Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Theme Song of the Week # 29: Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-1973)

Biggest Quarter EVER

Dear Readers,

I just wanted to say a heartfelt "thanks" to all of you -- the readership here on Reflections on Film/TV.

Because of you, the blog is today completing the biggest quarter since I began this site in Q2 2005. The previous highest quarter was Q1 2008 -- when The House Between 2.0 aired and the blog attracted a record number of views.

Well, now the blog has exceeded that already exceptional high by a whopping six thousand views.

In part, this is because my review of X-Files: I Want To Believe drew record audiences back around August 1st; but its also because many readers who found that review have decided to hang around to see what's next.

Thank you for making this record happen; and I hope you will continue to stay tuned as we finish out 2008 and move into 2009. Much more retro and cult goodness yet to come...

With appreciation and affection


Monday, September 29, 2008

CULT TV REVIEW: Planet Earth (1974)

Planet Earth (1974) represents creator Gene Roddenberry's second effort to get his Genesis II (1973) series premise aired on American network television. As you will remember, Genesis II concerned a 20th century scientist, Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) awaking in 2133 AD and helping the pacifist organization called PAX (Latin for peace) restore the "best of the past" while ignoring "the worst."

Because of his 20th century knowledge and know-how (and because of a system of sub-shuttles "honeycombing" the post-apocalyptic world...), Dylan proved a perfect "agent" of PAX to accomplish this critical mission of planetary reconstruction (think Irish monks in the Dark Ages...). Still, Dylan Hunt had to overcome his own twentieth century addiction to violence and killing.

Star Trek fans will also recall that Gene Roddenberry created two pilots for that classic NBC series, before the series was finally picked up for network television. Specifically, Star Trek underwent a radical change in leading man (from Jeffrey Hunt to William Shatner), and shifted radically in tone from the first pilot ("The Cage") to the second one ("Where No Man Has Gone Before.") In particular, the "cerebral," introspective nature of "The Cage" was replaced by a more action-packed, upbeat tone for Shatner's first episode, "Where No Man..."

One can detect a nearly identical shift at work from Genesis II to Planet Earth. In Genesis II, the brave men and women of PAX lived underground, in dark, depressing (and dimly lit) caverns. In Planet Earth, PAX folk live above ground, in a shiny, technological metropolis (replete with flower gardens and elaborate skyscrapers). Even Dylan Hunt's first voice-over is more upbeat and bright in language, explaining to the audience that in 2133 AD the land is "renewed," and the "air and water are pure again."

In Genesis II, the people of PAX wore simple garments and looked like Roman slaves. In Planet Earth, the people of PAX wear form-fitting and futuristic uniforms that are brightly reminiscent of Star Trek.

In Genesis II, PAX had no advanced technology or advanced medicine. By contrast, Planet Earth reveals a PAX replete with handheld computers, view-screens and large computer banks. The people of PAX are also more knowledgeable here, and there are doctors available who can perform advanced "bioplastic" heart surgery. These changes reveal a completely made-over PAX, one which (like the United Federation of Planets) is a virtual utopia.

Other changes have been made as well. A "recurring" enemy in the form of the barbaric mutants called "The Kreeg" has been added to the mix. These dangerous mutants, like the Klingons of modern day Trek incarnations, boast ridged (or bumpy) foreheads and a style of life geared heavily towards the militaristic. The Kreeg drive around the post-apocalyptic landscape in ancient, souped-up automobiles, and carry twentieth century fire-arms. Basically, It's like Mad Max with Klingons.

Some character relationships have also been tarted up to be as colorful and dynamic as the new environs. The flirtatious relationship between Dylan Hunt (here played by John Saxon) and sexy Harper-Smythe (Janet Margolin) is more pronounced. The other members of Hunt's "Team 21" include the hulking Isiah (Ted Cassidy) and a physician named Baylock (Christopher Cary) who is an "Esper" capable of healing wounds with his mind. Baylock and Isiah share a friendly rivalry that is reminiscent of the Spock/Bones relationship on Star Trek, with Baylock dismissively referring to Isiah as a "savage" when Cassidy's character kneels down in prayer at one point.

Perhaps most significant is the change in Dylan Hunt himself. Saxon's version of the character is a man of action (like Kirk); one who is firmly in command this time around. He barks orders, plots strategy and is a firm, decisive leader, with precious little of the introspection or moodiness of Cord's incarnation. Honestly, John Saxon is a much better lead in this particular role, and his central performance holds Planet Earth together pretty damn well. Like Shatner's Kirk, he is a combination of physical agility/beauty and charming arrogance/swagger.

Another Star Trekkian touch: Dylan Hunt chronicles his adventures in a handheld device (a 1970s blackberry!). It's not the captain's log, but damn close. Instead, he calls it "a log report to the PAX council."

Given the changes to a punchier, more upbeat tone, philosophy is also played down in Planet Earth. Genesis II ended with the high-minded pacifists of PAX lecturing to Dylan Hunt (who had just saved them all from nuclear annihilation...) about the evils of violence and murder. In Planet Earth, the PAX folk are still peaceful in nature (they continue to use sedative darts as their primary weapons, called PAXer darts. for instance), but they never stop the action to wax philosophic or lecture about pacifism. And judging by the fight sequences here, the people of PAX have also learned the fine art of self-defense.

Directed by the late, great Marc Daniels (who helmed many episodes of Star Trek), Planet Earth (co-written by Juanita Bartlett and Roddenberry and produced by Robert Justman) also features a plot that is easier, in some sense, to identify with. In the opening minutes of the episode, gentle Pater Kimbridge, a leader of PAX, is wounded during a kerfuffle with the Kreeg. Dylan and Team 21 get Kimbridge back to Pax, but they require the skills of a surgeon named John Connor to save the old man's life. Unfortunately, Connor disappeared a year earlier in an "unexplored region" ruled by a matriarchy called "The Confederacy."

There in the confederacy, "males are bought and sold like caged animals." Hunt wonders aloud -- is this "women's lib...or women's lib gone mad?" Anyway, he resolves to infiltrate the Confederacy as a slave "owned" (as property) by Harper-Smythe, to locate John Connor and rescue his dying friend. He has just sixty hours to accomplish this task. What Planet Earth establishes with Dylan's mission is the bond of friendship between Kimbridge and Hunt. Hunt states that Kimbridge "is" PAX; both "grace" and "warmth." So underlining the action and weird central scenario in this pilot is a narrative that could have come from Star Trek; about the lengths friends will go to for friends.

Once inside the Confederacy of Ruth, Hunt becomes the property of a dominatrix named Marg (Diana Muldaur), who wins ownership of him in combat with Harper-Smythe. Marg decides she wants him to be a "breeder" (yes!), and Dylan soon learns that all the males here -- called "Dinks" -- are rendered docile by a drug extract (in their gruelish food...) that controls the human "fear/fascination" response. Unfortunately, a side-effect of this drug is sterility. Fewer and fewer children are being born in the Confederacy. The mission is now two-fold for Dylan: set right this topsy-turvy culture (men's lib!) and find the missing Dr. John Connor.

Unfortunately, that's easier said than done. Hunt soon rebels against training, and Marg notes that "the human male is an unstable creature." She trains him herself (yippee!), forcing a tied-up Hunt to ingest a full vial of the dangerous extract, rendering him docile. But, in the best teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching tradition of Captain Kirk, Hunt fights the effects of the drug.

Once again, here's a Gene Roddenberry story with a decidedly kinky bent. Dylan Hunt is soon remanded to Marg's home as a "breeder" and once there he promises her that he's, uh...well...good in bed. He claims he has fourteen wives and that his body is attuned to "different practices" than The Mistress might be familiar with. Marg and Hunt share a scene that includes bottles of wine, a bullwhip (whoo-hoo!), and ultimately.. a bed. In the sack, Marg and Dylan proceed discuss the failure of both 20th century men's lib and post-apocalyptic women's lib as governing philosophies, and settle on "people's lib." Yep, in the words of Dylan Hunt, it's all just a "little non-verbal mutual respect."

Before long, the Kreeg attack the Confederacy, but Dylan has executed a plan to free the Dinks from their drug-induced docility and stand-up and fight. In the end, PAX outsiders, Dinks and Mistresses fight back the violent Kreegs (led by John Quade) and Dylan and Harper-Smythe get Connor back to PAX to save Kimbridge's life.

I hadn't seen Planet Earth in probably fifteen years, and my memory has always been that it wasn't as good; wasn't as "pure" perhaps, as the original, Genesis II. However, on a fresh viewing, I must admit, I actually prefer Planet Earth. John Saxon seems very comfortable (and appealing) as a leader of men (and women), and he's adept with the romantic and action bits. He's also highly charismatic and appears to be enjoying himself.

And that "light" Star Trek sense of esprit-de-corps and joie-de-vivre is definitely present too, so Saxon understands the style. True, there's less philosophical grandstanding, but the lighter touch is fun and entertaining, and it easily (and humorously) makes points about the timeless "battle of the sexes." Parts of the episode play well as satire; and in toto, Planet Earth is a lot less heavy-handed and grave than Genesis II. This is a planet you wouldn't mind visiting every week.

By making PAX more advanced in Planet Earth, Roddenberry is also better able to compare and contrast various cultures and societies. It's very difficult to be a committed pacifist when you live in desperation (underground in caves; wearing rags); a little easier to do so when some of the basic necessities of life -- like sunlight -- are met. The unisex uniforms also forge a sharp visual distinction between PAX and the other cultures too. The character dynamics here also seem more promising, or at least more colorful.

Alas, Planet Earth didn't make the grade either, and never went to series. A third attempt with this formula, also starring John Saxon (this time as Captain Anthony Vico) -- entitled Strange New World (1975) -- was next. Roddenberry had reduced involvement in that pilot, and it too failed to become a series.

Like Genesis II, Planet Earth has yet to have an official DVD release. Let's hope we see one soon.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

CULT (TV) MOVIE REVIEW: The Last Dinosaur (1977)

Can a badly dated B movie about rampaging dinosaurs actually be more than just a badly-dated B movie about rampaging dinosaurs? That is the paramount question one must confront during an attentive viewing of the 1977 Rankin/Bass television movie, The Last Dinosaur.

Or to put it another way, -- per This is Spinal Tap -- there's a fine line between stupid and clever.

And yes, The Last Dinosaur navigates that line. With giant, clompy Tyrannosaurus feet.

Because, as dopey and inconsequential as The Last Dinosaur may appear at first glance, with the seventies era man-in-suit monsters and wacky fantasy premise (tropical paradise discovered in the polar ice caps!), this Japanese/American co-production also (rather surprisingly...) fulfills one criterion I apply to the finest genre movies. It states something important about the cultural context in which it was crafted; it reveals to us something important about the times; in this case the turbulent 1970s.

Specifically, the titular last dinosaur here is not merely a rogue tyrannosaurus dominating a land that time forgot; but rather the film's protagonist, a raging male chauvinist, an alpha male of excessive virility and masculinity, the appropriately (if humorously...) named Maston Thrust (played by a drunk-seeming Richard Boone).

As the film's boozy theme song notes, "there's nothing new" (for this manly throwback) in an emasculating modern world; one that no longer recognizes his (macho) form of supremacy and domination. So Thrust is literally a "dinosaur" of the late twentieth century, and thus the movie concerns the twilight of unquestioned white male supremacy in the age of ascendant women's lib; and the age immediately preceding stifling political correctness.

But before I excavate too deeply into The Last Dinosaur's deeper meaning, I want to recount the plot for those who haven't seen the film (which aired on American TV on February 11, 1977), or who haven't seen it in a while.

As the film opens, big game hunter, Maston Thrust is feeling noticeably past his prime, seeking his last hurrah. During the film's opening credits, Thrust's latest one night stand (whom he soon ditches...) leafs through his impressive photo album of memories, and we see Thrust's biography in photographs, in images. It is a life of exceptional accomplishment: enlistment in the U.S. Army, battling the Nazis in World War II, setting up a robust and successful global oil exploration company (Thrust Industries), leading safari expeditions to Africa -- even battling with namby-pamby animal rights activists.

Thrust, the great white hunter, soon pinpoints his white whale -- his much-sought after last hurrah -- in the surprising form of a Tyrannosaurus Rex. You see, one of Thrust's drilling expeditions, while ensconced on a phallic-shaped laser drill/vehicle called a "polar borer," has discovered a prehistoric refuge in the polar caps. The only survivor of that mission is prissy, effete "seventies"-style man Chuck Wave (Steve Keats), who saw his four companions eaten by the T-Rex. It was, Wave claims "an enormous animal." Twenty-feet high, forty-feet long, and weighing eight tons, the Tyrannosaurus is, according to Thrust, "the greatest carnivore that ever lived" and the "king of dinosaurs." The dinosaur represents a challenge Thrust can't ignore. He considers himself a king among men, after all.

Accordingly, Maston assembles an expedition to return to the prehistoric land and "study" the beast. Said expedition includes Nobel prize winning scientist Dr. Kawamoto (Tetsu Nakamura), a Masai tracker named Bunta (Luther Rackley) and Wave himself. A female photographer, Francisca "Frankie" Banks (Joan Van Ark) is also assigned to join Thrust on the voyage, but he blocks her participation with blatant and forceful chauvinism. "There's no woman going on this trip!" he barks. "I've never taken a woman on safari before!"

But Frankie is wily, and knows how to ingratiate herself with Thrust. At a party celebrating the group's departure (at a Japanese restaurant), this professional gal dresses up as a Japanese servant girl, and then seductively disrobes for Maston under a pagoda. Thrust is tantalized by the attention of the young, attractive woman, and then Frankie takes him back to her boudoir for more convincing. There, while they are in bed together smooching, Frankie surprises Mast by showing a slide show of her photographs. He was expecting to get laid, (and the movie chickens out and doesn't show us if they have sex or not; but the implication is that they did.)

Anyway, the expedition (with Frankie along, naturally...) travels to the prehistoric world, and things quickly go awry. The T-Rex soon crushes poor Dr. Kawamoto underfoot and wrecks the polar borer, rolling it into a vast dinosaur bone yard.

The expedition is trapped for a long time in this perilous world. As the months go by, the marooned 20th century folk devolve after a fashion. They learn to hunt, to skin animals, and to survive without modern conveniences. They must fight for the available food with a local caveman tribe.

A cave woman, nicknamed Hazel (don't ask...) joins the ad-hoc family, as Thrust becomes increasingly obsessed, Ahab-style, with hunting and killing the murderous T-Rex. Thrust constructs a cross-bow and -- eventually -- a giant catapult -- to combat his own personal Moby Dick.

Frankie, now reduced to role of cave mother --- cooking in the cave for the hunters (the men: Wave, Bunta and Maston) -- also finds herself increasingly attracted to Wave, who -- at the very least -- seems to respect her mind. This change of fortune upsets macho Thrust, who wants Frankie to remain the Eve to his Adam in this strange, lost-in-time world.

"Here's where life is. Pure and simple," Thrust tells her. "What's back there for you? Confusion?" If you're paying attention at this point, you realize what this dialogue really means: back in the twentieth century world (where she is an accomplished and prize-winning photo-journalist), Thrust believes Frankie can't be the "real" woman that she is here, in this prehistoric world (where she fills her biological imperative of serving man, apparently). Frankie ultimately rejects this argument.

In the end, the T-Rex survives the catapult, and Wave repairs the polar borer. Wave and Frankie return home, leaving Maston Thrust -- the throwback -- in his real natural environment: the prehistoric world. It is there, finally, in The Last Dinosaur's closing sequence that Thrust meets Hazel's (the cave woman's) come-hither eyes. The camera pertinently cuts to two extended "freeze frames" (a la Jules & Jim): one for each character. This technique establishes the connection between the character.

What this "extended moment" represents, essentially, in terms of film grammar, is that Maston has indeed found his suitable mate; one who will always acknowledge his male superiority and not travel outside the bounds of the traditional male/female roles he clearly prefers. Not coincidentally, it was Hazel who -- sometime earlier in the film -- went to Maston's bed (in a cave) and returned to him his rifle site...a device by which he could "see" better. What she was doing with that site, actually, was giving Thrust the means to see her; perhaps. An option other than the "modern" woman, Frankie who has not been so steadfast.

So what are we to make of all this? Well, for just a moment, consider the mid-1970s, the era this film emerged from. This was the epoch of the ERA (which was up for a vote in the House of Representatives in 1971; and in the Senate by 1972). This was the epoch of the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision (1973), and the battle for a woman to have a say in reproductive rights (a battle joined in earnest with the wide distribution of the birth control pill in 1960).

This was the age of feminism on blazing intellectual and political "second wave" ascent. Prominent feminists in the culture included Gloria Steinem (a founder of the National Women's Political Caucus in 1971), Shulamith Firestone (author of The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution [1970]), Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch [1970]), and Kate Milett (Sexual Politics [1970]).

The old fashioned dominant white male -- the Don Draper of AMC's Mad Men, for instance -- had to reckon with a tectonic shift in culture and, for the first time, charges of sexism. Accordingly, The Last Dinosaur is about the last gasp of honest, unadulterated American machismo (and chauvinism) as a pointedly anti-feminist response.

At film's conclusion, Frankie says compassionately of the T-Rex, "It's the last one." Thrust's response is illuminating. He says: "So am I." He positions himself as the last of his species then, the last "macho man." Thrust is an unapologetic hunter (and therefore enemy of animal rights activists), an unapologetic womanizer (as seen by his treatment of his one-night-stand; whom he literally tells to suck on a bullet...) and so the film establishes that he cannot survive as "the last one" in a modern, equal-rights culture. Therefore, The Last Dinosaur strands Thrust in a world more to his liking -- literally a prehistoric world. It is there, with a pointedly un-liberated cave-woman as his mate, that he will spend the rest of his days.

Frankie, by contrast, is a liberated contemporary woman of the disco decade. She experiences a taste of life as a prehistoric domestic woman (a metaphor for marriage?) and doesn't much care for it. She adheres to modern values ("After all we've been through, I'd like to think that we're still civilized enough to be compassionate."), and more importantly -- in her seduction of Thrust for her own means and ends, proves herself a heroine in the true spirit of Germaine Greer. Where Greer worried that "women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality," Frankie freely expresses (and revels) in her sexuality with both Wave and Maston Thrust. She is attracted to both men, but ultimately whom she chooses as a mate (Wave) is her choice, not that of either man. She hightails it back to the 20th century, leaving Thrust, the last of his breed, behind.

I write often here about the ways a film's form (the choice of shots, the selection of soundtrack, etc.) can and should reflect a form's thematic content. Look - for just a moment - beneath the rubbery monsters in The Last Dinosaur, and you'll see what I did: that the film's themes are reflected by the film's shape. In particular, The Last Dinosaur finds methods to associate Thrust with machismo (and then tie that machismo to a fading, dying age). From the selection of his name (we all know what thrusting regards, don't we?), we understand something about Maston. His conveyance - the polar "borer" is another phallic reference (one literally knocked around by Thrust's competitor in "size" for dominance, the T-Rex). And the film's oddly-captivating theme song explicitly equates Thrust with "the last dinosaur." In fact, the entire film is scored (by Maury Laws) in counter-intuitive but highly-effective fashion: as a kind of folksy, tragic (and yet highly sentimental) requiem for a man who has outlived his time, and his usefulness. The only place for Thrust and his views is...the past.

I've already commented on the deployment here of freeze frames, and how they are utilized to explicitly (and visually) establish the burgeoning connection between Thrust and Hazel, yet there are other visual flourishes as well. For instance, when the group is defeated by the dinosaur and their polar borer taken away (a castration for Thrust?), the film cuts to an impressive (and slow...) pull-back that lets the reality of their entrapment (and alienation from their environment) settle in.

Slow-motion photography is utilized during the climax, to squeeze out the suspense. And even though the titular dinosaur is clearly but a man in a rubbery suit, the film doesn't make the same mistake as many monster movies do. It remembers to often shoot the beast from an extreme low angle (rather than eye level...) to forge a sense of power and menace. I've ribbed the antiquated special effects here quite a bit, but I must state this too: some of the composites between live actors and (admittedly-fake looking dinosaur) are absolutely exceptional. The composites hold up gloriously, even if the monster costumes don't. Hopefully you can see this from some of the photos I've posted. I defy you to find the matte lines.

I could have written this review entirely about The Last Dinosaur's consistent literary allusions to Melville's Moby Dick had I wanted to, but I felt that the battle of the sexes angle was much more trenchant to an understanding of the film's heart. The Last Dinosaur, for all the hammy performances, creaky zooms, cheesy effects and portentous dialogue, serves as a relatively unique social commentary about the end of a roiling era; about the twilight of the macho white man's cultural dominance. As this film points out, he was rapidly becoming an endangered species who - in the 1970s (and before Reagan, anyway...) - was finding himself more and more out-of-step with modern Western culture (where sensitive Alan Alda would soon be held up as a paragon of type). But make no mistake, the film doesn't glorify Maston Thrust. He's not a role model. The film exiles him to pre-history because he can't change; because he can't grow. Still, as Thrust himself seems to realize, he'd rather rule in Hell than serve (or be caged...) in 20th century heaven.

So hell yeah, The Last Dinosaur is an old fashioned, retro monster movie, but in playing on more than one thematic level (and with a modicum of good film style) it certainly fits my definition of B movie (low budget) classic. This is every bit the film I wanted Dinosaurus! (1960) to be just a few weeks ago. An effort that - though undeniably dated and passe - nonetheless has some red meat on those dinosaur bones.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Tribute: Paul Newman (1925-2008)

From Yahoo News: "WESTPORT, Conn. - Paul Newman, the Academy-Award winning superstar who personified cool as an activist, race car driver, popcorn impresario and the anti-hero of such films as "Hud," "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Color of Money," has died. He was 83."

Paul Newman wasn't just Cool Hand Luke (in one of my favorite movies of all-time), but also Butch Cassidy (in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid [1969]. And Henry Gondorff (in The Sting [1973]), as well as Fast Eddie Felson (in The Hustler [1961].

Newman's brilliant work went far beyond the sixties and seventies, though his later work (excluding The Color of Money) is often less celebrated in the pop culture. In the 1980s, however, the actor offered remarkable performances in underrated efforts such as Fort Apache: The Bronx (1981), Absence of Malice (1981), and The Verdict (1982).

Personally, I'll always remember Paul Newman as he was in the iconic freeze-frame ending of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid -- guns blazing, fighting to the last. And when I recall his laconic screen persona, I'll forever hear the tune of Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head...

My condolences to Mr. Newman's family. We lost an icon today.

CULT TV REVIEW: Genesis II (1973)

In the early 1970s, Great Bird of the Galaxy and Star Trek revered creator Gene Roddenberry attempted to launch a new science fiction TV series entitled Genesis II. Today, this program is something of a legend to thirty-something genre buffs. Myself included. I for one have often wished that a clever producer would inherit this promising property and remake it today as a new series.

For those whose memory banks have failed, the Genesis II pilot basically filled in a period of Earth "future" history, post 20th-century (and post-World War III, or in Genesis II terminology, "The Great Conflict") but pre-Star Trek Age. In other words, the series would have depicted Earth's adolescent struggles as man emerged from a deadly childhood (consisting of war and lust...) and became -- in the words of of Gene Roddenberry's teleplay -- a "grown up."

Gene Roddenberry commissioned twenty hour-long scripts for Genesis II, and they're all still out there: a veritable first season worth of adventures ready to produce right now. One of those stories, by Alan Dean Foster ("Robot's Return") even became the basis for Star Trek: The Motion Picture and "V'Ger."

Despite a library of twenty scripts ready to produce, despite a fascinating premise about future Earth's evolution, CBS passed on Genesis II in favor of a TV version of Planet of the Apes (1974). Refusing to surrender, Roddenberry re-fashioned elements of the Genesis II premise and produced a second (more colorful and action-packed) version of the material called Planet Earth. (Also to be featured here soon!). If you're a fan of the recent outer space series Andromeda, you may also recall that certain elements of that Kevin Sorbo series (including the name of the Genesis II hero, Dylan Hunt), were incorporated.

Genesis II commences in the late 1970s with a Buck Rogers-style premise. American scientist Dylan Hunt (Alex Cord) takes part in a suspended animation experiment deep inside a NASA facility inside Carlsbad Caverns (and adjacent to the Continental Defense Command). As Dylan is put to sleep in a pressure chamber, there is an inconveniently-timed rock fall and the facility is permanently buried, destroyed. Hunt is left for dead. Abandoned.

In voice-over narration, Hunt reports "My name is Dylan Hunt...and my story begins the day on which I died." He then reports (accompanied by flashbacks...) how he served as the chief of the suspended animation project (known as Ganymede) since 1979, and how he arrived at the Carlsbad facility (from Washington DC) on a highly-advanced "sub-shuttle" which could travel 1135 kilometers an hour. The plan was to connect every nation in the world with these sub-shuttles, thus "bridging" continents. The sub-shuttles were necessary because surface and air travel had grown too vulnerable to attack (apparently, according to the prescient dialogue, China was on blazing ascent).

In the year 2133 AD -- some 154 years after the cavern accident -- Dylan Hunt is awakened by team members of an organization called PAX (Latin for "peace.") Pax's leader is a stoic, impressive black man, Primus Kimbridge (Percy Rodrigues), and he is accompanied on the rescue mission by a feisty human woman named Harper-Smythe (Lynne Marta) and a gorgeous half-Tyranian mutant, Lyra-a (the foxy Mariette Hartley).

In a scene demonstrating Gene Roddenberry's finely-developed penchant for kinkiness, Dylan Hunt's physiological revival nearly fails (his skin has actually turned blue...). To survive, Hunt's body needs to "want to live." Yes -- as Dylan reveals in voice over -- there is apparently a deep connection between "the will to survive" and "the need to reproduce." It is that connection that spurs metabolic revival post-suspension. Cutting thru the techno-jargon, what this means simply is that Lyra-a must make love to Dylan to restore the twentieth-century scientist to health.

And did I mention that Lyra-a has two belly buttons?

So, from the haze of a half-coma, Dylan begs Lyra-a: "make me want to live." She happily obliges. Note to self: if I am ever in suspended animation for 154 years, I would like Lyra-a to be present to revive me.

Anyway, cut to sometime later (*ahem*) and Lyra-a is still nursing the recuperating Dylan Hunt back to health. She promptly asks if Dylan remembers how she "cared" for him and then strips down to a bikini and shows off her double-belly button. Okay: best post-apocalyptic TV pilot. EVER.

As Lyra-a flaunts her fetching twin navels, she also provides some critical story exposition. Tyranians are apparently mutants with two hearts, and vastly superior strength. And they need Dylan's help because their nuclear reactor is malfunctioning. Lyra-a also claims that the people of PAX are militaristic plunderers (looting various civilizations for ancient treasures), descendants of the very soldiers responsible for the "Great Conflict" in the first place.

Lyra-a helps Dylan escape from PAX in a still-functioning sub-shuttle and escorts him to the grand Tyranian metropolis (located in old Arizona). There, Dylan learns the truth: Tyranians practice deceit as "a virtue" and believe that "self-interest is the natural order of life." (Oh no, they're Republicans!). The Tyranians also enslave human beings, whom they euphemistically refer to as "Our Helpers."

Furthermore, the Tyranians control human beings with technological wands called "stims," devices which can deliver eight degrees of pain...or eight degrees of pleasure. Again, this is incredibly kinky when put in practice (what with all the wand touching and all...), but frankly, that's the patented Roddenberrian touch I missed most in the snoozy Star Trek: The Next Generation and all modern incarnations of the Trek franchise. Bring on the double-belly buttons and the pleasure sticks. Please.

The remainder of the episode involves Dylan learning that PAX is actually a noble organization, one committed to "preserving the best of the past" and "letting the worst of it be forgotten." With the help of a PAX team, including a Native American named Isiah (Ted Cassidy), Dylan stages an insurrection to free the Tyranians' human slaves. He also learns why Lyra-a really brought him to the city: they have a nuclear missile aimed at PAX's headquarters, and need Dylan's help making it functional.

Genesis II ends with a nuclear detonation at the Tyranian nuclear facility (far from the city). Dylan has double-crossed the Tyranians and removed their weapons of mass destruction permanently. Interestingly, the pilot then ends on a strongly pacifist, philosophical note. The men and women of PAX, though facing annihilation, are angry that Hunt has killed Tyranians. "Did you take lives?" They ask with disapproval. Of course, he has ("I saved everyone!" he says), but the people of PAX believe his choice was immoral, and don't just talk the talk. They walk the walk. "You must swear to give your life rather than to take another," they insist. In other words, in a world ruined by war, the greatest wrong imaginable is killing...even the "justifiable" killing of an enemy. If the human race is to grow up, it must eschew violence totally. The people of PAX will not sacrifice their ideals for security; not murder other people in the name of "peace."

"I hope I'm up to it," says Hunt, committing to a bold, and perhaps difficult future.

I've written above, perhaps a bit too snarkily, about the sexual aspects of Genesis II, but in fairness, this pilot also boasts Roddenberry's penchant for intelligent social commentary. Not merely in terms of the anti-war, pro-peace message, either, but in terms of gender and race equality. For instance, the attentive viewer will notice immediately the "unisex" and integrated nature of PAX. Blacks, and whites, men and women, hold the title "Primus" and work together to build the future. There's also great (and highly-amusing) scene here in which Harper-Smythe complains bitterly that the world was destroyed by "lust" (lust between the sexes, lust for property, lust for power...), and it rings true enough that we recognize the concern.

And even though Genesis II occurs post-holocaust, there is room for hope (or Roddenberry's famous, trademark optimism) in this troubled world. The Earth survives, and has been gifted with "a second chance." On the other hand, this message is muddled by some of the visuals. For instance, much of Genesis II occurs underground, in dark, unpleasant caves. True, some caves are decorated with art; and there's also a garden in evidence, but the visual reveals the truth: the peaceful (good) people of PAX have been relegated to living in a basement. They wear rags that look like potato sacks. Though the citizenry are idealistic, though they have hope, their "home" looks pretty grim. This is one element that is changed in Planet Earth. It infuses PAX's world with spiffy uniforms (like Star Trek!) and vibrant, upbeat-colors (more Star Trek). Genesis II is probably more intellectually honest about what a post-apocalyptic state would look like; but Planet Earth is definitely more palatable in terms of visuals.

Other visuals are a mixed bag on Genesis II. The Tyranian City is a perfect example. It is depicted with a great matte painting (from a distance.) But up close, the city looks just like your friendly neighborhood community college campus. Likewise, some exterior vistas are impressive (like Hunt's first view of the outside world), while other locations look suspiciously like Southern California ranches. And, there's some clumsy insertion of stock footage here too. When Lyra-a and Dylan ride to the Tyranian city, the episode cuts to stock material of squirrels and raccoons gallivanting.

So, how is one to assess the pilot overall? Well, the climactic action in Genesis II is pretty darn uninspiring, truth be told, and the overall tone lacks Star Trek's joie-de-vivre. Also, there's little sense of esprit-de-corps between the protagonists. (Again, this is understandable, given the grave circumstances...) However, the set-up of the series (it's just one sub-shuttle ride to new civilizations and new life forms...) and the powerful ideals of the PAX characters (their evolved view towards violence and war) certainly held great potential. Also, the idea of a man like Hunt - who embodies both the best and worst of the 20th century - dealing with a "brave new world" seemed to promise so much.

I still think this would have been a great series and I mourn the decision not to greenlight it. The pilot offers the Roddenberry touch (and his writing style) in spades, and is immensely entertaining. Also, you can't deny Genesis II was ahead of its time. Just a few years later, the short-lived Logan's Run TV series would adopt a familiar formula. That series involved hover-craft (not sub-shuttle) trips to various post-apocalyptic cultures-of-the-week.

If you think about it, Roddenberry nearly accomplished the impossible here: he excavated a second great series formula, one that held for the possibility of so many exciting and diverse stories. I don't know that there is any Mr. Spock-style break out character in Genesis II, but Lyra-a, with her philosophy of "self-interest" and her inability to "feel love" as humans "understand" it, could have made for some very interesting moments and dynamic character interaction. Also, the idea of Earth getting a new beginning - a second genesis - is one of enormous optimism, something that -- over time (and some brighter photography...) -- might have resonated with audiences the way Star Trek's spirit of universal brotherhood did.

So why isn't anybody remaking this? At the very least, could we please get an official DVD release?

Thursday, September 25, 2008

TV REVIEW: Fringe: "The Ghost Network"

On week three, the new Fox genre series Fringe continues to lurch wildly from one X-Files-type narrative to another in search of some defining style or plotting. Worse, it keeps coming up short in the actual science department. The coup de grace, however is that this week's episode, "The Ghost Network," reveals a format "hardening-of-the-arteries" as well. Just three installments in on this new series and the attentive viewer can already detect and chart a repeating, predictable and tiresome formula, or "pattern," if you will.

Let's start with the X-Files riff that informs the subject matter (because that's always fun, and sadly, obvious). "The Ghost Network" deals with a man who is experiencing psychic visions of terrorist attacks. He is actually receiving information mentally about the crime, via a psychic wavelength that Dr. Bishop terms "The Ghost Network." For X-Files episodes in which people inexplicably experience strange psychic visions of the latest and most dangerous crimes (including child abduction or murder), I refer you just off the top of my head to "Oubliette," "Blind" and the latest feature film, "I Want To Believe."

Yet in fairness, Fringe utilizes the idea of a psychic connection a little differently than these examples; it attempts to explain, specifically, that the psychic visions are merely communications signals on a different wave-length; one utilized by the secret Conspiracy. Where the X-Files often endowed loners, losers and misfits with psychic powers, thus examining their "outsider" status in our society, Fringe begins with this tack (in a scene at St. Ames Cathedral in which the psychic confesses to a fear that the Devil is sending him dreams), but then drops that tangent like a hot potato in favor of a conspiracy-oriented tale. Honestly, this is the least rip-offish of the first three Fringe episodes. It starts out familiar, then takes a turn. So give it a pass there. It's not like Teliko's stealing pituitary glands this week, at least.

The problem is that Fringe only skims the surface of an interesting idea, and comes up short on the actual science on display. Let me point out two basic goofs. Early on, Peter Bishop (Joshua Jackson) rattles off the names of a few drugs that his father, Dr. Bishop is concocting at the lab for self-medication. Peter terms them "psychotics." The drug names he rattles off, however, are the generics for Xanax and Paxil, if I caught them right. Those aren't psychotics. A genius with a 190 IQ wouldn't make that simple a mistake, would he? I mean, I caught the error and my IQ is a lot lower. (A lot lower...).

Secondly, while conducting brain surgery with a drill (and we see a pool of blood flowing as the drill cuts), Dr. Bishop fails to administer a local anesthetic to his patient. Remarkably, the patient doesn't even wince as the drill whirs deep into his skull. Bishop administers a sedative, mind you, but that's not the same thing. What is this, Awake?

When Fringe fails to convey accurate information on routine subjects such as psychiatric drugs and surgical procedure, you have to wonder about the integrity of the series. And seriously, this episode is muddled beyond belief. Are we to believe that the people behind the Pattern are using "The Ghost Network" to communicate about terrorist attacks and the like? If that's the case, have they wired all their cell phones to operate on "The Ghost Network." (Can you hear me now?)

I mean, we see the psychic man reporting cell phone conversations at a station miles away, and are told he has accessed the Ghost Network band...so that could only means that the perpetrators have Ghost-tuned their cell phones. Correct? Perhaps I'm missing something, but this just seems...silly to me. Fringe establishes that there is a ghost communications network, and that the psychic is tuning into it, but this episode doesn't make clear who is actually using the network and how they do it, except that they're bad and behind some kind of technology exchange. But what mechanism are they using? Adapted cell phones? Do both sides (people) in the exchange have these new phones, or just one? Again, the ideas are superficial that they don't bear up under the slightest scrutiny.

My biggest concern about "The Ghost Network" -- by far -- is that it seems to indicate a creative rut. Here's the outline of Fringe episodes so far:

1. There is a strange and/or horrific attack in shocking prologue. (Plane attack in pilot; motel room fertilization in "The Same Old Story," bus attack in "Ghost Network")

2. Dr. Bishop has cutsie-poo insane moment (here over pancakes and pianos; last week over car seat heaters)

3. Mystery clue dropped as to Peter's background (here in a diner; last week in a comment by Dr. Bishop)

4. Olivia investigates case and ties it to "the pattern," after making mention of her relationship with Agent Scott and how she feels betrayed (on a park bench last week; here at a funeral).

5. The case of the week involves something paranormal or "fringe" Dr. Bishop worked on once directly (but because of his cutsie-poo insanity has conveniently forgotten about, until it comes up in this new context). Also conveniently, Bishop knows of a functional device built just for solving this case. Last week ("The Same Old Story"), it was a machine that could read images from retinas. This week, the good doctor happens to have a kind of helmet stored away in his old house that can adjust brainwaves. By far, this is the worst element of the show so far: the deus ex machina of the week.

6. Case leads back to Massive Dynamic. Always.

7. Olivia interviews Blair Brown at Massive Dynamic, and she "denies all knowledge." Why doesn't Olivia just arrest this evasive exec? She's now been tied circumstantially to three cases. How about haulin' her ass down to HQ for questioning?

8. The case of the week is solved, but many questions remain about Massive Dynamic and the conspiracy/Pattern , so we can have future episodes that tell us just as little.

9. Epilogue: something's going on with John Scott(Mark Valley), the dead FBI agent, at Massive Dynamic.

I look forward to episode four, when I'm sure that this creative rut will be destroyed, and Fringe will go in a new, exciting direction and not rely on the same plot. Right? Right?

Seriously, to re-mediate itself, Fringe need only fix one or two of these elements next week. How about Dr. Bishop not have a miracle device (or know of a miracle device) at the ready? How about a crime of the week not involve Massive Dynamic or the Pattern? How about Olivia investigating a case that is new to Dr. Bishop, not an old case he's forgotten about (then conveniently remembered)?

Okay, I'm sure people are going to say that I'm picking on Fringe. So I do want to say something nice. Joshua Jackson is doing a more-than credible job in this series. He's getting better at delivering one-liners, and has developed a nice way of puncturing the mock-profundity with his funny dialogue delivery. Seriously -- and this may merely be a symptom of how bad Fringe is -- Joshua Jackson is the bright spot of every episode so far. He makes the show watchable, and occasionally amusing.

Fringe reveals so little improvement over the last two weeks that I may have to impose my old Supernatural rule: I will stay tuned for five weeks, and if things don't get better after that spell, I'm outta there!

So Fringe gets two more times up at bat as far as I'm concerned. Oh heck, I'm a nice guy. I'll set the bar even lower. If the fourth episode next week does not involve an old case of Dr. Bishop and the old man actually has to invent something instead of relying on old research, I'll double my watching duration to ten weeks.

That's a challenge, Fringe. Break the pattern!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Theme Song of the Week #28: Airwolf (1984-1986)

Music from the Studio at the End of the Universe, Part Two

By Mateo Latosa

Library Music

John's original intent was to score THB with library music, as he didn't have a composer. Once Cesar and I came on board, he dropped that idea and used our music exclusively (except for the occasional trailer). By the time THB 2.0 rolled around, John not only had all my new cues to use, but had our entire set of cues from season one to use as library music.

That is one reason why our credit remained the same in season two. Cesar's contributions to season one were ever-present in season two. In fact some cues recorded for season one went unused there, until finally being placed in season two. Also, we'd made a decision early on to credit all our THB compositions as Gallegos/Latosa. This decision continued into season two, with all THB cues copyrighted to both of us.

Into the Black

As THB 2.0 aired, it became increasingly difficult to schedule studio time that worked for all three of us. John became worried that I wouldn't have time to compose and record the music for the final scene--the consumption of the house (by dark matter) until all that's left is a single room with the remaining characters crowded in the doorway looking out into the black.

He was right to worry. That last recording session never took place. But, unbelievably, I had recorded an extra piece that I called, "Into Darkness and Awareness," that I had sent to John weeks before. He had downloaded it, unzipped it, filed it and forgotten about it--UNHEARD!

When I told him that the final session wasn't going to happen, he was bummed out to say the least. Then I mentioned that, for the Into the Black sequence, I had planned to do a longer version of "Into Darkness and Awareness". He didn't remember that piece and asked its exact length. It took a few minutes, but he found it and heard it for the first time...and amazingly the piece fit perfectly. And with that bit of luck, my work for THB 2.0 was finished

From The House Between to Under the Eagle and Back Again!

During the scoring of THB 2.0, I was asked to score some transitions between scene changes for the London engagement of the "Under the Eagle," the new work from playwright, Andrew Cartmel. I chose to expand upon a short theme I'd written for THB 2.0 called "Evil Bill". It was a cue that was just begging for development.

I recorded three new versions: one with synth and piano, one with just synth, and one with just acoustic guitar. I sent these to London, but due to their late arrival they went unused. So I sent them to John for use in THB 2.0. Full circle!

FINAL NOTE: The Long-Distance Crew Members

Cesar and I are often asked what it was like to be on the crew of The House Between. The question usually implies that we know the actors and other crewmembers. Sadly, we really don't. We have never been on the set--or in North Carolina for that matter! Someday we hope to meet everyone who was involved in this unique, dare I say brazen, production. It's been an honor and a lot of fun. See you in THB 3.0!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The House Between Fan Appreciation Page

Hey everybody, The House Between now has a fan appreciation page. Whoo-hoo!

Check it out to read about a House Between chronology, or the similarities between my crazy little show and...The Wizard of Oz?

The site will soon be re-broadcasting the series from the beginning (in anticipation of the upcoming third season), and commenting on each episode. Outstanding! Can't wait!

Come on Sci-Fi Channel, isn't it time to pick us up? We work cheap. Seriously...

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 79: Buck Rogers: Battle for the 25th Century Game (TSR; 1988)

In 1988, TSR (the company behind the mega-popular role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons) released an expansive and fun strategy board game based on the classic Dille character Buck Rogers. The game (which is for 2 to 6 players, ages 10 and up) was not related to the 1979 NBC-TV series (starring Gil Gerard and Erin Gray). Rather, in some sense, it sought to make the BR universe a bit more believable (and less campy). All the familiar characters were here, but made a little more "serious." There was no sign of Twiki (bi-di-bi-di...) anywhere.

"The fate of the solar system is in your hands!" the back of the box shouted. And looking at all the various and sundry pieces of the game (including spaceships, killer satellites and industrial factories), it seems like you do have an entire solar system at your command.

In all, there were over 360 playing pieces, 54 playing cards, over 200 heavy cardboard counters, 50 plastic chips, five 10-sided dice and 2 rule books. In other words, if you were to get a few of your friends together with this game, you'd be assured of hours (perhaps days...) of geek glory. Break open the Doritos...

Here's the set-up for the game: "It is the 25th century. A fierce war of colonization and Imperial conquest has thrown the Inner Planets of Our Solar System into Chaos." Specifically, warships "scream across the blackness of space, cutting swaths of destruction" throughout out solar system.

Into this world comes "Buck Rogers - a man of the 20th century," to fight injustice. "In this game, you pick sides; you control vast armies and one of several heroes (or villains)...The onslaught is coming."

Opposing you as Buck Rogers were space pirates "led by Black Barney" and "would-be conquerers, Killer Kane and Ardala."

Sounds fun, doesn't it? Sadly, I never really got to play this terrific-looking game with any buddies. By 1988, I was away at college and off on other things (namely, shooting no-budget movies with titles such as Slaves of the Succubus and Intruder). I *think* this game came into my possession for about a dollar sometime in the early nineties (courtesy of a flea market). But it sure as hell looks fun, doesn't it? Anyone out there remember it?

I'm saving this game for Joel (who turns 2 soon). Of course, by the time he's ready for it, we'll all be playing games like this on virtual reality head sets...

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...