Monday, April 30, 2012

And Even More Purple Rain: Music on Film Reviews

My latest book, Purple Rain: Music on Film, is still bringing in some nice reviews.  Here's the latest batch, in case you're still planning to order the book, and need a little push...

"This book is not just for fans of Prince or Purple Rain. It is a great companion to a film that changed music and the film industry. Reading it makes you want to watch Purple Rain with a new set of eyes. One in a series, this book is one to keep and read over again. It had so many great little facts as well as bigger ones, that you won't get them all in the first read through."

"Muir expounds not only on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the film, but also on how The Kid shares many positive and negative personality traits as Prince himself. Overall, the book is an indispensable book for anyone who is a fan of Prince, his music and his films."

Don't forget, Purple Rain: Music on Film is available at here, at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Sports and Fitness

Throughout cult-tv history, we have witnessed our colorful heroes indulging in team sports and individual acts of fitness. The primary idea here is one of staying fit, of keeping in good shape.  In Star Trek’s future, the healthy officer of Starfleet don’t give short shrift to physical exercise, and we’ve witnessed on more than one ship how the officers utilize the ship’s gymnasium (“Charlie X”) or conduct their daily work-out routine (“The Price.”)
In terms of training and fitness, the universe of Gerry Anderson was much the same. The pilots of S.H.A.D.O. were seen to work-out rigorously in exmples of physical readiness (“Ordeal”) in UFO. And on Space: 1999’s Moonbase Alpha, a weight room was depicted in one episode (“Testament of Arkadia”) though it was really a light redressing of Commander Koenig’s office.

In other programs, alien versions of sports have appeared.  The Colonial Warriors of the original Battlestar Galactica (1978) doubled as athletes, for instance, in a basketball-styled game called Triad that appeared in episodes such as “War of the Gods” and “Murder on the Rising Star.”  In the re-made Battlestar Galactica of the last decade, "Triad" became "Pyramid" instead.
Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) likewise revealed a veritable panoply of alien and futuristic sports in the first season episode, “Olympiad.”  In truth, this story was a Cold War allegory about an athlete attempting to defect from a repressive alien civilization, a stand-in for our then-rival, the Soviet Union.  

“Olympiad” aired in 1980, the same year that President Carter oversaw the boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  

The Buck Rogers allegory not only spoke of the political climate of the day, it introduced the world to futuristic variations of boxing, the high jump, and even the luge competition. In this case, the luge -- or astro-slalom - was a spaceship navigating a corridor of space force fields! Although the episode dealt with freedom, and a culture that did not value freedom, it also offered hope since all the planets of the galaxy still came together every four years to celebrate the Olympiad.

In the more horror-oriented cult-tv programs, sports and fitness have often been entry points into terrifying story possibilities.  In Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s second season installment, “Go Fish,” members of the Sunnydale High swim team were (under their coach’s guidance…) inhaling a chemical to improve speed and endurance in the water.  However, the substance was actually transforming the boys (including Prison Break's Wentworth Miller...) into reptilian creatures from the black lagoon.  Once more, a metaphor was at work under the surface, only here it concerned performance-enhancing steroids and school athletic programs. 

Smallville’s early episode “Hothead” charted a similar path.  When Clark (Tom Welling) joined the football team over his father’s objections, he discovered that the athletes were relaxing in a sauna that utilized the green meteor rocks, or Kryptonite.
Sometimes instances of sports and fitness on cult television are meant only as informative expressions of a character’s off-duty hobbies or pursuits.   Involvements in sports and exercise provide a little sideways peek at familiar characters, in new venues. We saw Fox Mulder play basketball frequently on The X-Files. Captain Picard practiced fencing (“We’ll Always Have Paris”) and rode horses (“Starship Mine,” “Pen Pals”) on Star Trek: The Next Generation, while Commander Koenig seemed to favor Kendo in Space: 1999

Captain Sisko (Avery Brooks) on Deep Space Nine was a Starfleet officer who had made sports an important part of his life.  A lifelong fan of baseball, Sisko viewed the sport not just as a hobby...but as a passion and a guiding philosophy.  He kept a prized baseball (signed by Buck Bokai of the London King) on his desk outside Ops, and in one episode, "Take Me out the Holosuite," put together a team -- the Niners -- to compete against Captain Solok and a team of Vulcans.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Sports and Fitness

Identified by Brian: One Step Beyond: "Front Runner."

Identified by Chris G: The Twilight Zone: "Steel."

Identified by Chris G: Star Trek: "Charlie X."

Identified by Chris G: The Prisoner: "The Schizoid Man."

Identified by SGB: UFO: "Ordeal."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "Testament of Arkadia."

Identified by Chris G: Battlestar Galactica: "Murder on the Rising Star."

Identified by SGB: Buck Rogers: "Olympiad."

Identified by Chris G: Doctor Who: "Black Orchid."

Identified by Brian: Otherworld (1985): "Paradise Lost."

Identified by Randal Graves: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Suddenly Human."

Identified by  Randal Graves: Buffy the Vampire Slayer: "Go Fish."

Identified by Randal Graves: Deep Space Nine: "Take Me Out to the Holosuite."

Identified by Chris G: Smallville: "Hothead."

Television and Cinema Verities #17

"All we basically say in any fantasy film is that good triumphs over evil and there's hope for the future.  And I think that's basically what we need because there have been too many people saying there's no hope for the future and you should look down in the garbage can rather than up in the sky."

- Ray Harryhausen discusses his fantasy films in an interview for Starlog # 10, December 1977, by Richard Meyers, page 56.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Cult-TV Blogging: Otherworld: "Rock and Roll Suicide" (February 16, 1985)

“Rock and Roll Suicide” may not be the absolute best ever episode of the short-lived Roderick Taylor series, Otherworld (1985), but it sure as hell is the most fun. 

In this amusing and satirical tale, the Sterlings have taken up residence in Centrex, a large province with a population of approximately five million.  Centrex is a buttoned down, boring town, at least until Trace (Tony O'Dell) and Gina (Jonna Lee) introduce the province’s teenage inhabitants to rock-and-roll music.  So yes, this is, essentially, Footloose (1984) only done as a cult-tv, science-fiction story.

The conservative Church of Artificial Intelligence almost immediately protests the “sinful” music, and its leader, Baxter Dromo (Michael Ensign) sets out to destroy Trace and Gina, going so far as to burn their albums.  Even this opposition from the establishment, however, cannot prevent Trace and Gina from becoming a pop culture sensation in Centrex, one replete with its own merchandising blitz.  

Hal (Sam Groom) worries that his kids are drawing too much attention to themselves, but when the Church crosses the line from censorship to violence, he realizes the battle being waged here is not about music, but “free speech."  Unfortunately, the Praetor sends Commander Kroll (Jonathan Banks) to Centrex, thus ending the promising rock careers of the Sterling kids once and for all.  With the help of Trace and Gina's agent, Billy Sunshine (Michael Callan), the Sterlings escape Centrex.

“Rock and Roll Suicide” is such a terrific episode of Otherworld (and sci-fi tv, to boot), because in just barely forty-five minutes it tells the whole, glorious, multi-decade story of rock-and-roll in America.  That story begins with relatively innocuous music, by today’s standards.  We see this epoch of history embodied in Gina and Trace’s performances of The Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.”  But before the long, as the episode progresses, the costumes, haircuts and music all grow more flamboyant and edgy, drifting into the then-contemporary era of 80s punk, pop and hair metal.

All the while, of course, the “establishment,” embodied by the Church of Artificial Intelligence fears the growing rock movement.  The form seems to encourage youngsters to "express themselves," for one thing.  And in one especially amusing scene, the leader of the church, Dromo, listens to a Trace and Gina song backwards, and becomes he’s convinced he’s hearing subliminal, evil messages. In particular, he hears the word “inter-dimensional,” he thinks.  

Soon, the Church goes from protesting something it doesn’t like to squelching free speech, and this impulse too has been part of rock history.  You’ve defied the order of things,” says Dromo, You have disrupted the spiritual equilibrium of this whole province.”

Indeed, but only in his own tortured mind…

“Rock and Roll Suicide” also showcases, amusingly, the marketing blitzkrieg that can surround a musical phenomenon.  Here, we see Trace and Gina dolls (that look surprisingly authentic  in terms of 1980s toys), but if you lived through the 1970s as a kid, you remember Sonny and Cher dolls, Donnie and Marie dolls, and KISS dolls too.   In a consumer culture, a band ultimately becomes a commodity, as we see here.

Another interesting subplot in this episode by Roderick Taylor and Bruce A. Taylor involves Trace’s new girlfriend.  He realizes all too quickly that she’s only into him for the fame and the money, not because she likes him.  So this episode meditates on the pitfalls of fame as well as the “guitar hero” aspects of being a rock star.  Once you're famous, you can never be sure that a person loves you for you, and not for the girth of your...wallet.

Even the final shot of "Rock and Roll Suicide" is a wondrous and funny put-on. Trace and Gina, together in concert, are superimposed and immortalized over a panoply of night stars.  Yes, they are as timeless as the constellations themselves.  I love it.  It's a wonderful jab at music fans who consider their ephemeral favorites the greatest thing on Earth.

Taken in toto, “Rock and Roll Suicide” is a pretty great rock-and-roll fantasy, but what makes the episode so intriguing after all these decades is what it says about rock’s place in our culture.  “There’s something about these lyrics that hate authority!” the Church Leader complains, and in real life, we’ve all heard the same (stupid) argument for decades.  Why is it that every older generation must hate the younger generation’s music?  And not only hate it, but try to actively destroy it?  We’ve seen this bad impulse in every era for decades, and Otherworld reminds us that, as parents, we don’t always give the younger generation the same leeway we wish we had been given by our folks.  

Lesson to be learned…in Otherworld.

Next Week: “Village of the Motorpigs.” 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Mimi's Secret" (November 24, 1979)

In Jason of Star Command’s “Mimi’s Secret,” Jason (Craig Littler), Samantha (Tamara Dobson), Professor Parsafoot (Charlie Dell) and young Heidi (Heather Connell) escape an attack by Dragos’ (Sid Haig) drones, and then return to Star Command.  Once there, they meet with Queen Medusa (Francine York), who, under a flag of truce, promises to exchange Heidi’s missing father for her doll, Mimi.

By this point, Parsafoot has realized that “Mimi” is actually a codename for M1M1, an acronym which pinpoints the location (planet M1) of a secret “guardsman” mineral vein.  The valuable material is used throughout the galaxy as a power source, and Dragos would find it incredibly valuable.  Meanwhile, Heidi stows away on Medusa’s ship.

Finally, Jason and the others rescue Heidi and her father on the surface of M1, and fight keep the mineral out of the hands of Queen Medusa…

“Mimi’s Secret, the second-to-last Jason of Star Command episode, boasts some nice flourishes.  One of those is the visual of Queen Medusa’s starship.  It discharges energetic particles while traveling through space; particles that are pink and purple, the very colors of Medusa’s skin tight, spandex uniform.  Hmmm…

Another point of interest is the episode’s brief commentary on prejudice based on skin color.  Young Heidi asks Commander Stone (John Russell) why his skin is blue, and he responds with a comment about not judging people by color, because color doesn’t reveal their true selves.  It’s a brief moment, but a good one that feels, perhaps more in keeping with Space Academy (1977).

In terms of production values, “Mimi’s Secret” is a noticeably weak episode.  M1 is represented by the same studio planet set we’ve seen a dozen times this season.  Worse, the interior of Medusa’s ship is just a re-dressed Seeker/Star Fire interior, with the seats white instead of red.  Kind of a disappointment, and it’s one of the few instances in the series where the miniature work doesn’t match a live-action interior.

No monsters or stop-motion aliens this week, but “Mimi’s Secret” opens with a pitched space battle between Dragos’ drones and Jason’s Star-fire.  Jason defeats the enemy fighters by tapping into their control panels and jamming their “control frequencies.”  It sounds a little like what Admiral Kirk did to Khan aboard the Reliant a few years later in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As far as Mimi (and her secret…) go, it turns out the doll is hiding information about the important power source, but the episode never really explains how she lives.  In this segment, Mimi even shoots laser beams out of her eyes.  But, unlike many of her cult-tv brethren, she’s not an evil doll, just a living one.

One last JOSC episode to go, next week: “Battle for Freedom.”

Friday, April 27, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Stargate (1994)

Roland Emmerich’s Stargate (1994) is the movie that launched a thousand ships, or at least several hundred episodes of popular cult television.  As the initiator of the durable (though now dormant…) Stargate franchise, the film sets up a universe that, broadly-speaking, is based on the once-popular Von Daniken Chariots of the Gods (1968) notion that “God” is an ancient astronaut…an alien.

In movie-based terms, Stargate is the film that landed Emmerich on the map in A-list Hollywood.  Although Emmerich had already directed Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate quickly proved a massive, world-wide hit, and paved the way for the director’s busy career, which has included such films as Independence Day (1996), Godzilla (1998), The Day After Tomorrow (2004), 10,000 BC (2008), and 2012 (2010). 

Frankly, I don’t regard the bulk of Emmerich’s oeuvre in very positive terms.   Despite the bad reviews it received on release, Stargate likely dominates even today as the best Emmerich sci-fi film in the aforementioned pack. In part that’s because the film’s opening act is so engaging, and it builds up a real sense of anticipation, mystery, and excitement.

Not that a number of critics would agree with that assessment.

Roger Ebert awarded Stargate one star (out of four) and derided the film’s use of “action movie clichés.” Hal Hinson at The Washington Post felt that the film degenerated by the end into “routine pyrotechnics,” and The San Francisco Chronicle’s Mike LaSalle termed the film “imitation Spielberg” that “crashed inside 20 minutes.”  

Probably all of those comments are accurate to some degree.  The movie is indeed girded with action movie clichés, it does resolve with fireballs and pyrotechnics, and Stargate plays, at points, like low-grade Spielberg.  The film’s first half-hour is also undeniably its strongest. 

And yet, in spite of these admittedly on-the-mark criticisms, Stargate is a hell of a lot of fun.  .

In part, that fun emerges from the cast’s dedicated and sometimes herculean efforts.  James Spader plays the comedy and wonder aspects of the tale wittily, while Kurt Russell – acting as though he’s starring in a hard-boiled John Carpenter or Howard Hawks adventure – brilliantly essays the role of laconic but tortured Colonel O’Neil. 

And although Jaye Davidson (The Crying Game [1992]) remains a decidedly unconventional choice for a primary villain -- being delicate and androgynous rather than physically menacing in the conventional sense -- the very unpredictability of his physical presence adds to the film’s sense of menace, as well as the villain’s unique decadence and obsession with youth and beauty.  Davidson’s Ra is bizarre, but also incredibly sinister.

I remember when I first screened Stargate in the theater in October of 1994. There was much talk that it was “the next Star Wars.”  That kind of chatter proved to be hyperbole, and yet Stargate is a film that, somehow – and indeed a lot like Star Wars – is much more than the sum of its individual parts.  The heroic theme music by David Arnold, the knowing performances from Russell and Spader, and the film’s strong action chops combine with the intriguing Von Daniken presence to render a film experience much more buoyant and enjoyable than it surely could have been. 

In other words, Stargate works on a crowd-pleasing, blockbuster level, and in this case, that’s more than enough.  The film has been assaulted as being stupid on many occasions, but in some fashion Stargate is very canny in how it manipulates the audience and audience expectations.  It’s a film about guns winning the day, and yet it also delivers an anti-gun message, underneath. It’s a film that reveals the Ancient Astronauts, not mankind, achieved wonders in our antiquity, and yet the film also showcases modern man confronting those astronauts and proving his worth. 

In short, Stargate boasts a great premise, some terrific production design, capable actors who are clearly having fun, and enough sci-fi gadgetry to, well, sturdily launch a franchise.  I should probably add that the film absolutely plays like high-art in comparison to underwhelming and even laughable Emmerich fare such as 10,000 BC or 2012.

“I created your civilization. Now I will destroy it.”

Down-on-his-luck linguist and translator Daniel Jackson (Spader) is recruited by the Air Force to help translate an ancient Egyptian artifact, one unearthed in 1928, near the Great Pyramids.  He determines that a series of symbols on the artifact represent not letters in an alphabet, but coordinates in outer space.  The artifact is actually a stargate: a door connecting Earth to a world on the other side of the known galaxy.

Jackson and a team of soldiers, led by Colonel O’Neil (Russell), travel through the stargate and find a barren desert world where human slaves toil to build a pyramid for a “God” called Ra (Davidson).  With the help of a beautiful local, Sha’uri (Mili Avital), Jackson learns Ra’s story. He is a ruthless alien being who survived his race’s extinction and went out into the galaxy seeking a way to extend his life.

Ra found that way on ancient Earth by possessing the body of a young man, and setting himself up as a God.  The primitive people were amazed by Ra’s technology, and fell in line.  But a group of slaves rebelled against the alien king’s authority, and Ra’s stargate to Earth was buried and forgotten, so he could no longer return.

Now, Ra – who possesses the power to resurrect the dead – plans to punish Earth for that long ago rebellion and its recent incursion.  O’Neil has brought a bomb through the Stargate to destroy any threats, and now Ra plans to send it back…to destroy the planet.

Jackson and O’Neil must not only find a way home now, they must help the humans of this faraway planet defeat Ra, and save the Earth in the process.

So you think you've solved in fourteen days what they couldn't solve in two years? 

Erich Von Daniken’s published works about “ancient astronauts” represented a major fad in the 1970s, even though the books were widely debunked and ridiculed by the scientific establishment.  Von Daniken’s theory suggests that artifacts and constructs of the ancient world -- such as the Pyramids or Stonehenge -- are the works of advanced, star-faring aliens because humans of those historic eras did not possess the technology or skill to build them. 

Primitive man thus perceived the builders – aliens – as “Gods.”  Von Daniken interpreted stories from the Old Testament (like Ezekiel’s description of a ship of angels in the Old Testaments) as being literal stories of alien encounters and incursions.

Von Daniken’s ideas have found significant currency in science fiction television and cinema over the decades since Chariots of the Gods was published.  Battlestar Galactica (1978) and The Phoenix (1982) both traded on the idea of ancient astronauts and “brothers of man” in space.  More recent films such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) and Knowing (2009) also developed these Von Daniken-esque notions.  The upcoming Prometheus (2012) also appears as though it will mine this idea rather thoroughly: that aliens visited man in antiquity and helped shape his future and his very world.

The appeal of these stories (and thus the appeal of Stargate) rests on twin concepts.  First, that we are not alone in the universe.  And secondly, that we are intimately connected with the alien races out there, existing beyond the stars.  Meeting these alien races, we are faced with the resolution of a mystery that connects our most distant past to our immediate future.  The promise is that we will join our cosmic brothers one day, and with a full understanding of where we came from.  In other words, the key to knowing who and what we really are rests on contacting the ancient peoples who set our culture in motion.  In space, then, we find our both our origin and our ultimate destination as a species.

The first twenty-three minutes or so of Stargate, -- the film’s strongest -- tread deeply into such ancient mysteries.  Who built the pyramids? Why were they built?  And what can we learn from the Ancients? 

As Stargate opens, Dr. Jackson is asked to translate the symbols that will activate a stargate, the doorway to the other side of the known universe.  The film lands the audience on Jackson’s side almost immediately, as he is ruthlessly mocked by his narrow-minded colleagues.  Then, the audience shares Jackson’s excitement as he translates the alien language inscribed on a 10,000 year old alien device. 

This part of the film races by with intrigue, humor and excitement. The sense of anticipation, of wonder, is palpable.  Spader proves especially strong here as the audience surrogate and as a committed detective.   Jackson’s obsession with “knowing” becomes the audience’s obsession thanks to Spader’s enthusiastic portrayal, and his self-deprecating sense of humor.  A lot of this could seem like dry, dull exposition, but Spader makes the material riveting to watch, and colors it with his character's idiosyncrasies.

Once the Stargate is discovered and activated, however, the film gets mired down in familiar-seeming desert terrains and the like.   After the visually-amazing “ultimate trip” to another planet, it’s a little disconcerting to come down to Earth, literally, and see familiar sand dunes and sky.  And watching Jackson and O’Neil encounter a city of primitive slaves is not exactly heart-pounding. 

But by the time the first hour is over, Ra arrives and the film picks up again. Emmerich makes the most of the film’s unseen menace at this juncture.  In particular, he shoots an underground siege absolutely perfectly by utilizing P.O.V. shots.  Members of O’Neil’s team are picked off one at a time, and we don’t see the hunters.  Instead, the camera creeps up on the unsuspecting soldiers, and then the film cuts to their bodies being dragged off-screen by unseen creatures.  It’s almost as though we’ve shifted gears into a horror movie, and the grunting, inhuman sound effects of Ra’s soldiers augment the idea of a terrifying, unknown presence.  Even the final, momentous reveal of these minions remains quite powerful.  Looking at these glowing eyes, metal-headed soldiers, it’s easy to see how man could misinterpret them to be Gods. 

When Ra is finally introduced, he isn’t at all what we expect.  But in an action film, that kind of surprise can be a good thing, indeed.  We expect a seven-foot tall monster -- a Darth Vader, perhaps -- and are instead presented with a wispy, lithe, uncomfortable presence in Jaye Davidson.  Ra lives inside a human form, so it’s appropriate that we feel ambivalent about his appearance. We don’t know how to process him, at least not initially.  Is he male? Female?  Some strange combination of both?   Impressively, Jaye Davidson conveys a sense of both uncomfortable beauty and absolute malevolence at the same time.  He may look beautiful on the surface, but his eyes and movements pulsate with a brand of wickedness that suggests the alien’s true nature.

Again, there’s something to be said for choosing an atypical direction in a spectacular like Stargate.  The filmmakers might have cast a bulky strong-man as Ra, but their selection of the slight, whisper-thing Davidson unhinges matters a bit.  The story becomes almost instantly more unpredictable because there is a sense in watching Davidson that we don’t know what he is, literally, and therefore what he will do.  On the few occasions that his alien features shine through his skin, we get a sense of the diabolical Ra’s inner ugliness.

Action films made today depend a great deal on quick cutting and herky-jerky, hand-held camera moves to transmit a sense of urgency.  However, the nearly twenty-year old Stargate plays as refreshingly retro during its accomplished action scenes. The film builds a sense of pace and immediacy through cross-cutting, first between two opposing scenes, and then, finally, between three.  The approach generates a strong sense of momentum leading into the climax, and it’s carefully-wrought.  It helps too, no doubt, to have the muscular, steely-eyed Russell fronting an action scene.  No one in the film is made out to be a superhero, and there’s something refreshingly human and tenacious about the way Colonel O’Neil just dukes it out, punch-after-punch, with Ra’s muscle-bound minion.  I admire this scene because it doesn’t rely on special effects (except for the macabre punctuation…) or even wild (but improbable) stunts.   Instead, it’s just an old-fashioned slug-fest.

I would like to comment again -- as I have in the past – about at what an absolutely great leading man Russell is.  His O’Neil is distinctly different from his Snake Plissken, Jack Burton, or MacReady in The Thing.  There’s a kind of retro, non-showy grittiness in Russell’s performance here.  The film features a number of scenes during which he stands back in the corner of a frame and just silently smokes a cigarette, an act which is pretty unusual in mid-1990s cinema but which reminds one of Humphrey Bogart or some other leading man of yesteryear. 

In these moments, Russell quietly dominates, and all eyes reflexively turn to him.  Even if the script doesn’t exactly give the actor emotional layers to explore, Russell’s taciturn approach suggests a contemplative mind at work, a man silently watching and reacting to everything happening around him.

Perhaps Stargate seems less-than-impressive mainly in several canned, off-the-shelf moments.  O’Neil’s subplot about losing a son is all-too-familiar in this genre, for example, but Russell’s sincerity in vetting it makes it less-than groan-worthy.  His expressive, guilt-ridden eyes go a long way towards making the commonly-seen trope seem powerful and new again. 

Not so strong, however, is the moment -- rendered in over-the-top slow motion photography -- when one of the rebellious slave youngsters goes down in a blaze of glory, and the last we see of him is a tumbling army helmet.  It feels like a moment that would be right at home in Team America: World Police (2004).

Another moment – a trade of salutes between the former slaves and O’Neil – also plays as eminently cheesy and way over-the-top.  You’ve got to wonder why a film that can foster a sense of wonder (in the first twenty-minutes), transmit a strong sense of menace (at the hour point), and convey strong action (at the climax), feels the need to go schmaltzy and sentimental in conclusion.   I suppose it’s just Hollywood: a land where implication isn’t enough and you must be spoon-fed “emotions” so you know EXACTLY how to feel all the time.  It’s insulting.

Despite such missteps, Stargate is nimble in its special effects (especially the depiction of the stargate itself) and boasts a nice through-line about technology.  Technology doesn’t necessarily make one superior, at least in the long run, the film seems to state.  Here, the slave community comes together to stop Ra (just as slaves did on Earth, in antiquity), and the idea that gets conveyed is that we succeed when we work together.

Although I have distinct memories of the late Gene Roddenberry complaining about the ancient astronaut theory because it failed to take into account human intelligence and human ingenuity, Stargate actually possesses a commendably optimistic streak too.  Humankind here is ready to confront its former gods.  Primitive superstition is behind us.

Of course, on the other hand, both Ra and the military men of Earth still attempt to dominate situations through violent means: with bombs, guns and other weapons of destruction.  We may not literally be slaves anymore, but even as advanced as we are, we’re still slaves to our destructive (and self-destructive) impulses.  

Stargate is never quite smart enough to square that circle.

Still, this is one of those “big” sci-fi movies where it helps if you allow yourself to get swept up by the bigness of it all.  The bigness of the soundtrack. Of the performances. Of the (high) concept. Of the desert vistas. And of the special effects. 

If you do let yourself succumb to all of that impressive eye candy, Stargate is a film of wonder, humor, imagination, and not a small degree of charm.

Movie Trailer: Stargate (1994)

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Give my regards to King Tut, asshole."

- Stargate (1994)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Eight Most Disgusting Cult-TV Parasites

A parasite is defined as the dominant partner in an unwelcome relationship of different organisms.  In other words, the parasite is a life form that benefits from an involuntary partnership, while the other creature in the relationship…does not.

Throughout cult-tv history, we’ve encountered many memorable and monstrous parasites, a fact which probably arises from the popularity of the 1951 alien invasion novel The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein.  By some definitions, Star Trek’s the Borg might themselves be considered parasites, since, with their assimilation nanites, they transform and co-opt organic beings into Borg.  But for this post, I’m going to concentrate on some memorable and gruesome biological parasites, rather than mechanical ones.

What's the fear of parasites?  In short, it's the idea that our bodies can be used and abused by an intelligence not our own; that our bodies could be viewed as a resource or even food by some other creature.  Many of the creatures on this list assume control of our physical selves, and replace our intelligence with theirs.  Others see us, alarmingly, as just meat.

So here are eight truly horrific, incredibly disgusting cult-tv parasites.  These are the monkeys you most definitely don’t want on your back…or anywhere else inside you for that matter.

8. Prehistoric tape worm.  This revolting creature appeared in the fourth episode of Primeval, which aired in March of 2007 in the UK.  

Here, a flock of adorable dodos  waddle through one of the series' colorful time anomalies into modern England, but a few of these extinct, flightless birds are carrying a parasite that can temporarily seize control of the host and act aggressively to assure reproduction.  One of Connor's (Andrew-Lee Potts) friends, Tom (Jake Curran), is infected with the organism after a dodo bite on his arm.  He soon suffers debilitating headaches, massive pain and increased paranoia as the worm inside him...grows.  At one point in the episode, we see a high-resolution scan of Tom's skull, and this large, lively worm wriggling about inside it.  

7. The Hellgramite.  This parasite appeared in the third season of the first Twilight Zone remake (1985 – 1989) called “The Hellgramite Method.”  In this tale by William Selby, an alcoholic named Miley Judson (Timothy Bottoms) realizes he risks losing his family if he doesn’t get off the booze permanently. Accordingly, he answers an ad for a cure for alcoholism and meets with Dr. Murrich (Leslie Yeo).  The doctor, -- who lost his own family to a drunk driver -- gives Judson a red pill to swallow.  Inside that pill, the drinker later learns, is a parasite called a Hellgramite: an unusual brand of tape worm that survives and thrives on alcohol. The more Judson drinks, the more the worm feeds and the bigger it grows.  Now, Judson doesn’t even get the buzz of feeling drunk, no matter how much liquor he consumes!  Eventually, if he keeps drinking, the Hellgramite will kill Miley, so the traumatized alcoholic must either starve the tapeworm and stop drinking for good, or let the thing kill him…

In this case, the cult-tv parasite, while quite horrible, is actually put to good use: curing alcoholism.  At episode’s end, the Hellgramite Method works, and Miley Judson is a new man.  As the voice-over reminds us, what this drinker needed “was something a little extra,” something that could only be found…in The Twilight Zone.

6. The Selminth.  This parasitic creature appeared in the fifth and last season of Angel (1999 – 2005), in an episode entitled “Soul Purpose,” written by Brent Fletcher and directed by David Boreanaz.  

In this entry, Angel becomes trapped in a vegetative state while under the influence of a slimy worm-like creature called a Selminth Parasite.  This creature causes hallucinations in its host, and in the episode, Angel dreams that Spike has replaced him as the champion of the Shansu Prophecy.  Here, the worm is used as a weapon by a sinister agent (Eve), and alters the very mind-state of the host.  Angel must wake up and remove the parasite from his chest, or live in a a nightmare for the remainder of his days...

5. "Conspiracy.”  In “Conspiracy,” a late first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) is warned by a friend, Captain Walker (Jonathan Farwell) that some kind of sinister agenda is afoot in Starfleet Command.  

After Walker’s ship, The Horatio explodes in an apparent accident, Picard fears there might be some truth behind his friend’s paranoia.  He orders the Enterprise back to Earth, and there discovers that the Admiralty itself has been infiltrated by parasitic aliens bent on conquering the Federation from within.  These small, crab-like aliens enter human beings through the mouth, and then completely control all higher mental functions.  The small parasites also report to a much-larger, dinosaur-like “mother” being that has found a home inside Commander Remmick (Robert Schenkkan).  The parasites die without this mother being in close proximity.

These creepy alien parasites (revealed in Star Trek novels to be related to the Trill…) can be detected by a sort of breathing gill that extends from the back of the host’s neck.  In the episode, Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden) rigs one for Riker (Jonathan Frakes) so that he will appear compromised, but can actually rescue Captain Picard from danger.

I must admit, I absolutely love this episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.  It has a more sinister, diabolical vibe than most episodes.  In fact, it’s downright scary at times, especially the unresolved ending, which suggests the parasites could return one day, and have sent a message to their brethren out in space.   I also love the visual of Picard and Riker frying the alien mother organism with their phasers.  So much for respect and tolerance for all alien life forms!   I've always found it ironic that Gene Roddenberry so vociferously complained about Admiral Kirk's treatment of another parasite, the Ceti Eel in The Wrath of Khan (1982) -- how dare he shoot it! it's a life-form -- but then Picard and Riker reacted exactly the same way in this TNG episode, with revulsion and phasers firing.

4. The Ganglions.  These skittering, slimy, multi-tentacled parasites appeared in the short-lived alien invasion series Dark Skies (1996 – 1997).  The ganglions were first seen in the pilot episode, “The Awakening,” written by Brent Friedman and Bryce Zabel and directed by horror legend Tobe Hooper. 

The Ganglions enter the human head through either the nose, ear or mouth, and the assimilation process is slow and incredibly painful.  First, possession by the parasite causes a nervous breakdown, but eventually the host mind is erased completely, and the Ganglion is in total control of his human steed.  We learn in the course of the series that the Ganglions took over the Greys' planet, much in the same way that they intend to take over the human race.

In “Awakening,” cult-television gets one of its most gruesome and effectively shot scenes as the scientists of Majestic attempt to remove a ganglion from its human host, a farmer.  The results aren’t pretty.   The ganglion escapes, attempts to attach to another unlucky soul, and then is deposited in a jar by John Loengard, using very long tongs.  This scene remains harrowing, even today, and is splendidly shot by Hooper.

3. “Roadrunners.”  An eighth season X-Files episode, Roadrunners,” by Vince Gilligan, introduces a parasitic creature that may or may not be of this Earth.

Here, Agent Scully (Gillian Anderson), sans partner, visits Utah to investigate a strange death.  She soon runs afoul, instead, of a weird cult that believes a worm parasite represents the second coming of Jesus Christ on Earth. 

These committed cult members attempt to get the worm inside Scully – who is pregnant at this point – by allowing it to burrow underneath her flesh, inside her back.  This episode successfully gets under your skin too, by forging an atmosphere of extreme isolation and vulnerability.  In The X-Files, we are used to Mulder always having Scully’s back during a crisis.  But here, Mulder is gone, abducted by aliens, and we don’t quite trust Agent Doggett (Robert Patrick) yet.  Here, Scully is the most alone we’ve ever seen her, in real physical danger, contending with villains who can't be reasoned with.  And she faces, clearly, a fate worse than death with that wriggling, monstrous worm in her back. In a truly upsetting scene, Scully is tied to a bed on her stomach, as the creature makes its subcutaneous approach.

A group of vocal folks like to complain about the last two, largely Mulder-less years of The X-Files, but episodes such as “Roadrunners” certainly  prove the series was effective as ever in generating authentic, deep-down scares.  I also appreciate the conceit that this particular parasite is never explained.  We don't know what it is, where it came from, or why it is here.  Creepy.

2. The Invisibles. In a classic first season Outer Limits episode written by Joseph Stefano and directed by Conrad Hall, an undercover GIA agent, Spain (Don Gordon) attempts to infiltrate a secret and subversive society called the Invisibles.  

Once inside the secret community, Spain learns that the strange group is led by hideous alien invaders: horrible crab-like creatures that attach themselves to the human spine and totally control minds.  If the joining process goes wrong, humans are rendered deformed and nearly lobotomized.

Gordon attempts to warn government officials about the alien invasion in the offing, but the Invisibles are already onto him, and just waiting to absorb him into their ranks.  In an absolutely tense and suspenseful scene near the episode’s climax, a wounded, prone, Spain is unable to escape as a skittering, multi-legged Invisible dashes towards him, attempting to join with him.   He pulls himself along, screaming for help, as the thing, in the background, looms ever nearer.  The feeling of vulnerability, entrapment and terror generated in that image, and throughout “The Invisibles,” remains incredibly potent almost fifty years later.  Being joined with these huge, inhuman things is indeed a fate worse than death… 

1. Earwig.  We never actually see the parasite in the classic episode of Rod Serling's Night Gallery entitled "The Caterpillar," but we certainly learn all about it.

Here, a nasty civil servant, Stephen Macy (Laurence Harvey) covets a co-worker's wife (Joanna Pettet) and attempts to off her husband with a parasite called an earwig.  The murder scheme goes horribly wrong, however, when Stephen himself is exposed to the wee bug.

The earwig, you see, possesses a “decided liking” for the human ear. Once inside the ear canal, the odds of an earwig evacuating it are a thousand-to-one. They can’t turn around, and so instead keep plowing endlessly forward...burrowing into the brain and feeding on grey matter as they seek an escape route. The pain caused by these “stealthy chaps” is agonizing and horrible, and death is nearly always the result. Here, Macy undergoes agonizing pain as the earwig digs in. In fact, his hands must be bound to his bed-posts so he doesn’t claw his face apart in an attempt to get rid of the bug chewing a path through his brain.

By some miracle, Macy survives the ordeal, which he describes as an “agonizing, driving, itching pain,” and the earwig exits his ear.  Unfortunately, those two weeks are only the beginning of Hell for Mr. Macy.  He learns that the earwig was female and laid eggs inside his brain.  The larvae will hatch soon, and find a ready source of food: his brain,  Despite its lack of overt horrific visuals, "The Caterpillar" proves utterly disgusting and macabre in its suggestion of a fate worse than death: a perpetual itch you just can’t scratch.  

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...