still pack a punch. The make-up on the Terrians is still very effective (and menacing...) and the only effect which fails is the cute little moppet from New Pacifica, which looks like a gamma-ray mutated Kermit the Frog. Still, a weak effect here or there doesn't ruin the overall spell of a compelling, carefully-crafted production.

Also, the opening hour of the pilot, featuring the escape from Earth and then the crash at New Pacifica, is a model of effective, suspenseful storytelling. One can gaze at the government conspiracy and detect the influence of The X-Files (the big genre series of the nineties...) but that's just a minor sub-plot. Instead, Earth 2 actually gives the viewer something special and relatively unique: A "Wagon Train" series set on another planet. It's a futuristic Western (not unlike Firefly...), about bold explorers settling on a distant world. There are the "Indians" in the form of the Terrians, and on this show, "Back East" is actually solar systems away. The pioneers of New Pacifica must countenance not only the savage natives, but the vicissitudes of nature (storms, flooding, etc.), another convention of the Western. Despite this deliberate and interesting overlay of the Western genre, what impresses most about Earth 2 is that it is markedly devoid of cheesy, familiar and overt "sci fi" touches so often shoe-horned into major television series. The sets are utilitarian (more a child of Alien than Star Trek), the costumes are realistic, not polyester uniforms or space pajamas, and even when there are the expected derivative touches, like a robot named Zero, it is not a cheesy personality who wants to be human, but rather a useful device. In a nice visual joke, the wagon train on hand here is...a Hummer. But not today's Hummer (as on the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica), rather a futuristic (and convincing) variation. What if Lost in Space had taken its premise of planetary exploration seriously, without camp? Earth 2 answers that question. Also, for a nineties production (the dawning age of irony and snark), it is sort of anti-post-modern, all-but devoid of cultural references and allusions. In other words, Earth 2 is a straightforward series about exploration, and one suitable for the entire family.

I also appreciate that this series features no jump gates, star gates, wormholes or warp drives. It sticks to the (current) reality that interplanetary space travel is time-consuming, dangerous and requires human beings to remain in suspended animation for a long duration to survive the trip. In essence, what I'm saying here is that there is a believability factor in the technology and storyline of this 90s series that is commendable ad in some sense, unique. Also, you don't get the feeling watching Earth 2 that it fetishizes hardware (particularly guns - as in one current sci-fi franchise), and nor does it feel the need to constantly preach about contemporary issues of gravity here on Earth. Even the environmental message of Earth 2 is delivered in relatively non-judgmental terms. The vistas on New Pacifica - beautiful natural landscapes - get the point across as well as any character hectoring about wasting resources or destroying the ecosphere..

Finally - and I realize this has been commented on before in other forums - watching Earth 2, you have to wonder about the similarities it bears to a current (and popular) genre series, Lost. In Lost, as you will recall, a plane crashes on a remote and perhaps mystical island, where another "tribe" (The Others) already lives. There, a diverse group of survivors are forced to reckon with the mysteries of the locale and cohere as a group. In a sense, that's also the plot of Earth 2, right? Only it's not an island; it's an entire planet. And think about it: the planet in Earth 2 boasts restorative powers (for Ullie, for instance), just as the island in Lost cures John Locke of his paralysis and frees him from his wheelchair. Similarly, there are multiple groups of survivors in both series, with the "Tailies" on Lost, and the other life-pod survivors on Earth 2. Bickering married couples also appear on both shows in supportig roles, Kim and Sun on Lost and Morgan and his wife, played by Rebecca Gayheart, on Earth 2. Just a thought, but perhaps this one season wonder from the early Age of Clinton was a bit more influential and important historically than I had previously given it credit for.

Which isn't to say that Earth 2 doesn't have weaker moments. Some of the music is over-dramatic and maudlin, and the pilot includes some groaners in the dialogue from time to time (in the first hour, the latter comes in the form of a voice over about Ullie "slaying" his monsters. Ugh.) Also, I like the performances (so far). I haven't seen Farentino in anything lately, but she makes for a strong and intelligent presence here. I know that Devon Adair preceded Captain Janeway by about four months historically, but I appreciate that Adair grows into the role of leader on Earth 2 and doesn't need a "rank" like captain for others to follow her. She's a leader because that's who she is as a human being...and it's something she only begins to realize as the series goes on. This approach feels very natural, and very different from Star Trek.

Watching the pilot for Earth 2, I had the fleeting thought that if I ever had time, I should really go back and watch all twenty-one episodes and really pay attention this time. The only thing that prevents me from doing so (besides how busy I am at the moment...) is the fact that I know the series ends on a down-note with an unresolved cliffhanger. If I end up liking the series as much as the pilot, that would be a real buzz-kill...

Friday, February 22, 2008

The House Between 2.0: "The Story So Far"

A look back at the first season and first four episodes of season two. Narrated by John Bowen. Written by John Kenneth Muir for the Lulu Show LLC.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The House Between: "The Story So Far"

Tomorrow in this space, we're taking a one-week breather on new Season Two episodes of The House Between to broadcast instead a 15 minute primer for the sci-fi series entitled "The Story So Far."

As you may know, our independent web series has been garnering a great deal more attention this year than it did last, and picking up a number of new fans in the process. So, in hopes of continuing to broaden the show's appeal to those who may not necessarily want to go back and watch ten early episodes or so, "The Story So Far" introduces in broad terms the premise, the characters, some important concepts in the series, and basically brings viewers up to date on what's occurred so far in Season Two.

Next week, "Populated" - the fifth episode of The House Between's second season - airs in its regularly scheduled time/place! It's hard for me to believe we're already half-way through the season...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Theme Song of the Week # 14: Sapphire & Steel (1979-1982)

Monday, February 18, 2008

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 48: Twilight Zone: "Death Ship" (1963)

I recently covered The Twilight Zone on the blog as a cult tv flashback, but that wonderful and timeless series from the late 1950s and early 1960s is worthy of at least a dozen such close-ups. Today, I thought it might be interesting to recall the landmark series during what is perhaps its most experimental (and oft-forgotten...) period.

During the series' fourth season in 1963, Rod Serling's trademark anthology was expanded from half-an-hour to an hour in length. Most of the episodes produced during this span are not included in syndication packages or annual marathons (except for the Robert Duvall episode, "Miniature"), because they don't fit the half-hour time slot. For Twilight Zone's fifth and last season, the format was restored to the more famous 30-minute period and many of these hour-long installments faded to undeserved obscurity.

And the general meme on the fourth season, on the hour-long shows, is that somehow the experiment failed. That the episodes are not as good, or as powerfully wrought as the shorter installments. The thinking goes that at a half-hour, Serling sets up the premise, expands it just enough, and then delivers the closing whammy or twist before you grow fatigued with the narrative. It's a perfect thirty-minute structure. This is true, you can't deny it. By contrast, goes the conventional wisdom, at an hour length, you get mired in the storyline and sort of wander off the point.

I haven't yet watched all of the fourth season shows, but based on my viewing of "Death Ship," I'm not sure that the latter argument holds much water. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Don Medford, "Death Ship" is the sort of sci-fi story I must admit that I'm predisposed to love. Why? Well, as much as I love, adore, revere and honor Star Trek and what it has accomplished over the long years, I prefer to view the realm of outer space not as a giant ocean separating countries, where starships stay in touch with Earth by subspace radio and serve a sort of cosmic United Nations, but as something more...enigmatic. Again, this is merely my personal preference, but I do especially enjoy the concept of outer space as terrain of mystery, awe and terror...a realm that we - even as intelligent and technologically-advanced human beings - are not quite able to understand at this point.

Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Space:1999 and yes, "Death Ship" all seem to view outer space in these fascinating terms. I think space adventuring is great in any form, but especially so when the mysteries unlocked at the end of the universe have some bearing on our understanding of ourselves and the very nature of existence. I'm not talking about morality (Star Trek was unmatched in focusing on the morality of our species), but the very core ideas of "what are we?" "what is existence?" and so forth.

And those are the sorts of interrogatives raised in "Death Ship." It is the farflung year of 1997, and three astronauts fro the rocket bureau man the exploratory vessel E-89 as it seeks out habitable planets for colonization. Captain Ross (Jack Klugman), Lt. Mason (Ross Martin) and Lt. Carter (Frederick Beir) observe the surface of one distant planet, and spot something odd: something metallic glittering in the jungle far below them. Excited at the prospect of man's first alien contact, they land E-89 (the spaceship from Forbidden Planet [1956] redressed...) and discover that the "glittering" on their scope is actually something more frightening, the wreckage of an Earth spaceship.

The astronauts head out to the ruined ship and find that it is of the same class and construction as their own vessel, E-89. When they enter the wrecked craft, they discover the bodies of the three-person, human crew. Disturbingly the corpses are actually...their own. The crashed ship is E-89 and somehow it crashed on the surface of this alien world, and Ross, Mason and Carter were all killed during the event. Now, thanks to the auspices of the Twilight Zone, the astronauts have caught up with their grim fate.

At first, the thoughtful and determined Captain Ross thinks that they have "circumnavigated" time and somehow arrived on the planet in their own near future, perhaps as the result of a time warp. He makes an interesting decision. If their future involves a crash, he suggests, then he won't order the crew to launch. Ever. He decides to stay on the planet for an unlimited duration instead, because he knows he will eventually discover a "logical" explanation for what they've found on the surface. He just has to puzzle it through. "Eventually, we'll find an answer," he suggests.

But then another odd thing occurs. The longer the crew remains on the strange planet with their corpses aboard that duplicate ship, the more the crew begins to "fall apart," hallucinating a very different existence. Lt. Carter imagines he is home and visits his house on the very day of his funeral. He finds his wife's mourning attire laid out across his bed, next to a telegram from the rocket bureau announcing his demise.

Lt. Mason also experiences what might be a delusion. Outside, on the surface of the planet, he encounters his daughter and wife. They are happily sharing a picnic lunch lakeside, and Mason feels compelled to join them. In short order, however, he is torn out of this pleasant reality by the committed and stubborn Captain Ross, who reminds him that his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident long, long ago.

Captain Ross rallies the troops. He believes he has discovered the logical explanation (because everything has a logical explanation, he says). Everything that has happened on the mysterious planet is an alien trick, he tells his men; a ruse to keep humans from colonizing there. It's mind control...illusion.

Ross is so convincing in his "logical" explanation of the events on the planet that Mason and Carter believe him. The three men recommit to their mission, with great trepidation lift off, and head once more for the stars.

Miraculously, the spaceship does not crash on ascent, as the crew feared it would. E-89 makes orbit successfully. The three men have escaped their fate, or so it seems. The trap below cannot snare them.

But then the determined and intellectual Captain Ross orders they return to the planet surface to collect specimens and complete their assignment. After all, he says to his men, he understands the alien trick now, and won't be fooled again.

Ross sets the controls for re-entry, Carter objects and...

...Well, to tell you any more of "Death Ship" would be to ruin the denouement of one of the truly great (and perhaps not very well-known) Twilight Zones. What occurs finally on that distant planet, and the explanation to the riddle -- the very thing that renders E-89 "a latter day flying dutchman" -- has nothing whatsoever to do with time warps or alien tricks. Instead, as you may have guessed at this point, the solution to the mystery grows out of the characters, and in some aspect, the so-called "cult of personality," the willingness of some men to follow leaders...because they want to believe something pleasant so badly. "Death Ship" is a great story because it arrives at the shocking ending sideways. The episode features all the trappings of futuristic science fiction drama, with discussions of time travel and alien life, but as is so often the case on The Twilight Zone, the resolution of the enigma involves the very nature of man; the metaphysical not the technological.

In crafting a tale of a protagonist and captain who sees what he wants to see, and the men who follow him in that vision, "Death Ship" takes the mysteries of outer space and links them right back to the essential nature of humanity, right here on Earth. For awhile it looks like the story is about "fear," the "death fear" as one character describes it, but the tale actually involves the acceptance of the unacceptable in our lives...and in our deaths.

As is typical for The Twilight Zone, "Death Ship" is presented in stark black-and-white and beautifully shot. There's one terrific, highly cinematic shot in which the camera prowls through a hole in the damaged vessel's wrecked exterior, and then scans the ruined command center, finally settling on the three corpses. There's some nice, unobtrusive use of split-screens and photographic doubles in another scene, and the performances are all intense and very good. Jack Klugman, in particular, does well in the role of the stubborn commander. One wouldn't automatically think of Klugman as astronaut timber, but he is intense and charismatic here. We pin our hopes on his character; just as his men do.

I've been surveying as much of Twilight Zone and Outer Limits as possible to help me craft the photography on Season Three of The House Between but what I'm finding in these great series is not just beautifully-executed shots and camera perspectives, but a total mastery of the science fiction genre for television. I always knew this was the case (it's not tough to discern...) but the Twilight Zone will be fifty years old in 2009. It's startling to recognize the fact that this series (despite "futuristic" dates like 1997...) doesn't seem to age at all. It is - truly - as timeless as infinity.

Friday, February 15, 2008

The House Between 2.4: "Estranged"

In the fourth episode of the second season of THE HOUSE BETWEEN (the conclusion to "Reunited,"), Dr. Sam Clark's misbegotten plan to capture an Outdweller has left the denizens separated, terrified and under siege. Astrid (Kim Breeding) and Theresa (Alicia A. Wood) are trapped upstairs. Travis (Lee Hansen) and Arlo (Jim Blanton) are locked in the sun-room with advancing outdwellers. And Bill (Tony Mercer), Brick (Craig Eckrich) and Sam face the prospect of combat in the foyer. While tempers rage, Astrid and Theresa attempt to solve the riddle of the group's collective amnesia. Produced by Joseph Maddrey for the Lulu Show LLC. Written and directed by: John Kenneth Muir.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Roy Scheider

Lately it feels like "another week, another obituary." Last week the world lost the great Barry Morse, and now we are saddened to learn of actor Roy Scheider's passing at age 75 after a long battle with cancer. These two talents - in some ways worlds apart in terms of approach to performances - nonetheless shared some very important qualities. Specifically, they were both able to convey humanity and individuality in cinematic worlds where that wasn't necessarily easy or common. In worlds of the future and even - in Scheider's case - in the musical format.

Scheider was a terrific actor, one who will always be remembered for Jaws (1975). In that Spielberg film he brilliantly essayed the role of Chief Brody of Amity and wasn't afraid to reveal the character's weak side. Yes Brody was a protagonist. Yes he was a police officer. But Brody was damn scared of the water and that great white shark. Part of what made the film so involving was Scheider's pitch-perfect performance, his utter believability in the role, and the fact that audiences identified with both his fear and his humanity.

Looking across the scope of Scheider's impressive career, you can see he brought the same skill and dedication to a variety of landmark roles. I remember Still of the Night, an early 80s psychological thriller in which he played a therapist becoming involved with a femme fatale (Meryl Streep) and a case of murder. Again, audiences identified with Scheider's character and in the film's tense moments - on a lonely walk through Central Park, or a late-night visit to a laundry room in an apartment building basement - we were totally with Scheider's character and facing those problems with him.

In 2010 (1984), the scene I remember most vividly is the one involving a frightened Scheider as he embraces a female Russian astronaut during a crisis. The two scared, tiny humans huddled together in fear while their ship conducted a dangerous maneuver in outer space, and again, Scheider was our surrogate and emotional barometer: registering the fear and anxiety of a place we have never been, in a situation we have never experienced. But he made it feel real and vivid.

And then there's Scheider's brilliant, unimpeachable work in All that Jazz (1979), as a man forever reckoning with clocks - both internal and external - and the irrevocable slippage of time. That character (a Bob Fosse surrogate) faced his mortal reckoning at the end of that film; a reckoning on a surgical table. Once more, Scheider was utterly authentic and heartbreaking in the role.

Scheider made Jaws II (1978) worth seeing. He transformed Blue Thunder (1983) from a run-of-the-mill action-thriller into a blockbuster. He gave audiences decades of enjoyment and entertainment, and this week, we lost a truly great American actor.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

RETRO TOY UPDATE # 1: Amsco Cardboard Playsets, Again

Back on September 29, 2005, I wrote Retro Toy Flashback 11 about the Space:1999 Amsco Cardboard Playset. You see, back in the 1970s, Amsco and Milton Bradley joined forces to create these very detailed, very sturdy dioramas from popular film and TV franchises. There was the Space:1999 Moonbase Alpha set I featured in that post, the Marvel World superheroes set (which I never owned and now can't afford...) and last but not least, The Planet of the Apes playset.

When I was a kid, I was proud owner of the Planet of the Apes playset. This "Adventure Set" was selling at Toys R Us for one dollar in the late 1970s, as I recall, and I sprung for it. I will never forget this image ingrained on my brain: there were maybe a dozen such playsets stacked on a clearance shelf. To this day, I wish I could travel back in time and buy all of them. Oh well. *Sigh*

Regardless, this was a glorious, highly detailed set that combined several incarnations of the Apes saga. For instance, there was Zira and Cornelius's house on one side of the set, with a view out the window to the Forbidden Zone and the half-sunken-in-the-sand Statue of Liberty.

On the opposite side of the set, there was the grand (two story!) buried cathedral where the mutants worshipped the Alpha and Omega Bomb. Here it was called the "Cave of the Doomsday Bomb." Other locales recreated for this toy included "Ape Headquarters," "Villagers Hut," "Underground Ruins" and a "Jail Cage with Moving Doors." The set even included cardboard "figures" of Virdon and Burke - the heroes of the TV series, not the film series. A small cardboard version of the ANSA Icarus spaceship seen in all the Apes films was another item in the set (see photo; right).

Although I was already into Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek by the time I got my hands on this set, the Amsco Apes diorama held my attention for weeks, perhaps months. I loved that toy. Unfortunately, it did not survive my adolescence (and my messy bedroom closet...) and disappeared permanently somewhere during the dark years of the mid-1980s.

Lo and behold, super collector Jeff Locklear (who sent me those scans of the Batman trading cards last week), still owns his Planet of the Apes Amsco Cardboard Playset and sent me scans of it. Since I no longer own this toy, these photos are the next best thing. I thought it might be fun to update the original post and show you this rare (and valuable) set today.

Enjoy the pics.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The House Between 2.3: "Reunited"

In "Reunited," the third episode of The House Between's second season, a pair of dangerous visitors (John Muir, Craig Eckrich) arrive in the house at the end of the universe with a a military strategy that jeopardizes the other denizens (Kim Breeding, Jim Blanton, Lee Hansen, Tony Mercer, Alicia A. Wood.) Written by John Kenneth Muir. Directed by Rick Coulter. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey.

"Reunited" (The House Between 2.3)

Thursday, February 07, 2008

The House Between 2.3: "Reunited" Writer & Director Notes

This week on The House Between, we arrive at "Reunited," the third episode, and the first part of a (hopefully epic...) two-parter.

"Reunited" is one of the first stories I began developing after shooting Season One, when I understood that we would require a surly outsider, a catalyst to come in and speak some unpleasant truths to the characters, namely Astrid and Bill Clark. I decided that there's no one better equipped to deliver bad news than a family member (!) and thus I created a character I have kind of fallen in love with: Dr. Sam Clark, Bill's brother. Sam is -- well, you'll see what Sam is - but suffice it to say, he doesn't mince words, and it was great creating a new character to mix things up for the denizens at the end of the universe.

Importantly, this is also an episode that adds a regular character, Sgt. Brick, played by Craig Eckrich. Brick is also a character I adore: he was designed to be very different in temperament and communication skills from the other house between characters, and I like the fact that he brings in a whole new perspective; one which wasn't previously available to us.

In terms of science fiction genre history, the arrival of a mysterious "brother" to a protagonist has happened quite a bit, but I must admit, I was thinking explicitly of "The Bringers of Wonder" a 2-part Space:1999 Year Two episode. In that story, Tony Verdeschi's obnoxious brother, Guido Verdeschi showed up with his own agenda, and there was - of course - a mystery behind his arrival. Otherwise, let me just say that "Reunited" is to our first season's "Visited" as Aliens (1986) is to Alien (1979). You'll see what I mean when I watch.

Now, getting down to the nitty-gritty of the shoot: "Reunited" represented an unusual day and an unusual opportunity for me. I decided I would not direct the episode, but rather guest star as Sam Clark. How could I resist? This would be my opportunity to torture the other actors and say evil things to them. I really enjoyed that.

Actually, it was a long, tough slog acting in the show. I always knew my actors had it rough on this series, memorizing oodles of difficult and often-technical dialogue at literally a moment's notice. I just never realized how really tough it was. I understood it for the first time when I had a lengthy monologue about quantum realities and other esoteric subjects. I also remember getting up early in the morning, learning all my lines for my first several scenes, and then getting to the set and finding - to my dismay - that we were starting with a scene I had not rehearsed at all. D'oh! What misery! Fortunately, it was a scene with Kim Breeding, and acting with Kim brought out the best in me. Let's just say we play sparring partners in the episode, and I felt we had a real chemistry. It was an encouraging start. Then I got to the scenes with Tony as my fictional brother Bill, and felt a strong sense of corp d'esprit. Tony was very encouraging and told me many times that I was doing well. I felt the pressure momentarily drop away...

Those first scenes prepared me well for the group scenes with the rest of my beloved cast, and I felt that I didn't slow up the works too bad. Alicia, Jim and Lee were all encouraging when I goofed, and I was glad to be working with such talented individuals. These actors are great.

And I'll tell you what, Craig Eckrich didn't miss a beat as Sgt. Brick. He came in and nailed the role. His character is a real physical presence in The House Between, and you feel it strongly in this (and the other) episodes. I was too nervous myself to notice if he was equally nervous about his debut. I just noticed that he was quietly and efficiently stealing scenes with his understated wit. Craig is a person graced with a helpful and kind nature, and he never balked at doing takes over again, or the rigors of the shoot.

Trying to learn all my lines, I was relieved that I had handed over the episode to my dear friend and trusted DP, Rick Coulter. Rick is a mellow dude and he doesn't like pressure. I don't think his blood pressure ever goes up...seriously. He's taken some weird lumps in his life recently, and yet he is the most centered person I've ever met. It's amazing. Rick takes everything in stride and never misses a beat. He brought that laconic, easy-going persona to the director's chair, and did absolutely wonderful work. Occasionally, when I was sitting with Kathryn in the parlor learning my lines, I'd see Rick tromp by, his eyes as crazed and hyperactive as I'd ever seen them. You could just see his brain going a mile a minute, working all the angles. I was nervous a little about letting go of the show's reigns, but I didn't need to be. Rick did a fantastic job and brought his stellar "eye" to the house at the end of the universe.

I asked Rick to contribute a few thoughts to these notes, since I'm not the director of "Reunited", and here's what he had to say about the experience:

Since John was in front of the camera for episode #3, he asked if I would step up and direct “Reunited.” I use that label “director” loosely in that I feel the whole process was much more collaborative, aligning more with my socially democratic or “open-source” sensibilities. Bobby Schweizer and I shot the episode in a way very similar to the way John and I have shot all the previous episodes. Bobby and Kevin Flanagan, the other lighting specialist, would set up the lights and then we would set up the cameras. I tried to be extra conservative with my shots to ensure maximum coverage. Bobby and I switched off being camera A and B and I felt we successfully captured the look and feel of the other episodes, including some exceptional shots captured by Bobby.

I am also thankful that the “jack of all trades”, Joe Maddrey was there in his producer, assistant director, and script supervisor roles. And by this point, making things much easier for me, all the actors were very comfortable in their roles and basically knew how they wanted to interact with each other in the scenes. Rob, Phyllis and the rest of the crew were also right there making the entire day run much smoother then it would have without their presence.

My only attempts to deviate from our standard setup included one shot at the beginning of the party scene where the camera follows a mingling Astrid around the living room, and then later a heavily lit interrogation scene where each actor delivers their lines looking directly into the camera. The party scene may give John a little problem in editing, but I hope he will be able to loop the low murmurs in the background throughout the scene. I also envisioned jazz music playing in the background for the duration of the scene but I’m not sure that will make it into final cut.

With the interrogation scene I thought it would be cool and more time efficient to just have the actors sit down and read their lines into the camera instead of them all interacting. John’s script lent itself to being interpreted in this way.

My only concerns for this episode include a lengthy monologue delivered in the parlor. In this room it is very hard to include various types of shots, but Bobby and I picked up a number of reaction cutaways and John has collected some other footage that should make the scene more visually interesting after editing.

Overall the experience working with John and the entire crew and cast on THB has been a lot of fun and I look forward to seeing the rest of season 2.

Watching "Reunited" all cut together, Rick did outstanding work, and I've already asked him to direct an episode again in season three. What I like about Rick is that he does a little bit more with depth of field than I tend to. He crafted some interesting shots where he "brackets" characters in the foreground, and you also see characters moving in the background. I also enjoyed his roving camera approach, which gets resurrected dramatically in an upcoming show, "Caged."

The last few hours of shooting "Reunited" were really fun for me, because I was done acting (whew!) and we had the chance, under Rob Floyd's exquisite leadership, to stage a series of Outdweller attacks and stunts. I know the make-up was murder on those inside the suits, but it was cool (and a little frightening) to fill those familiar rooms with hordes of rampaging monsters.

Another joy of "Reunited" is Mateo Latosa's contributions to the score. He composed and performed a great theme for Brick, and an even more terrific one for Sam Clark. I've never had my own theme song before(!), and I really love the composition. It's my favorite musical addition to the episode, one that really expresses the essence of the character. There's also an upsetting piece called "Ambushing Arlo" and another one involving Brick and Astrid.

Thematically, I call "Reunited" my statement on the Iraq War. Basically, this installment covers every aspect of what's happened in America since 2001; the slippery slope to torture, the consolidation of government powers at the expense of civil liberties, collateral damage in the rush to war, and the extensive sloganization of the military effort ("we're fighting them here so we don't have to fight them there," etc.) I agree with Barack Obama: I'm not against all wars. I'm just against dumb ones. And I guess that's truly the underpinning of this episode. Lesson of the day: don't fight dumb wars if you can help it.

Let us know if you dig "Reunited." It bows tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Barry Morse: To Everything That Was...

I just learned that actor and gentleman Barry Morse passed away this weekend. The breadth of Morse's multi-decade career on stage, screen and TV speaks to his giant talent. As you may know, Morse played the original "dogged" pursuer on The Fugitive (1964-1968), Lt. Gerard. And, of course, he memorably portrayed Professor Victor Bergman, oracle of Moonbase Alpha on the first year of Space:1999 (1975). It is in that iconic role that I first encountered Mr. Morse and his work; and even now I marvel at the humanity, gentleness and intelligence he brought to that futuristic and sometimes austere (but beloved...) series.

I had the good fortune to share time with Mr. Morse at two Space:1999 conventions at the turn of the century, and on both occasions I admired his wit, charm and good nature. He was unfailingly honest with fans about his opinion of the series, and didn't just tell people what they wanted to hear. Yet he always delivered his verdicts with charm, humor and courage. In a word, he was...amazing.

Upon hearing this sad news, I couldn't help but to remember that great moment in "Black Sun" when Victor and John Koenig - staring at the precipice of the eternal abyss - share a last toast on the steps of Main Mission; just two friends facing mortality. "To everything that might have been..." says Koenig, raising his glass.

"To everything that was," replies Victor.


Let's toast Barry Morse -- a man who lived life well, and who brought joy to millions across the globe. His performances will live on, and like Moonbase Alpha's sojourn, his odyssey "shall know no end..."

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

TRADING CARD CLOSE-UP # 11: Batman: The Movie (1966)

One of the best and nicest things about having this blog (and a public e-mail) is getting in touch with other toy collectors from across the country and the globe. Recently, a great fellow named Jeff Locklear contacted me and sent me a whole gaggle of scans from his toy and trading card collection. So first off, I want to thank Jeff for sharing these images with all of us, and secondly, I now want to present some trading cards from the first Batman movie of the modern age. No, it wasn't directed by Tim Burton...

In 1966, at the height of "Batmania," Batman: The Movie played in theaters nationwide and pitted Adam West's Batman against The Joker (Cesar Romero), The Riddler (Frank Gorshin), Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) and The Penguin (Burgess Meredith).

As I recall, the plot had something to do with these four criminal masterminds capturing the Security Council of the United Nations and then dehydrating them (!) with some sort of futuristic ray gun. The finale, which as a kid growing up in the 1970s I absolutely loved, was a sustained fistfight (ZAMM! POW! ZOINK!) with Batman and Robin (Burt Ward) on one side, and the costumed freaks and their minions on the other. The battle was set on the deck of a submarine, as all fistfights should be, I think.

I know comic-book fans today don't like the 1960s series or movie because it was campy and silly, but I'll be honest: this is the Batman that I grew up with. When I was young, I didn't detect how silly it all was; it was and adventurous. The movie was also neat if for no other reason than it featured a whole slew of new Bat technology including a bat-copter, a bat-cycle and a bat-boat. No CGI either. The vehicles - whether on sky, sea or land, were all real and had to be constructed. As I've noted here before, I really groove on the retro-1960s futurism, and Batman: The Movie offers plenty of examples, from the Bat Cave (replete with Atomic Pile) to the Batmobile itself.

I'm tempted to make some kind of "Holy Trading Cards, Batman" joke but I think I'll refrain. Anyway, enjoy the pics. And just think, for the sum of just 5 cents, a pack of these could be all yours back in the day...

Friday, February 01, 2008

The House Between 2.2: "Separated"

"Separated" is the second episode of The House Between's second season. In this shocking installment, Arlo (Jim Blanton) has fallen into the quantum stream and emerged in a version of the house at the end of the universe that is a dark reflection of the world he knows. Meanwhile, his friends - Astrid (Kim Breeding), Travis (Lee Hansen), Bill (Tony Mercer) and Theresa (Alicia A Wood) - struggle to get Arlo back before time runs out, but Travis and Bill grow ever more argumentative. Produced for the Lulu Show LLC by Joseph Maddrey. Written and directed by John Kenneth Muir.

The House Between 2.2: "Separated"

Return to the Planet of the Apes: (1975) "River of Flames"

In “River of Flames,” Jeff and Bill see a hologram of Judy, who asks them to meet with the Under Dweller leader, Krador.   When they do so, ...