Wednesday, April 30, 2008


We know the truth now for ourselves.

As Sigourney Weaver reported in the genre press last week, it was not the poor domestic box office performance of Alien Resurrection that killed her character, Ripley; twas the beasts that killed beauty.

Yep, it was 20th Century's decision to produce the AVP (Aliens vs. Predator) films that murdered the possibility of future Alien franchise films featuring the great action hero Ripley. I don't even know where to go with this; but there it is. I must say I agree with Sigourney Weaver, these AVP movies are a terrible idea (and worse in execution than in theory). I never, never could have imagined that I would see a worse AVP movie than the PG-13 2004 original. I was wrong.

Boy was I wrong!

So Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem is apparently what 20th Century Fox thinks that Alien fans want out of a franchise movie these days. They must think we're blithering idiots. First, I'd like to apologize to the makers of 30 Days of Night for my relatively tough review of that film a few weeks back. They made an absolute masterpiece about "small town horror" compared to this under lit, incoherent piece of junk. I'm sorry 30 Days of Night, I just had no idea that AVPR was coming. Had I known, I would not have been so harsh.

So anyway, AVPR is the utterly incoherent tale of aliens and one predator set loose in a small Colorado town (no, not the one with Kenny, Cartman, Kyle and Stan -- that actually would have been in an improvement) in the early twenty-first century. Basically, the pred-alien (and I can't believe I just typed that word...) that hatched at the end of AVP causes a ruckus on a predator ship in orbit and it crashes in Colorado. A bunch of face-huggers get loose in the woods, thus spawning more aliens, and the Predators send one of their own (from the home planet...) to clean up the mess. Caught in the middle are a bunch of horny teenagers, a former juvenile delinquent named Dallas (get it? get it?) and sexy Reiko Aylesworth as an Iraq War vet.

The most trenchant critique I can make of AVPR is that it represents the first film in either classic franchise (and twenty-nine years...) that feels the necessity to have teenagers skinny dipping in a school pool after hours. And yep, these horny teens are attacked by swimming aliens there.

Once upon a time, neither franchise required stripping teenage babes to draw audiences. Once upon a time, both franchises were intelligent, beautifully-designed meditations on the darker angels of human nature. Like I wrote in my post the other day, Alien 3 was about the fact that survival isn't always a "win." One could also look at Aliens as a metaphorical comment on the Vietnam War. And the original Alien was about, in some subconscious sense, human sexuality co-opted by a nasty xenomorph. Even 1997's Alien Resurrection - for all of its myriad flaws - made some worthwhile comment on the morality of human cloning.

But in 2008, the best that AVPR can muster is to steal a page from the slasher film formula: vice (sex) precedes slice-and-dice (or in this case, attack by alien). I just find this element of the movie immensely depressing, that the rolls royce of horror franchises is now settling for Friday the 13th-style scenarios that are so cliched they were being made fun of by Scream twelve years ago. I happen to like (some...) of the Friday the 13ths, I'm not trying to be a snob...but I hate to see Alien lobotomized into a bad slasher flick.

AVPR also puts the final nail in the long- erosion of the "unkillable alien" meme first realized by Ridley Scott in 1979. In his original film, the alien couldn't be killed, couldn't be stopped. You just had to get away from leave it behind floating in space. Here teenagers with hand-guns literally blow aliens away left and right. Twenty-first century weaponry is more than efficacious at blowing up these once unstoppable beasts. The trademark xenomorph - once a genuine terror from the id - is now just a big "bug" to be swatted with our state-of-the-art hardware. Forget the fact that it took advanced, futuristic hardware like smart guns and pulse rifles in Aliens to do the same job. Nope, now we can do it with good old fashion shotguns and pistols.

The Predator fares better, though he operates by no sense of logic I can discern. This Predator arrives on Earth with the mission to "clean up" the mess. We periodically see him spilling some kind of glowing blue acid stuff on the corpses so as to cover the tracks of both the aliens and his own kind. It's his mission, we presume, from this act of destroying the evidence, to hide the incursion of extra-terrestrials on Earth. Given this, the fact that the predator skins a police deputy and hangs his corpse from a tree --- to be found by the sheriff - doesn't make a lot of sense. In fact, the Predator goes out of his way to kill the deputy, who runs from the extra-terrestrial hunter screaming like a little girl. The only possible reason the predator could have for killing the inept human police officer is the fact that he discovered him. Again - he has to clean-up and "leave no witnesses."

But still he leaves him there skinned, for police to find. Why?

That's just one incredible gap in situational logic, but there are bigger fish to fry here. Before seeing the movie, for instance, I read a number of reviews from unhappy fans indicating that the film was poorly shot: that it was too dark. I thought this was just fan griping. It isn't. I know of no modern-day corollaries for this overt flaw in a major, big-budget production; but for some reason, AVPR is terribly, terribly under lit throughout. Even the daylight scenes are hard to see. You'll spend the entire movie squinting, trying to make-out the crappy action.

AVPR plays like a movie made by two sixteen-year old buddies. One is the writer and one is the director. And they've seen all those cool old Alien and Predator movies, so they decide to put together their own version. But being just sixteen, these kids don't have any authentic sense of how to tell a dramatic story beyond having monsters fight. But being sixteen, they don't have any sense of what real people, not character stereotypes, would sound like. Instead it's all just a collection of moments that a sixteen-year old would think are cool. Like wouldn't it be neat if a Pred-alien (*sigh*) attacked a maternity ward? Wouldn't we be bad ass mfs if we had a face hugger impregnate a little kid? Would it be cool if a teenager got his hands on a predator weapon and started blowing aliens away? Pass the doritos, man!!!!

But I insult the metaphorical sixteen year olds out there...

In the final analysis, AVPR isn't merely an insult to the intelligence, it's an insult to the great tradition and lineage of Alien films. From Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher, Jean-Pierre Jeunet to...the Brothers Strause?

Heck of a job, guys

A requiem, in case you didn't know, is a hymn for the dead, a musical composition for the expired. In this case, the "requiem" sung by AVPR is the death knell of not one, but two classic sci-fi film franchises. Rest in peace Aliens and Predators...

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 75: Stargate (1994)

Who would have guessed that a relatively-unsuccessful genre film released during the Christmas holiday of 1994 would evolve into one of the most popular sci-fi TV franchises of the new millennium? I'm speaking, of course, about Stargate (1994). The big-budget film, -- which starred Kurt Russell, James Spader and Jaye Davidson (the She Male from The Crying Game ) -- was only a modest success during its original theatrical run...but it has now spawned how many TV series? Three? (SG-1, Atlantis...and the errh, other one...).

Total disclosure: I'm not much of a Stargate fan, mostly because I'm turned off by the overtly militaristic aspects and trappings of the franchise (I tend to tune out when I see machine guns in futuristic science fiction productions...), but in honesty I haven't really watched any of the series with anything approaching regularity so I'm not a fair judge. As far as I know, I'm missing out, but after just casual acquaintance with the TV franchise, I don't think it's my cup of tea.

Still, I rather enjoyed the 1994 feature film, if only because the bar was set so low. Stargate received terrible reviews, and I had no expectations when I saw it. The film, and so I had fun with it. I always enjoy the opportunity to watch Kurt Russell beat the crap out of hulking Egyptians. It's just a thing with me, I guess...

Now, back to these Hasbro toys: they bombed! The box art work implored would-be buyers to "Travel through the STARGATE and discover a distant galaxy where a doorway to adventure unlocks the mysteries of another world!" But not many kids wanted to take up the toys on that genuinely intriguing offer. These guys went to clearance FAST.

Today, you can acquire most of the small three-inch figures pretty cheaply, and I purchased my whole collection of figures and vehicles for under fifteen dollars, I think, from Kay-Bee. Again, honesty dictates I make mention of the fact that the toys are not particularly well-made, sturdy or very attractive (which differentiates them from their impressive competition over at Playmates). But I do have distinct memories of seeing these toys in stores in the mid-1990s and thinking how cool it was to own an action figure of either Kurt Russell or James Spader. Which reminds me: why no Boston Legal action figures yet? But that's another post...

Among the Stargate toys released by Hasbro were an "all terrain cruiser" (replete with "shooting alien blaster!") that Kurt Russell could pilot. I get a kick out of the box art work, in which Russell is driving this military dune-buggy with one hand while simultaneously firing an uzi with the other hand (and wearing a beret!) This cruiser also came complete with two communication antennas, roll bars (w/missile launcher), an "armor-plated body," and a "video cam recorder." It also had "all-terrain sand dune tires," in case you wondered.

Another interesting Stargate toy was the Mastadge, an alien "beast of burden" (like a cross between a camel and a woolly mammoth.) This happy-go-lucky guy came complete with a "shooting catapult launcher."

Also, this toy was equipped with a "removable shepherd's saddle" and a "customized mastadge transport sled." Got that? A card on the back of the box provided more mega-Mastadgy-type data, informing us that Mastadges "serve the villagers of Nagada," and that they are "loyal animals capable of withstanding the brutal sandstorms of planet Abydos. They can each reach speeds of up to 35 mph over the planet's desert landscape, making them an excellent form of transportation."

A third toy was the "winged glider" (which I don't own, alas...) but which was sold with "firing missile launchers."

In toto, Hasbro produced eight action figures to go with these toys: Archaeologist Daniel Jackson (Spader), Colonel O'Neil (Russell), Ra (Ruler of Abydos), Palace Guard Horus, Anubis, Attack Pilot Horus, Lt. Kawalsky and Skaara. I don't remember the movie well enough to even tell you who Skaara is. Sorry!

Also, on the back of the toy boxes were these funny little questions which could only be answered if you decoded the hieroglyphs. One such question: "In which country are the pyramids located?" Young buyers were enticed to "collect all 8 figure cards to complete the hieroglyphic alphabet."

Between SeaQuest DSV and Stargate, I'm working really hard here to generate some 1990s toy nostalgia. So work with me, all right? Anyone spend their hard-earned cash on these toys back in the day? Anyone begin a life-long devotion to Stargate by playing with these?

Monday, April 28, 2008

ALIENATED: Implications, Discarded and Otherwise, in Ridley Scott's ALIEN (1979)

Each of the four films in the Alien franchise (which spans the years 1979 - 1997), represents the work of a master cinematic visualist: Ridley Scott, James Cameron, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

Still, there remains some debate on the actual quality of the four series films. The general meme on the franchise is that the first two films are brilliant and the final two are...well...controversial. There seems to be no basis for rational agreement on Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection. In part that is because, I believe, Fincher's film not just defies audience expectations, but actually spits in the face of those expectations. As for Alien lapses into broad, almost campy comedy at spots (for instance, any time Dan Hedaya is on screen...) and therefore feels - in selected moments - like a deliberate betrayal of the franchise that began with the shiver-invoking tag line "In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream."

I've recently watched all the Alien films again. And, no surprise here, I've found myself fascinated - one might even say obsessed - by Scott's stunning and brilliant original. I realize there are clear antecedents for the "alien on a spaceship" or planet movie (namely Bava's Planet of the Vampires [1965] and Cahn's It! The Terror From Beyond Space [1958]) but there is little doubt that Alien represents the ultimate realization of this theme for a few reasons (not the least of which involve casting and budget).

I've reviewed Alien before and awarded it the highest rating of four stars not merely because it is scary, not merely because it cogently reflects the late 1970s and some latent fears around human reproductive issues, but because it is a brilliantly-designed feature and one that pushed the genre a quantum leap forward. It eschewed the stream-lined, modernism and "neat" future-look of such films as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Journey to the Far Side of the Sun (1969) and offered a "grungy," lived-in future. This is a world where coffee cups rest on computer consoles; where pornography is pinned-up next to technical work stations. Where characters still wear sneakers and ball caps, yet go to sleep in cryo-tubes. These characters (smokers, for the most part), have famously been termed "space truckers" and that's part of the Alien mystique and appeal. Outer space isn't the final frontier in's just your day job. Your average blue collar astronaut is still just working for The Man (in this case, Weyland-Yutani, "the Company"), still trying to get his "share" of the wealth. In the far future - as in the present - the Corporation is the enemy.

These observations have been made before, by myself and other critics, but what fascinated me so deeply about Alien on this umpteenth watching is how some of film's most fascinating ideas and implications didn't survive into the remainder of the feature film series. When a movie as popular as Alien is sequelized, some great ideas are dropped and some are co-opted or twisted. Here some essential elements of the original film are - in a sense - retroactively harmed by the very "familiarity" of a franchise. For instance, by the time of Alien Resurrection, we all know the life-cycle of the alien creature by heart: egg, face hugger, chest burster, Drone. In other words, we know precisely what to expect of the alien in all of its form, thus undercutting the very alien-ness" of the titular creature.

Consider, for just a moment, what it must have been like to see the original film in the theater in 1979 with no fore-knowledge of this life cycle. It is only when you indulge in this exercise that you begin to understand the impact and importance of Alien as a horror film. Virtually every time you see the "creature" in Scott's movie, it is in a different form (and I submit, they are all pretty horrifying...). Today, we watch the film and we know precisely what's coming; back in 1979, you'd watch the film and have no f'ing clue what the creature was going to be the next time it appeared. This created tension and a high level of anticipatory anxiety.

"A perfect organism," Ash (the science officer of the Nostromo) calls the Alien. It is a creature whose "structural perfection" is matched only by its "hostility." It is a creature unencumbered by "conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality." In some ways, this genius description of the xenomorph is forsaken as the Alien films trot along their way and more and more "human" motivations are ascribed to the beasts. Consider, in Aliens (1986), we see the monsters in a "hive" protecting their "Queen" so we come to understand them not as something "alien" but as larger-than-normal insects. Consider that in Alien Resurrection, we see the aliens mistreated (by a scientist played by the incomparable Brad Dourif) and even develop a degree of sympathy for them...again undercutting the very alien-ness of the breed. Familiarity may not breed contempt...but it breeds...familiarity (which tends to be fatal for horror films and for the ability to scare an audience).

Consider also that the alien in Scott's original film is not merely strong, but absolutely, undeniably unkillable. It's true that most of the Nostromo crew never lays a glove on the xenomorph (not even the hyper-physical Parker), but even when Ripley ignites the engines of the shuttle Narcissus on the evacuated Alien during the film's does not die. It just sort of...floats away into space. The obvious implication is that the xenomorph is unkillable and all you can hope to do is get away from the bloody thing. You might be able to fight it to a stand still, but you will never kill it. Down to the blood of the creature (molecular acid), the creature is designed to survive ("hell of a defense don't dare kill it," Parker notes.) Scott is a skilled enough director that had he wanted to feature the destruction of the alien, he would have done so in a way that was recognizable and highly visual. Instead, the adult-alien just sort of floats towards the camera in a mini-montage. Again, this isn't an accident. We are meant to see that the alien survives the considerable power of the engine ignition.

This is one of the (important) things lost in the sequels. In Aliens, the space marines go in and blow up the xenomorphs by the dozen. Our smart guns, flame throwers, and pulse rifles do the trick rather nicely (though watch out for spraying acid...). This is highly exciting, I might add, but utterly inconsistent with the first film. The central idea of Ash's "perfect" life form is lost. Perfection - by very definition - must include immortality. By the time of Alien Resurrection, Winona Ryder (!) and even a man in a wheelchair are blowing away Aliens. No longer are they the "perfect" creature depicted in the original. They have been caged, frozen, burned, blown apart, and even ripped apart (by the Newborn).

Ridley Scott and the writers of Alien (Dan O'Bannon, Ronald Shussett, David Giler, Walter Hill, etc.) devised another element of the Alien's "perfection" back in the late seventies, namely the fact that it boasted a completely self-contained life-cycle. In the original concept, eggs hatched face huggers, face-huggers laid chest-bursters, chest-bursters grew to "adult" size and the adult would "cocoon" prey and transform that prey...into eggs...which would then start the cycle all over again. The alien was thus able to use whatever materials were on hand and available (whether human or alien - like the space jockey on LV-426) to perpetuate their existence. Again, when Cameron came to Aliens, he "ret-conned" the life-cycle to include a conventional creature, a Queen. So after his Queen, no alien perpetuation, right? (And I submit, this is one of Alien 3's true deficits: what is the alien soldier on Fury 161 actually doing to its bar-coded prey? Without a queen, the Alien can have no "purpose.") This is a prime example of how a discarding of a single idea has tremendous repercussions across the three sequels. One can argue, based on the murder of the doctor (Charles Dance), that the alien is protecting Ripley, mother-to-be of a Queen, but this idea is not wheeled out in anything approaching a consistent fashion.

An amazing aspect of 1979's Alien, one that makes it ceaselessly worthy of new examination is the fact that it includes several incredible storyline implications just beneath the surface...present, but unexplained. Take for instance the derelict ship that the Nostromo finds on LV-426. It is emitting a distress call (or actually, a warning: stay away), and when Dallas, Lambert and Kane investigate it, they see the dead pilot, the "space jockey" with a torn-open chest. They also find a giant lower chamber (which I submit MUST BE a cargo hold, given its dimensions and relative lack of instrumentation, furniture, etc.) that is filled with eggs. The eggs are ensconced underneath a level of fog which "reacts" when broken.

So the question becomes: who were these aliens transporting eggs in the first place? And why were they transporting alien eggs? Even more so, since the space jockey's chest is erupted, what became of the alien adult that was born inside it? My notion is that the space jockey's race developed the aliens as a bio-weapon (maybe they are weapons dealers?) and that an accident caused one of the breed to be infected. Similarly, I believe that the eggs would never have hatched in the first place without Kane's interference because they were likely in some kind of "freezer" or "stasis" chamber, as evidenced by the layer of blue fog. I mean, if you were transporting deadly xenomorphic weapons from one planet to another, wouldn't you have safeguards? Wouldn't you have the eggs on ice, at least metaphorically? Again...none of this is explained in the film; only hinted at, and again this lack of clear answers adds to the "alien-ness" of the situation. Our people, seven unlucky human beings, happen by (on secret Company Orders), and get pulled into a much larger, largely unexplained drama.

Of course, if my theory is correct, you're led into a whole round of new and tantalizing questions. If the aliens were a "delivery"...who was the buyer? And who was that race fighting that they would unleash these monstrous aliens on them? And if they planned to unleash aliens, how did they also plan to control them? And how long ago did this all happen? The space jockey appears fossilized. So were the alien xenomorphs soldiers (or weapons...) involved in a war that was waged and either won or lost all before mankind was born? AVP provides a little detail on alien history with Predators, but it is mostly disappointing, even if it does explain how the Company knew to send the Nostromo to LV-426. One big unanswered question still: if a chestburster broke out of the space jockey, then where is that adult alien when Dallas and the others arrive. Hmmm....

See how the film is just loaded with implications above-and-beyond the "ten little Indians" template of an alien killing astronauts on a spaceship? The deeper you delve, the more interesting it becomes.

Alien is well-known for the gory chest-burster scene featuring John Hurt, but it also features one of the creepiest off-screen deaths of all time, and another discarded idea in the franchise. When last we see Lambert (Veronica Cartwright), the xenomorph's prehensile tail is seen winding its nefarious way up between her legs. Then, the film cuts to Ripley running down a corridor, but we still hear Lambert panting, and some...inhuman moaning. So what the hell is going on here? What is the alien doing to her? Does it, by its very "perfect" nature boast some other form of reproductive ability that it is...uhm...practicing on her? Is it fulfilling some kind of sexual desire? Again, Alien Resurrection brings this idea full circle when the Alien Queen - who now has human DNA - gives birth from a womb, rather than laying an egg. But the very shape and potential of human/xenomorph mating is hinted at as early as the 1979 original. And then dropped like a hot potato from the franchise for twenty-five years.
There are sub-texts and social commentary in all the Alien films. Aliens offers us two opposing visions of "motherhood" (one human, one alien), and Alien 3 daringly acknowledges that there are some things more important than survival, and that the true test of a hero often comes when you have no friends, no weapons, and must rely only on your own sense of morality. Alien Resurrection asks "what does it mean to be human?" But once more, the original Alien seems to have the most on the ball in terms of nuanced subtext. In particular, the film has a queasy, uncomfortable undercurrent involving our sexuality. On the surface, the film concerns a creature that can pervert our reproductive cycle for its own ends. But underneath - if we peel back the layers - there are moments in Scott's original that involve homosexuality, sexual repression, and more.

Consider that John Hurt's character Kane becomes the first recipient of the alien's reproductive advances. Whisper-thin, British and sexually ambiguous, Kane is depicted - at one point in the film - wearing an undergarment that appears to be a girdle; something that is distinctly "feminizing" to him. Also, Kane lives the most dangerous (or is it promiscuous?) life-style of anyone amongst the crew. He is the first to waken from cryo-sleep, the first to suggest a walk to the derelict, and the only man who goes down into the egg chamber. He is well-acquainted with danger as (stereotypically...) one might expect of a homosexual man circa 1979. (Note: I said "stereotypically" so don't send the PC police after me, all right?)

As though the alien understands Kane's sexually-ambiguous, possibly homosexual nature, it is Kane who is made unwillingly receptive to an oral penetration: the insertion of the face-hugger's "tube" down his throat...where it lays the chest-buster. What emerges from this encounter is "Kane's son" (in Ash's terminology). But essentially, the alien forces Kane - a homosexual male by nature, to act in the role he might be familiar with; that of female. It's rape, of course, but it's more than that too.

Consider Ash, as well and this character's sexual underpinnings. He is actually a robot - a creature presumably incapable of having sex, and the film's subtext suggests that this inability, this repression of the sexual urge, has made him a monster too. When he attacks Ripley late in the film, Ash rolls up a pornographic magazine (surrounded by other examples of pornography) and attempts to jam it down her's his penis surrogate. The implication of this particular act is that he can't do the same thing with his penis, so that Ash must use the magazine in its stead. Later, Ash admits to the fact that he "envies" the alien (penis envy?) and one has to wonder if it is because the alien can sexually dominate any creature in a way Ash cannot manage. When Ash is unable to sate his repressed sexual desire with Ripley, the pressure literally causes him to explode: the android blood is a milky white, semen-like fluid. And it spurts everywhere...a true ejaculation. Ash, when confronted with his own sexuality and inability to express it...can't hold his wad.

The most hyper-masculinized (again, stereotypically) character in Alien is Parker (Yaphet Kotto), a black man who brazenly discusses eating pussy during the scene leading up to the chest-burster moment. He has an antagonistic, adversarial relationship with Ripley, and is the character most often-seen carrying a weapon (a flame thrower). In another film, Parker might be our hero. In fact, he dies because of the stereotypical quality of chivalry, in a sense: he won't turn the flame thrower on the alien while a woman (Lambert) is in the line of fire. The alien dispatches Parker quickly (mano e mano), perhaps realizing he will never co-opt an alpha male like Parker to be his "bitch;" at least not the way Kane was used.

As for Lambert, the most-traditionally (and - again - stereotypically) female character in the film -- she gets raped by the alien as I noted above, presumably by the xenomorph's phallus-like tail. Again, the alien has exploited a character's biological/reproductive nature and used it to meets its own destructive, perverse needs.

Which brings me at long last to Ripley. A character role written for a man and played by a woman (Sigourney Weaver). She is the only survivor (along with Jones the Cat), of the alien's rampage on the Nostromo, and there's a case that can be made that the alien cannot so easily "tag" Ripley as either male or female, and that's why she survives. Kane is fey (possibly gay), Ash is a robot (and hence not able to express sexuality in a "normal" way), Parker is all man, and Lambert is all woman...but Ripley is a tall glass of water (practically an Amazon), and an authority figure (third in command). She is also the only character who balances common sense, heroism, and competence. Given this uncommon mix of stereotypically male and female qualities, the alien is not quite sure how to either "read" or "use" Ripley. In the final moments of the film, it does make a decision; it recognizes Ripley - the best of humanity whether male or female - as kindred; a survivor. So it rides (in secret) with her aboard the shuttle Narcissus as they escape the exploding Nostromo. Note that the alien could likely kill Ripley any time during that flight...but does not choose to do so. It knows it is in safe hands with her, at least for the time being. It uses her "competence," her skill (qualities of itself it recognizes in her?) to escape destruction...again proving its perfection. Here, perfection can be judged by how well it understands the enemy, the prey.

So, underneath the scares and underneath the great design, what we have here in Ridley Scott's Alien is the story of a monster that exploits our 1970s views of biology and psychology; causing us (as viewers) to re-examine, perhaps even subconsciously, the sexual stereotypes of the day. The alpha males (Dallas and Parker) are ineffective, the traditional "screaming" female gets exploited (not rescued...), and the most "evolved" human, Ripley (along with another perfect creature - a cat) survives to fight again (and again...and again...and again, as a clone). The strange, spiky sexual nature of Alien lurks just beneath the surface of the film, and is noticeable even in the set design. Just take a long, hard (forgive the term...) look at the "opening" of the alien is pretty clearly a vagina. And the chest-burster is pretty clearly phallus-shaped. Ask yourself why. Sex, and sometimes discomfort with sex - is at the heart of this horror film.

You might say I'm reading too much into the film, but nonethtless I suggest one implication of Alien (one quickly cut loose by the more mainstream sequels), is that human sexuality unloosed is the real monster from the id.

Biggest. Week. EVER.

Well, last week was the biggest week EVER here on the JKM blog. This site had a growth of a whopping thirty percent across the last seven days. I can only assume this is because I reviewed two big movies, Transformers and Cloverfield. Either that, or people really, really liked what my friend, actor Tony Mercer, called my "insult archive," wherein Ghost Whisperer fans tore me a new one over my critique of that program. Either way, let me say thanks to all the visitors (new and old...) who continue to drop by. As Arnold Schwarzenegger says in Predator (while hurling knife at South American guerilla soldier...): "Stick Around!"

Friday, April 25, 2008

One More Reason I Miss the 1970s...

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Week (#6)

"If the same thing had happened on Alpha, would you have chosen differently?"

-Alan Carter asks Commander John Koenig a question in Space:1999's "Mission of the Darians," by Johnny Byrne.

I've written here before about Space:1999 and how the 1970s outer space series dramatized a universe of limited resources and "limited options for survival" (as critic Dick Adler put it). One of the best episodes in terms of dealing with this struggle for survival in a galaxy lacking plenty is the 22nd episode of Year One, Johnny Byrne's "Mission of the Darians."

In this story, Moonbase Alpha encounters a vast wrecked ship called the Daria, which - 900 years earlier - faced a Three Mile Island-type accident that killed off most of the population and rendered vast swaths of the giant space ark uninhabitable. There is little food, fewer resources on this roaming vessel, and now, the ship 's population lives under a bizarre class stratification. Primitive barbarians inhabit Level 7 and deliver unto their god, Neman, "perfect" beings. Angels (actually men in space suits), come to pick them up and take them back to a Heaven of sorts, another deck. By contrast, imperfect beings...are fed into a booth that is actually a disintegrator. Imperfections are classified as any body deformity or abnormality resulting from the lingering radiation.

What these barbarians (who "cling" to religion, to coin a phrase...) don't know, however, is that Neman is just an invented God doing the bidding of an invisible upper class. And so that upper class of Darians (dwelling in another part of the spaceship) is manipulating the barbarians. The perfect people they find are actually used for body-part replacement surgery so the pure-breed Darians can be immortal. And those "imperfect" people put in the disintegrator? They are actually the food supply for the pure breed Darians. Thus, the upper-class lives in wealth, health and plenty on their deck, while exploiting the lower class.

At the end of the episode, after the Alphans barely survive disintegration, surgical carving and other horrors, Captain Alan Carter asks Koenig the question posed above. If there had been an accident of that magnitude on Moonbase Alpha, would Koenig have resorted to deceit and guile to keep some Alphans alive at the expense of others?

Koenig's response is a political brush-off: "Remind me to tell you some time."

And that's quite the non-answer, isn't it? I had the opportunity to ask Johnny Byrne about this on one of our many occasions, and he said that Koenig did avoid answering the question, because the answer was obviously...affirmative. To keep his people, his Alphans, alive, he would have done the same thing.

That unspoken reality reminds me of another Space:1999 quote, (from Christopher Penfold's "Dorzak"): "Philosophy doesn't win space for people to live. It is the struggle for survival that makes monsters of us all."

This is such a fine and under-examined element of Space:1999; this discussion of the universe as essentially Darwinian, wherein sometimes you have to choose between two bad options, find the lesser-of-two evils. Again, and I don't mean to come off as rabidly Anti-Trek, because I love the original Star Trek so much, I think the comparison is worthwhile. This is where Voyager utterly failed to capitalize on a good idea.

The Starfleet personnel aboard that ship never had to do without anything; they continued to play happy adventures on their holodeck, they continued to manufacture new shuttles (like the Delta Flyer). They continued to materialize food and material wealth out of nowhere (via replicators). All of this "plenty" is - at its core - in diametric conflict with the very premise of Voyager; that it is a ship alone in an alien part of the galaxy. I like the cast of Voyager very much (I often say it is the finest cast of all Star Treks, save for the original), yet I think this failure to capitalize on the premise is what turned me off the program after a season or two. Here - finally - was a chance to see "noble" 24th century man without his wealth, without his riches, without his toys. Would he live up to the values of Star Fleet when he was poor and impoverished? Do grand ideals hold out when the stomach is empty?

That's what Voyager should have been about; and in fact what Space:1999 was about. As Johnny always said to me, it was fascinating to work on a series that operated from the premise that man in space didn't have what he needed to survive, rather then he already had it all. When I look back at Alan Carter's question, and then Koenig's evasive answer in "Mission of the Darians," I see how precarious the Alphan situation is. We don't always make noble choices when we're hungry, or we don't have a home, or when we're desperate. I remember the criticism of Space:1999 by Star Trek fans during the 1970s was that it wasn't optimistic enough; that the characters were too ready to draw guns or confront aliens with violence.

I wonder, however, if they didn't just miss the boat (or moonbase) with that criticism. Voyager, I submit, sort of proves just how ridiculous optimism is in that particular situation. Voyager didn't have the courage to live up to its premise. Space:1999 did.

GO APE! (with Marvel)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Space: 1979

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three Years Blogging...

Tomorrow is the third anniversary of this blog! Yippee!!!

I'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has made this site a regular stop on their daily read, or even weekly read. I want to thank the readers who have stuck with me and my reflections on film and television through thick and thin (like last week's non-posting....sorry!) The blog has grown tremendously from 2005, and 2008 is on track to be the biggest year yet.

A lot has changed in three years. I'm a Daddy now, which I wasn't when I started. I've also written four books (and am on my fifth...) during the life of this blog. I've also produced my own no-budget drama, which began in 2006, and continues to this day. I've seen some posting categories come and go (anyone remember "guess the movie?"), but especially enjoyed the dialogues with you - the readers.

I thought I would take a stroll down memory lane today, in light of the birthday. This is how the blog began, on April 23, 2005:

Hello everybody, welcome to my blog. And to start us off, I quote the illustrious Admiral James Stockdale: "Who am I? Why am I here?" Good questions...My name is John Muir. and I'm a published author who writes under the name John Kenneth Muir, not because I'm pretentious or anything (though I am...) but because - for some reason - there are a lot of writers out there named John Muir. Specifically, there's the great American naturalist from the last century, and also a fellow who writes about fixing Volkswagens. Others too, I think. In the age of the Internet, I realized I had to distinguish myself a little for Google, Yahoo, Lycos, Ask Jeeves and other search engines, so for the record, I'm the John Muir (the John Kenneth Muir...) who writes about film and television for a living . And I know nothing about Volkswagens, so don't ask...

Looking back over the three years of the blog, the two postings that have generated the most controversy and discussion are my negative reviews of the new Battlestar Galactica (called "Making Lemonade") from June 16, 2005 and my review of a first season episode of Ghost Whisperer, from November 12, 2005. I have high hopes my recent review of Transformers will join this very select club of despised reviews. Let me remind you of some of the comments, for instance, I received on the Ghost Whisperer piece:

"What are you talking about. Ghost whisperer is the best. You are so negative. Whatever, everybody has their own opinion and yours is wrong!!!!"

"Ghost whisperer is brilliant. You dont know what you are on about and you dont know what good tv is. I know what you think you wrote about it is funny but it isnt!!!!!!"

"So saaaaaaaadddddddddd I am late for this. The guy who wrote about it is basic, shallow, ridicolous and the type of guy who must surely have two frogos hopping inside his head. If you do not believe in ghosts or in the capacity of communicating with the dead..ok. But Please!! A little respect!!!! Well, I really do not know why to waste my time in someone like you... Surely the only series you like are Beavis and Butthead or maybe those basic and disgusting rockers from MTV."

"Even though I am a huge fan of Ghost Whisperer, I couldn't help laughing my ass off at your blog.I mean.It's so true in so many ways, yet, it's so strangly addicting."

"I just read your comments on the show Ghost Whisperer and even if I have read stupid comments before from other idiots like yourself, you have won the prize. Your are clearly the definition of a true ASS !!!"

"Ah, personal attacks from fans of Ghost Whisperer.Frankly, I'm amazed they can type, let alone figure out how to use the Internet!Keep on going, Muir!!!

"Ghost whisperer is the best. If you don't like it don't watch it."

"Touched by An Angel was one of the greatest shows ever produced for TV!! Ghost Whisperer is right up their in the same category! What wrong would you rather have our children watch people killing each other and a other such negative shows? You got it wrong and need to be a big enough person to admit it!"

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion but I don't think you gave ghost whisperer a chance. It is a really good show and I agree I would rather our children watch shows like ghost whisperer instead of all the sex, foul language and gorey shows that are on now. I think Jennifer Love Hewitt has real winner with this show."

After re-reading some of these comments, I'm not worried so much about the state of entertainment in our culture, but the state of spelling and punctuation. Note to these parents: turn off Ghost Whisperer and teach yourselves how to spell! (Was that elitist?)

A special delight for me on the blog has been how our discussions of film and television have led into discussions of bigger life issues. Who knew that a review of Veronica Mars would lead to a discussion of feminism (and post-feminism), as it did here? Or that a thought from my mentor -- the late Johnny Byrne -- on political correctness would ignite a debate on that subject (as seen here). Personally, I think this is all way too cool.

One of my favorite features on the blog came in 2007 (just about a year ago, I think) when readers submitted posts about their favorite examples of pop art. We saw those fascinating posts from readers here, here, here and here.

Some of my favorite reviews over the years aren't the ones with the most comments. Looking back, I feel especially good about my reviews for Silent Hill, Soylent Green, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Hostel, and Eyes Wide Shut. In terms of toys, I've covered 75 "retro" toys in three years. In terms of cult video efforts: 49 TV series. Much more to come on both fronts.

The blog has my name on it, but it's you -- the readers who comment and the people who visit -- who make it so much fun, even after 942 posts and thirty-six months. Thanks guys and gals. Drop me a line in the comments section below and let me know your favorite (or most infamous...) post here on the blog. Cuz you don't want two "Frogos" hopping around in my head, do you?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Transformers (2007)

I learned something important about myself while watching this movie. I really am an elitist. And now - post Transformers - proud of it.

It is pure foolishness to go into a film like Transformers expecting art, so my expectations were relatively modest: I just wanted to have a good time, and see some exciting action scenes. That's why Michael Bay films exist in the first place, isn't it? I feel this was reasonable expectation: a little excitement, a lot of fine stunt work. No need to be a snob about it. Who doesn't enjoy a little carnage candy from time to time? And besides, respected film critics (some of whom I know personally...), -- as well as close friends of mine -- had relatively positive things to say about the film.

Which makes me suspect that either those people have temporarily lost their minds, or I seriously need a lobotomy so I can join the club. Because any way you slice it, Transformers is a two-hour insult to the intelligence and especially the genre of sci-fi.

At fifteen minutes, I wanted to turn the thing off, and watch a smarter, say, Bay's Armageddon (1998). At a half hour (a seeming eternity...), I wanted to be anywhere - doing anything - besides watching the film. By the time the movie was over at 143 minutes, I was drained, spiritually exhausted from the herculean effort of paying attention to a plot that was so flimsy, so mechanical, so utterly lacking in human value and simple entertainment that it made me yearn longingly for the next episode of Ghost Whisperer. At the end of this bloody debacle, Kathryn turned to me and said, "let me quote Howard Margolin here: that was feces."

I never thought I'd say this anywhere, but this is a movie that makes the 1998 Godzilla look good by comparison. This is a film that makes Independence Day appear a paragon of intelligence, clever plotting and wit. Transformers is a movie so corrupted by blatant stupidity and fourth-grade potty humor that it makes me yearn for the subtlety and relative maturity of, for example, Lost in Space (1998). It's Underworld-bad. It's Uwe Boll bad. It's a steaming cinematic turd-pile: a stultifying, de-humanizing, seemingly-endless, self-aggrandizing paean to clanking metal and egregious product-placement (Burger King, GM, etc.) Since the whole bloody thing is based on a "product" (a popular toy line of the eighties from Hasbro), perhaps this is par for the course. But I've always preferred movies so inventive, so exciting, so imaginative that they've spawned toys, not toys that spawned movies. I guess I'm in the minority. Again, mea culpa. I'll gladly cop to that.

The biggest problem with Transformers is that - substance wise - it is actually much, much less than-"meets the eye," to coin a phrase. It throws a multitude of (bad) ideas at the screen, a sort of "kitchen sink" strategy; one no doubt carefully focus-group and poll tested, I would wager, to titillate and distract the widest possible demographic of popcorn-chomping masses. Think bread and circuses here...

The overarching strategy, I believe, is that the sheer volume and noise of all those hackneyed story elements smacking the silver screen would -- hopefully -- prevent you from thinking much about the ridiculous plot or from asking questions about the narrative. First it's a war movie set in the Middle East (topical, no?). Then it's a coming-of-age teen sex comedy (quick, get a load of Megan Fox's painted-on stripper abs while she checks under the hood of the car!) Then it's an E.T.-style schmaltzathon about a boy's friendship with a camaro-cum-robot called "Bumblebee." Then it's a hunt for a "cube," the film's McGuffin,. Then it's a conspiracy film about a secret government project, "Sector 7." And then it climaxes with platitudes about the "special" and worthwhile nature of human beings, so you can leave the theater feeling proud - proud - of yourself and your species. We're special.

Special Ed, perhaps, if the people in this film are any barometer of average human intelligence.

Never mind that you just endured over two hours of grinding metal robots and stupid, interchangeable humans killing each other, extreme destruction of property (blowed up real good!!!), offensive racial stereotypes masquerading as humor (Bernie Mac and Anthony Anderson - j'accuse), and the worst overacting from John Turturro in a Hollywood release in years. Just so long as you don't ask questions, and at the end, you feel uplifted.

Cuz that's what bread and circuses are for. This is a movie that believes - like so much of corporate Hollywood these days - more is always more, bigger is always better, and louder is always preferable. And Transformers relentlessly keeps piling on the noise and destruction, like a multi-car wreck sprawled across the highway. Eventually, you just succumb to the sheer weight piled upon your senses and give over. Kind of like a cinematic that beats you into submission and then asks you to feel good about the experience afterwards.

Here are a few questions I would like to direct at the incoherent narrative (which is so filled with plot holes you could drive Optimus Prime's truck through some of them). Why does the film's McGuffin, "the All Spark" only seem to create evil life? I thought - according to the awkward exposition - that the nature of created life would depend on who controls it. Instead, whenever the thing is "energized," it creates mean little robots. It's not a Decepticon device, is it? Secondly, how come characters (Megan Fox's character, for one) don't register shock or surprise the first time that they see a giant robot lumbering towards them? But then, later, some of the very same characters all gasp at the sight of the captured Megatron --- once they already know giant robots exist and are here on Earth?

Here's another good question: How does Megatron stay frozen under Hoover Dam when he's not in a hermetically-sealed chamber and we plainly see human scientists walking all around him? So let me get this straight:.humans (who are much smaller organisms) aren't frozen in this environment, but the giant robot is? Why, also, do the robots always feel the need to announce each other by name when they are about to engage in mortal combat. "Optimus Prime, I will destroy you!" "Megatron!" etc. Based on this facet of the film, I eagerly await the officially licensed Transformers drinking game.

I have tried - with patience and logic - to pin a few people down about why this movie is so good in their eyes. One answer I keep getting is that Peter Cullen did the voice of Optimus Prime in the 1980s and it's cool he got to do it again for the 2007 movie. Well sure. Okay. That is cool! Neat. Warms the cockles, really. Next?

Then they say, "the special effects were great." Yes. Indeed. The giant robots are very cool to look at. And the special effects are impressive.

For about five minutes. Again, this movie lasts 143 of 'em.

After that, I hear: "well I grew up with the Transformers in the 1980s, so it's about nostalgia." I appreciate nostalgia; one could argue, actually, that this blog is a testament to nostalgia. What baffles me, however, is that these are the self-same people who grew up with Godzilla, Planet of the Apes, Halloween, The Omen, Battlestar Galactica Scooby Doo, and other older franchises, but they don't feel nostalgia for the modern interpretations of those franchises. In fact, they give those modern adaptations no quarter, no mercy. So why fall for something as loud and empty-headed as Transformers? Shit, I'd even take Burton's Planet of the Apes over this excrement (and I despise that film with a passion).

Okay, okay. Bottom line: is this movie exciting? That was my expectation going in - an exciting time - so even if the movie was stupid, did it get my heart pumping faster?

Well, er, no. Except, perhaps, in righteous outrage. By my reckoning, cinematic excitement generates from the fact that you know and like the characters in jeopardy. So that at the moment when the car chase or the final battle arrives, you care so much about those people that you are emotionally, deeply engaged, concerned for their welfare, even when you shouldn't be because you've seen a million movies before. We all know that Luke Skywalker will win the day, that James Bond will survive for the next film and so on...but because we care about those characters and their universes, we suspend disbelief and find ourselves involved. Is there one character in Transformers we actually care about? Just one? I submit there is not.

Again, don't give me the "this is an action movie" not a character piece argument. I love the Die Hard movies...because John McClane is a personality we care about, and there is something human at stake when he goes head to head with terrorists. Ditto the amazing and inventive Bourne movies. Action movies work not merely because of the stunts, but because of the people - the personalities - fronting the stunts. Transformers' human beings are more pre-programmed, more predictable and more robotic than the titular mechanisms. The officious "government" agent. The bad girl (juvenile record) with a good heart who dresses like a pole dancer. The awkward kid with the pumping heart of a hero. The sassy comic-relief black dude. The cutesie, bickering but loving parents. Is any character in the film more than the sum of a cliche, maybe two?

And that's the most important reason why this movie is a travesty: it understands robots poorly, but it understands human beings even less so. The authors of the unfortunate screenplay, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, are doing Star Trek next. I had read a lot of interviews with them before seeing Transformers and felt very confident in their skills. Now...not so much.

If Star Trek proves to be this dumb and vapid, I shall become enormously depressed...and - honestly - may never recover. Movies - especially movies in the imaginative terrain of the sci-fi genre - carry a unique duty, in my estimation, a responsibility to show and tell us things that are challenging, different or new. They can exist in the terrain of action, but they must also speak to the human mind and the human soul (like Alien, Terminator, Planet of the Apes, The Matrix, Star Trek).

Transformers doesn't do that. It doesn't engage on any human level. It's a loud, gimmicky steam-roller that tramples over the intelligence of an audience. It's not a good action flick, it's not a good science fiction movie, and the film's clockwork, manipulative heart speaks volumes about the movie industry today. And the much ballyhooed action sequences? There isn't one in the film that matches the highway chase set-piece in The Matrix Reloaded. Not one.

is a grotesque and cynical dollar-sucker. Even if you like the TV show. Even if you like fighting robots. Even if you've never seen a movie before. Even if you're bored. Even if you have half-a-brain. Even if you watch it with one eye open. Even if you watch it on drugs. Even if you watch it in your sleep.

Feces indeed. I haven't hated a movie this much in years.

Monday, April 14, 2008

New from McFarland

This work offers a theoretical introduction to the portrayal of medievalism in popular film. Employing the techniques of film criticism and theory, it moves beyond the simple identification of error toward a poetics of this type of film, sensitive to both cinema history and to the role these films play in constructing what the author terms the “medieval imaginary.”The opening two chapters introduce the rapidly burgeoning field of medieval film studies, viewed through the lenses of Lacanian psychoanalysis and the Deleuzian philosophy of the time-image. The first chapter explores how a vast array of films (including both auteur cinema and popular movies) contributes to the modern vision of life in the Middle Ages, while the second is concerned with how time itself functions in cinematic representations of the medieval. The remaining five chapters offer detailed considerations of specific examples of representations of medievalism in recent films, including First Knight, A Knight’s Tale, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, Kingdom of Heaven, King Arthur, Night Watch, and The Da Vinci Code. The book also surveys important benchmarks in the development of Deleuze’s time-image, from classic examples like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal and Kurosawa’s Kagemusha through contemporary popular cinema, in order to trace how movie medievalism constructs images of the multivalence of time in memory and representation.

British Film Noir Guide
This work presents 369 British films produced between 1937 and 1964 that embody many of the same filmic qualities as those “black films” made in the United States during the classic film noir era. This reference work makes a case for the inclusion of the British films in the film noir canon, which is still considered by some to be an exclusively American inventory. In the book’s main section, the following information is presented for each film: a quote from the film; the title and release date; a rating based on the five-star system; the production company, director, cinematographer, screenwriter, and main performers; and a plot synopsis with author commentary. Appendices categorize films by rating, release date, director and cinematographer and also provide a noir and non-noir breakdown of the 47 films presented on the Edgar Wallace Mystery Theatre, a 1960s British television series that was also shown in the United States.

Marvel Graphic Novels and Related Publications
This work provides an extensive guide for students, fans, and collectors of Marvel Comics. Focusing on Marvel’s mainstream comics, the author provides a detailed description of each comic along with a bibliographic citation listing the publication’s title, writers/artists, publisher, ISBN (if available), and a plot synopsis. One appendix provides a comprehensive alphabetical index of Marvel and Marvel–related publications to 2005, while two other appendices provide selected lists of Marvel–related game books and unpublished Marvel titles.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day # 5:

"We're living in deep space, there are so many things we don't understand. We don't know what that alien force was, why it came here, or why it selected Anton. But we've got to try to help each other understand."

-Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) speaks the words of Johnny Byrne in the teleplay for "Force of Life," the ninth episode of Space:1999.

This is one of my all-time favorite Space:1999 quotes, because I believe it says a lot about Johnny's philosophy of life. In essence: we may not understand (as human beings) why things happen the way they do. However, what we do have in times of strife is each other.

This reaching out to a person in pain is a beautiful response to the random, chaotic existence we face as living creatures. Sometimes we don't know why our loved ones contract cancer, or why a plane crashes, or why destiny leads us in one direction or another. But what makes such crises bearable is the warm, supportive hand of a friend, a lover, a spouse, a child, a parent. In the dark and mysterious universe we dwell in, our gift as a species is that we help each other. We're all in the same boat. Or on the same moonbase, at least.

Storywise, I appreciate this quote because it denies viewers answers as to the central threat of the episode (an alien force of life taking over a moonbase tech). On The Next Generation, this quote would have read like this: "We discovered the alien life form was attracted to a tertiary domain of subspace on a symbiotic frequency to our primary sensor array. So we modulated the deflector dish, fired a graviton pulse, and now we never have to worry about it ever again. Full speed ahead..."

But that crap would never happen in Johnny's writing. Sorry folks, he seems to tell audiences, no technobabble to explain what you've just seen. Nothing is going to be spoon fed to the TV audience. Instead he wants us...just think about it. What do we think it means? How do we interpret it?

And again, this goes back to a previous thought of Johnny's. On The Next Generation, the answer to an alien problem is always found in what people "have" (future tech like deflector dishes). On Space:1999 the answer - if there is an answer at all - is in us; in our hearts ('we have to try to help each other to understand"). In this fashion - and what people have never understood - Space:1999 is deeply and truly humanist. It might not be feel-good; it might not reinforce some cheery optimism...but it is human in a way that The Next Generation or Voyager just never is.

Again, the Johnny Byrne approach is more artful because it deliberately mirrors our existence, our own "force of life": how often does technology actually satisfactorily explain or resolve the troubling things in our existence? How often can it explain the motivation of another person? Or the reason a disaster occurs? And why it occurs where it does; and to what people?

No, as fallible human beings we just have to accept that our life - like the life of the Alphans - is dependent, to some extent, on the things we don't know and can't control. Good, honest drama should reflect that. Johnny knew that. This is the reason I return to his work, and Space:1999 again and again. The uniforms and hairstyles may age, but the ideas in the show don't. They seem more relevant than ever. And as a developing storyteller, this is the kind of story I must keep striving to create.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day #4:

"I think this is a universal principle: the rate of a life form's biological development is out of key with the rate of technological development. In a hundred years, we've advanced enormously in terms of technology, but we're essentially the same fearful, passionate, mistake-ridden, aggressive, greedy, ego-driven creature. And there is nothing materially different in recorded history going right back to the Greeks. We are governed by the same kind of incoherent tribulatons today as we were then. We really haven't progressed."

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day #3:

"Science is a religion. Science is just another form of belief. It is only modern man who has made the distinction between science and religion..."

-Johnny discusses the role of science and religion in Space:1999.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008


Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day:

"[Star Trek] Voyager is the antithesis of Space:1999. I think it's dull and formulaic. It's lost any sense of urgency. My problem is that the characters have so much, but accomplish so f-ing little. Contrast that with the Alphans: they had so little, yet accomplished so much. The Alphans found solutions to their problems in who they are, not what they had. For them, the answer to the dilemma was never firepower or technology."

- Johnny Byrne, 2001, after I asked him about whether he saw any similarities between Voyager and Space:1999.

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 74: Sea Quest DSV (Playmates; 1993)

Sometimes licensing toys or action figures based on TV shows and films is a real gamble, I suppose. In the early 1990s, Playmates acquired the license to something old (Star Trek) and something new (SeaQuest DSV). It had good luck with the former, not so much with the latter. The Star Trek line of figures, ships and play sets lasted into the 21st century, but the SeaQuest line just kind of...sunk. It was scuttled after a year.

Some background: Sea Quest DSV is the story of a state-of-the-art Deep Sea Vessel, Sea Quest, commanded by Nathan Bridger. Set in the second decade of the twenty-first century, Sea Quest was part of the UEO (United Earth Oceans), and would ofte come to the assistance of underwater colonies, battle pirates, ad conduct deep sea rescue missions.

I watched SeaQuest DSV when it aired originally (on NBC). I made Kathryn watch it too, and it bored her to tears. Literally. She would cry when I forced her to watch it. Personally I rather enjoyed much of the first season. I appreciated the cool metallic, hard-tech lines of the sets; the sparse, science-based stories and I'm a sucker for stories set on submarines. When I was a little boy, my favorite of all books (and films) was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. To thi
s day, I still want to harpoon a giant squid like Ned Land or hop a ride on Captain Nemo's Nautilus.

So I was inclined to watch the series, in reality little more than an update of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and it had a decent filmmaking pedigree. Roy Scheider starred and he wasn't known for crap, and Steven Spielberg was involved behind-the-scenes, which assured a strong production budget-wise. And best of all, the lovely Stacy Haiduk (my wife Kathryn's long-lost identical twin...) was on board too playing Lt. HItchcock. And jeez - SeaQuest (set in the year 2018) featured a talking dolphin as a mai character. Who couldn't love that? And did I mention that William Shatner, Mark Hamill, David McCallum and Charlton Heston all guest starred on the series? That was worth a little good will, wasn't it?

Then the show underwent a mysterious but thorough quality-extraction process called "second-season-ism" (see: Space:1999) and suddenly it was a cheesy underwater adventure show with giant crocodiles and people with gills or something. I stopped watching, but tuned back in for the third season premiere out of morbid curiosi. Roy Scheider was gone because he had derided the show as "Star Dreck" or something, and Michael Ironside was now the stern captain of the ship. I have to admit, I thought the t
hird season was a step back in the right direction...but I still didn't watch it regularly. Someday, when I have absolutely nothing to do, I will go back and watch the show again. In fairness, haven't seen any SeaQuest in fifteen years. Maybe it's something Joel will appreciate when he's allowed to see more than Thomas the Tank Egine. If I remember correctly, SeaQuest had a faintly educational smell about it...

But anyhoo, I really dug the action figures from Playmates, and wish more had been made. I love owning an action figure of Stacy Haiduk....I can't help it, it's like a Kathryn voodoo doll. And a Roy Scheider figure seems even more valuable today given the actor's passing. I also have the figure of the genius kid the late Jonathan Brandis played (Lucas?), and the talking Dolphin, Darwin. I got them all cheap: like 99 cents on the clearance rack sometime in the mid-1990s.

Still...look at those spiffy black uniforms. And they came with spiffy accouterments too: walkie talkies, phasers, harpoons, etc. I would have loved to see a Playmates Sea Quest ship bridge or play set.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Mad for MAD

Johnny Byrne Thought of the Day:

As a tribute to my late mentor and hero, Irish TV writer and poet Johnny Byrne, I shall be posting here this week some of the memorable thoughts and quotes he shared with me in our interviews over the years. Johnny was more than a science fiction TV writer; actually something more akin to a philosopher in the Age of Global Media. I'd like to see his thoughts find additional relevancy in this Age of You Tube and The New Media. So here we go. This quote reflects Johnny's intense dislike of the phenomenon of political correctness in the Clinton/Bush age, which he felt was practically Orwellian. From 2002:

"In terms of what is happening now, as opposed to 1975, is we're living in an age in which there is a serious spiritual vacuum. Values are having to be artificially created for people to feel a sense of belonging and a sense of worth. We notice that particularly in the all-pervasive global media grasp. Feelings now can be manipulated by global media.

There is nothing to seriously believe in, except personal advancement and personal ambition. There is very little striving for something greater. That's why we have such a very strong downward pressure from political correctness. We're meant to abide by a kind of opaque series of pre-judgments and rules which are almost totalitarian in their severity. It's not enough to do as you're told, you actually have to think as you're told and feel as you're told. These shifting things mean there is a lack of something concrete which people can hold onto and say 'this is the thing.'"

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston (1924-2008)

Sad times, we live in, especially if we cherish film and television of the past. We lost another great one last night, Oscar-winner Charlton Heston, who passed away at age 84. I'll be the first to admit I didn't often agree with his politics on a whole host of important issues...but ultimately that's immaterial. Heston is legend, and remains one of my all-time favorite movie actors. He was to me - quite simply - a God of the silver screen.

The 1970s, at least pre-Star Wars, was surely the golden age of the anti-hero in cinema and television. The majority of heroes on celluloid and the boob tube were angry "little" men like Kojak, Dirty Harry, or Paul Kersey from Death Wish...hardened, cynical men and vigilantes who bent the rules (otherwise known as the law) and who were disdained by society at large but championed nonetheless as heroic for bucking the system and cutting through red tape. Given such "heroes," that's why I'm so glad that - as my young and curious intellect formed - I had other examples to admire: heroes like William Shatner's Captain Kirk, Martin Landau's Commander Koenig, Darren McGavin's Kolchak, and Charlton Heston's iconic science fiction heroes: Taylor, Neville and Thorn.

I don't know -- I could be wildly off base here -- perhaps Heston's roles were those of the "anti-hero" too, but there was something unique and special about this actor; his performances and the parts he selected. Heston's genre roles always put him in conflict with the establishment and society too, but universally against a kind of inimical, anti-humanist society, whether one run by intelligent apes, subterranean mutants, evil (cannibalistic...) cabals, or albino night-dwellers.

This persona worked for me because -- even as a kid -- I knew that Heston had really sharp edges. He played tough, sometimes embittered characters but ones who ultimately - when push came to shove - fought (often to the death...) to do the right thing. He always seemed to play characters who didn't believe in the decency of humanity but because of circumstances was put in the position of defending humanity. He seemed to always play "the truth seeker."

I find something incredibly noble and moving about that aesthetic. If Heston were a typical Hollywood leftist/liberal I suspect this ethos wouldn't have worked. Instead, it's rather amazing to see a right-wing ideologue in the most leftist mainstream genre films of a cinematic age: Planet of the Apes (1968) and Soylent Green (1973). A left leaner discovering over-population and cannibalistic corporatism in Soylent Green is preaching to the choir...but right-winger Heston vetting it is a practical revelation. A left-leaner finding out that man destroyed himself with nuclear missiles in Planet of the Apes...same thing. I don't think I'm saying this well, but it's a kind of alchemy. It was and remains perfect casting.

One of my movie critic heroes and seminal influences, the late Pauline Kael said it better and more eloquently than I can. She explained Heston's presence in this manner (in regards to his role in Planet of the Apes):

"Physically, Heston with his perfect, lean, hipped body, is a god-like hero, built for strength, he's an archetype of what makes Americans win. He doesn't play nice guy; he's harsh and hostile, self-centered and hot-tempered. Yet we don't hate him, because he's so magnetically strong; he represents American power - the physical attraction and admiration one feels toward the beauty of strength as well as the moral revulsion one feels toward the ugliness of violence...He is the perfect American Adam to work off some American guilt feelings or self-hatred on." (Pauline Kael, New Yorker: Apes Must Be Remembered, Charlie," "February 17, 1968, page 108.

I know this next statement will read or sound corny, but to my young mind (and somewhere in my arrested adult mind...), I watch Charlton Heston in his sci-fi films and I say: yes, this is what a man is. This is what a man looks like. (God, I sound like I'm quoting Fight Club, I fear.) I realize I'll probably get skewered for that admission, from both sides of the political spectrum, but this is how I feel. Maybe I'm just a sucker for this idea: In Heston's genre performances there is a man who believes one thing (for good reason) but embraces reality and modulates his views, while still being true to himself. He chooses based on the situation at hand, not on his previous belief system. His characters aren't "faith based" in the sense that they believe on Wednesday what they believe on Monday - regardless of what happened on Tuesday. Instead, he deals, he adjusts, but he is still powerful, still an individual, still true to his core self. He isn't a hypocrite, he's a realist and a pragmatist. He is what an American hero used to be like Patriotic...but open to input, even if it flies in the face of old values and tradition.

I have to admit that as much as I appreciate Michael Moore and love his films (particularly Sicko), Bowling for Columbine fell apart for me in the finale when he accosted Charlton Heston. When he went after an old man. Heston was gentleman enough to permit Moore (and film crew...) into his house, and - without preparation - attempted to explain his positions on guns and gun control. He misspoke, perhaps, in a moment of trying to express himself, but Moore's film tried to portray this fumble as racism. I didn't like seeing one of my childhood heroes ambushed, and I don't think that this moment is going to prove - in the final analysis - to be one of Moore's career highlights. I know a lot of viewers who feel exactly the same way: they loved the film until it looked like Moore was making his point at the expense of an old, unprepared man. It just makes Moore look mean-spirited. And Moore never noted in the film, for instance, that Heston fronted films that derided nuclear war and right-wing religious zealotry (Planet of the Apes), big business and environmentalism (Soylent Green), and racial division (The Omega Man). As someone who grew up with those films as practical Scripture, I feel this is a fatal omission, and particularly one-sided.

But I've gotten off track here. It isn't my intent to defend Heston or his right-wing beliefs (which I don't share), only to state my opinion that he was a talent who was more than the sum of his political convictions. He was an icon, and for kids in the 1970s, he was the best game in town. Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man -- these were the screen fantasies of my youth (pre-Star Wars), and there was Charlton Heston, front-and-center defending the human race and human values -- in every damn one of them. He gave me hours and years and decades of enjoyment, fronting those films and I cherish his performances and his memory. I don't have to agree with Hestons beliefs to admire him, and to admire what he accomplished in a long and versatile career.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Johnny Byrne (1935 - 2008)

"The key to writing anything is to convert weakness to strength. If you look at the heart of Space:1999, that unlikely sounding premise (the moon being blasted out of orbit...) is the core of it. The very thing that is so often mentioned as the weakness of the series -- the premise -- is in fact the stepping stone into some wondrous territory..."

-author and poet Johnny Byrne, discussing his approach to writing.

It is with a feeling of tremendous sadness and overwhelming loss that I report today the passing of Irish poet, science-fiction author, and film and television screenwriter Johnny Byrne.

Johnny Byrne penned several episodes of Space:1999 (1975-1977) including my all-time favorite episode, "Force of Life." His other contributions include such amazing and atmospheric stories as "Another Time, Another Place," "Voyager's Return," "The Troubled Spirit," "End of Eternity," "Mission of the Darians" and "Testament of Arkadia."

Byrne's teleplay, "The Metamorph" (originally "The Biological Soul") kicked off Year Two and introduced the character of Maya (Catherine Schell) to the sci-fi series. Byrne also penned the final episode of Space:1999, "The Dorcons." It was that episode - airing in 1977 - that introduced the phrase "Resistance is Futile" to science fiction television.

Johnny Byrne was also the story editor on several Year One episodes of the seventies cult classic, but Johnny always talked down that particular contribution. Which is indicative of his generosity and tenderness of spirit, I believe: he wanted the writers of those other episodes to receive all the accolades, and so refused to talk about his rewrites or additions. In this sense (and in every sense), Byrne was truly a writer's writer.

Doctor Who fans will remember Johnny Byrne for his serials from the early 1980s including "The Keeper of Traken," "Warriors of the Deep" and "Arc of Infinity." He is generally credited for having created the character of Nyssa (a companion of the Peter Davison era). I know from my many conversations with Johnny on the subject that he enjoyed working with John Nathan-Turner, but was never entirely happy with how his particular Who stories turned out (mainly "Warriors of the Deep"), Yet he always laughed about them and joked that Space:1999 had spoiled him in terms of production values and special effects. I will always remember Johnny Byrne describing in glorious detail and good humor his utter horror and disappointment at the moment in "Warriors of the Deep" when a monster called the Myrka was introduced on-screen. It was a lesson for him (and a lesson for me, a fledgling writer...) that the TV show in your head is not always the TV show that ends up being broadcast.

Yet to merely term Johnny a sci-fi writer is likely to do his memory a great disservice, because Byrne was also a remarkable poet, a dedicated dramatist and a stead-fast voice of the counterculture of the 1960s. His varied (and impressive) writing credits include episodes of the horror show, Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected (1980-1982), and he was also story consultant and writer for nearly thirty episodes of the beloved and classic British program, All Creatures Great and Small (1978-1990). Johnny was also the creator (and author of two-dozen episodes) of the British hit series Heartbeat (1992-2008), a medical drama.

Some folks will also remember Johnny for co-writing (with Jenny Fabian) the best-selling cause-celebre of the British rock-n-roll set in the early 1960s, entitled Groupie. It's easy to forget it today, but it was that book -- that chronicle of life during the ascent of David Bowie and his ilk -- that actually popularized the term "groupie" in the States and the U.K. I also know that Johnny had worked on a sequel to that watershed book, entitled "Down on Me." I have hopes it will eventually be published. I read an early draft several years ago and it was brilliant and immersive.

Over the years, I conducted a variety of interviews with Johnny Byrne, and he described his history and background this way:

"Bear in mind," he told me, "that I came from the avante-garde creative background. I had been in spearhead activities in the counter-culture in the 1960s, and had been involved in the underground press, in experimental poetry, and I wrote science fiction in small magazines. We were breaking molds..."

That Johnny Byrne achieved so much during his career is a testament to his dedication, grit and talent. Born into poverty in Dublin in 1935, Johnny quit his formal education at age thirteen and started a series of difficult jobs. He quit this life at age 21 because he felt he had "made too much money" and then turned his attention entirely to writing. At 22, his new career as an artist began. He proved an immediate success in this field, and by 1972 (when Groupie was a bonafide international hit) was being sought for his remarkable skills as a TV scenarist.

Although we have lost many great artists already this year, including Space:1999's Barry Morse and versatile actor Roy Scheider, this loss hits me particularly hard because I knew Johnny well. We weren't just acquaintances...but friends.

Specifically, Byrne's writing has been an inspiration to me for decades, and the two of us became fast friends in the year 1999 ironically. We kept up a correspondence and dialogue for the last nine years, sometimes hot and heavy, sometimes not so much. So I count Johnny as a mentor and teacher, and his work has inspired me in ways I can hardly enumerate. Some of his influence I am no doubt unconscious of...I just absorbed it through repeated viewing of his episodes. Much of my writing on The House Between is inspired by Johnny's style, Johnny's world vision, Johnny's sense of imagination and his deep understanding of the genre; and what the genre can be.

I respect Johnny and his work so enormously because his teleplays in the genre boasted a strong mystical streak in a hard-tech setting at a time when that was an extremely unpopular (even derided...) move in science fiction circles. Space:1999 aired in the mid-1970s when people were seeking Star Trek's optimism about the future and a sense of "cosmic brotherhood" where future science could solve all of the worlds' prroblems.

What insightful viewers found in the work of Johnny Byrne (and also the great Christopher Penfold) was instead a darker, perhaps more realistic view of contemporary humanity. If Star Trek was Camelot in space, then Space:1999 as Johnny Byrne saw it (and in his words...) was "the 1970s wake-up from the hippie dream" of the 1960s.

This world was one of limited resources, not endless surplus. This world was one where outer space was a realm of awe, mystery and terror, not merely a caucus of United Nations separated by subspace radio and the ocean of the starry void. Technological man's emotional and moral failings were at the heart of Space:1999 and the series - criticized far and wide by people who have never watched it as cheesy or campy or anti-science - was a meditation about our very nature, but one without the romanticism of a Star Trek, or the political correctness of The Next Generation. Dick Adler, the TV critic for The Los Agneles Times suggested Johnny be nominated for an Emmy Award for his writing on Space:1999 and noted that whereas Star Trek was "recklessly liberal" Space:1999 was "more realistic" because it confronted the idea of "limited options for survival."
What is difficult for people to understand is that Space:1999 is also a deeply spiritual, deeply mystical series, only not in the "up with people" manner of Star Trek. Johnny understood that, and dealt well with the criticism that was lobbed at him, and at Space:1999.

"Critics don't understand the paradigm," Johnny confided in me once. "They never did. It [Space:1999] isn't Star Trek. It is a modern day or near future origin story of a people. The Celts, the Aztecs and the Hebrews all have origin stories. But Space:1999 took place in a real time, not in pre-history. It was a futuristic rendering of that old story: of people cast out from their home with no plan, no direction and no control. There are elements of faith, magic and religion in the show, and nobody seems to understand or accept that. In Space:1999, we are witnessing the foundation of a culture."

"It didn't fall into the classic mold of science fiction, no question about it. I'm the first to know that. The very premise was dodgy, but you had to suspend disbelief in order to see the possibilities of it. All the professional science fiction writers - unfortunately - did not judge it for what it was. They judged it for what it wasn't. This was a cardinal error and for that reason, I didn't take the criticisms to heart. They were not judging what I had done; they were judging what they had hoped to see...and it wasn't there."

Johnny's proud Irish heritage was also critical to his interface with the drama of Space:1999, he always asserted:

"Growing up in Ireland, I didn't have radio and television, so everything was imagination and history and super(natural)-history, if you will. It wasn't that we weren't smart or educated - I knew by heart everything Shakespeare had ever written by the age of 11. But to all of us, there was the real world and the other world."

"I believe that the further we move out into space, the lesser will be our skepticism about such things," Johnny said. "We will experience things beyond our comprehension."

I knew Johnny Byrne both as a writer and as a friend, and since I've already discussed here his talent as a writer, I'd also like to comment a bit on him as the latter; as a friend. He was infinitely generous. We first met by correspondence, when he requested a copy of my first book, Exploring Space:1999 in late 1997. You can imagine how intimidated I was, at age twenty-something having my thoughts on the TV series examined by one of the very writers who had contributed so much to the program. And in my typical "where angels fear to tread" manner, I hadn't pulled my punches when it came to some of Johnny's shows (particularly "A Matter of Life and Death.") But when I met Johnny at the Breakaway Convention in Los Angeles in 1999, he was gracious, and actually requested that I sign his copy of my book. I couldn't believe it. I wanted to drop down and say "I'm not worthy." And I wasn't. And I am not.

The book (and my conclusions about the series) fostered a number of debates between Johnny Byrne and me (and these were actually videotaped, I think...) and I realized that Johnny was one of those (rare...) writers who could countenance disagreement and criticism politely and civilly. Even when I had slagged the series (and one of his contributions), he steadfastly and without hurt or negativism explained what the genesis of the episode was, and what point he had sought to get across. These debates are ones that I will never forget, in many ways a high-point of my career as a TV critic.

On the night of September 13, 1999 -- the night the moon was to go out of orbit by series lore -- I remember standing out on the convention hotel balcony with a group of new friends and fans. We all smoked cigars (even Kathryn) to mark the occasion, and we were joined by Johnny Byrne and his adult son, Jasper. It was an amazing experience: to gaze up at the moon in the night sky on that portentous night with one of the voices who had crafted the series' mythology. Johnny was charismatic too. He could tell a story like nobody else; and he held you with rapt attention as he wove his tapestry. His unmistakable voice, with that Irish accent, was a pleasure to listen was almost like falling into a trance.

Johnny and I kept up our new found friendship with transatlantic phone calls and then we met in person again in 2000 to further our friendship and running dialogue. This time, Johnny introduced me to the amazing writer Christopher Penfold, and also George Bellak, the writer who had first crafted "Breakaway." To be in the presence of these three authors was something akin to Nirvana for me. Again, I think these debate/interview sessions are recorded either on video or audio tape. Somewhere.

Unfortunately, I fell ill at the 2000 convention and had to retire early one night, but Johnny and my friend Mateo Latosa (whom Johnny had introduced to me...) took out Kathryn for a night on the town. They drank and smoked and caroused and discussed the meaning of life into the wee hours, and it was an experience I know that Kathryn will never forget. She loved (and loves) Johnny every bit as much as I do. Like I said...he was charming and disarming, and to share his presence was a gift.

Johnny was also a career sounding board for me. He sat down and watched Annie Hell, one of my no budget productions and - trying, I'm sure, to find something positive to say - complimented me on my dialogue "flights of fancy." On the strength (meager as it was...) of that production, Johnny gifted to me one of his stories that had never been produced as a film, entitled "Grimoire." He told me to write it into a screenplay and we would share the credit if it was ever made. Again - what generosity! On the basis of a no-budget production of questionable value, Johnny sought to inspire and teach me. I still have the script we collaborated on, though - alas - it has never sold. Maybe someday I'll do it independently, but to this day I still can't believe that Johnny was so giving an individual that he would just turn over one of his stories to me and tell me "have at it." He was an artist who supported other artists.

One of Johnny's greatest Space:1999 episodes was "End of Eternity," a meditation about immortality. I can think of no better way to comment on Johnny's legacy than his own words, to me, on that subject, also re-told during an interview:

"If you think about it, human beings are immortal in many ways. In the continuing of family...we're immortal. We're immortal in the sense of our work living beyond us. We're even immortal in terms of memory...when we die, those who came after remember us..."

So today, I ask you to join me in remembering a tremendously gifted artist and writer of the television age. We mourn for Johnny's family and their loss, but today, let us also contribute to Johnny Byrne's endurance and legacy -- his immortality -- in the sense he described above. If you have Space:1999 DVDs at home, pop in "Force of Life" or "Mission of the Darians," "The Troubled Spirit," "Testament of Arkadia" or "Another Time, Another Place." I promise, you'll be swept away by the vision and poetry of Mr. Johnny Byrne.

If you feel so inclined, please write in to the comments below and let others know how much Byrne's work on Space:1999, Doctor Who and elsewhere made you feel, or made you think. Johnny would want nothing more than to see that his ideas, his vision of humanity, carried a currency into the next generation.

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

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