Thursday, June 30, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #137: Space:1999 "Voyager's Return" (1975)

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's Space: 1999 (1975 -1977) certainly took more than its share of critical brickbats regarding the scientific accuracy of the series premise, which saw Earth's moon blasted into deep space by a colossal explosion (in the year 1999.)

And yet the undeniably wonderful aspect about that very far-out concept is that it permits contemporary man rather than future man the opportunity to engage with and confront the mysteries of the cosmos. 

As I wrote in my book about the series, Exploring Space:1999 (1997) the powerful central notion of Space: 1999 is that it is us -- our generation, right now -- up there reckoning with the awe and terror of the unknown. 

As many 1970s articles described this idea, the Alphans of Space:1999 are "technologically and psychologically" unprepared for a space journey of any kind, and so have much to reckon with and learn about on their unplanned odyssey.

An illuminating comparison involves Star Trek.  In that (wonderful) franchise, man is the master of his destiny and master of the stars as well.  In Space:1999, man is scraping to get by, to survive in a universe he isn't equipped to truly understand or countenance.

Space:1999 was thus at its finest when the writers remembered their central conceit regarding the characters; that contemporary man, with all of his flaws and foibles, is at the core of all the storytelling

One impressive installment that plainly remembers this idea is Johnny Byrne's "Voyager's Return," directed by Bob Kellett.

In "Voyager's Return," Moonbase Alpha encounters a technological terror of human design when the errant moon crosses paths with a Terran space probe launched in the year 1985.  That probe, Voyager One, makes use of a dangerous interstellar drive called "The Queller Drive."  The drive spews "fast neutrons" into space, and destroys all life that it comes in contact with.

The Queller Drive has a spotted history.  It kicked in too early during the launch of Voyager 2 (when standard chemical rockets should have been employed...) and the probe immediately killed two hundred people, including Paul Morrow's (Prentis Hancock's) father. 

Now, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) must decide if he should destroy Voyager One and the Queller Drive outright, or attempt to commandeer the probe for its black box, which contains valuable data about the star systems the craft has visited.

Ultimately, Koenig sides with Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse), over the objections of Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Paul, and sets about to tamper with the Voyager One so as to retrieve the crucial data. 

When Bergman's efforts fail, a scientist on Moonbase Alpha steps forward and reveals that he is, in fact, Ernst Queller (Jeremy Kemp), the despised and derided inventor of the dangerous drive system. 

Queller believes that he can right the wrongs of long ago, and commandeer Voyager One before it endangers Alpha.

Unfortunately, the Queller Drive has malfunctioned again.  Voyager One recently passed into the territory of a race called the Sidons.  There, the Queller Drive rendered lifeless two inhabited planets and now the Sidons are in pursuit of the "primitive" craft seeking their own brand of justice. 

Worse, the Sidons intend to destroy Moonbase Alpha and Earth as well, for the crime of genocide...

At the heart of "Voyager's Return" are the issues of atonement, redemption, and even revenge.  Dr. Queller desperately wants to make amends for the Voyager 2 accident, and contribute something positive as his legacy. 

Meanwhile, those around him -- again, examples of contemporary man -- judge him with harshness and anger.  Morrow won't forgive him, or even accept his presence.  And Queller's assistant, Jim Haines, lost two parents during the Voyager 2 accident.  Jim physically assaults Queller at an inopportune moment, and his impulsive actions nearly cause the destruction of the base. 

Again, future man may be more evolved and peaceful, but contemporary man is passionate and irrational even when common sense indicates he should be otherwise.

Writer Johnny Byrne described for me during an interview in 2001 his feelings on this issue of contemporary man and his use/mis-use of technology as it pertains to this adventure: 

"We take a number of lessons from this episode. And one of them is that we are all governed by a universal principle: that our technology develops faster than our wisdom. Let me go back. I think this is a universal principle: the rate of a life form’s biological development is out of key with the rate of technological development. In a hundred years, we’ve advanced enormously in terms of technology, but we’re essentially the same fearful, passionate, mistake-ridden, aggressive, greedy, ego-driven creature. And there is nothing materially different in recorded history going right back to the Greeks. We are governed by the same kind of incoherent tribulations today as we were then. We really haven’t progressed."

Again, this is a very realistic (as opposed to idealistic) view of mankind, and one of the things that, actually, makes us root so strongly for the denizens of Moonbase Alpha.  They weren't born into paradise and prosperity.  They don't possess an endless supply of resources.  They haven't colonized a thousand worlds. Instead, they are people -- just like us -- attempting to do their best in a difficult situation.  That is innately heroic, even if the Alphans don't always live up to the best aspects of their nature.  And in "Voyager's Return," Jim Haines' impulsive violence is ultimately matched by his capacity to forgive and accept Queller.  This is a triumph of the human spirit.

As I've written before, Johnny Byrne often penned Space:1999 episodes based on the events and people he saw in the world around him.  In writing "Mission of the Darians" he subtly re-parsed the details of a news story about a soccer team's struggle to survive in the Andes.  For "Voyager's Return," Byrne based Ernst Queller on a very well-known man.

"Dr. Queller was Werner Von Braun, or someone like him," Byrne informed me. "He created something he believed was good, but it had catastrophic effects. In that sense, he was like all those scientists who created the V-1 and V-2 rockets…his work was used or wicked purposes."

Archivist Martin Willey at the impressive Space:1999 site The Catacombs also notes that "Queller was named after Edward Teller, the Hungarian-American scientist known as 'the father of the H-Bomb.'"

These 20th century men brought terrifying new technologies into the world, and yet Space:1999 evokes sympathy for them as men; as human beings who saw their work perverted.  In "Voyager's Return," Queller is a man saddled with incredible guilt and shame, and yet when he has an opportunity for redemption...he takes it.

"It was redemption delayed, but redemption nonetheless," Byrne told me. 

Again, it's a point worth belaboring: a perfect future man doesn't often require redemption...because he doesn't make mistakes.  Space:1999's "Voyager's Return" reveals modern man making a mistake on a galactic scale, and shows how his soul pays the price.

The Sidons make for an interesting and pointed counterpoint to Queller in "Voyager's Return."  They have clearly suffered and have been wronged, and yet their need for "justice" blinds them to the fact that they have set out to murder innocent beings; to commit the very crime of genocide that they accuse the Alphans of. 

In contrast, Queller set out to kill no one.  His engine malfunctioned and people died.  The Sidons -- enraged by what they perceive as an attack -- plan to lash out at the innocent and guilty alike with no mercy, and with no sense of reflection about their deeds.  Where Queller is haunted by his conscience, the Sidon leader, Aarchon is at peace with his decision to commit murder, and hides behind the letter of the law to do so.

Today, "Voyager's Return" remains very dramatic and affecting, in part because of Johnny Byrne's sense of our common humanity but also because of his wicked sense of humor.  The episode's teaser is chilling, and amusing, at least in a macabre fashion.  Voyager One destroys a manned Eagle in flight, and then announces -- ignorant of an act of murder -- "Greetings, from the people of the planet Earth."

This is our greeting to the universe?  Fast neutrons spit into space, creating a giant wake of destruction?  The moment represents fine gallows humor, but also strongly transmits Byrne's thematic point about technology outpacing human evolution...much to our detriment.

"Voyager's Return" isn't often listed as a "best" or "favorite" episode of Space:1999, and it's easy to see why that's the case.  It does not feature the mind-blowing alien vistas and cultures of such episodes as "Guardian of Piri," nor the show-stopping special effects of an episode such as "War Games."  The episode is not as overtly frightening or Gothic as "Dragon's Domain," nor a chapter in the series' larger story arc (involving the mysterious unknown force). 

Instead, with real dedication and intelligence, the episode focuses strongly and simply on issues of the human heart.  On rage.  On desperation.  On shame.  On forgiveness.  These aren't the emotions of a "fantastic future" so much as they are the emotions of today, and such qualities make the program well-worth remembering, even if the less-imaginative among us insist that Space: 1999 is past its expiration date. 

"Voyager's Return" proves that it isn't.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #136: Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda: "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" (2000)

In the early 1970s, legendary Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry attempted several times to launch a new sci-fi TV series about the re-building of human civilization after a global nuclear holocaust.  The series pilots went under the titles Genesis II, Planet Earth and Strange New World, and the first two remain widely beloved by fans today even though they didn't lead to any regular series.

Following Gene Roddenberry's death, his widow, Majel, resurrected at least two of her husband's abandoned projects: Earth: Final Conflict (originally Battleground Earth) from 1997 to 2002 and Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda from 2000 to 2005. 

In the case of Andromeda, writer and producer Robert Hewitt Wolfe developed a clever variation  of the  Genesis II and Planet Earth premise.  

The new series was set in outer space instead of on Earth, and it involved a futuristic Dark Ages or "the Long Night:" a span of 300 years, following the fall of a great, United Federation of Planets-type alliance, here termed The Systems Commonwealth. 

Scientist Dylan Hunt, the hero of Genesis II and Planet Earth became High Guard Captain Dylan Hunt (Kevin Sorbo) of the Systems Commonwealth starship Andromeda Ascendant, a man out of time (exactly like his Genesis II namesake...) who vowed to restore order and civilization to the cosmos; to "drive back the night" and "rekindle the light of civilization."

In Andromeda's first episode, Dylan Hunt -- in his own time period -- suffers a betrayal from his Nietzschean first officer, and becomes trapped in the event horizon of a black hole along with his powerful High Guard warship. 

Three hundred years later, Hunt is rescued from his captivity (and the effects of time dilation) by a rag-tag scavenge crew that includes Captain Beka Valentine (Lisa Ryder), smart-ass engineer Seamus Zelazny Harper (Gordon Michael Woolvett), mysterious and purple-skinned space nymph, Trance Gemini (Laura Bertram) and a Magog man of God, Rev Beam (Brent Stait). 

Upon his release, Hunt soon learns that the Commonwealth has fallen and that the galaxy has slipped into that long night, into a new Dark Ages. 

Permanently separated from his beloved fiance, Sarah, Hunt asks the scavengers to join his cause and help bring order to chaos and restore the fallen, futuristic Camelot. 

Along for the ride is a Nietzschean mercenary, Tyr Anasazi (Keith Hamilton Cobb), who boasts an agenda and world-view entirely his own.

Once the Andromeda Ascendant is up and running, the quest to restore the Commonwealth begins, and Hunt continues his friendship with the ship herself, Rommie (Lexa Doig), who can appear as a hologram, on view-screens, or as an the (lovely...) flesh.  

Aired in syndication (where it held the top-ranked spot for several years), Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda is a series of terrific highs and also some very depressing lows.  Most of the high points arrived in the first two years while Wolfe was still shepherding the program from behind-the-scenes. 

In particular, the early first season episodes do a better-than-average job of establishing a unique universe peopled by interesting and memorable aliens.  The genetically-engineered Nietzscheans, for instance, consider themselves a new embodiment of the proverbial "Ubermensch" and live by an Ayn Randian philosophy of enlightened self-interest,  One episode even puts Rand's The Fountainhead in Tyr's hands to make the point.  

Although Rev Beam has sometimes been termed a "useless" character, he too began as a rather interesting personality.  The Magog are bat-like berserkers who use human beings as living hosts for their young, and who, early in the Long Night, conquered Earth.  Beam is a strong contrast to his war-like people, however, a peaceful "man of God" and an intellectual philosopher to boot.  It's actually a bit disconcerting, at times, to see a hairy bat creature (with enormous claws) discuss high concepts such as morality and divinity, but also, perhaps, amusing.

"Angel Dark, Demon Bright" written by Robert Hewitt Wolfe and directed by Allan Eastman is one of Andromeda's best early installments, utilizing familiar time travel conceits to make a point about fate, destiny and even "God's will." 

The story begins when Trance makes a mistake piloting the Andromeda through the faster-than-light slipstream.  Her navigational error causes the ship to travel backwards in time three hundred years to the Witch Head Nebula, the location  of the climactic battle between the Systems Commonwealth and the Nietzschean Empire. 

It was here that the Commonwealth fell.  It was here that the Nietzchean Empire splintered.  It was after this battle that the Magog found an opening to exploit -- a weakened galaxy -- and swarmed into Earth's system.

Suddenly, in what might amount to a "cosmic joke," Captain Hunt is faced with an unenviable choice.  Should he intervene in the battle on the side of the Commonwealth, and attempt to stave off 500 Nietzschean warships?  Or, as Tyr suggests, should Hunt intervene on the side of the Nietzschean fleet? By doing the latter, he would enable the Nietzscheans to remain strong enough to fight the Magog to a stand still, thus saving Earth from invasion.

The set-up may remind you a bit of the 1980 sci-fi movie The Final Countdown, which saw the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Nimitz travel back in time to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Her skipper had to make a similar decision: either fight the Japanese and change American history, or stay out of the way and let destiny unfold as it was "meant" to. 

The commendable thing about Andromeda's variation on this story is that it focuses very strongly on each character's perspective about the debate.  Harper grew up on a planet Earth ravaged by Magog and Nietzscheans, and claims that the Neitzscheans were far worse.  When he sees that Hunt plans to leave the area without interfering in history, Harper secretly assembles a "fusion catalyst" to wipe out the Nietzschean fleet himself. 

This is not a strategy you would see Geordi LaForge, for instance, attempting on Star Trek: The Next Generation.  But the characters in Andromeda are not mere "aye-aye-sir" subordinates.  Rather they are individuals with a point-of-view and agenda that, sometimes, we don't find appropriate, well-considered, or right.

Meanwhile, Rommie -- literally a warship herself -- is upset that Dylan has selected to run away when so many other Commonwealth ships are in jeopardy.  "I don't like walking away from a fight," she establishes, attempting to choose between her sense of loyalty to Dylan and her sense of obligation to her own kind.

Tyr faces the same challenge.  If he warns the Nietzscheans of the coming battle at Witch Head, he could change his entire life.  The Nietzscheans could remain united instead of splintered into competing, argumentative "prides."  Where does his duty rest in this situation?  To the ship he calls home, or to the people who bred him?

These character moments arise organically and intelligently out of the time travel scenario, but then author Wolfe goes further and throws in an interesting narrative twist.  The Andromeda is set to leave without interfering, when the Nietzschean fleet shows up not with five hundred warships, but with 1,500 warships.  History clearly states that only 500 warships were present at the time of the battle, however, and so Dylan realizes that he is indeed destined to intervene.  He must destroy 1,000 Nietzchean warships to maintain the flow of history that Harper, Beka, and the others know and remember.

Despite Dylan's distaste for the Nietzcheans, the thought of killing 100,000 people in the coming battle sickens him.  "Destiny demands your actions," Rev Beam tells Dylan, indicating that the destruction of those 1000 ships is "God's will."

But Dylan isn't impressed.  He notes that human history is filled with incidences of people claiming God's will as the motivation for terrible crimes such as murder and even genocide.  I think it's pretty terrific how Andromeda reaches this debate about fate/free will, when "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" could have easily been a fairly mechanical, fairly unoriginal "time trap" story instead.  But this discussion of how humans reason and make life-altering decisions raises the material to an entirely different plateau.  Like the best of Star Trek, suddenly we're not merely pondering a space adventure, but our own experiences and history here on Earth.

Another, final bit of ingenuity in the narrative involves Tyr's third act revelation of a Nietzschean legend, one concerning an "angel of death" at the Battle of Witch Head Nebula. 

Again, it's an impressive surprise, a twist on expectations, and proof positive that early Andromeda -- though Trek-like -- was bound and determined to chart a unique, original course.

I should add as well that the final battle in the nebula is splendidly realized, and done so on an epic scale, as I hope the images in this blog post reveal.  The special effects in this action sequence are gorgeous and awe-inspiring.

I'll be honest: Andromeda is a TV series of highly variable quality.  Good episodes are followed by terrible episodes, and vice versa.  Some of the alien make-ups are absolutely dreadful, and the sets boast a threadbare, cheap look about them.  The performances range from incredibly poor to pretty good.  But in the first season, at least, there was some stellar storytelling, as this episode suggests.

Both "Angel Dark, Demon Bright" and one of the following installments, "The Banks of the Lethe" are emotionally-charged human space opera stories that very much outstrip the rote, safe brand of storytelling that the Star Trek franchise was offering at the time on Voyager and then Enterprise.

Andromeda has a lot of rough edges -- and a lot of  star dreck -- but in episodes such as "Angel Dark,  Demon Bright," this Gene Roddenberry-spawned proved itself quite adept at "rekindling"  the familiar space opera format and adding several new wrinkles.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

TV REVIEW: Falling Skies: "Live and Learn"/"The Armory"

The new TNT sci-fi series from Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodat called Falling Skies opens with a unique conceit. 

The story of an all-out alien invasion of Earth is recounted in the art work of a school-age child, as the same child describes the attack in words.  The viewer learns immediately -- and in conjunction with colorful crayon imagery -- how an alien EMP took out electronics on Earth; how our cities have been destroyed, and how the aliens "harness" human children as mindless slaves.  That final touch reminded me a bit of John Christopher's Tripods, though there the process was referred to as "capping," if memory serves.

Regardless, the childish artwork proves an inexpensive, creative, and dynamic way of commencing this epic tale in media res, and suggests a level of narrative ingenuity that the remainder of the first two episodes, "Live and Learn," and "The Armory," somehow don't quite manage to live up to.   But those first five minutes are riveting.

As viewed through the eyes of a child, the alien invasion appears all the more frightening.  It's an absolute end to the safety and security of childhood in America as we now understand it, a piercing of the protective bubble all parents attempt to construct around their young ones. 

In short order, Falling Skies introduces us to Tom Mason (Noah Wyle), a man faces this particular horror.  He has joined the resistance to battle the alien "Skitters," six-legged aliens who deploy frightening armored robots called "Mechs" and who fly over human cities in swift, silent air-ships.  

Tom is the father of three boys, and one of his beloved sons has been captured and harnessed by the aliens.  As "Live and Learn" begins, we learn that Tom has been promoted to second in command of one unit in the resistance army, a unit consisting of 100 soldiers and 200 civilians. His superior is the no-nonsense, gruff Captain Weaver (Will Patton).

Tom's most interesting quality, however, involves his world view.  He is a former professor of American history and therefore able to contextualize for his brethren (and the viewing audience) this new fight against a technologically superior fighting force.

Tom reminds his soldiers, for instance, that in human history there are many instances of inferior armed forces defeating superior ones, namely in the American Revolution, but also in Ancient Greece, and so on.  "Ever the professor" (as another character notes), Tom is a unique and intellectual hero whose knowledge of history (and specificially military history) can provide hope in what seems a hopeless struggle.  Wyle is good in the central role, and already I am enjoying the fact that Tom is not a physical superman, a law enforcement official, or a modern cowboy in mentality.  Instead, he's an able and believable surrogate for a lot of us in the audience: an everyman and family man faced with an extraordinary situation, trying to do his best.

In the second episode, "The Armory," Tomn's humanist perspective is matched and balanced by that of a criminal and warlord, John Pope (Colin Cunningham). In blunt terms, Pope informs Tom that he is using the wrong analogy.  We're not the early Americans fighting the Red Coats, Pope insists.  No, we're the American Indian, facing wave after wave of technologically superior, unstoppable white men.  And we'll share the same fate as the Indians too: extinction.  It's a terrifying thought, and this duel of philosophies makes for one of Falling Skies best and most chilling moments in the opening two hours.

Much has been made in the media about the perceived similarities between TNT's Falling Skies and AMC's The Walking Dead.  It's an apt comparison in some ways, since both programs deal with human beings attempting to survive after the end of our technological, 21st century culture.  So far, where the two series differ most is in the viewpoint on mankind himself.

In The Walking Dead -- even with the apocalypse happening -- man is still roiled by pettiness; by racism and prejudice.  He is unable to organize in more than small groups, understand the nature of his enemy, or form much of an effective resistance against the zombies.  Although zombies are an ever-present danger in The Walking Dead, wanton and inappropriate sexual appetites are still sated, interpersonal resentments fester, and redneck-ism thrives.  Although a (small) sense of community does develop over the first season, there's still much disagreement among the lead characters.

At least so far, Falling Skies is proving much more upbeat. 

Anti-social tendencies are downplayed here (in the first two episodes), and outlaws such as Pope are already in the process of being assimilated into the resistance by the end of the second episode.  On a wider scale, man in Falling Skies has mounted at least a semi-organized defense against the invading Skitters, and is able to win small battles against this antagonist. As we'd expect from Steven Spielberg, the approach is a little more optimistic and a little less balanced than we get in the more nuanced (and so far more impressive) The Walking Dead.

The shadow of Steven Spielberg hovers over Falling Skies in a few other ways as well.  The visuals of displaced human survivors trekking on foot across modern rural landscapes clearly recalls some of the startling and effective imagery from the director's 2005 adaptation of H.G. Wells, War of the Worlds

As it was in War of the Worlds, the focus here is overtly on family matters.  In the 2005 film, Tom Cruise had to protect his young daughter and keep track of his rebellious older son.  Here, we've got Tom, his adult son, Hal (Drew Roy), his youngest son, Matt (Maxim Young), and Anne Glass (Moon Bloodgood) as a physician in the resistance who -- from frame one -- is clearly itching to play wife and mother to Tom and the Mason brood.   

The focus here is on how the human family sticks together in a time of crisis, not how human foibles, even in times of disaster, pull it apart.  In fact, Falling Skies opening episodes find time to celebrate young Matt's birthday, and observe, with solemnity, his wish that everything could "just be like it was."  Sowhile Falling Skies and The Walking Dead share an obsession with the downfall of man, they boast vastly different approaches and perspectives on that downfall.

Falling Skies' "Live and Learn" proves a solid series premiere that sets up the characters, their situation, and their perspective quite ably.  We catch glimpses of the terrifying aliens and get to see how the world has changed under the Skitters.  There are frightening glimpses of enslaved children, with monstrous mechanical worms implanted on their spines. 

Basically, we are an occupied planet, and there's certainly a subtext here about 21st century's America's role as occupier in foreign lands.  There some impresive vistas of the alien "base" looming over abandoned American cities, and it's impossible not to be reminded of our predator drone attacks when those alien ships fly by and indiscriminantly rain death upon those at ground level.

But after "Live and Learn," "The Armory" stalls momentum quite a bit.  The second episode concerns an attempt on Tom's part to stake out a weapons depot.  The mission goes awry and he ends up in the hands of John Pope, a criminal and nihilist.  Instead of being about the alien invasion or the human response to it, the episode is about Tom and his allies maneuvering their way into freedom, and outwitting an enemy who, we soon suspect, will prove an ally.  This episode is rather flat, emotionally-speaking, in comparison to the first hour, and doesn't move the plot along significantly or even with much interest.

Falling Skies boasts tremendous potential since it dramatizes something that both iterations of V were never able to visualize effectively: an all-out war on human soil between high-tech aliens and "primitive" humans.  Certainly, Falling Skies is already far better than the remake of V (2009 - 2010), and promises some exciting summer viewing.

Still, it's not necessarily clear sailing for this genre program.  If the series grows too dark and gritty (as the scenario would seem to promise), viewers may not take to the series.  And if the program remains so relentlessly upbeat in the face of human annihilation, it will sacrifice believability.  In other words, Falling Skies is walking a very narrow line.

Here's hoping it navigates that path well.  The sky isn't falling just yet...

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Hologram

Identified by Meredith: Landru in Star Trek: "Return of the Archons."

Identified by Will: Planet of the Apes: "The Legacy."

Identified by Meredith: Aarchon in Space:1999's "Voyager's Return."

Identified by Hugh: Automan (1983)

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Danica McKellar  in The Twilight Zone (1985):  "Her Pilgrim Soul."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "The Arsenal of Freedom," Vincent Schiavelli.

Identified by Hugh: Red Dwarf's Rimmer (Chris Barrie)

Identified by Hugh: Al (Dean Stockwell) in Quantum Leap.

Identified by Hugh: Selma in Time Trax.

Identified by PDXWiz: W. Morgan Sheppard as The Professor in SeaQuest DSV


Identified by Hugh: The Doctor (Robert Picardo) in Star Trek: Voyager

Identified by PDXWiz: James Darren as Vic Fontaine in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

Identified by woodchuckgod: Rommie (Lexa Doig) in Andromeda.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Dawning (2009)

SYNOPSIS: college-aged siblings Chris (Goslow) and Aurora (Townsend) visit their estranged father, Richard (Coral) at his cabin in the woods. Richard, a recovering alcoholic, has separated from Chris and Aurora's mother and is now dating a woman named Laura (Kellogg-Darrin).  Meanwhile, Chris is contemplating quitting school, and Aurora is scarred by her parents' divorce and her father's lack of attention and devotion. As Chris and Aurora arrive at the remote cabin, the happy family reunion turns awkward with recriminations, guilt-trips, accusations, and innuendo. Then, the family dog is mysteriously wounded while the family gathers for a camp fire to roast marshmallows. After the dog's death, a mad, armed stranger (Salmen) breaks into the cabin and holds the family at gunpoint.  "It's waiting," he insists, describing some unseen monster that apparently murdered his girlfriend. The family attempts to overpower the stranger and notify the police about their predicament, but the phone lines are out. And bizarre, unearthly noises keep emanating from the woods and from the roof of the cabin. After a time, each member of the family disappears into the woods.  And when they are seen again, they seem different, wrong.

COMMENTARY: Horror films that accomplish a lot with very little are not that common anymore, and director Gregg Holtgrewe's Dawning (2009) fits that bill rather nicely.  Dawning is an ultra low-budget, rough-around-the-edges affair, a sort of The Evil Dead (1983) meets The Blair Witch Project (1999) only with no special effects and no monsters. Actually, that's not a completely accurate description. There are monsters in this film, but at times they appear to be of the personal, self-doubting, human variety rather than the demonic one. In short, Dawning concerns a dysfunctional family that comes together for a weekend retreat in the woods but soon encounters Something Evil. That evil is either an invisible, monstrous creature that seizes on interpersonal weakness and human foibles, or the Monster from the family's collective Id: the self-doubt of the dramatis personae made manifest; a sense of personal paranoia that grows and grows and roils and roils until murder is the only possible outcome.
Buttressed by an unsettling musical score, some excellent cinematography and a lot of really canny editing, Dawning proves an arresting and suspenseful experience. At several critical junctures during Dawning, characters hear their own worst thoughts vocalized in the voices of their beloved family members.  Now, in the actual cuts, the audience never actually witnesses those family members speaking such unkind, ugly words. It's all craftily accomplished so that it becomes plain that the characters are hearing opinions that have never actually been stated by another human being. Those insults and attacks are either the Monster's doing or simple human insecurities somehow being broadcast.  But the effect is insidious: like having a nagging, betraying, personal Iago in your ear at all times, saying just the thing to confirm your own low opinion of yourself. It's unsettling, and highly imaginative, and Dawning plays diabolically on the idea that something evil is tearing this family unit apart, and that it thrives on division and insecurity.  In the environment of the 2000's, with so much anger and division poisoning the national dialogue, the film also erects a powerful case that everyone is hearing their own ugliness echoing in their heads, assuming it comes from others, and then striking back. In this way, Dawning seems to concern projection.
It's quite possible there is no monster in the film, just a sweeping, multiplying sense of mistrust and dysfunction. Even the film's revelatory shot, seen in a flash of lightning, could be no more than a phantasm.  From one point of view, it's as if all the dysfunction of the family coheres into a supernatural entity and then threatens its creator.  The component parts of this particular Beast are substance abuse, resentment over divorce, anger over Richard's brand of judgmental machismo and other aspects of interpersonal strife and alienation. 
Dawning is a really low-budget horror film, one that stretches its meager budget to the fullest, but which can't really show anything besides some very troubled characters arguing inside a small cabin for eighty minutes.  For some viewers, this clearly won't be enough. Yet Dawning gets under your skin and discomforts,  in large part because of the ambiguity of the monster. It's the polar opposite of most genre films being made in this era: no fast-cuts, no elaborate special effects, and little concentration on grue and guts.  The film's performances are serviceable and sometimes more than that, in the case of the impressive Goslow. But in so many significant ways, Holtgrewe is the real star of Dawning.  As a director, he's got a strong eye for composition, and the unique ability to craft frightening images just by carefully observing natural vistas, or holding a shot perhaps a little longer than usual.  Dawning ably and gamely plays with form, and as a result doesn't look, feel, or sound like the average, processed genre film. In fact, it may "dawn" on the audience during a viewing of Dawning that many genre films of considerably higher budget could learn a thing or two about crafting atmosphere and suspense from this little diamond-in-the-rough. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

CULT TV FLASHBACK #135: The Bionic Woman: "Doomsday is Tomorrow" (1977)

A touchstone for Generation X'ers, Kenneth Johnson's The Bionic Woman aired for three popular seasons (two on ABC and one on NBC) and fifty-seven hour-long episodes.  The series depicted the continuing adventures of Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner), the world's first bionic woman. 

The character of Jaime was first introduced on a popular two-part episode of The Six Million Dollar Man before she headlined her own spin-off. 

To re-cap the series premise quickly: Jaime is a tennis pro and girlfriend to Colonel Steve Austin (Lee Majors) before a skydiving accident nearly kills her. 

At Steve's urging, government official Oscar Goldman (Richard Anderson) and Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin E. Brooks) arrange for Jaime to receive experimental bionic replacements for her shattered legs, a destroyed arm, and an ear.   These bionic parts grant Jaime superhuman strength, speed, and hearing.

In return for these life-saving mechanical prosthetics, Jaime agrees to work from time-to-time for Oscar at the O.S.I. (Office of Scientific Investigation) on dangerous assignments involving espionage, crime and international diplomacy.  Unfortunately she has almost no memory of her previous romantic relationship with Steve.

No cheap spin-off of The Six Million Dollar Man (1973 - 1978), The Bionic Woman emerged rather fully from the shadow of the Lee Majors series during its high-quality second season.  In that memorable span, lead character Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) faced a bionic opponent equally as powerful as Ted Cassidy's Bionic Bigfoot: the famous "Fembots" (in a three parter, "Kill Oscar.")  Wagner also nabbed a well-deserved Emmy Award for her (double) performance in the suspenseful episode "Deadly Ringer."

However, perhaps the finest episode of The Bionic Woman remains "Doomsday is Tomorrow," a spectacular two-parter written, produced and directed by Kenneth Johnson.   

This epic installment traps Jaime in a vast subterranean complex and pits her  in a duel against a powerful super-computer programmed "to win" at all costs. 

In this case, the computer's victory means the detonation of a doomsday device, and the destruction of all life on Earth.

In "Doomsday is Tomorrow," the pacifist inventor of a new "cobalt bomb," Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres) breaks onto airwaves around the globe to announce that he has developed another weapon that can literally destroy the world.  He then summons four respected nuclear physicists to visit his complex in the American northwest and confirm his frightening story.

The OSI's Jaime Sommers masquerades as a French scientist, and accompanies Dr Wells to the Dakota Base.  There, they learn that the 78-year old Cooper has indeed created a "doomsday device;" one based on a toxic new isotope that can create a shroud of deadly radioactive particles in the upper atmosphere when combined with a cobalt bomb detonation. 

A man of peace, Cooper has no desire to actually kill all life on Earth.  Rather, he is hoping to blackmail the warring nations of the world into a final, lasting peace.  For the only thing that can trigger Cooper's doomsday device is the "air burst of a nuclear bomb." 

So long as no country in the world deploys a nuclear bomb or conducts nuclear testing, Earth and mankind are safe.

Growing increasingly infirm, Dr. Cooper entrusts the care and protection of his doomsday device to a "master computer" called ALEX 7000.  Alex is the "highest form of computer art" and can defend himself and his facility with lethal force. 

Unfortunately, Alex is also incapable of human emotions or feelings, which means that he will fulfill his matter what. 

"I am programmed to show no mercy," Alex reports to Jaime.

Almost immediately after Cooper's warning is broadcast, a small Middle-Eastern country led by the suspicious Satari (David Opatoshu) violates Dr. Cooper's terms and conditions by detonating a test nuke.  Satari believes that the doomsday device is merely a ruse to keep Third-World countries out of the nuclear "club."  Almost immediately, the test blast activates Alex 7000's countdown clock. 

In six hours, the Earth will be destroyed...

Jaime Sommers and a Russian agent (Kenneth O'Brien) attempt to infiltrate Alex's vast complex, and run a veritable obstacle course of deadly defense mechanisms.   In short order, they must evade laser beams, navigate a mine-field, elude machine gun fire, and more.  The Russian agent is injured in the attempt, leaving Jaime alone to stop the final countdown to global destruction.

Inside, Jaime  meets with Dr. Cooper as the old man dies, and as Alex 7000 vows to defeat her at all costs.  Feeling confident of his abilities, Alex 7000 informs Jamie that she will never reach sub-level 8, where his central memory core and the doomsday device are stored. 

But Jamie makes a game effort of it, evading incineration underneath the engine of a fiery rocket, escaping through a corridor of fire-fighting foam that removes all oxygen from the chamber, and even repairing her own damaged bionics following an injury.

Finally, Jamie reaches the core and confronts Alex one last time.  Unfortunately, events spiral out of control.  A B-52 bomber has been launched and is en route to the facility, carrying a nuclear bomb that could also, in conjunction with Cooper's weapon, irradiate the planet...

Today, "Doomsday is Tomorrow" still plays as tense, ambitious and worthwhile, despite the Cold War context of the U.S. and Soviet Union in perpetual rivalry.  What makes the tale hold up rather well is the fact that these two Super Powers cooperate, in the age of detente, and both act responsibly to avoid Armageddon.  It's not just Us vs. Them, Yanks vs. Commies. 

Here, the catalyst for near global-disaster is actually a Third World country trying to "catch-up" to  the U.S. and Russia.  It's interesting: Satari's nation is clearly responsible for its own transgression, and yet the warring Super Powers are also at fault too, at least indirectly.  America and Russia have shown the world the respect and deference afforded nuclear nations.  Who wouldn't desire  the same respect and deference?

In 2011, this type of scenario is probably even more likely than it was in 1977 (think of Iran's attempt to develop nuclear weapons; or North Korea's repeated efforts to launch missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons.)   In The Bionic Woman, entry in the nuclear club is a right of passage that Satari believes will afford his country prestige.  Instead, those attempts initiate a countdown to worldwide disaster.  In real life, the same could happen.  It wouldn't be a doomsday device, of course, causing the problem, but the threat of a regional nuclear war, one that could blossom out of control very quickly as the big players (China, the U.S.) pick sides.

If you've seen this two-part episode of The Bionic Woman (and I don't want to spoil the ending...), you know that it boasts an incredibly powerful anti-war message.  Lew Ayres -- Hollywood's most famous pacifist -- plays the role of Cooper, and it's easy to see why the well-known conscientious objector  took the part, given how things turn out. 

The message, of "Doomsday is Tomorrow," as voiced by Cooper and written with care by Johnson is that human beings never feel more alive or more in love with life than when they are attending a funeral and thus really, truly contemplating what death means.  On a global scale, Cooper has arranged not Doomsday, but the proverbial opportunity for reflection.

This anti-war (and anti-nuke) episode of The Bionic Woman also comments on another 1970s worry; the fear of "technology run amok," also seen in such contemporary films as The Andromeda Strain (1971), Westworld (1971), Demon Seed (1977) and other productions. 

Although Dr. Cooper is legitimately a pacifist he makes a terrible mistake in judgment by entrusting his machine, Alex 7000, with the future of the human race.  Unable to measure or understand the value of life -- as Jaime points out to the super-computer -- Alex 7000 treats Armageddon as a game, and nothing more.  It's a contest simply to be won, a view of computer "thinking" that forecasts the 1983 blockbuster, War Games.  There the message about nuclear war was that the only way to win was "not to play."

Based in equal measures on Kubrick's Hal 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Colossus from Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), Alex 7000 is the avatar for all our fears about automation, and about machines controlling the destiny of mankind.

In The Bionic Woman's "Doomsday is Tomorrow," it's a little bit more than that as well.  Oscar Goldman and Dr. Wells devise a back-up plan to save the world, assuming that Jaime fails.  Unfortunately, their answer to saving the world is another nuclear bomb detonation...and it is the very thing that nearly kills everyone.  Alex 7000 jams communications with the in-flight B-52, and so the plane cannot be recalled...even after the primary threat is passed.  Again, man's dependence on his technology is the issue, in both the case of Cooper and even series hero Oscar Goldman.

Jaime Sommers, explicitly described in this episode's dialogue as "a cyborg," represents a pointed contrast to both Oscar and Cooper.  Where they have ceded their lives, essentially, to the control of the machine, Jamie is different. 

She controls the machines (the bionics) in her body. She is fully integrated with them and thus her human, emotional mind still holds sway over how the machines work.  In other words, in Jamie's case it is a human who harnesses the machine; not vice-versa.   In this episode, we see Jaime out-think, out-perform and out-feel the Alex 7000, proving the superiority of human judgment.  

As always, Wagner makes an incredibly charismatic and likable lead, and in this episode, Jaime is nearly driven to despair by her inability to beat the powerful machine, which commands a huge complex and vast store of resources. 

There are a few moments in the second part of "Doomsday is Tomorrow" in which we see Jamie just inches away from losing her composure, and Wagner isn't afraid to play those moments for all their drama and power.

Yet -- importantly -- there's nothing "edgy" or "angry" about this Bionic Woman, to use the terms Wagner herself applied to the moribund 2007 remake.  This Jaime is just a regular human being with extraordinary abilities, and the belief that she alone can help (since Steve Austin, a strong ally, is currently stationed on Skylab...).  Today, as the 2007 version proved, Jaime would be rageful, hungering for revenge against an enemy, and saddled with a boatload of personal "baggage."

But Wagner's performances here (and throughout the series) prove a valuable point: Jaime doesn't have to be moody or angsty for audiences to identify with her or her important  missions.  She doesn't need manufactured "issues" for us to root for her success. 

Instead, Kenneth Johnson's intelligent  writing and Wagner's human, good-humored performance are more than enough to accomplish that.  All the bells and whistles of today's dramatic conceits are unnecessary, and worse, cliche.  All superheroes don't need to be revenge-a-holics and rage-a-holics.  Sometimes they can just be people called by destiny to help.  Sometimes they can just be people doing their best in a tough or even seemingly impossible situation.  That's Jaime Sommers, in a very real way, and it's certainly no coincidence that another great female superhero (the vampire slaying sort) is also named Summers.  Jaime was one of the first -- and still one of the best -- of this breed.

I first saw "Doomsday is Tomorrow" as a child (I believe I had just turned eight), and I must admit that it scared the crap out of me.  In part this is because Alex 7000 holds all the cards, and is one tough nemesis.  In part it is also because the episode suggests that our world is just twenty-four hours from Armageddon.  When Alex 7000's countdown to destruction arrives at zero, the episode cuts to a long-shot view of the Earth, and there's silence on the soundtrack.  A sense of anticipation, and fear too, accompanies the edit. According to movie and TV convention, the next shot should be of the planet blowing up.

Thanks to Jamie Sommers, the Earth avoids that fate here, but the haunting last words of the episode were enough to give me pause as a child.

"But what about tomorrow?"

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Cult-TV Faces of: The Computer

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: The Twilight Zone: "The Old Man in the Cave"

Identified by Brian: The Twilight Zone: "From Agnes with Love"

Identified by Brian: WOTAN in Doctor Who "The War Machines."

Identified by Brian, Batman (1966-1969): The Bat Computer

Identified by Brian: Landru in Star Trek's "Return of the Archons"

Identified by Brian: The M-5 in Star Trek "The Ultimate Computer"

Identified by Brian: The Oracle in Star Trek's "For the World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky."

Identified by Brian: The General in "The Prisoner, "The General"

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: S.I.D. in Gerry Anderson's UFO.

Identified by Brian: The Starlost: "Voyage of Discovery"

Identified by Greg Melli Jone: The G.E.E.C. in The Super Friends.

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: Planet of the Apes: "The Legacy."

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: Space:1999 "The Black Sun"

Identified by Brian: Space:1999 "Brian the Brain."

Identified by Brian: Ark II: "Omega."

Identified by Brian: "Logan's Run" (The TV series)

Identified by Brian: The Bionic Woman (1977): "Doomsday is Tomorrow."

Identified by Brian: Vanessa in Quark: "Vanessa 38-24-36."

Identified by Brian: Orace in Blake's 7: "Orac."

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: C.O.R.A. in Battlestar Galactica: "The Long Patrol"

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: Dr. Theopolis in Buck Rogers: "Awakening."

Identified by Greg Melli Jones: KITT in Knight Rider.

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: The C.O.S. in The X-Files: "Ghost in the Machine"

Not identified: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "I Robot, You Jane"

Identified by Le0pard13: The X-Files: "Kill Switch"

Identified by Dr. Howard Margolin: Gene Roddenbery's Andromeda.

Not identified: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles: "The Turk."

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