Saturday, June 30, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #4: Cult TV on DVD?

A reader, “jf,” asks me: what TV series are not yet available in full on DVD that you’d like to see released?

That’s a good question, and here’s a partial list, off the top of my head. 

If anyone sees a title I’ve missed below, go ahead and add it in the comments. 

There are actually a lot of cult tv programs still unavailable commercially, even though we’ve had a renaissance of great “obscure television” releases lately (Ghost Story, Logan’s Run, and Starman among them).

From the 1960s:

The Green Hornet
The New People
One Step Beyond (Seasons Two and Three)
Captain Nice
Mr. Terrific
It’s About Time
Journey to the Center of the Earth (Filmation; 1967)
Fantastic Voyage (Filmation; 1968)

From the 1970s:

Salvage 1
Phoenix Five
The Amazing Spider-Man
Project UFO
The Fantastic Journey
The Immortal (Christopher George, not Lorenzo Lamas)
The Sixth Sense (some episodes available on streaming under title Night Gallery)
Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected (one episode available on VHS under title Force of Evil)
Mystery Island
Super Train (pilot episode available on VHS as Express to Terror)
The Evil Touch
Electra Woman and Dyna Girl
Future Cop

From the 1980s:

Beyond Westworld
Freddy’s Nightmares (a few episodes available on VHS, and on Region 2 DVD).
Monsters (handful of episodes available on VHS).
Hard Time on Planet Earth
Something is Out There
Once a Hero
Wizards and Warriors
The Phoenix
The Highwayman

From the 1990s:

Mann  and Machine
Beyond Reality (seasons two and three)
Strange World
Space Rangers
VR.5 (some volumes available on VHS).
Time Trax
Tekwar (first four episodes available on DVD).
Nightmare Café
Mercy Point
Strange Luck
The Visitor
The Burning Zone

From the 2000s:

Freaky Links
John Doe
The Others

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: "The Drought" (November 13, 1976)

In “The Drought,” the Ark II goes in search of a time capsule containing a pre-apocalypse “cloud seeder” to help avert a deadly drought in the nearby desert.  During the mission, Samuel programs the Ark II to run on voice control.  This proves a poor selection when the crew’s old nemesis, the scoundrel Fagon (Jonathan Harris) stages a trap for Jonah and steals the vehicle.

It turns out that Fagon and his gang of young “Flies” want the cloud seeder as well, and now, with Ark II, have the means to get it.  Unfortunately, Adam, Samuel and Ruth are all captured in the village of the time capsule by a primitive witch doctor who believes that the Rain God is angry with them.  He orders them to be sacrificed in “The Cave of No Return.” 

The young Flies want to help the kindly crew members, but Fagon refuses to join them.  Meanwhile, Jonah attempts to convince Fagon to give up possession of the high tech vehicle because “you can have everything in the world, but without anyone to share it with, you have nothing.”

Fagon helps to free the trapped crew members and show the witch-doctor the error of his ignorant ways. The Ark II continues on its mission, and this time, Samuel programs the vehicle to respond only to the voice commands of the vehicle’s crew.

Jonathan Harris guest stars here as the Ark II equivalent of Harry Mudd, a selfish, roguish man who proves a constant foil for the good-intentioned Ark II team.  What remains a little baffling about this episode is that Jonah and the others allow Fagon to attain a position of authority in the witch doctor’s community.  He promises to teach the villagers “irrigation” methods, but this is a variation of what he promised in “The Flies.”  There, he assured Jonah he would educate the wayward youngsters, but we see in this episode that he did no such thing.  

So why would Jonah trust him again now? 

There’s an old saying:  Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.  There’s every reason to suspect that Fagon will remain just as foolish and selfish in the future as he has been in the past.   This is hardly “mission accomplished” and the unsatisfactory conclusion of “The Drought” only points out again the kind of amorphous missions that the Ark II conducts.   The crew’s goals and rules are not always clear or carefully established.  Accordingly, it hardly seems like good procedure to leave the untrustworthy Fagon in charge of an important project.

In terms of Ark II technology, this episode introduces the “magnetic force beam” – a kind of tractor beam – that Fagon utilizes in order to steal the cloud seeder.  He gains the knowledge by using the Ark II’s technical manual…which looks a lot like a script book.

Next week: “The Wild Boy.”

Friday, June 29, 2012

Savage Friday: Straw Dogs (1971)

Last week, we started enunciating some of the themes that form the bedrock foundation of the “Savage Cinema” as I’ve been calling the sub-genre.  In short, what we found -- with several helpful and insightful reader comments along the way -- is a thesis that suggests a meditation on violence itself stands at the crux of this form. 

It isn’t so much that violence is featured on-screen, but that the application of said violence is the core issue of a savage film’s philosophical argument or debate. When people descend to violence in these films, there’s often something lost or re-considered in the fall, as we detected in Deliverance (1972).  

In other words, there’s usually some didactic or pro-social purpose for the extreme, taboo-violating violence in the Savage Cinema.

Today, we continue our study of the Savage Cinema with Sam Peckinpah’s incendiary 1971 film Straw Dogs, a brutal, edgy work of art that the late film critic Pauline Kael once termed “fascist.”  The film remains overtly controversial today -- even more so than the recent remake -- for its depiction of rape, traditional sex roles, the mob mentality, and character components that stereotypically imply manhood.

The last third of the film is a brutal, sustained, sharply-edited siege on a rural cottage.  In general, the siege (Night of the Living Dead [1968] Assault on Precinct 13 [1976]) is one of my all-time favorite horror movie scenarios, and here the siege pits a drunken mob of bullies and rapists against an analytical, geeky mathematician.

Guess who wins: brute strength or relentless smarts?

That central character dynamic and the final, unimpeachable action sequence represent two reasons I cherish Straw Dogs.  I also appreciate the film’s carefully constructed but oft misunderstood stance on violence.

As I see it, Straw Dogs concerns the idea that fighting for a belief is sometimes necessary…but never pretty or easy.  Violence doesn’t make for “heroes,” but rather affirms the necessity of civilization and laws in the first place.

I'll have an answer, or I'll have blood! 

American mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) and his wife Amy (George) rent a cottage in a remote English village where she was raised.  There, David works on a grant to study “possible structures” inside stars. 

When the greenhouse roof needs fixing, David hires Charlie Venner (Del Henney), Amy’s old boyfriend, to do the work…along with a rowdy group of locals.

While Charlie and his boys work at a snail’s pace on the roof repairs, they also gawk at Amy, and try to run David off a country road.  Then, the family cat turns up hanged in the master bedroom closet, and Amy begs David to confront the men. 

Possessing an analytical and calculating mind, David is slow to point fingers or hurl accusations.  Instead, he continues to collate data, and ingratiates himself with Charlie and the men.  Amy thinks David is a coward pure and simple, and comes to despise him.

When David goes out on a hunting trip with Charlie’s boys, Charlie sneaks back to the cottage and rapes Amy. She protests his sexual aggression, but her protests turn to terror when the other men also show up, and want in on the action.  David arrives home, but Amy doesn’t tell him what’s happened.

Soon after the gang rape, Henry Niles (David Warner) – a local simpleton – accidentally murders a girl named Janice (Sally Thomsett).  When David accidentally hits Henry with his car, he brings the injured man back to the cottage and tends to his wounds. 

But before long a lynch mob led by Charlie Venner shows up at David’s door, demanding he hand Niles over. 

Realizing that they intend to kill him, David decides to protect his home…over Amy’s objections.

I don't know my way home.

Writing of Straw Dogs, Pauline Kael wrote: “The subject of Straw Dogs is machismo.  It has been the obsession behind most of Peckinpah’s films; now it is out in the open…The setting, music, and the people are deliberately disquieting…the goal of the movie is to demonstrate that David enjoys the killing, and achieves his manhood in that self-recognition.” (New Yorker, January 29, 1972, pages 80–85).

I suggest this is a faulty reading of the film. Late in Straw Dogs, there are two instances wherein it is established visually -- and rather definitively -- that David is sickened by violence. 

In the first instance, he is out hunting, and shoots a bird.  After he pulls the trigger, the bird falls from the sky, and we see David’s saddened reaction as he approaches the animal.  He’s clearly sickened by what he’s done. 

In the second scene, David battles the diabolical Ratman in his house. David beats him with a fireplace poker, and when the act is done, he looks as though he wants to vomit.  Again, David doesn’t enjoy killing.

Instead, David’s manhood is actually asserted in another way, as I hope this review will demonstrate.

Reviewing the movie for Film Quarterly, William Johnson suggested another interpretation of Straw Dogs: On the one hand, he does not equate violence with heroism…On the other hand Peckinpah does not equate violence with villainy by implying that it could and should have been avoided.  Peckinpah is not concerned with putting labels of right or wrong on the violent actions and reactions in the film.  Here, as in his earlier films, he is focusing on the tension between the individual and the disintegrating forces of society.” (Film Quarterly, 1972, pages 61–64).

The disintegrating forces of society” is one elegant way of describing the failure of law enforcement, organized religion, parents, and other societal elements to raise men of decency and compassion, and to protect the common good.  In the film, the constable, the bartender, the local reverend and other forces continually fail to “check” the mob as it grows ever more unruly.  As a consequence, many of the locals live in a constant state of fear and anxiety.

David finally acts violently because an angry mob comes to his door and will not leave unless he accepts the mob’s dominance.  Mob rule is little better than the law of the jungle, and David has the intellect to understand that fact. So he does something about it.

Straw Dogs is a film I’ve watched several times, and each time I come away from a viewing with the sense that two distinct brands of violence are practiced in the film.

One kind of violence is invasive and selfish.  It involves burglary, rape, home invasion, and attempted murder.  These crimes are broached out of aggression, anger and the desire to take something, to steal something of value. 

Wrapped up in this violence are feelings such as fear, jealousy, rage, inferiority and the need for control.  The men in the village fear “the other,” and that’s how they see David.  He is merely “the American” and they “take care of their own,” as they say.  Charlie and the mob thus believe David has “no business” interfering in their brand of justice, and no business marrying Amy, either.

The second brand of violence featured in the film is quite different.  It is the violence that a desperate man resorts to not out of self-defense, but out of the recognition that if he is to remain civilized – that is, to live in a civilized society – it is up to him to defend the weak from an angry mob.

Encoded in David’s use of violence is the all-important quality of empathy.   He realizes that since he hurt Henry (in a car accident), he has a responsibility and duty to take care of him until he can get him to a hospital.

So in a very real way, Straw Dogs isn’t about a man’s breaking point as the tag-line for the remake suggests; but rather about a man’s personal rallying point: that individual place where he realizes he’s not immune or separate from a world of violence, but will certainly be complicit in it if he doesn’t stand up to defend himself, his home, and his ward.

I should probably add, lest I be said to incite violence myself, that Straw Dogs doesn’t concern abstract concepts such as ideological tyranny or freedom in the face of a Supreme Court decision you happen to disagree with.  It’s not about standing your ground when you think, maybe, perhaps, you could possibly be in danger.  The film isn’t a justification of violence in those senses.

Rather, it’s about the idea that if a mob shows up at your door to kill someone, you have the right and responsibility as a civilized person to prevent that act.   

And where Ed in Deliverance could not live with the violence he saw on the river, David Sumner in Straw Dogs reaches a new summit of understanding about himself.  He learns he has the capacity to commit to something.  This is important self-knowledge.  He left America during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War because he did not want to commit to a fight.  Here, he a fight comes to him, and he commits to it.  

Amy’s self-discovery is less self-affirming.  She finds that her family/town-of-origin issues are deeper than she imagined, and that though she has adopted the forms and symbols of the counter-culture (going bra-less, for instance), she has not been able to actually change her parochial mind-set or belief system. 

When push comes to shove, she falls back in with the herd she once sought to escape.  When she feels endangered, Amy turns to a physically-strong man, Charlie, rather than intellectually-strong man, her own husband, for protection.  She stills buy into the myth that to be a man is to be a bully, a physically-aggressive, violent bully. Amy can’t escape the beliefs she grew up with, even though she fancies herself “liberated” and “modern.”

Ultimately, Straw Dogs makes a case that David – despite all of his character flaws – is superior to Amy because, for all his flaws, he finally demonstrates the aforementioned quality of empathy. When David takes care of Niles, the village idiot, he notes that the locals must be worried about the missing Janice.  “I know how I’d feel if I had a daughter missing,” he says with a sense of mercy and fairness.  But it is also important to him that Niles – a simpleton – is not murdered in a fit of drunken mob violence.

David tells Amy that the mob will “beat” Niles to death, and her response is “I don’t care,” which reveals that Amy is the real coward here, not David.  His response is that he “does care” and that he is not going to hand over someone to be killed.   .

This is where I live,” he tells Amy.  “This is me.  I will not allow violence against this house.”  Here, the conscientious objector to the Vietnam War finds a cause for personal courage, a cause that matters to him. 

The question in terms of Straw Dogs and violence is: does the film advocate murder?  Does it advocate revenge and violence?  My answer is that it does not.   At the end of the film, David declares – with a crooked grin – that he doesn’t know his “way home.” 

This is the case not because he has been violent; but because he’s achieved self-knowledge that has changed 
everything.  Until he committed to a cause, he lived by the precept that he couldn’t commit to a cause.  His new self-awareness changes that.  

If one can look past the violence in the film, Straw Dogs can be seen as a battle in which civilization beats back brutality, and in which intelligence beats back animal behavior. Finally, for David Sumner, “there’s nowhere else to hide,” and so he must reckon with himself.  His self-discovery comes through committing to a cause, however, not through violence.

(Savage) Movie Trailer: Straw Dogs (1971)

Cult Movie Wisdom of the Week: Straw Dogs (1971)

"...after all, there's never been a kingdom given to so much bloodshed as that of Christ."

- David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) gets provocative with a local reverend in Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs (1971). 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

By All Means, Fear the Reaper: Five Horror Movie Songs That Should Send You Running

Often when we think of horror films or horror TV programs, we think of the terrifying imagery first.  And yet, over the years, some popular music has become virtually inseparable from the horror genre experience too. 

These widely-remembered songs have come – for many of us -- to be synonymous with their memorable horror associations.  Therefore, when you hear these compositions on the radio as you’re driving to work, you don’t think “that’s my favorite song!” Instead, you think “uh oh, here comes trouble.”

Better watch out…

Without further prologue, here are five pop culture tunes that, if they appear in a horror flick, portend lot of trouble. 

So turn up the volume, sure.  But check those mirrors, watch that traffic, and steer clear of any Plymouth 1957 Fury…

1. “The Hokey Pokey.”   This weirdly catchy and child-like dance song boasts a strange history.  Some trace the composition back to London in the 1940s, during wartime.  But other scholars have suggested it actually arises from a song written by sisters in Bridgewater, New Hampshire, in 1857.

There are even some who assert “The Hokey Pokey” goes back to the 17th story and suggest that the titular term “Hokey Pokey” refers, in fact, to the magic words “hocus pocus,” thus branding the song with a kind of hidden horror context to begin with.

In the horror genre,” The Hokey Pokey” has been conjured up in at least two important settings.  In Ole Bornedal’s Nightwatch (1998) -- a remake of the Danish film Nattevagten (1994) -- the monstrous serial killer plays the “The Hokey Pokey” at all of his bloody crime scenes.

In terms more relevant to the “hocus pocus” incantation, “The Hokey Pokey” also appears in the fifth season episode of The X-Files by Stephen King, titled “Chinga.”  That episode is set in the northeast (though in Maine, not New Hampshire) and involves a malevolent doll given life by ancient witchcraft.  “The Hokey Pokey” is that doll’s theme song of sorts…always playing when the doll is about to strike. 

2. “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” This 1976 Blue Oyster Cult hit from the album Agents of Fortune, explicitly concerns death, but also a love affair that transcends mortality and lasts in “eternity,” just like Romeo and Juliet’s.  The song played in the background of John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), a film about a reaper of sorts, The Shape, and in the 2007 remake by Rob Zombie. 

The tragic love affair angle of the song came to the forefront in the ballad-styled rendition of “Don’t Fear the Reaper” that played over a scene between Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) and Billy Loomis (Skeet Ulrich) in Wes Craven’s Scream (1996).  The same year, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” closed the Peter Jackson film The Frighteners, a film about a ghostly reaper figure.

On television, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” appeared in the mini-series adaptation of The Stand (1994) starring Molly Ringwald, and in episodes of Smallville (“Precipice” in 2003) and Supernatural (“Faith” in 2006).

Most recently, “Don’t Fear the Reaper” was resurrected for Zombieland (2009).

3. “Mr. Sandman.” This song by Pat Bullard and The Chordettes first premiered in 1954, but has since become something of a horror movie and television standard. 

Again, there’s a connection in the song to horror to begin with.  The Sandman is a mythological figure who can bring good dreams by sprinkling magical sand into the eyes of slumbering kids.  This kindly spirit, featured in Hans Christian Anderson’s Ole Lukoje, was inverted and made malevolent in Der Sandmann (1816), a short story by E.T.A Hoffman.  There, the Sandman would collect the eyes of children who refused to settle down for a good night’s sleep.

In horror movies, “Mr. Sandman” became the unofficial love song between Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and The Shape, Michael Myers.  The connection began when the song appeared in the first sequel Halloween II (1981), but the song was reprised – briefly – in Halloween: H20 (1998).  “Mr. Sandman” works so well with the Halloween saga because many film critics have speculated that the monstrous Michael is actually a projection of Laurie’s sexually-repressed id.  So therefore, Sandman does bring Laurie a dream…a rather horrible one, in the form of Michael.

On television, “Mr. Sandman” has appeared on the incredibly awesome adaptation of Ghostbusters called The Real Ghostbusters (1985).  My five-year oldson is watching this series right now, and in one first season episode, “Mr. Sandman, Dream me a Dream,” the song plays alongside a manifestation of the mythological monster. 

“Mr. Sandman” is also reprised in the TV series version of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone in “Wheel of Fortune,” and once in the supernatural series Charmed (1998 – 2006).

4. “Jeepers Creepers.”  Like the other songs featured on this list, even the title of this composition -- which includes the word “Creepers” -- sounds frightening. 

“Jeepers Creepers” was written by Harry Warren with lyrics by Johnny Mercer, in the year 1938.  In 2001, Victor Salva created a terrifying horror franchise around the tune with the film, Jeepers Creepers, which involved a monstrous demon, “The Creeper,” devouring the organs of various unlucky victims.  One unlucky victim, Derry, had his eyes eaten and then assimilated by the Creeper, which fit in perfectly with the lyric “where’d you get those eyes?”

The song recurred in Jeepers Creepers 2 (2003), and was also heard briefly in the time travel episode of The X-Files: “Triangle,” in 1998.

5. “Bad to the Bone.”  This tune by George Thorogood and the Destroyers will live forever (just like rock and roll) in my memory as the tune which introduced the killer car in Stephen King’s Christine (1983). 

In that film’s prologue, audiences witnessed the birth of malicious Christine – a Plymouth Fury – on a factory assembly line.  In short order, this car -- born bad to the bone – claimed its first hapless victim.

More recently, “Bad to the Bone” introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger’s cyborg from the future in James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  Here the use of the song was more comical than creepy, though in 1991 we still associated the Schwarzenegger character with the villain in the previous outing.

“Bad to the Bone” also appeared in the 1983 horror film Slayground, for those who remember it.

Finally, there are at least two runner-ups on this list that deserve a mention too.

The first is John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” which is the theme song of Death Himself in Final Destination (2000) and reprised in Final Destination 2 (2003).  Released in 1972, the creepy aspect of the song is the real life context: Denver had died in a plane crash in 1997, and Final Destination’s narrative revolved, likewise, around a plane crash.   To this day, I won’t get anywhere near a plane if I hear this Denver song…

And then there’s “Wonderful! Wonderful!,” a tune from a 1957 album by Johnny Mathis.  This tune was revived with incredibly creepy results for gory The X-Files fourth season episode “Home.”  There, the song became the creepy theme for the inbred Peacocks, and was a harbinger for their presence.

You hear that song – like so many others in this list – and you don’t second guess.  You run like Hell!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #3: Nowhere Man (1995 - 1996)?

 Reader Adam Hancock writes:

First of all, thank you for the thoughtful analysis and engaging writing you consistently provide on your blog.  I’ve been following your blog for a couple years now and you have effectively changed the way I watch movies: I no longer passively watch them, but actively engage with them as I try to figure out the underlying themes communicated by the form and style.

I’m excited about the new ‘Ask JKM a Question feature’ as I’ve had a question bouncing around in my head for a while.  I was born in the eighties and so 90s television has great nostalgic value for me.  

Oddly enough, my favorite show of the 90s was Nowhere Man.  I’ve picked up the show on DVD and still enjoy many of the episodes there.  However it was canceled after only one season, and seems to have been largely ignored.  What is your assessment of the show?  I’m curious to see if I’m blindsided by nostalgia here.”

Adam, I want to thank you for your comments about my blog and my writing.  They really made my day. It’s always good to read that others are enjoying and appreciating one’s work. 

Regarding Nowhere Man (1995 – 1996), I remember that TV series fondly, though I have not seen an episode in over a decade.  It starred the always-great Bruce Greenwood as photographer Thomas Veil, and Nowhere Man aired on UPN Monday nights at 9:00, right after Star Trek: Voyager during that program’s first season, if memory serves. 

Created and developed by Lawrence Hertzog, Nowhere Man ran for twenty-five hour long episodes and was a paranoiac’s dream.  As I recall the set-up, Veil’s life was “erased” in the premiere episode (“Absolute Zero”) by a shadowy conspiracy because he publicly revealed a top-secret photograph called “Hidden Agenda.”  Even Veil’s wife, Alyson, (played by Millennium’s Megan Gallagher) claimed not to know him.

Essentially, the poor man was cast adrift in the world, and the only clue he had regarding his total erasure was the negative of that important photo.   But Thomas soon found out he was up against the sinister cabal known as “The Organization.”

I remember, at the time, appreciating Nowhere Man’s oblique connections to another favorite paranoia trip, The Prisoner (1967).  There, the prisoner, Number Six (Patrick McGoohan), was trapped in that bizarre European "village" for spies and ex-spies; but here Veil (as in lifting the veil...) found himself in an information age trap where the prison was the global village itself.  Also, Nowhere Man featured some elements of “man on the run” programs such as The Fugitive, or perhaps more aptly, The Immortal (1970 – 1971).  

I also recall that the episodes were mostly very-well done and anxiety-provoking thanks to accomplished directors such as Tobe Hooper (“Turnabout,” “the Incredible Derek) and Thomas J. Wright (“Paradise on Your Doorstep,” The Spider Webb.”)  I also seem to remember that the final episode (“Gemini”) resolved Thomas’s crisis in a completely surprising and unexpected fashion.

Roger Fulton and John Betancourt described Nowhere Man as “a passionate defense of the individual in the face of overwhelming odds,” (The Sci-Fi Channel Encyclopedia of TV Science Fiction; Warner Books, New York, 1997, page 304), and that astute observation squares with my memory.

In terms of context, Nowhere Man arises out of that amazing time when network television kept attempting to ape the success of The X-Files (aliens + conspiracies + monsters).  What remains so cool about this span in TV history is that many shows inspired by the success of Chris Carter’s X-Files were actually quite good in their own right, in part because they focused narrowly on just one element of the X-Files equation.  I admired Dark Skies (1996), Prey (1998), Nowhere Man (1995) and Strange World (1999), and was intrigued by Sleepwalkers (1997).  Probably the worst of the bunch was The Burning Zone (1997), the UPN “disease of the week” series that replaced Nowhere Man.

The truth is, Adam, I’d love to watch Nowhere Man in its entirety again.  I was not aware that the series had been released on DVD.  Apparently I missed it, and the set came out in 2006.  Now it is out of print.   One way or another, I’ll get my hands on the series, and write up a cult-tv flashback about it.

Because I haven’t seen the series in so many years, I don’t feel I can adequately or accurately answer your question about whether nostalgia is clouding your critical judgment. I really liked the series a great deal back in 1995.  I also remember that the reviews were mostly very positive. 

So, if you’re suffering from nostalgia about the series, I’d say I’m likely infected with the same malady because all my memories are good.

I hope I’ll get you a better answer soon.  (I’ll start haunting E-Bay for the series on DVD…) because, frankly, I’d love to watch it from start to finish all over again.

Pop Art: Powys Space:1999 Edition

Collectible of the Week: Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise Action Playset (1975; Mego)

I've featured other 1970s Mego playsets here on the blog (from Flash Gordon, Planet of the Apes and The Wizard of Oz to name a few...), but this Star Trek U.S.S. Enterprise "Action Playset" was the toy of choice for a generation of Trekkie kids.

This mock-up of the U.S.S. Enterprise interior (bridge and transporter room) was a "giant, 24" long command center," "with captain's chair, console, two stools" plus six interchangeable "viewscreen scenes."  The set comfortably housed all the Mego Star Trek figures of the era, and, while not very show accurate in terms of design, was nonetheless a great home base for any Starfleet crew.

The coolest aspect of this famous Mego toy, no doubt, is the spinning transporter chamber.  You could place a landing party team member inside the chamber, spin a blue wheel, and then hit a red button to beam him down (to the outside of the playset....  Another spin and a touch of the green button would bring him back aboard.  Meanwhile, the yellow zig-zag/checkerboard details made it appear as if the crewman's atoms were actually spinning madly about. 

It sounds incredibly simple, but this toy feature is really captivating.  My son Joel is not yet a devoted Star Trek fan, but he loves to play with the transporter chamber on this Mego collectible. 

I remember lots of good times playing with this particular toy as a boy.  I still have my original playset, which also features a handle and the capacity to fold up for mobile play.  My old one is all ripped up, however, so last year for Christmas I purchased this "repro" of the playset from Diamond Select.  All my photos here are of that re-do of the classic toy.

I must have cherished this Mego playset as my favorite of all toys...until in 1976 Mattel released the three-foot long Eagle Transporter toy from Space: 1999, perhaps my favorite collectible ever.

Below, you can check out a 1975 commercial for the Mego U.S.S. Enterprise action playset, featuring the transporter and other features in all their glory...

Game Board of the Week: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (Milton Bradley; 1979))

Hatched from a Mutual Zygote: Prometheus Island Edition

(Suggested, with imagery, from The Sci Fi Fanatic)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #2: Timeslip?

Reader Christopher Kewley asks:

"Have you seen the 70's childrens British television show Timeslip? (If not, I think you probably would like it, as you like a lot of 60's/70's TV Science Fiction.)"

Chris, I have read about -- but had not watched -- Timeslip.

For those who may not be familiar with the series, Timeslip aired in Britain on ITV in 1970 and 1971. 

Created by James and Ruth Boswell, the program involved two children, Simon and Cheryl, who discovered a phenomenon -- an anomaly --  that permits them to travel through time, to alternate futures and pasts.  The series consisted of four multi-part serials.

Given the positive critical reception -- the series achieved “top 50” status on both SFX and Dreamwatch lists of best all-time sci-fi series --  Timeslip sounds like a provocative program that one indeed right up my alley, as you say, since I love and cherish 1970s British sci-fi TV (UFO [1970] Space: 1999 [1975-1977], Survivors [1975], Blake's 7 [1978 - 1981], and Sapphire and Steel [1978 – 1981] to name a few). 

Because you asked about it, I’ll watch the series soon, and either blog the whole thing, or write up a flashback on the topic.

Thanks for the question, Christopher, and I hope you’ll stick around to read what I think of the show.  I'm looking forward to watching it, and the DVDs are already on the way...

Ask JKM a Question #1: Why don’t I *hate* Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace?

This morning, I’m commencing a new-style post that will be informed and shaped by you, the stalwart and thoughtful readers of this blog.  

Ask JKM a Question” will allow you to decide -- at least some -- the content and shape of our online movie or TV conversation week-to-week, so I hope you’ll contribute.  

If you feel inclined or interested, e-mail me a question at my business e-mail,, and let me know in your correspondence if I can use your real name in the posted response.  Title your question “Ask JKM a Question” and then fire it off.  I would prefer you use a real name in the post, and I reserve the right not to post anonymous questions if they are out-of-line.

Pretty much any topic is fair game.  Ask me about a review I wrote, a movie, a TV show, my books, writing, publishing, The House Between, or collecting.  It’s your ball.

I'll start us off today with an e-mail question I actually received this weekend.

This particular reader sent me an e-mail that said -- now paraphrased to omit overt snark -- “Given the widespread critical condemnation and hatred for Star Wars Episode I, why don't you hate it?"

Okay, then: The Phantom Menace (1999).  It's not a favorite film, or anything like that.  But it's true, I did write it a positive review in my Star Wars blogging series way back in 2005.

Here is the quality I appreciate most about the film, and which I believe makes it a better -- or at least far more intriguing -- effort than some fans suggest:

The film's Art Direction and Production Design tell the story.  They convey the meaning behind The Phantom Menace in visual terms.  Thus, style and form reflect thematic content.

The Phantom Menace is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But it is actually a film about life here on Earth in the early twentieth century, particularly the so-called “Inter-Bellum” or “Inter-War” period between 1918 and 1939.

This was a gilded age of Art-Deco-styled architecture and design, and apparent peace and prosperity in America. Yet if you remember from history what came next, economic ruin was on the horizon, racism still thrived, and the “phantom menace” of Fascism and tyranny lurked in the shadows.  

Through carefully-crafted, beautifully-rendered imagery, The Phantom Menace recreates this very age, but on other planets, and in another time.  We’re all familiar with the lived-in look of Star Wars (1977) where the universe is kind of…junked.  But by important contrast, The Phantom Menace is set at the apex of the Galactic Republic, an epoch of riches and wonders, a span when even the finned, chrome spaceships reflect the glory of an advanced civilization at its pinnacle.  

And yet, of course, it is not a perfect Republic, is it?  Slavery still thrives in far corners of the galaxy, and even the noble Jedi Knights turn a blind eye towards this corrupt institution.  And on the rise is wily Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), a man who will deceive the unsuspected advanced society to achieve a completely despotic, totalitarian state.

In short, The Phantom Menace’s story is a perfect metaphor for the lead-up to World War II and the global fight against fascism in Europe.  Accordingly, the rich imagery in the film explicitly recalls this battle of civilizations.  Consider just for a moment the scenes set on the planet Naboo, a kind of quasi-European state in another solar system.

At least twice in the film, we spy a building in the capital city of Naboo that resembles the Arc De Triomphe (or Arc of Triumph) in France.  In 1940, Nazi troops invaded Paris, and marched the pavement of the Champs-Elysees as a sign of strength and domination.  In 1944, the Allies liberated the nation from Hitler’s troops, and on this occasion there was a parade of victory and freedom at the Arc de Triomphe.

The Phantom Menace features two similar moments at an Arc-like structure, once at the commencement of the Droid Army/Trade Federation occupation and then again after their expulsion, during a celebration or parade. If you gaze closely at the imagery, it’s impossible to deny the significance of these visual allusions or comparisons. 

If Naboo represents a foreign nation endangered by the outer space equivalent of an Axis power, then Coruscant clearly represents New York City of the same age...a popping hub of culture, diversity, and freedom.  As you may recall, Coruscant is a planet-wide metropolis, a city beyond all others.  This urban city-scape stretches to the horizon, and nearly right to the cusp of space itself.  In appearance and style, Coruscant conforms perfectly to the Italian architectural style of “Futurism” popular during the 1930s.  In fact, the Futuristic aesthetic -- an always-growing city upon a city upon a city – was in some corners considered a coded critique of Fascism, and that’s an idea visually reflected by the depiction of the Republic’s capital.

And yet, by the same token, Futurism is seen as stylistically compatible with Art Deco, a school of design often considered “purely decorative." It therefore represents the art of a people very satisfied with the social status quo.  The form is important for itself (for aesthetics), not for the social message behind it. This description not only describes Coruscant aptly, but her satisfied people. They don’t perceive the “phantom menace” in their midst, nor the threat to their very liberty.  They're too busy enjoying a time of peace and prosperity.

So this is Lucas’s selected thematic terrain: a metaphor in a galaxy far, far away comparing the last epoch of the Republic to the Inter-Bellum period on Earth.  But then Lucas stretches his comparison a step further and connects that period in Earth history and in the Star Wars universe to the period in which the film was actually made, the 1990sThe Phantom Menace was released at the end of the Roaring Nineties, a period of genuine peace and prosperity in the U.S., and a time – we now know – before the gathering storm of the War on Terror.  Lucas was prophetic in describing how American politics would soon change to face a grave and gathering threat. In Lucas's vision,  Supreme Chancellor Valorum (Terence Stamp) -- a name which features the same number of letters as Clinton -- would see his leadership and plans for governance stamped out by pervasive accusations of “scandal” from his political enemies and the enemies of progress.   Accordingly, Valorum is impeached by the bureaucratic Senate when a vote of no-confidence is held.  That's what happened to Clinton too.  We were all focused intently on his scandals, and the very public investigation of those scandals, while overseas, terror grew...

And, of course -- as I’ve written before -- one important though subordinate villain's name in this film is Nute Gunray.  Nute = Newt (Gingrich), the leader of the Republican opposition during Clinton’s Presidency.  And Gunray = Ray Gun = Reagan.   So a villain here is Newt Reagan, essentially. You needn't agree with Lucas’s viewpoint or political slant to acknowledge that such an undercurrent is present.  And I'm not arguing that Lucas is either right or wrong in his statement, either.  I'm merely noting the existence of the pointed social critique.  As further evidence, I note that the social commentary in Phantom Menace as I've spelled it out in this essay is consistent with Anakin’s 2005 Bush-esque declaration in Revenge of the Sith that “Either you’re with me, or you’re my enemy.” 

Regarding the film's other lush visuals, I also wrote in my 2005 review that "The Phantom Menace shows us a Tatooine that is not unlike Humphrey Bogart's Casablanca, a meeting place and trading square for different alien races with varied motivations; where a criminal underbelly operates. But more to the point, I believe that the Pod Race is a direct allusion to William Wyler's Ben Hur (1959), and in particular, the central set-piece: a chariot race. Here, Lucas has co-opted the spectacular imagery of a well-attended race, but colored it with a technological sheen, to update a classic Hollywood movie moment. And notice too that both movies are overtly religious in nature."

So why don't I "hate" The Phantom Menace?  My most important critical requirement for any film is that form must in some fashion reflect content. Imagery should buttress, reflect, or augment our understanding of the story presented. A good film can’t merely carry deeper meaning around on a character’s tongue…or else the movie becomes radio with pictures.  And yet surprisingly few films these days effectively manage this (I think, necessary) feat; to truly deploy visuals in a manner that makes pictures convey thematic meaning. 

The Phantom Menace succeeds admirably in this particular aspect of its tapestry.  The images convey important thematic information about the film’s narrative, and how we should interpret that narrative. In other words, the visuals reinforce the comparison the director wants to make, the point he wishes to transmit.

At the very least, I believe that George Lucas embarked on a complex and ambitious visual aesthetic in this first prequel.  He makes the images of his fictional world connect to a time of apparent peace and prosperity (but phantom danger) in our past, and then makes modern audiences understand that we were at a similar juncture in the 1990s.  Were our eyes open to the "Phantom Menace" back then, or were we turned inward, mired in accusations of scandal and corruption?  If you consider the decade 2001 - 2010, I think you'll have your answer.

The rather unfortunate yang to this yin, however, is also encoded, at least partially in the films visuals.  Many character designs, voices, and characteristics in The Phantom Menace appear, in fact, based on racist stereotypes that existed and flourished in the Inter-War period. 

Watto the money-grubbing Toydarian with his hook-nose is an amalgamation of the offensive “money mad” Jewish stereotype. 

The Trade Federation representatives like the Viceroy speak pigeon English and have – literally – slants in their eyes.  They thus serve as the embodiment of negative stereotypes about the Japanese. 

And finally, the much hated Jar-Jar Binks with his Stepin Fetchit, “Feet-Don’t-Fail-Me-Now” routine is alarmingly representative of the prevailing caricatures of black men in the media of the same, between-wars age.

I’m not yet convinced that there’s an entirely worthwhile point in creating a universe in which characters apparently conform to offensive stereotypes from the Inter-War period.  While it’s true that these characters also hark back explicitly to that specific period on Earth and thus sub-textually remind viewers of that time, I’m not certain that’s a strong enough motivation to revive racist imagery. In this case, it's possible that Lucas overreached, or that his artistic conceit flat out failed.

I would very much prefer to believe that Lucas’s depiction of such “ethnic” characters in The Phantom Menace points out, again, that The Galactic Republic is not really the Utopian paradise of equality that many believe it is.  Not only is slavery present in some corners, but certain “pathetic” life forms (to quote Obi-Wan directly) are looked down up, explicitly…even by the Jedi.   Perhaps this is the reason the Republic falls.  There’s some level of hypocrisy and arrogance there.  Also, at least in terms of Jar-Jar and the Gungans, there seems to be a positive message underneath the racist-seeming stereotypes.  The Gungans are derided as primitive goofballs by everyone until they mount an army that saves Naboo from tyranny.  In this case, the pre-existing prejudice is proven wrong.  I wish I had a pro-social explanation for the role that Watto or the Viceroy play in the proceedings.

So is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace the film I hoped it would be, on the eve of its release?  Not exactly. The film is poorly paced, and Jar-Jar's biggest problem is not that he's an annoying boob, but rather that the CGI artists who created him feel, for some reason, that they must show off, making him catapult and dive like a cartoon superhero when he should move a lot more...subtly.  Were he bound more directly to forces such as gravity, he might have seemed more acceptable.  And yes, some of the film's dialogue is incredibly wooden.  On the plus side, I'd argue that the final light saber duel against Darth Maul is the greatest and most impressive such battle in the franchise, and that Liam Neeson projects enormous dignity and grace throughout the film as Qui-Gon Jinn. Overall, I'd say he's the most likable Jedi Knight in the saga.

From the vantage point of a dozen years later, there is ample opportunity to gaze at the film again now, only without all the original expectations and pre-conceived notions that once surrounded it.  There's the chance to consider what the film does well, in addition to those many things it admittedly does poorly.  Given that rubric, I can discern, as I hope you might, that  – warts and allThe Phantom Menace possesses more than a modicum of artistic merit.  That's why I have no hate in my heart for this prequel.  After all, as disappointed fans have proven for a decade, hate only leads to suffering.  And we know where suffering leads, right?

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