Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Sci-Tech # 3: Alpha Moonbase Edition

"Space: 1999" had a style, a feel, a look of its own." - Martin Landau (Lee Goldberg. Starlog: "Martin Landau Space-Age Hero." July 1986, page 45).

"...Space:1999 is like Star Trek shot full of methedrine.  It is the most flashy, gorgeous sci-fi trip ever to appear on TV.  Watching it each week is very close to being under the influence of a consciousness altering drug. - Benjamin Stein. The Wall Street Journal: "Sailing Along on a Moon-Base Way."

Though TV reviewers were often quick to criticize the storylines on Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999, most nonetheless agreed that the visualizations of this classic series were unimpeachable. 

For example, TV/Radio columnist Charlie Hanna termed the sci-fi program a "visual feast," and The New York Times critic John J. O'Connor noted that the "visual lavishness is apparent from the dazzling array of electronic gadgets and hardware to the "moon city" costumes designed by Rudi Gerneich."

In the same vein, Newsweek observed that "Not since Stanley Kubrick's '2001' have sci-fi freaks had the chance to trip out on so much surrealistic gimmickry."

I can add my own testimony to this effusive praise.  When I initially watched Space:1999 back in 1975, I was certain that this was indeed what the future would look like.  It just seemed right and appropriate that by the year 1999 we'd all be able to communicate across mini-tv screens thanks to devices such as the useful commlock.  And, of course, furniture and interior decoration would be immaculate, minimalist, and stream-lined by the eve of the 21st century, right?

Okay.  It didn't quite turn out that way, but you can't convince me that it shouldn't have turned out that way.

So for today, and my third installment of Sci-Tech, I want to present some of my favorite imagery of Moonbase Alpha from Space:1999.  As you may recall from my previous entries on Star Trek's "The Cage" and Land of the Lost's Altrusia, the mission of these infrequent Sci-Tech posts is to gaze at the technology/production design/effects work of popular cult-tv series.

The sets  for Space: 1999 were created by production designer Keith Wilson, and the exterior miniatures by special effects director Brian Johnson.   In both cases, these gentlemen did extraordinary work.  In short, they accomplished three critical things: 

First, they created believable technology with one foot in the future and one in the present.  In Space:1999, for instance, you'll see control rooms, nuclear generating plants, and high-tech medical units, but at the same time, you can note characters reading books, adjusting thermostats in their crew quarters, and even tanning themselves in a solarium ("Force of Life.") 

In practice, this is quite an extraordinary combination.  Despite the clean, minimal lines of Moonbase Alpha construction, crew quarters boast a sense of individuality and recognizable humanity ("Matter of Life and Death."), Areas of heavy use such as laboratories, as seen in "Breakaway" and "Voyager's Return," are cluttered and over-crowded.  In other words -- despite the immaculate white conception of Moonbase Alpha -- man will be man, even in the future.  He will use the "space" on the Moon in just the way he does here on Earth; and that way isn't always clean and austere...or even neat.  Victor Bergman's laboratory is another example of this design approach.

Secondly, the designers of Space:1999 didn't skimp on a sense of scope, meaning that the vistas and views of Moonbase Alpha appeared more legitimately cinematic and impressive than virtually any other sci-fi series sets in history up to 1978 including Star Trek, wherein the Enterprise bridge famously did not include a ceiling.  

The control center of Moonbase Alpha, Main Mission, is a perfect example of this aesthetic.  It is a vast, two-story affair replete with a ledge and observation area, as well as a kind of mission control pit where analysts toil on a regular basis.  Attached to Main Mission -- with a wall as a huge sliding door -- is the Commander's office.  For privacy, Commander Koenig can shut the door to Main Mission.  In cases of emergency, he can open the door, and his desk overlooks the Big Screen and his workers.    What must be noted about this is that both Main Mission and the Commander's office are vast.   The two (joined) sets present the appearance of a real life, sprawling complex.

Scope is sometimes achieved other ways on the series as well.  Miniatures do the trick to convey passage on the useful Travel Tube, and in rare instances, Space:1999 joins live-action footage with rear-projection footage of Eagles and their hangar bay.  Again, there's a powerful aura of a fully-operational Moonbase here.

Third, and equally important, the amazing technology and design of Alpha and the Eagles were merely the starting point of this adventure.  Week after week, our impressive views of Earth's high-tech turn-of-the-century moonbase were one-upped, essentially, by mind-blowing alien landscapes and worlds,  as featured in episodes such as "Guardian of Piri," "Missing Link," "War Games," "The Last Enemy" and so on. 

After many of those trippy adventures, the high-tech environs of Moonbase Alpha felt not like a dazzling vision of a future age, but rather like "home," even fostering a sense of security. By creating alien worlds of such blazing distinction and originality, the makers of Space:1999 actually made their "future" Earth technology seem all the more believable (and desirable).

It would be impossible to write this post without commenting just a little on the Eagle, one of the most beloved spaceship designs of cult-televisions.  These craft are perfectly in keeping with Moonbase Alpha: as remarkable embodiments of "near future" technology.    No flying saucers or stream-lined nacelles in this world.  Rather, the utilitarian Eagles consist of interconnected modules, retro-rockets, landing pads and nose-cones.  All these facets are recognizable as dramatic extrapolations from the then-current Apollo program.  Again, Space:1999 had one foot in the future, and one in the present.
This is how Brian Johnson described the creation of the Eagles, in an interview with me almost a decade ago (on the advent of Space:1999's release on DVD):

"I was in my "modular" design mode in those days. I reasoned that it made sense to make Pods that were interchangeable. The command pod could serve as a lifeboat, Eagles could be "chained" together, etc...My basic ideas came from looking at dragonflies and insects of all sorts. I copied nature to some degree - I think it made the Eagle believable."

Believability, scope, and then imagination. These are the sturdy foundations of Space:1999's set and model designs.   Below is a brief gallery showcasing Moonbase Alpha as it appeared in Year One.  Finally, I should add that these sets, models and designs look even more remarkable on Blu Ray.
Looking up to the Commander's office.

Gazing at Main Mission's "Big Screen."

Minimalism meets clutter: a fully functioning machine laboratory.

A Room with a view.  Note the globe of Earth cast in gray and black to match the rest of the set.

Clock, communicator and more: The comm-post.

Against a backdrop of stars: a repair-man with a tool kit.

Remote control flying an Eagle.

The travel tube

A nuclear power plant of the future.

The Solarium

Behind our heroes, a hanger bay filled with Eagles.

An Eagle spacecraft, with special module (from "Breakaway.")

Moonbase Alpha

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: Suspended Animation

Identified by Brian: The Twilight Zone: "The Rip-Van Winkle Caper"

Identified by Brian:  The Twilight Zone: "The Long Morrow"

Identified by Brian: Lost in Space: "The Reluctant Stowaway"

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: "Space Seed"

Identified by Linda: The Starlost: "Lazarus in the Mist."

Identified by Brian: Doctor Who: "The Ark in Space"

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "Earthbound"

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "The Exiles"

Identified by Brian: Logan's Run (The Series): "Crypt"

Identified by Brian: Space Academy "Countdown"

Identified by Will: Battlestar Galactica: "Greetings from Earth."

Identified by HPrice: Blake's 7: "Time Squad"

Identified by Brian: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century ("Pilot")

Identified by Brian: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Neutral Zone"

Identified by Will: Earth 2: "Pilot"

Identified by Brian: Star Trek Voyager: "The 37s"

Identified by Brian: Farscape "Season of Death"

Not Identified: The Outer Limits (New Series): "Stasis"

Identified by Brian: Futurama ("Pilot")

Friday, May 27, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 132: SeaQuest DSV: Season One (1993 - 1994)

"It's because we all came from the sea, and it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears.  We are tied to the ocean.  And when we go back to the sea -- whether it is to sail or watch it -- we are going back from whence we came."

The stirring and passionate words printed above come from our late, great Commander-in-Chief, President John F. Kennedy, and they open the inaugural episode of Rockne S. O'Bannon's genre series, SeaQuest DSV (1993 - 1996) on a pitch perfect note.

These poetic words hint at a few of the reasons why many sci-fi fans fell in love with the 1990s TV program, or at least wanted to fall in love with the TV program. 

Like outer space -- the final frontier -- the sea is a realm of seemingly infinite mystery, beauty and excitement.   Personally, I've been obsessed with undersea adventures of submarines and submarine crews since I first read Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea as a child.

The weekly opening narration of Sea Quest DSV also described the mission in satisfactory terms: "The 21st century: mankind has colonized the last unexplored region on Earth; the ocean. As captain of the seaQuest and its crew, we are its guardians, for beneath the surface lies the future..."

I admire and appreciate how that passage is assembled.  It notes that the ocean is not just our past (per the Kennedy quote), but our destiny, our future.  And it marks us, along with the crew of the SeaQuest, as "guardians" of a realm that is constantly in danger because of human pollution and mismanagement.  Again, this is a promising prologue to adventure.

Produced by Steven Spielberg, SeaQuest DSV aired for fifty-seven hour-long episodes over two-and-a-half seasons on NBC, and ultimately sailed through some very choppy waters.  In broad terms, the series is a kind of update and re-imagining of Irwin Allen's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964 - 1968) concerning a state-of-the-art submarine on missions of scientific exploration, political intrigue and even, from time-to-time, the fantastic. 

Whereas Voyage relied heavily on detailed miniature effects, SeaQuest is truly a product of the early 1990s, overly-dependent on computer-generated images and digital vistas for its special effects.  On this front, Voyage beats out SeaQuest, alas.  I watched the pilot episode of Voyage recently, and the miniature effects and model work featured there were far more impressive than SeaQuest's early CGI efforts, which are murky, occasionally cartoony, and lacking in the requisite detail fans of high-tech subs might hope for.

The SeaQuest DSV pilot, "To Be or Not To Be" lays the groundwork for the series proper.  Directed by Irvin Kershner, it is set in the year 2019, as the newly-formed UEO (United Earth Oceans) attempts to police the seas, which -- because of resource scarcity on dry land -- have become a kind of underwater wild west.   Farmers, settlers and miners have set up facilities all over the ocean floor, but are menaced by "non-aligned" countries and "warrior subs."

The SeaQuest (Deep Submergence Vehicle 4600), a newly-built 1,000 ft. long submarine, is the UEO's ambassador to the underwater world.  It is designed to function "not as a warship" but as "a peace keeper."  The vessel is "the largest deep sea exploration vehicle ever," and outfitted with  a crew of 124 scientists and 88 military personnel. 

Buttressed by state-of-the-art research equipment such as "hyper-reality" probes (think virtual reality) and WSKRs systems (Wireless Sea Knowledge Retrieval Satellites), the SeaQuest also features a hydroponics lab, and even a holographic advisor for the commanding officer.  That advisor, the Professor (William Morgan Sheppard) is designed to serve as a captain's "moral" barometer in times of crisis and tough decisions.   

The only problem, as the series begins, is that SeaQuest's former captain, Marilyn Stark (Shelley Hack) has been removed from command for attempting to start a nuclear conflict over a minor territorial issue.  Admiral Noyce (Richard Herd) wants to recruit the designer of SeaQuest, Nathan Bridger (Roy Scheider) as the new captain, because he believes a "cool head" is required to balance the military and scientific factions on board ship (think: Maquis and Starfleet personnel on Voyager, a few years later). 

At first, Bridger is reluctant to assume command of the SeaQuest, because he wants to honor a promise to his dead wife, Carol, never to return to the military.

But, once aboard the magnificent SeaQuest, Bridger finds himself involved in the mission to stop Captain Stark, who has gone rogue and is now captaining a renegade warrior sub.

After success on this initial outing, Bridger accepts command of the "boat," and leads a top-flight crew into missions of jeopardy and wonder. 

Among the other crew members on SeaQuest are the headstrong executive officer, Jonathan Ford (Don Franklin), the acerbic but brilliant head of science and medicine, Dr. Kristin Westphalen (Stephanie Beacham), Chief Engineer Katherine Hitchcock (Stacy Haiduk) and communications officer Tim O'Neill (Ted Raimi), who is fluent in six languages.

Other notable crew members and passengers on the first season of SeaQuest DSV include the shifty morale officer and con man, Krieg (John D'Aquin), teenage genius and computer wiz, Lucas Wolenczak (Jonathan Brandis) and Darwin, a dolphin who can communicate verbally with Bridger and the others using a new universal-translator-styled device called a "vocorder."  The ship's security chief is a traditional navy man, Chief Croker (Royce D. Applegate).

The highest rated new program of its premiere week (with 16.9 million viewers watching), SeaQuest DSV started off very strong, and attempted a very delicate alchemy that, eventually, became unbalanced with the second season.

In the first season episodes, by and large, there was a dedicated attempt every week on SeaQuest to marry a hard-science concept or mission, with some small but more fantastical aspect of the sci-fi genre. 

In "Treasure of the Mind," for instance, the SeaQuest discovers the lost Great Library of Alexandria intact at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, and Bridger must mediate a world summit in which several Middle East nations, including a hostile Libya, seek to gain ownership of the library's treasures.  This "A" plot is coupled with a sci-fi element, however, when several "mediators" with light ESP skills come aboard SeaQuest to help Bridger negotiate from a position of strength. One of them, played by Lindsay Frost, attempts to reads Bridger's mind.

Another episode, "Hide and Seek," brings original Star Trek star William Shatner aboard SeaQuest as a former brutal dictator from Eastern Europe. SeaQuest's mission is to transport him to the authorities for trial, but something strange ultimately draws Bridger, the SeaQuest crew and Shatner's character together: they are all sharing the same, slightly unsettling dream about Darwin.  And that dream also concerns Shatner's autistic son...

It wasn't until relatively late in the first season, episode 21, "Such Great Patience," that SeaQuest DSV left behind pedestrian stories of rescues at sea ("Bad Water") and high-tech intrigue ("Photon Bullet) for more overt or "far out" genre story telling. 

In this segment the SeaQuest encounters a 900,000 year old spaceship on the ocean floor, and attempts to salvage it.  Kent McCord guest stars as a UEO officer who leads the first Earth team aboard an alien craft.

By investigating the craft, the team accidentally activates an alien anti-tamper system and hologram sentinel, which then threatens SeaQuest.  Although this story features a splendidly-designed spaceship and alien creation, it still plays as relatively realistic.  Such would not always be the case in Season Two, when monsters like giant crocodiles and the like were often encountered.

The critical factor about virtually all of the season one stories -- and this is a difficult balance -- is that they all tried (and yes, sometimes failed) to convey an authentic sense of wonder about the ocean, and life in the ocean. 

An illustrative point of comparison might be Star Trek: The Next Generation.  There, the crew of the Enterprise D would often encounter a weird space anomaly or phenomenon, but the mystery would quickly prove dangerous and imperil the ship, leading very directly to a sci-fi story of adventure and peril. The element of space science was just an introduction to a sci-fi story, not necessarily something to be explored in and of itself.

On SeaQuest DSV, Bridger's ship would study the polar ice caps (Games") or hydrothermal vents -- mother nature's "birth canal" ("The Devil's Window") -- at length, and the narrative was always pretty much about the science and wonder of such mechanisms and locations. 

There was usually some jeopardy too, of course, but it never seemed the whole or primary focus of the drama.  Rather, SeaQuest DSV seemed legitimately jazzed by scientific discovery for the point of, simply, scientific discovery. 

To further support this aspect of the series, each and every episode ended with a brief epilogue and lecture from the show's science advisor,  oceanographer Dr. Robert Ballard.  His monologues would frequently point out how elements of the preceding episode were based on fact; and then encourage viewers to learn more about the subject.

For some viewers, this focus on hard science and a sense of wonder may prove grating.  Others may find the novel approach rewarding if they apply a little bit of patience.  One thing I truly miss in some recent sci-fi TV (the re-made BSG and Enterprise, for instance) is just this very sense of wonder and curiosity about the universe and how it works.  For all the mistakes SeaQuest DSV undeniably makes, at least it doesn't make that one.

Also making every hour more tolerable, SeaQuest DSV was notable for featuring terrific genre guest stars, from the aforementioned Shatner and McCord to Charlton Heston ("Abalon"), to David McCallum ("SeaWest") to Topol ("Treasure of the Mind.")

In terms of continuing characters, SeaQuest's first season really only was able to focus on a few of the main characters in the severely over-populated cast.  Roy Scheider presents very strongly as Nathan Bridger, a good man with a real sense of heart and bravery.  At first blush, Bridge might seem like a Captain Picard knock-off because of his age and intellectual demeanor, but Scheider is tremendously powerful in the role in the first year, and boasts a self-effacing, easy quality that the more pretentious and prickly Picard lacked.   Bridger is no military martinet in SeaQuest, and no egg-head scientist cliche, either.  He's a well-rounded individual who fights for the causes he believes in.  All in all, a model leading man and model captain.

Darwin the dolphin is probably SeaQuest's Mr. Spock...the resident alien.  In the first season, Darwin nearly dies from a mysterious disease ("The Devil's Window"), plays tag with a warrior sub ("To Be or Not to Be") and finds a way to inhabit the dreams of his crew-mates ("Hide and Seek").  

In "Such Great Patience," he is also the object of the alien creatures at the ocean floor.  They came to Earth all those years ago...to talk to dolphins.

Though he was widely mocked at the time of the show's airing, Darwin is actually a pretty strong character in an unconventional sort of way, and the series perpetually makes the point that Darwin -- as a non-human -- can't really "talk" with the human crew.  The vocoder can transmit simple ideas, but when Darwin discusses death ("the dark") and loneliness, for instance, such concepts are harder to translate accurately.  This idea of inter-species communication (often ignored in sci-fi TV...) actually makes Darwin something of a genuine alien and story wild-card: a crew member who doesn't always respond as expected to, or as ordered.

Also registering strongly in the first season are Stephanie Beacham's wonderful Dr. Westphalen and Brandis's enthusiastic Lucas.  Unfortunately, fine actors such as second-billed Haiduk, Franklin, Applegate, and D'Aquino are given only scraps from the table, and have precious little time to build strong characterizations.  It's not for lack of trying when an opportunity arises.  Haiduk's Hitchcock goes undercover in "SeaWest" as a nightclub singer at an underwater mining town, to free a family in jeopardy.  And Raimi has some good moments in both "Such Great Patience" (in which O'Neill confronts his religious upbringing and how it clashes with belief in extra-terrestrials) and "The Devil's Window."

Probably the finest episode of the first season is indeed the two-hour pilot, which looks and sounds almost like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan underwater, with a rusty Bridger assuming command of SeaQuest and being forced to battle his ex-student, Stark, for domination of the seas.  This episode hums along at a nice clip, includes some jaunty, spirited dialogue and  features a tense undersea confrontation between two evenly-matched subs armed for war. Kerhsner's direction is pretty strong.  With a tweak here or there, it's not hard to imagine this as a SeaQuest movie.

In Season Two, much of the good, if incredibly uneven work of SeaQuest Season One is undercut.  Half the cast left the show (Stacy Haiduk, John D'Aquino, Stephanie Beacham) and their replacements were resident aliens, Counselor Troi-like empaths and other rejects from Starfleet.  And the focus on science -- along with Dr. Ballard -- was gone, replaced by giant monsters and more aliens from the bottom of the sea.

In a notorious interview during the second season, Roy Scheider lambasted the new direction of Sea Quest.  He said he was "ashamed" of the series, and noted that the new stories were "junk."  He also said that the series was "not even good fantasy. I mean Star Trek does this stuff much better than we can do it. To me the show is now 21 Jump Street meets Star Dreck.''

You know you're on a sinking boat, when the lead actor is loudly telling the press he's ashamed of his own series. 

Still, in its first and best incarnation, the engaged viewer can readily detect that SeaQuest DSV is trying to carve out a unique identity and approach for itself.  If the series had stayed on its promising original trajectory, it might have lasted several more years, and garnered an even larger and more passionate following.   Instead, SeaQuest features three seasons, three formats, and three approaches to storytelling.  Not a single season is perfect, but season one gets closest to the spirit of that great John F. Kennedy quotation.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Collectible of the Week: Space:1999 Chest Pack Radio (Illco., 1976)

My love for Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 (1975 - 1977) began when I was five years old and while the series was still broadcasting on WPIX, Channel 11 out of New York.  Even today, I vividly remember the abundant toys, books and model kits from the TV series dotting the aisles of local toy stores, particularly Newberry's in Verona, N.J.

My parents -- indulgent sorts that they are -- always made certain I was equipped with eagle spaceships, Mattel action figures, Power Records, H.G. Puzzles and the like.  Most of these Space:1999 items still hold cherished positions in my home office today.  Some of them, as you can guess, are pretty well played out after thirty-five years.

Another Space:1999 toy I vividly recall was the Illfelder Toy Company's Chest Pack Radio (style no. 37-2070).  As the box reads, this was a "solid-state transistor radio with microphone, space signal morse code button and ear-plug."   In design, this ATV-licensed toy is made to resemble the Alphan space suit chest pack.  It straps on over the shoulders, and is worn across the torso.  It takes four C size batteries to operate properly.

The Space: 1999 Chest Pack Radio includes the following features:

1. Solid State 5 Transistor A.M Radio
2. Sensitive Volume Control.
3. Microphone.
4. Space Signal Morse Code Button
5. Earphone
6. Precision Tuning Dial
7. Microphone Mix Control.
8. "Red Alert" Light
9. Authentic Space:1999 Chest Pack Style
10. Heavy duty body straps
11. Completely portable.

With the microphone you can "Broadcast your voice or sing along with your favorite tunes

With the "Space Signal Button" you can "send real morse code messages."

And with the ear plug you can engage in "private listening."

So in other words, this is really just a sort of kid's radio, only styled and packaged to seem futuristic.  It's similar to Mego's Star Trek Command Communication Console in concept, I suppose.  The toy likely wouldn't seem too thrilling to today's kids, I'd wager.  Precision tuning dials? Volume controls? Ear plugs?  I mean, whoo-hoo, right?  Today we sleep next to tiny alarm clocks with many of these features...though personally I'd like them better if they also included "red alert lights."

But back in the 1970s (the decade of the CB radio, lest we forget...), this kind of toy was absolute nirvana...and state of the art. 

The future of the year 1999 perhaps wasn't as fantastic as Space:1999 predicted, but thanks to toys such as this Chest Pack Radio, the seventies were certainly pretty awesome for sci-fi kids.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"The war started when people accepted the idiotic principle that peace could be maintained by arranging to defend themselves with weapons they couldn't possibly use without committing suicide."

- On the Beach (1959)

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


"They say people don't believe in heroes anymore..."

- Mad Max (1979)

Despite multitudinous descriptions to the contrary, George Miller and Byron Kennedy's Mad Max (1979) is not actually a post-apocalyptic film. 

Rather, it's pre-apocalyptic. But the handwriting is certainly on the wall...and on the open roads. 

This celebrated cult film might more accurately be described as dystopian in conception because the filmmakers imagine a world, "a few years from now," in which widespread lawlessness has taken hold, and the authorities -- increasingly more fascist in tone, powers, and demeanor -- are helpless to prevent a culture-wide death spiral into anarchy and chaos.

Dominated by a caustic aesthetic of anticipatory anxiety, a sense of psychic uneasiness that suffuses every frame, Mad Max is literally a movie about mankind speeding -- foot pressed hard against the pedal -- towards moral and spiritual annihilation. 

Often, I compare Miller's Mad Max to the early cinematic endeavors of Wes Craven (Last House on the Left) and Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) because there's a genuine feeling while watching Mad Max, that you, yourself, are in peril.  As is the case with Craven or Hooper, the audience feels jeopardized in Miller's hands, as though it might end up seeing something that could truly do the psyche harm. 

At one point in the film, our hero -- police officer and family man Max (Mel Gibson) -- admits that he's "scared," and the audience wholly shares that trepidation.   Max's vicious world is one without a safety net, in which the laws of the jungle dominate.  Miller enthusiastically takes the film beyond the bounds of  movie decorum and good taste right from the start -- from the opening sequence -- and leaves viewers wondering just how far he will tread into taboo territory.

The result is a film that has lost none of its dreadful, visceral power in over three decades.
"Look, any longer out on that road and I'm one of them, a terminal psychotic, except that I've got this bronze badge that says that I'm one of the good guys. "

Mad Max opens, both symbolically and literally, on Anarchie (Anarchy) Road, as leather-clad members of the under-staffed MFP (Main Force Patrol)  pursue a dangerous "terminal psychotic" called Nightrider. 

Nightrider believes himself a "fuel-injected suicide machine," and survives all attempts at pursuit and restraint.  At least that is, until Max (Gibson) -- the best -- joins the chase.

Finally, Nightrider is killed in a high-speed wreck.  Unfortunately, his "friends," led by the gang leader Toecutter, desire vengeance.  One of Toecutter's minions, Johnny, is apprehended by Max's friend, Officer Goose (Steve Bisley), but then released by effete, officious lawyers.   Next, it is Goose who becomes a target for Toecutter's mad revenge.

After Goose is burned and maimed on the road by Toecutter, Max resigns from the force. With his wife Jesse (Joanne Samuel) and young son in tow, he heads out on a vacation from his responsibilities. Unfortunately, Max's family almost immediately crosses paths with Johnny, Toecutter and the others, and pays the ultimate price.  Max's wife and son are run down on the open road, and left dying. 

Enraged, and with no legal recourse, Max takes command of a souped-up police interceptor, and engages his enemies on the open highway, outside the bounds and restrictions of the law.

I'm not a bad man.  I'm sick.  I've got a personality disorder...

As is the case with all works of art, this film arises from a very specific context.

In particular, Mad Max emerges from the era of "Oz-ploitation" or the so-called Australian New Wave, which included such works as Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock. But more specifically, Mad Max  is very deliberately a reflection of the events, trends and fads of the early 1970s.

As co-writer James McCausland has acknowledged, much of the film's anarchic energy is fueled by the 1973 Oil Crisis, in which OPEC reduced oil production and quickly sent world economies into a tailspin. As gas supplies were rationed, McCausland apparently saw reports of violent outbreaks at gas stations, where drivers acted decisively (and aggressively...) to assure that they weren't caught short at the pump.

Also critical to the formation of Mad Max's underlying structure, no doubt, was "The Super-Car Scare" of 1972 - 1973, which occurred at the height of muscle car culture in Australia. There were talks at that time, indeed, of new vehicles that could travel 160 miles an hour, as well as news story accounts of young, out-of-control drivers in muscle cars (small cars with big, powerful engines...) racing through small communities and causing civil and traffic disturbances.

If you also acknowledge a bit of punk influence here -- courtesy of the nihilistic music movement on blazing ascent, circa 1974 -1976 -- you can easily detect how all the creative ingredients for Mad Max fall into place. Suddenly, we have punk criminals prowling the highways of Australia in souped-up super vehicles, vying for both the remaining oil supply and day-by-day, moment-to-moment domination.   One scene in the film explicitly joins all contexts: Toecutter and his gang hijack a gas trunk on the road, and siphon precious gas from the storage tank.  The underlying message is of a corrupt but rising youth movement leeching off and destroying a dying establishment.

If "No Future" was the unofficial credo and soundtrack of punk music in those days of the disco decade, Mad Max remains the most potent visualization of living for the moment, on impulse, and entirely for self. This is what the law of the jungle is, as dramatized by Toecutter and his gang.  He is a man with no respect for life, law, family, or community.  All he cares about is getting what he wants when he wants it.  "Anything I say? What a wonderful philosophy you have," he quips to a cowering victim.

The world has gone to Hell in a hand basket in Mad Max, and those who still play by the old rules of law try to understand what has happened, and struggle to play catch-up  "Here I am, trying to put sense to it, when I know there isn't any," Max notes, importantly, after the death of Goose.  He's dealing here with a world that no longer makes sense to him.

Accordingly, Max progressively loses his faith that society's decaying infrastructure (as represented by the ramshackle local police center or "halls of justice") can stop the world from spiraling towards destruction.  

It's clear Max's loss of faith arises for a reason, and is not some personal, solitary angst.  His boss, Fifi (Roger Ward) keeps mentioning the need for heroes, and the culture's absence of heroes. 

But what heroes, honestly, could possibly inhabit a blighted, decrepit police station like his? 

The nihilism of the world, of "the terminal psychotics" seems to have bled the life out of public institutions in Mad Max, leaving them as rotting monuments to a previous golden age.  Max realizes, appropriately, that Fifi's comments are "crap."  What his world needs is not cowboy heroes, but a functioning infrastructure; one that funds the police, trains the police, and supports the police in the battle against crime.

Although the lawyers and judicial officers gliimpsed in Mad Max are portrayed as effete, intellectual egg-heads with their heads-up-their-asses, the police are not viewed in terms much more friendly.  In the film's first scene, we catch a young MFP officer ogling a couple making love, and then indulging in a high speed chase which endangers other officers, and civilians.  He looks like he could be a gang member himself...except he's wearing a leather cop uniform.  Similarly, Fifi is interested only in results, not the letter of the law.  He just wants the paperwork to be "clean" so he doesn't get in trouble with superiors.  Again, the impression is of an old, once noble institution that has given way to corruption and decrepitude.

Again and again in the film, Max sees evil triumph over the (flawed) forces of order, and so must make a fateful decision about his own place and role in the world. Mad Max thus brilliantly diagrams one man's disillusionment about society, and his final, knowing, unfortunate break from it.  Many see the film as being fascist in viewpoint because the criminals attempt to argue that they are merely "sick" (and thus to be treated with compassion), but I disagree with that assessment.  Max gets revenge, but at what price?

The price is the very eventuality that Max so dramatically fears all along.  He knows, even starting out, that there is very little difference between the cops and the "terminal psychotics" who vie for control of the roadways.  When Max's family and friends die, that line is blurred entirely.  Max realizes, contra Fifi, that there can no longer be any heroes.  Heroes only work in context of a functioning civilization and support system.

As critic Keith Phipps astutely intimated, Mad Max is almost a character piece, a tale of a man trying to figure out where he belongs under the rules of the New World (Dis)Order:

I often write here about how deeply and thoroughly I disapprove of movies that utilize revenge as the primary motivation for heroes or superheroes.  I think that's just pandering to an ugly, ignoble impulse in human beings.  In this case, however, I would argue that Mad Max does not glamorize revenge and, on the contrary, sends its wayward hero off into a form of societal banishment for his transgression.  Max ends up in the wilderness/wasteland, seeking redemption for his voluntary break from the mores of  an (admittedly crumbling)  society (see: The Road Warrior).  It takes him two more films, essentially, to reconnect with his more noble human nature.

So yes, Max gets his bloody vengeance in this film, but his ultimate fear is realized too.  In breaking the laws of civilization, the only difference between him and the Toecutter's minions remains that he possesses a bronze badge.  What would his wife and son think of him now?

The final shot of Mad Max consists, not coincidentally, of an open and empty road.  We race down it going ever faster, but  never actually arriving at a destination.  There is no love and  no companionship on this long road.  Max now lives for no one but himself.  He can look forward to isolation, mistrust, and confrontation...but nothing else; at least nothing good or positive.

This is a threshold moment...

While carefully noting what he believed was Mad Max's sense of amorality, Chicago Reader film critic Dave Kehr also accurately described the film as some "of the most determinedly formalist filmmaking this side of Michael Snow."

What that description means, in lay terms, is that Mad Max isn't about dispassionately recording or realistically chronicling the details of its sparse, almost Western-styled narrative. Rather, it's about making the audience feel strong emotions. Namely fear, rage and even, briefly, bloodlust.

The reasons behind Mad Max's passionate, singular approach to filmmaking are actually, I believe, entirely moral.

As the film's villain, Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) notes to an underling named Johnny (Tim Burns), an act of brutal murder can be considered a "threshold moment" in terms of the human soul. That's his philosophy of life. There's no future. There's no common good. There's just the shattering of boundaries, until everything -- and everyone -- is wrecked.

Now, a threshold is widely defined as the point at which a physiological or psychological effect begins to be produced, and that seems to be precisely what Toecutter is fostering in both his friends and his enemies. He is sponsoring and encouraging madness, psychosis and violence. Indeed, there seems to be a plague of madness and nihilism sweeping the world in this film, and Toecutter fosters it in his cohorts (such as Nightrider) and his protege (Johnny).

In the film's climax, the audience's surrogate -- Max himself -- endures a similar "threshold moment," treading literally and metaphorically into morally "prohibited" territory (as a street sign indicates) just as he is about to cross-the-line of legality.  The fearsome legend on the sign literally warns him to stop (lest he become like Toecutter), but Max ignores it.

This particular bit of clever framing (pictured above) is not an accident.  Max crosses a moral and geographical boundary in search of personal satisfaction, and Miller's shot deliberately evokes an earlier one in the film, set on a lovely beach. 

There, Toecutter and his gang have similarly ignored signs and warnings about transgression, and headed off knowingly into forbidden territory.  The point of the nearly identical staging seems to be that Max -- in taking the law into his own hands -- is following the very nihilistic path he fears.

Mad Max is actually a moral film, I submit, because it concerns that threshold moment in each of us too. Vengeance might be sated.  But after the vengeance?  As Last House on the Left observed, post-violence, "the road leads to nowhere, and the castle stays the same."  In other words, there's a very big difference between portraying violence and approving of violence.  I would argue Mad Max (brilliantly) portrays violence, while never, even for a moment, glamorizing it or approving of it.

Instead, Mad Max asks: what comes with moral transgression? How does a crossing of the "threshold moment" affect a good person? And if good people can willingly cross the threshold to barbarism, what becomes of civilization, a social concept erected on the foundation of the common good, not personal retribution? 

Mad Max gazes at all these ideas, but does so while moving at 150 miles-an-hour. 

The film -- heightened immeasurably by Brian May's superb score and George Miller's orchestration of the high-speed stunts -- conveys a powerful sense not just of speed, but of speeding out of control.  Mad Max also reveals a world falling apart at the seams, but doesn't offer pat explanations for the breakdown, or easy answers about the solution.    We can try to "put sense" to the madness of this world, but there is quite definitively no sense behind the human impulse towards self-destruction. 

If Mad Max is right, the world itself is terminally psychotic.

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...