Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The House Between 3.0: Afternoon Shooting

Monday, May 26, 2008

The House Between: First Stills From Season Three (Today's Shoot)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

The House Between 3.0.

What is this? A blog? I forgot it was here!

Just kidding. Sorry for the deafening quiet around these parts of late. I've been writing like a madman the last episodes of The House Between Season Three. I just finished writing the final episode thirty minutes ago (and then ate some lunch). And now I'm blogging again! Whoo-hoo.

Anyway, the cast and crew of The House Between is officially en route and we start shooting tomorrow. We are doing six episodes this year. As usual, the scripts are long and time is short.

The titles are:

3.1 "Devoured"
3.2 "Addicted"
3.3 "Scared"
3.4 "Switched"
3.5 "Exposed"
3.6 "Resolved"

These are the spikiest, most dangerous, most emotionally-wrenching scripts I've ever written. Hopefully, they're entertaining too.

I will try to post some updates during the week of shooting (we do a 40 page script a day in these parts...) but in the last two years it's been one crisis after another and I've rarely gotten to post on the blog.

Hopefully, this will be smooth sailing. Think good thoughts for us. We'll need 'em. (We're shooting in a great place this year...but it has no air-conditioning!).

Saturday, May 17, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Michael Clayton (2007)

My mother-in-law and father-in-law are in town this weekend to visit Kathryn, Joel and me, so last night we all (except Joel, of course...) watched Michael Clayton (2007), a recent drama starring George Clooney as the titular character, a legal "fixer;" a janitor who cleans up messes for his firm's clients. In particular, Michael Clayton is assigned to clean up a mess left by his manic-depressive associate, Arthur (Tom Wilkinson), who was defending a corrupt agro-business (U-North) for marketing a pesticide that also happened to be - in Arthur's words - a "superb cancer delivery system." U-North is represented by Oscar Winner Tilda Swinton's character, an immoral attorney who eventually sends assassins after both Arthur and Michael in an attempt to silence U-North's accusers.

So - first things first - I enjoyed watching the film. But while I was watching it, I also paid close attention - for some reason - to how I was enjoying it. And suddenly, while viewing the movie, I began to realize that this was one of those films that is "good" and even "pleasurable" only in the absolutely predictable ways that it reinforces things you already believe. It moves the plot machinations in such a rote, familiar way that you feel sort of "happy" because you have to countenance nothing new or unexpected. It's like a roller coaster you've already been on a hundred times. The bumps, falls and curves are all old friends...so when you hit them, you smile...but you don't scream.

So in Michael Clayton, we are asked to understand that a big corporation, U-North is corrupt and greedy. (Didn't see that one coming did ya?). And that big, powerful law firms sometimes represent corrupt, greedy corporations for huge sums of money. (Another shocker!) And who is really surprised that Michael Clayton - a divorced, addictive personality (he's a gambler) - is going to stand-up for the little guy against his firm and the corporation? Now, I'm not belittling these points or ideals. I like to see the little guy fight City Hall and win; and I like to see evil corporations exposed. But this old chestnut is the stuff of Academy Award winning drama in 2007? This old, old, old, often-done tale of bad big business getting a comeuppance is the best of the best? All-righty then.

I'm sure it sounds as though I'm being condescending to Michael Clayton, but I'm not. It's just that I've seen this movie when it was A Civil Action and when it was Erin Brockovich. And, setting an extremely low bar here, the movie is "good" only if you're into comforting, reinforcing entertainment. I know, for myself, that there are moments indeed when films like this -- or the latest John Grisham adaptation for that matter -- go down just right. Like smooth vanilla ice cream. You know what I mean - you're not in the mood to be challenged; or even particularly active in your viewing. You just want to sit there in the cinematic bath tub and soak up the generic, nice-smelling bubbles.

At times, I felt that Michael Clayton sought to accomplish more than that, and I suppose that's why the film critic-within found something to be disappointed about at the end of the day. There's a remarkable "life synchronicity" moment that goes unexplained in the film, and I appreciated the dedicated ambiguity. This moment involves horses standing on a picturesque hillside, and the fact that the unusual image appears to Michael twice in the film. Once in the pages of an illustrated book; and the second time out his driver's side window during early morn. The fact that he sees this equestrian image saves Michael's life. But how and why this image should re-appear is unexplored. Is it God, trying to save his life? A coincidence? A synchronicity? Is Michael's son - who left Michael the book - psychic? In a film of stereotypically evil businessmen and equally stereotypically amoral lawyers, a moment as ambiguous as this one stands out as exceptional and special. It's a funny little symbolic grace note. And it has nothing explicit to do with the rest of the film.

Near the end of the movie, there's also a terrific overhead shot of two escalators moving automatically on opposite tracks, in opposite directions. On one, Michael Clayton is "going down;" and the other - abandoned - rolls up. The shot is lingered upon for a good long time, until you start to see all the possibilities, symbolic and otherwise of the staging. The set-up seems to suggest that Michael is headed one way; life in general the other. That - hero that he is - he's going against the grain; against the mechanical "business-as-usual" flow. Again, it's a better staging than the film's story probably deserves. Still...a good shot is a good shot.

I suppose it doesn't help the film either that Michael's valedictory speech and moment of anger ("I'm the guy you pay off, not the guy you kill...") is also the clip that was played most frequently when the film was being promoted. I had seen this scene in previews and reviews probably a dozen times, and since it serves as the movie's high point, it kind of falls flat in context. Watching it, I was suddenly reminded of Wayne's World and the melodramatic, false-emotional moment when the words "Oscar Clip" were flashed on the screen. That's precisely how the scene plays: an Oscar clip.

Which brings us to George Clooney. He doesn't bob his head as much here as he did circa Batman & Robin (1997) and that's a blessing. One time, just for kicks, Kathryn and I watched that Batman film on laserdisc (which I purchased for 99 cents) and counted how many times George Clooney bobbed his head. We stopped counting at over two hundred bobs. Seriously, Clooney has grown a lot as an actor and is very good here. I know he's involved in the project because his buddy, Soderbergh, is a producer, but I wonder why he couldn't see just how familiar and uninventive the movie's story is. I'm a big admirer of Clooney and Soderbergh's Solaris (which most people I know hated with a passion...), and there's more invention - more daring - in the first ten minutes of that film than there is in the entirety of Michael Clayton. That film is filled with interesting, rarely-expressed human truths (what my late mentor Johnny Byrne sometimes called the little verities) and I guess the antidote for Michael Clayton is Solaris.

Again, I had a really good time watching this movie. But my brain was on auto-pilot the whole time. How much you like this movie will depend on how you're feeling, I suppose. On a family night, it went down easy enough (but what I really wanted to watch - and couldn't - was Atonement...)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Maddrey picks up my Body Snatchers slack!

Hey everyone,

Sorry for the paucity of posts here this week. As some of you may know, we at the Lulu Show LLC are currently in pre-production on season three of The House Between - my online sci-fi drama that made a splash this winter during the new and improved second season. Anyway, we start principal photography in something like 11 days, and I'm still polishing the last three stories. Cripes!

Anyway, while I anxiously and frenetically pound out the continuing adventures of the (surviving...) denizens at the universe, my producer Joseph Maddrey (author of Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film), has taken up the gauntlet and continued the bloggy discussion of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers franchise, in particular the 1978 version.

Here's a bit of Joe's insightful commentary (but read the whole piece...):

"From my perspective, Invasion of the Body Snatchers became a series in 1993, with the release of Abel Ferrara's screen adaptation. It is not the kind of series that I was familiar with as a child of the 80s – a Hollywood franchise spitting out formulaic sequels. Instead, it is a constantly evolving myth along the lines of George Romero’s Dead series, where new characters and new perspectives consistently overwhelm the basic plot. But that almost wasn’t the case.

Producer Robert Solo bought the sequel rights to Don Siegel’s original film in the early 1970s, when big-budget science-fiction films and remakes of low-budget horror films were practically unheard of. His initial plan was to tell the same story with updated special effects. Luckily, writer W.D. Richter and director Philip Kaufman had other plans. They didn’t want to remake the original film; they wanted to “re-imagine” it, creating a “variation on the original theme.” Today, this distinction is a running gag – every writer, producer and director in Hollywood uses the word “re-imagination” as an excuse to make money off of someone else’s older, better ideas – but “re-imagination” is nevertheless an apt way to characterize Invasion ’78. In Kaufman’s film, the people, places, and pods have evolved just as much as the special effects… giving the already-famous story a new subtext.

Donald Sutherland fills Kevin McCarthy’s shoes as Dr. Bennell (now named Matthew instead of Miles), and he’s much closer to Finney’s original conception of the character: passionate and goofy enough to be in stark contrast with the emotionless pod people. One of the most effective scenes in the film comes when he and Elizabeth Driscoll (played by beautiful girl-next-door Brooke Adams) are having a late-night dinner; Matthew’s main goal in this scene is to make Elizabeth happy, for her sake rather than his own. When she laughs, we can’t help but love them both. Likewise, we gradually learn to love their eccentric friends Jack and Nancy Bellicec, because they’re considerate and idealistic and… well, fun. In short: The film does a masterful job of emphasizing that the struggle between these characters and the pods is a struggle between the human and dehumanizing aspects of the everyday world they live in..."

Monday, May 12, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: Iron Man (2008)

A long-time booster of superhero productions (I wrote a book in 2003 called The Encyclopedia of Superheroes on Film & Television; soon coming out in an updated second edition...), I had nonetheless grown decidedly glum of late about the genre's future prospects.

Why? Well, just consider titles such as Blade: Trinity, Spider-Man 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand. These were big (Marvel) franchise films scuttled by their own grandiose pretensions; films that couldn't muster much energy, intelligence or heart the third time around. Not that they were Catwoman-awful or anything, just that the perhaps-inevitable "creep" of sequel-itis had infected their DNA...making the would-be "event" films feel overstuffed, shallow and lacking in thrills, not to mention originality. Even new Marvel film franchises such as Ghost Rider seemed to be running on empty, re-telling the same "origin" story we'd seen a million times before; with all the perfunctory bells and whistles we'd come to expect in this age of big-budget "superheroes triumphant," The genuine high of the original Spider-Man (2002) or DC's brilliant Batman Begins (2005) seemed absent from all of these highly-anticipated releases, and so I pinned my dwindling hopes on this summer's The Dark Knight.

Turns out I don't have to wait that long...

Jon Favreau's Iron Man (2008) is a boisterous and fun-filled roller coaster ride, an intelligent yet jaunty shot in the arm for a waning genre, and more so, one of the finest superhero films ever crafted. I still count Superman: The Movie (1978) as the very best, but Iron Man rockets to the upper echelons of my "top ten" list; vaulting itself over Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2 and even the amazing Batman Begins.

Iron Man's screenplay by Mark Fergus and Hawk Ostby is a surprisingly sturdy (and witty) foundation for this franchise, but the film soars due to the inspired and electric lead performance by Robert Downey Jr., an actor I normally like, but don't love. I have enjoyed (at least intellectually...) Downey's work in films such as The Singing Detective, but I never felt the actor was really engaged with the material he was given. In other words, in some films, I felt Downey was above the material -- quirky, and out to amuse himself but not always the audience. However, this flaw is - amazingly - not at all the case in Iron Man.

With his staccato, whip-smart delivery, dynamic physical presence and deep, wounded eyes (which speak of a thousand heart-breaks), Downey totally inhabits the role of millionaire genius Tony Stark. It is an engaging performance, to say the least, and Downey's final line reading (the one that climaxes the film), is a burst of manic energy and humor so potent, so unexpected, so irrationally exuberant, you leave the theater riding a natural high. His enjoyment of the work here is positively infectious. I know the Academy doesn't consider superhero films serious business, but Downey has done the virtually impossible here: forged a multi-faceted, three dimensional character while vetting a crowd-pleasing, mainstream blockbuster. Someone nominate this guy for an Oscar. Seriously.

I realize that Iron Man/Tony is a different brand of hero from Bruce Wayne or Peter Parker, but at this point in superhero film history, it's a sigh of relief to encounter a hero who isn't overtly down-in-the-mouth, taciturn and angsty. Stark has his various and sundry pains, of course, (which he buries in drink and...other vices), but he's not a constant mope. It's clear he's "turned on" by the possibilities of life (whether sexy women, sporty cars, or the chance to develop the latest body armor) and that's a distinction worth noting. I hate how these days everyone with super powers or super resources mopes around like a loser, so sad at the "burden" they bear. Bruce Wayne might be a playboy millionaire, but next to Downey's Tony Stark, he's a lugubrious poser.

In fact, Iron Man's big theme ties directly into Stark's feisty persona: it's about taking personal responsibility for one's irresponsible actions (or even a lifetime of irresponsible actions); for making good when you've done bad, or have been just plain thoughtless because you were busy screwing around. Looking at Downey (and knowing his history with drink and drug addiction), you can guess the actor understands something about that notion. But Iron Man also isn't a straight-up vigilante like Batman is these days, and nor is the film about an abstract platitude, like "with great power comes great responsibility" (courtesy of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man). On the contrary, Iron Man feels so real vibrant, so alive, so relevant, because the film's thrust is more "shit, I fucked up, now I gotta do something about it." I find that approach refreshing and more authentic to human nature than what we've seen in some recent superhero flicks. Iron Man wants to do good, but he's also having a hell of a time...

It's tempting to turn this review into a (very long) laundry list of all the things that Iron Man gets absolutely right. In terms of presentation, it deploys picture-perfect CGI to create its armor-plated heroes (and you all know how I hate CGI, but I've never seen better...). The film is truly exhilarating in the action scenes, and some of the Iron Man flight scenes are jaw dropping. Additionally, Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey Jr. share great romantic chemistry and their moments together crackle with energy.

Delightfully, Iron Man isn't overstuffed with over-the-top villains either (again, see Spider-Man 3), and Jeff Bridges is impressive as the primary antagonist. There's also some great social commentary about America's role in the War on Terror world. It's not heavy-handed, it's not mindlessly dark, and it is surprisingly even-handed, not overtly liberal or conservative on its face. On this front, it champions unilateralism but - unlike our current Administration - responsible unilateralism. Tony Stark's desire to do right emerges not from ideology or politics, but from his human heart (ironic, no?) and his connection to other human beings, some of whom he has harmed through his utter thoughtlessness. Stark has grown wealthy by making and selling weapons of destruction, but he's been so busy acting the playboy he never saw the real lives those weapons destroyed. Until now. Given this set-up, Iron Man is a story of redemption.

The best superhero films are those that speak to their times in a potent way. Superman: The Movie commented on Watergate, most notably in Superman's line to Lois Lane that he would never "lie" to her. It also served as a Christ metaphor, speaking to the secular 1970s' longing for a messiah..someone to save the disco decade American citizen from such looming crises as the Energy Crisis, Watergate, Vietnam, Inflation, etc. I believe Iron Man will similarly stand the test of time, because it examines the uneasy and double-edged sword of American military and technological might in this post-911 world. In Gulmira (a town in the Middle East), Iron Man is indeed greeted like a liberator. He frees the people there from brutal warlords. But at the same time time, Iron Man's Halliburton-like company is selling WMDs to terrorists who would oppress the very same poor and the weak people of Gulmira. Iron Man ultimately decides to clean house at home, as well as internationally, but that's a step America hasn't yet taken. Instead, that internal cleansing is coming in November 2008. Whether we install Obama or McCain in the White House after the election, millionaire Darth Cheney with his unsavory connection to Big Oil, Halliburton and the craven Neo-Cons will be history. He is the corrupt, craven "stain" (the Obidiah Stane?) America must cleanse as we navigate our role in a complex world.

Going further, Iron Man suggests something interesting about the state of modern technological warfare. The flow and development of weaponry in the post-911 Age has been towards less and less direct human involvement. Today we have pilot-less flying drones dropping bombs on cities with "shock and awe." We have cruise missiles launched at cities from distant ships at sea. There's a widening disconnect between the man who controls the weapon and the decision to kill, even the kill point. But most importantly, the man who presses the button isn't up close and personal to see the victims; to judge the results of his actions. Now, these technological advancements have saved American lives - a very noble cause - but they have also made warfare infinitely easier and cleaner. And ultimately, that's a terrible thing, because war should be the last available option, right?

Iron Man comments on this trend beautifully because Tony Stark's invention - a titanium, flying mechanical suit - puts man front and center again, in control of the technology and present on the field of battle. And as soon as man is back in war face-plate to face-plate...he sees the horrors of war for what they are, and realizes it should not be engaged in lightly. Iron Man is simultaneously pro-American and anti-war, and it identifies two potent enemies of our age: those dictators who would oppress the weak (Middle Eastern here...), and those bastards in big-business, in the military-industrial complex, who would profit by selling destructive weapons to those self-same dictators.

Of late, even the best superhero movies have veered off track in the third and final act. Even the laudable Batman Begins turns to a confusing mess in its busy, loud, overlong climax. Iron Man avoids this pitfall, and with Downey as the master of ceremonies in this particular circus, that means the film is a wild, enjoyable ride from start to finish. Iron Man never missteps and so - when Downey memorably utters his final, giddy line and the end credits roll, you feel jazzed and inspired instead of beaten down. Iron Man is a great superhero film, a great time at the movies, and one hell of a summer ride.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

No Ripcord Reviews Horror Films of the 1980s

Film journalist George Booker has a new review of my book, Horror Films of the 1980s up at No Ripcord, the independent music and film magazine. Here's a sample:

"...Prolific North Carolina writer and cult cinema advocate John Kenneth Muir is a good 18 steps above the usual dubious faux scholar/blogger. His books have laid the groundwork for a future academic canon on horror auteurs such as John Carpenter and Tobe Hooper. It isn't just that he loves even the lowliest obscure grindhouse relic. He takes enormous time and effort analysing, unmercifully yet attuned to heretofore dismissed value, every release he turns his attention to..."

"...Eloquent examinations of both acknowledged greats like Carpenter's The Thing and Cronenberg's The Fly as well as lesser known gems such as Kathryn Bigelow's Near Dark and Thom Eberhardt's Night of the Comet are finally as thoughtful as these films deserve..."

"...In addition to thoroughly dissecting the horror films of the decade, Muir takes the time to put them into the context of world events and keep a running tab of motifs and themes that mark them. Brilliantly, he lines up many of the decade's cinematic triumphs (as well as failures) within a disconnect between the optimistic fantasy sold by politicians and the real dread that dire circumstances created...

You can read the rest of the piece

Monday, May 05, 2008

Muir in Filmfax April/June 08, Now on Sale

Hey everyone, the new issue of Filmfax features my interview with legendary Brit director Kevin Connor (From Beyond the Grave [1973], The Land That Time Forgot [1975], At the Earth's Core [1976], etc.) and is now on sale at bookstores near you.

There's a lot of terrific stuff in this issue, including an interview with the immortal Shat on Roger Corman's Intruder, an interview with the late, great Barry Morse on The Fugitive, and an illuminating piece on William F. Nolan and one of my all time favorites, Logan's Run.

There's even an interview with At the Earth's Core gorgeous starlet Caroline Munro. Check it out!

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 50: The Starlost: "Voyage of Discovery" (1973)

"Earthship Ark - man's greatest and final achievement. Out of control, drifting through space 800 years into the far future...."
-opening voice-over to The Starlost

The received wisdom on The Starlost, a Canadian sci-fi series produced in 1973, is that it is not merely bad, but likely the WORST genre TV series ever broadcast (or in this case, ever forgotten...).

At first glance, it is easy to understand why this effort has acquired such a terrible reputation. It is undeniably a low-budget show. Each hour-long episode cost approximately $100,000 to make...meaning that it cost in 1973 considerably less than what the average episode of Star Trek had cost in 1966.

Furthermore, writer Harlan Ellison, creator of The Starlost, disowned his own genre series and is credited on the program under the alternate name "Cordwainer Bird." Although Ellison won a Writer's Guild of America award for his original pilot script (before it was altered by producers), the experience of toiling on The Starlost left a bad taste in his mouth, and the acclaimed author wrote about the (bad) experience in detail in an afterword to Phoenix Without Ashes. Science advisor Ben Bova (another big name name in the genre...), has similarly disowned the Toronto-lensed series, and even satirized his experience working on it (in a novel called The Starcrossed).

The behind-the-scenes problems on The Starlost are also the stuff of legend for the knowledgeable sci-fi TV fan. Special effects genius and talented director Douglas Trumball (of Silent Running, Brainstorm, etc.) served as an executive producer and contracted to create the special effects for the space series in the early - and experimental - age of the medium of videotape. The original intention had been to shoot The Starlost entirely on videotape utilizing a revolutionary effects integration process known as "Magicam." This untested technology would have allowed actors to interact with miniature sets and locations in a fashion that was neither limited nor static; not entirely unlike the Introvision projection process spearheaded in the early 1980s and deployed in films such as Outland (1981) and Darkman (1990).

However, in 1973, Magicam was still undependable, it rarely worked, and the harried, under-the-gun team crafting The Starlost was forced to abandon it all together. Instead, the team - lacking adequate studio space in which to shoot their outer space epic - resorted to old-fashioned chroma key or "blue screens" (in this case, utilizing sets that consisted entirely of blue curtains). Unfortunately, chroma key required a static background, which meant that the would-be grand shots featuring the futuristic panoramas and vistas were boring, rather than illuminating or fantastic. The dependence on such shots for even basic settings (like the oft-seen "bounce" corridor) resulted in a dramatic program that sometimes seemed quite slow and even boring from a visual standpoint.

And then - the sure-fire kiss of death - a rumor was spread in the burgeoning American genre press (and repeated in the Pioneer book The Best of Science Fiction Television [1987]) that a writer's strike during production of The Starlost had resulted in high school students - high school students for god's sake! - writing the last few episodes of the series. (One of which included the popular 1970s tropes - killer bees.)

I noted at the beginning of this retrospective that it is "received" wisdom that The Starlost is the worst science fiction series ever made. But if you've read a few of my books or visit this blog regularly, you'll know I'm no admirer of received wisdom. Why? Because you must wonder: where - precisely - are you "receiving" it from? And more trenchantly - does that person (or organization) have an agenda in transmitting that wisdom?

Considering that question, there is another side to the story of The Starlost. For instance, in Canada (where The Starlost played on the CTV network), the series drew exceptionally strong reviews. The Toronto Star's Jack Miller, writing on September 15 of 1973 said the following (concerning the pilot "Voyage of Discovery"): "From a deceptively slow and somber opening scene, it inched quietly into a spectacle that, in depth of plot and sincerity of acting and staging, was a world ahead of Star Trek, television's last big effort at the one literary form which has always (until now) defied the small screen's efforts to transfer its sense of wonder from the printed page to a visual image. To phrase it more simply - this is the best science-fiction series ever to come to television by a country mile (or should we say a light year?)"

Two days later, critic Joan Irwin of The Montreal Star echoed similar sentiments: "The Starlost shows every sign of inheriting the mantle of the phenomenally successful Star Trek which is now in its umpteenth rerun and has just become an animated Saturday morning series as well."

Is this merely Canadian pride speaking, or did The Starlost boast some merit as a dramatic program? Let's dig deeper...

As established in Mark Phillips and Frank Garcia's authoritative and (addictive...) reference book from McFarland, Science Fiction Television Series (page 386), The Starlost quickly proved the second highest-rated series in Canada (right behind the American program, Ironside) Another interesting fact the authors point out: The Starlost (which lasted just 16 episodes) was on the bubble for renewal with NBC in America, which aired the show on 40 of its affiliate stations. The series producer, William Davidson, reported (in the Phillips/Garcia text, page 387) that the "initial reaction in Los Angeles, New York and other U.S. cities was excellent." Ultimately NBC canceled the series -- but not because of low ratings (which is what is indicated in the series' Wikipedia entry...) -- but because 20th Century Fox could not continue the show without the financing of NBC. So although The Starlost is virtually forgotten today...it did have a sizable and devoted audience in both the States and Canada during its broadcast. Hmmm.

So...where is the truth of The Starlost? Let's go back to the pilot -- the text itself -- "Voyage of Discovery" and take a a closer look. The series commences in a "biosphere" numbered AG-3 on a vast generational ship called Earthship Ark (which is described as "an organic cluster of domes linked to each other.") This "biosphere" is known as Cypress Corners by its inhabitants, human beings who eschew technology and live in an "ethnic agrarian community." Essentially, the people of Cypress Corners are Mennonites or Amish. Although there are signs of advanced technology all about, including a computer interface which their leader, Jeremiah (Sterling Hayden) calls "The Creator", the people mostly ignore these oddities and live a life of religious asceticism. Also - and critically - none of the denizens of Cypress Corners are aware that they live aboard a spaceship. The doorway to another ship compartment (a long connecting corridor to another dome and another society...) is sealed off and decorated with graffiti which reads: "Beyond is Death." Jeremiah, leader of the sect, has also said that he who goes beyond the door "abandons all hope...never to return," equating the "outside" of Cypress Corners with a Biblical Hell.

Our hero is a young and inquisitive man of Cypress Corners named Devon (Keir Dullea of 2001: A Space Odyssey). He is a parent-less "Ward of the Elders." He has no station, no craft, no inheritance and no land, and thus has not been permitted to marry the love of his life, beautiful Rachel (Gay Rowan). Instead, she has been betrothed (r "pledged") - against her will - to the local blacksmith, Garth (Robin Ward). But Devon doesn't understand why this is so, and he begins to ask forbidden questions. "Where does the water come from?" He asks Jeremiah. "Why does the sun move through the sky the way it does?" "Why must we not ask questions?"

"Questioning is blasphemy," answers old Jeremiah, hoping to stamp down an insurrection. When Devon learns that Jeremiah himself programs the voice of the computer, the "creator" to do his oppressive bidding, he attempts to warn the people of Cypress Corners about the fraud being perpetrated against them in the name of God. For his troubles, Devon is sentenced to death by Jeremiah...a death by crushing stones (and Rachel is ordered to cast the first stone...). However, Devon escapes captivity with Garth's help, and flees to the edge of the territory, where an old, banished "fool" named Abraham holds the key to his escape.

At the doorway to Hell, Devon must make a choice: future or past; truth of ignorance. He escapes Cypress Corners and abruptly finds himself in a technologically-advanced corridor leading to other domes (and other cultures). He soon finds a library computer ("programmed for general information") that informs him of the truth.

And here is the truth that Jeremiah willfully denies: In 2285 AD, the Earth was threatened by a global catastrophe that would destroy all human life. Panic and riots ensued, but the "preservable" elements of the culture (and roughly three million people) were placed aboard Earthship Ark to seed another world. These travelers were locked in "separate ecologies" (like Cypress Corners) so they could not interfere with another and lose their special or unique cultural nature (presumably to the dangers of assimilation). The Ark's destination was a distant planet orbiting a Class G star...one which could support human life. The problem, as Devon learns - was that an accident occurred 100 years into the flight from Earth, and the Ark is now on a collision course with that Class G. Star. It is 2790, and all that remains of humanity (Earthship Ark) hurtles towards blindly towards total destruction.

Aware of the truth, Devon returns to Cypress Corners to liberate Rachel. The lovers escape, but are pursued by Garth, who also loves Rachel and refuses to give her up. The three refugees then discover the ruined bridge of the ark...and see the massive, dangerous star looming in the black void of space. Now it is up to these three "young people" to find the controls that can avoid the deadly collision. This is the journey that makes up the remainder of the series, as the three naive, inexperienced refugees from religious oppression encounter strange futuristic cultures in the various domes or "biospheres" of Earthship Ark.

Screening "Voyage of Discovery" today, one can sense both the promises and the pitfalls of this unique and oft-maligned genre series from the disco decade. On the negative side, several sequences are indeed terribly static (and inexplicably claustrophobic...) which makes for some dull moments. Additionally, the lighting tends to the garish and the overdone in a few scenes (especially the ones featuring Abraham and a bright red hue, which may be meant to indicate "the hell" beyond the Cypress Corners hatch, but which is too much).

Also, the three leads - Dullea, Rowan and Ward - are likable but not particularly memorable or distinctive. I very much like the idea of three protagonists who know nothing about their situation setting out on a "voyage of discovery," because it is so different from Star Trek (where the Starfleet officers know so much...), but this very premise also runs the risk of making the characters appear dull-witted, rather than merely inexperienced or naive.

Speaking bluntly, the production values here are at the level of a Blake's 7 or Dr. Who from the early 1970s. So you have to watch The Starlost in the frame of mind that thirty-five years have passed since it was produced. Thus it isn't going to wow you in terms of visuals, even if you are open to admiring the pre-CGI ingenuity (as I am). The series is plainly far below the visual bar established by Space:1999 (which was shot concurrently in Great Britain). In particular, the scenes involving a "bounce corridor" - an anti-gravity device that hurtles wayward travelers from one dome to another - are unintentionally comic as the actors flip through the air (obviously strung up on wires), growing or diminishing in size not by moving, but via the camera's movement, zooming in or zooming out. However - and this is important - I've never, ever in all my years, seen this concept (the bounce corridor) used in any other sci-fi show. So it is an original and fun idea, but like so much of The Starlost, poorly executed (and a result of limited budget and limited time.)

However, fair is fair -- there is one scene in which the visuals of "Voyage of Discovery" absolutely excel. Near the climax of this pilot, Devon and his mates find the destroyed bridge of Earthship Ark, and walk amongst the ruins and detritus (where they find a skeleton of a crew member). There is a beautifully constructed shot of the characters looking out through the gigantic bridge windows...gazing upon the impressive miles-long length of Earthship Ark. This is the kind of shot Star Trek could not have pulled off circa 1966-1969 and is quite beautifully vetted here. It is done with chroma key/blue screen in the manner of Land of the Lost (1975), yet still epic in presentation. By 1970s standards, of course.

Thematically, "Voyage of Discovery" has something vital to say about life here on Earth, and I enjoyed how the metaphor (or subtext) was created and carried out. On Earthship Ark, all the various cultures exist in self-contained, isolated "bubbles," consumed with their own internal lives and rules, while the world (in this case, the generational ark...) heads towards total annihilation. The Elders of Cypress Corners are so consumed with maintaining their rigid control (which they maintain with a fraudulent God Vision) that they are blind to their "real" situation, to the disaster that awaits beyond. That's a powerful comment on life on Earth. We wage wars, we fight over ideology and religion...but meanwhile, what becomes of the Earth itself? There's an environmental and human message in The Starlost that - in the Age of Global Climate Change - feels even more relevant today.

The Starlost is undeniably a mixed bag. Some of it is absolutely fascinating (and worth a visit), and some of it is plainly...an egregious failure. The writing vacillates from good to awful (though "Voyage of Discovery" is pretty strong on the writing front...). Another plus: there are good guest performances from the likes of John Colicos, Walter Koenig and Barry Morse. I also think it is hard to deny that there is a good, strong human story in the pilot, namely the "heroic journey" of Devon as he grows up and fights all of society for the love of his life. In toto, The Starlost is never less than interesting, even if it ultimately fails to live up to the potential of its premise and pilot.

But the worst show ever made? I'm sensitive to these claims, because two years later, the very same media critics and science fiction writers in the protean press made the same claim of Space:1999. It wasn't true there either. What was true - and what remains true - is that neither The Starlost nor Space:1999 share much in common with the yardstick by which they were measured: namely (the wonderful) and highly popular Star Trek. They are valuable, unique and interesting visions in their own right, but many of the people who complained about both programs had a vested interest in their failure; in the return of Star Trek. That's clearly the agenda I see in the received wisdom: destroy the reputation of the competition so the King of sci-fi TV can come back. I'll never forget reading Starlog in the mid-1970s and reading Star Trek cast members and Star Trek writers ruthlessly criticizing Space:1999 and thinking - that's a conflict of interest, isn't it? I mean, why was Starlog even asking Nichelle Nichols or William Shatner their criticisms of Space:1999?

So yeah, The Starlost isn't great by any means...but it is - at times - thoughtful speculative drama. I can certainly understand why Ellison and Bova dislike it so vehemently: they saw what it might have been, and had to navigate the behind-the-scenes troubles. I'm sure it was a...difficult (and unpleasant) experience. But seriously, if you were watching science fiction television in the 1970s and enjoyed Planet of the Apes, Logan's Run and The Fantastic Journey...this series is just about in the same class. You can confirm that judgment (don't blindly accept my conclusion either...) by ordering the DVD of the five Starlost movies (episodes strung together for American syndication in the 1980s). You'll see loads of potential..and lots of unfortunate moments...but overall, you might actually enjoy this "voyage of discovery."

Again, it just seems to me that The Starlost's biggest sins are twofold: One it was cheaply-made on the fly, and two - it tended to be talky and slow rather than fast-paced and action-oriented. But I wonder if the latter wasn't merely the result of the former.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

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