Sunday, September 30, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #36: Separate the Art from the Artist?

A reader named John writes:

“I enjoy reading your Blog and also own your Terror Television and 3 "Horror Films Of..." books and wanted to get your thoughts regarding separating the art from the artist.”

“Specifically I'm referring to when an actor or filmmaker is guilty of crimes in real life, and if you have any reservations when it comes to evaluating their films, or if such a thing has any impact at all.”

“Watching the Jeepers Creepers Blu-Ray and the special features I could not completely get writer-director Victor Salva's past out of my head.  

Likewise I know when I view the forthcoming BR of Rosemary's Baby I will not be able to completely ignore Polanski's troubles.  Watching The Naked Gun movies proves uncomfortable anytime OJ shows up.  One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, "Walking Distance" has been forever tainted since I learned of Gig Young killing his bride and them himself.  Certainly there are more examples.  And I know some friends of mine refuse to watch movies of artists guilty of certain crimes.  

But I cannot fathom never watching Rosemary's Baby or Chinatown again.  As someone who has seen as many films as you have I was curious as to how you deal with this from a critical perspective.

That is an important question, John.

For me, personally and professionally, my gut-check position on this issue begins with the words of St. Augustine: “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”   Maybe I should translate that to appreciate the art, but forgive the artist and remember that he or she is a human being.

Of course, we can gaze at the acts of a certain artist and choose not to support his or her work based on immoral or illegal actions.  But I tend not to think on those terms.  We can condemn the behavior, but also forgive, and also continue to enjoy and analyze the work of that artist.

My opinion is that every single person on Earth has a skeleton or two in the closet.  Everyone has strayed from the path of moral rectitude at one point or another.  Scratch the surface and we can probably find something in everyone’s past that we don’t agree with or like.

We can watch the movies or read the books of  these artists and indeed assess their morality from afar, but we can’t know the exact details or the exact sequence of events, or how the person feels about what happened.  

So we’re judging them on incomplete information.

Therefore,  I think it behooves us to reserve judgment and move on.

If a man has committed a crime -- even a loathsome one – but has also paid his debt to society, I do think forgiveness is something we must deeply consider.  We may not want to hang out with the artist, but considering or weighing the artistry of a film isn’t about hanging out with the artist.

If we condemn others without knowing the facts, or we fail to consider how a person has paid for his grievous misstep then we are ignoring, to a certain extent, the possibility of redemption.

And I believe very much in redemption. 

I think it is the very thing that makes day-to-day life possible…and bearable.  It’s the idea that “I screwed up royally today, but tomorrow I get a chance to do better, to seek forgiveness and, through good deeds, re-balance the scales.”

But to your point about movies: I fear we would lose a lot of great art indeed if we had to weigh each production by the personal histories of every talent involved. 

Movies are a collaborative art form, so how far should we carry our judgment?  Should we disqualify a movie because the second unit director got three speeding tickets?  Because Man on Line #4 peddled drugs when he was eighteen?

What if a director smokes pot (currently an illegal act) on a daily basis?  Do we stop watching and enjoying his films?   What if a famous TV star committed suicide because he was grievously unhappy in his life?  What if a beloved actor cheated on his taxes?  Do those facts ruin or mitigate the artistry of the program or films in which these talents participated?

Instead of judging from a distance, we can sympathize with a person’s humanity and and continue to experience the art work as it was meant to be experienced, remembering that everyone is fallible.

The point that so many people fail to consider here is that great art often emerges from both the angels and the demons of our nature. We all possess those angels and demons, but in different proportions and with varying levels of control.  We need both of them, I wager, to speak meaningfully about the human condition.  I don’t condone criminal activity, of course, but it’s a fact of human life, at least at this stage in our history.

So do I consider the artist’s personal behavior when critically evaluating a movie? 

Not usually.  I mean, why impose a memory of what Gig Young did on a viewing of “Walking Distance,” which was written and directed by other talents, and was made before he committed that act? 

Why look at Edward Platt’s wonderfully-exasperated performances as The Chief in Get Smart and hold his eventual suicide against him?

Victor Salva made Jeepers Creepers (2001) after he served his jail sentence and paid his debt to society.

So if the behavior is actually relevant to the movie's theme, sure, it's interesting and perhaps worth considering and mentioning in a review.  But if not, spare judgment, forgive, and remember that we all seek and need redemption.  Take the work of art on its own terms instead.  How is the story told?  How does the imagery support the theme?  What does the film tell you about the human experience?

I leave the judging to someone who's perfect.

Terrific question, John, and I appreciate you asking it.

Don’t forget, ask me a question at

Cult-TV Blogging: Circle of Fear: "Legion of Demons" (February 2, 1973)

Devil worshippers and witches were big players in the horror productions of the 1970s, thanks in part to films such as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Asylum of Satan (1971), Brotherhood of Satan (1971), Race with the Devil (1975), The Devil’s Rain (1975) and The Omen (1976).  

This week’s episode of the horror anthology Circle of Fear (1973), capitalizes on this trend with the deeply creepy, occult-centric pisode titled “Legion of Demons.”

Written by Anthony Lawrence, “Legion of Demons” concerns a naïve young woman from the country, Beth (Shirley Knight), who -- at the urging of her friend, Janet (Kathryn Hays) -- leaves her small town home and goes to work in the big city, in L.A.  There, Beth joins Janet on the job in a skyscraper office building, working as a secretary. 

But one day, after a meeting with the office manager, Mary (Neva Patterson) and other employees, Janet disappears without a trace.

Shirley begins to experience terrifying dreams involving Janet, and feels increasingly uncomfortable as Mary and the other employees on the thirteenth floor urge her to replace Beth there. 

Soon, Shirley discovers the dark truth.  Mary and the others are part of a Satan-worshipping coven, and Janet has not been killed…she’s actually the head witch!

It isn’t much of a stretch to see that “Legion of Demons” is actually a (fun) commentary on its central business setting: an impersonal, late 20th century, “high-tech” office building.  Here, an employee is urged to “conform” to office politics, and the promise of promotion and other perks is tied to her acceptance of the office culture. 

Furthermore, success and fortune -- the accumulation of money -- is tied directly to the corporate world, a place where folks must leave their souls behind if they wish to excel.  “Legion of Demons’” subtext is all the more amazing for the fact that it precedes President Carter’s “crisis of confidence” speech by six years and President Reagan’s “yuppie” milieu by more than a decade.

Although this episode -- like virtually every recent installment of Circle of Fear -- relies on old standards such as weird nightmares and screaming damsels, this episode is nonetheless visualized in strong fashion.  

At one point, for instance, the episode cutes to an extreme high-angle shot of Beth seated in a chair, surrounded by the coven. The positioning of the witches reveals a five point or pentagram structure, a nice reflection of the group’s true nature.   

The revelation of Janet as the coven’s evil leader -- via creepy distortion lens imagery -- also ably suggests a world gone mad.

Much of the suspense in “Legion of Demons” emerges from the depiction of another new office employee, played by Jon Cypher.  All along, the episode plays this affable employee as a possible co-conspirator with the coven.  Every moment he’s one screen, we expect him to reveal his true, insidious colors.  But the episode has other plans for the character, thus smartly confounding expectations.

The most basic test for an episode of a horror show or a horror film even is an affirmative answer to the question: “is it scary?”  Although it clearly apes Rosemary’s Baby, and probably features one or two too many chases up and down an office corridor on the thirteenth floor, I still found “Legion of Demons” sufficiently frightening.  I was watching it alone (while my wife was asleep next to me in bed), at about 11:00 pm, and the episode gave me a good case of the shivers.

Given this fact, as well as the entrenched commentary on office politics, “Legion of Demons” proves itself another unexpectedly strong entry in this 1973 anthology.  I would need to check all the stats to be certain, but it certainly feels at this point like Circle of Fear boasts a better batting average than the Ghost Story component of the show.

Next week: “Spare Parts.”

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "The Test" (October 4, 1975)

This week on Land of the Lost’s second season, Chaka (Philip Paley) undergoes a rite of passage or “test of manhood.”

In “The Test,” the Pakuni youngster must steal one of Big Alice’s eggs at the Lost City, and bring it back to Ta and Sa in the jungle.  The problem occurs, however, when the egg hatches, and little Junior -- an Allosaurus -- thinks Holly (Kathy Coleman) is his Mom.

There’s a lot of running around in this episode, and not much in terms of plot development.  Will (Wesley Eure) and Holly try to help Chaka any way they can, whether reflecting blind sun-light in Big Alice’s eyes or helping him roll her over-sized egg into an abandoned Sleestak temple.

The big story, perhaps, is the sheer number of special effects and miniatures that appear here.  There are some terrific shots of Big Alice on the prowl and on the attack, for instance.  When Will, Holly and Chaka get the egg safely into the old temple (a beautiful miniature), Big Alice’s head just right at them (and us) through the structure’s pillars.  It’s one of the best effects shots so far this season.  Also, we’ll see this temple again in a later episode involving Chaka.

“The Test” also gives Land of the Lost a memorble new “creature,” the squeaking and generally adorable baby Allosaur named Junior.

These are all pluses to this particular episode but -- as we saw in an earlier episode -- there’s an ingrained sense of sexism on the programs in regards to Holly.  Twice in “The Test,” she is dismissed as being just a “little girl” and therefore unable to understand rites of passage/manhood.

It’s an extremely narrow view of sex roles, alas, and a bit insulting too.  At the end of the show, Chaka gives Will the “mark,” of “Big Man Magic” for his help in securing the egg.  Yet Holly is just as much a help to him as Will is during the crisis, and she gets no props or medals whatsoever.. 

Next week on Land of the Lost: “Gravity Storm.”

Friday, September 28, 2012

Late Night Blogging: The Worlds of Sid and Marty Krofft

James Bond Friday: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

In terms of James Bond, the big question of the year 1969 was this:  Can the popular film series survive without Sean Connery starring as Agent 007?

Ironically, in 2012 -- over forty years later -- we all take the answer for granted. 

The film series has endured quite nicely, in fact, with Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig each in the lead role.  We now understand that the popular character is bigger than any particular actor’s portrayal of him.

But in 1969 -- with an Australian model named George Lazenby playing James Bond for the first and only time in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service -- the answer seemed far less certain.

That terrible lack of certainty is actually expressed a bit in the text of the film itself.  For starters, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’s opening credits feature clips from Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice. 

And during one crucial scene involving his resignation from MI6, Bond cleans out his office desk and looks nostalgically at trinkets including Honey Ryder’s knife belt, Grant’s watch-garrot, and Bond’s underwater breather from Thunderball.

Then there’s the moment outside Draco’s office, wherein a janitor whistles the theme from Goldfinger (or is it Moon River?).  

Finally, there’s the controversial and valedictory moment in the terrific pre-title sequence during which Bond breaks the fourth wall and quips, “This never happened to the other fellow…”

In short, existential uncertainty and diffidence are injected right into the DNA of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  All these moments veritably scream out to the audience that the James Bond films boast a history and legacy, and this new film is the next legitimate part of that history and legacy.

Remembering past adventures.

And remembering them again.

In retrospect the filmmakers needn’t have bothered with such an orgy of self-justification.  It’s unnecessary because the movie stands up brilliantly on its own, and also, perhaps, as the most important chapter in the entire James Bond story.

Some critics of the day clearly viewed it as a vital and vibrant installment too.  Writing for The Village Voice, critic Molly Haskell called On Her Majesty’s Secret Servicethe most engaging and exciting James Bond film” and noted that “the action scenes, particularly the ski chase, winter carnival, and stock car racing episodes are breathtaking.”

Directed by former second unit director and editor Peter Hunt, this 1969 Bond film crackles with energy and high-intensity action, and much more importantly, conveys brilliantly the human tragedy of James Bond, the tale of a man who finds -- and then abruptly loses -- his true love and soul mate.  In some twisted way, the whole affair plays like a dark, anxious fairy tale.

Clocking at nearly two-and-a-half hours, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the kind of rich, nuanced Bond film one can get truly lost in.  It takes its time.  It doesn't rush.  In a sense, it’s almost better to approach this particular Bond epic on its own, rather than as part of an on-going series because it diverges so much, and so delightfully, from expectations and tradition.   If one can set aside expectations and preconceived notions, there are great pleasures to be found here, and great artistry as well.

Buttressed by a charismatic performance from Diana Rigg as Tracy Draco, highlighting action scenes that remain “breakneck, devastating affairs” (per Vincent Canby) and featuring an utterly devastating finale, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, like the later effort, Licence to Kill (1989) showcases Bond at his most vulnerable and most human.

“I hope I can live up to your high standards.”

A vacationing James Bond (George Lazenby) rescues the beautiful Tracy Draco (Diana Rigg) when she attempts to commit suicide on a beach.  Later the same night, he bails her out again at a casino when she loses an expensive wager.

Bond’s protection doesn’t go unnoticed by Tracy’s wealthy father, Draco (Gabriele Ferzetti), leader of a vast international crime syndicate.  He abducts Bond from his hotel, and tells the agent that he would like the spy to marry Tracy, in an effort to keep her in line and “dominate” her.

Intrigued by the offer, Bond agrees, but only on the condition that Draco share with him everything he knows regarding the location of the missing fugitive from justice, SPECTRE’s Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Telly Savalas).

Draco acquiesces, and Bond and Tracy soon fall deeply, madly in love.  At the same time, Bond traces Blofeld’s location to the Swiss Alps, and to an allergy clinic on an isolated mountaintop.  Disguising himself as an (effete) expert in heraldry -- Sir Hillary Bray -- Bond infiltrates the stronghold and learns that Blofeld is attempting to engineer a pardon for himself by unleashing a deadly, infertility-spawning virus.  He is brainwashing his patients -- all females -- and during the Christmas holiday plans to return them to their homes to release the toxin.

Bond escapes from the clinic, but with Blofeld’s minions in close pursuit, and Tracy unexpectedly shows up to aid 007.  When she is captured by Blofeld following an avalanche, Bond urges M to act on her behalf.  When M can’t do so, Bond teams with Draco to launch a devastating helicopter assault on Blofeld’s mountaintop fortress.

After Tracy is rescued, Bond and the love of his life are married in a romantic and beautiful ceremony.  There, Bond says his goodbyes to the secret service, and to Q (Desmond Llewelyn) and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell).

 But the newlyweds have not heard the last from Blofeld…

“We have all the time in the world.”

In some very perverse and tricky way, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service excels as a Cinderella-type fairy tale, albeit one turned on its head. 

The Cinderella figure in the drama is clearly Tracy, and as in the storied fairy tale, her father, Draco, is a lonely, heart-broken widower.  And in both the fairy tale and the film version of the story, this widower isn’t able to provide his daughter the family upbringing she needs.  Accordingly, she faces strife and upset in her life.  She seems lost.

Into this unfortunate dynamic arrives the dashing, outside savior, a Prince Charming figure.  Or in the case of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, James Bond, himself.

Although James routinely romances glamorous women, he soon falls hopelessly in love with Tracy, realizing that she is his soul-mate and, in a very real sense, a mirror-image of himself.  She is as physically capable, verbally witty, and sexually carnivorous as he is.  In other words…a perfect match. 

In the film’s first scene -- set on a picturesque beach at dusk -- Bond even stops at one point to retrieve Tracy’s slippers immediately after she runs away from him and disappears over the horizon.  At this point, he is unaware of the true identity of this princess (or contessa), as is also the case in the fairy tale. 

Finally, before the credits roll, Bond notes that “this never happened to the other fellow.” 

But, of course, the very same thing happened to Prince Charming. 

Now Bond must find the mysterious woman who has enchanted him and win her heart.

Even the Cinderella-like notion of “happily ever after” is acknowledged and strategically re-parsed in this Bond film, specifically in the turn of phrase “we have all the time in the world.” 

Both phrases imply simply, a long future of happiness and shared time.  And immediately preceding her death, Tracy even comments to Bond that the wedding gift he gave her is "a future.”  “Happily ever after” thus seems within real reach, not merely the romantic fantasy of some childhood story.

Sadly, however, that future is not to be.

Tracy is killed in the film’s final scene by a vengeful Blofeld.   Thus On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is the Cinderella story as seen through a cracked mirror, or a cracked windshield as the case may be; the film's final, haunting image.

The slippers of the princess...

and the Prince Charming who finds them.

The Fairy Tale Wedding.

A Fairy Tale shattered: Unhappily Ever After.

Although few Bond fans would probably select Cinderella as an inspiration for a franchise film entry, in this case, the selection proves illuminating because it lands the primary focus on the female character.   That’s a rarity in Bond movies, which, of course, usually focus almost solely on Bond’s exploits.

Already at this point in the Bond series, we had seen a number of great female characters, from Honey Ryder to Pussy Galore and beyond.  But for this movie to work as an emotional, human experience, viewers had to understand the depth of Bond’s connection to Tracy.  And to do that, she had to be established as something special: a woman above all others (just as Bond is a man above all others).

In other words, the film had to answer a critical answer.  Why would Bond choose Tracy?   After all the beautiful and feisty women he has romanced and bedded, what makes this individual so special that he can’t just walk away, essentially, as he’s clearly walked away from so many other beauties?

The movie more than provides answers to that question.  First, Tracy is a princess, like Cinderella, but one with problems.   Like Bond, Tracy is broken inside.  They are both lonely and isolated individuals living among the “international jet set,” an outwardly glamorous and fast-paced world, but alienating, apparently, on a personal, individual level.   They both seem to have had their fill of hotels, casinos, aristocrats and empty, shallow assignations.  This lifestyle no longer holds allure for either of them, and so Bond finds himself in a profession where death is a constant companion, and Tracy contemplates suicide.  Each has made a self-destructive decision, in a way, about their futures.

As I describe above, the film also great lengths to reveal Tracy’s family heritage.  Draco describes how he and her mother fell in love, and how she died tragically when Tracy was young.  We thus come to understand where Tracy comes from, and again, this is background information we don’t’ necessarily get on all the other Bond girls.

This background information arrives (in a beautifully-written and performed scene in Draco's office), and it adds to our understanding of the Cinderella figure, of Tracy.  By telling us of Tracy’s life we start to understand her journey, and why that journey dovetails with Bond.  There is hope for a happy ending, at least for a time.

In action and deed, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service also reveals Tracy’s penchant for gambling, her athletic prowess (skiing and horseback riding), and her verbal aplomb, matching Bond witticism for witticism. 

Finally, Tracy even proves herself eminently capable in physical combat.  Importantly, her final battle with one of Blofeld’s hulking guards is scored to the James Bond, 007 theme.   Intriguingly, Bond is virtually a non-presence in this particular scene.  He’s still on the helicopter, outside, at some distance.  Yet Tracy fights to that well-established, even iconic theme, and the suggestion is, of course, that she is worthy of it.  That she is a Bond-ian reflection, and therefore 007’s soul mate.

In conjunction with the Cinderella-type leitmotif, these character aspects of On Her in Majesty’s Secret Service make us understand the human and romantic aspect of the tragedy.  I’ve made no secret of my selection of Tracy (and Rigg) as the greatest Bond Woman in the film series’ history.  Where many Bond Girls (especially in the 1960s and 1970s) were relatively one-dimensional, Tracy is not.  She is a fully-developed and intriguing person who seems every bit the equal to Bond.  

But the Cinderella approach to the story helps to remind us of what is at stake here.  It isn’t, actually, the end of the world, as Blofeld plans it.  No, the danger in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is two-fold: failing to recognize true love, and secondly losing that love once it’s been identified and acknowledged.

“Life’s too short for 'someday,'” states the film’s dialogue about falling in love, and so Bond makes the most dangerous decision of his life (and the film series).  He commits himself to the love of one very special person.  There is much less at stake, for instance, when you don’t really love someone, when it’s just a fling or casual sex.  But by falling in love with Tracy, Bond puts himself in the terrible and vulnerable position where Blofeld can really, truly hurt him.  For once, James Bond really knows what it means to love, and to put his heart on the line.  And just look at what happens to him. 

Once you've known love, the world is not enough.  Especially for a Bond.

That is why, of course, the James Bond story qualifies as tragedy.  A man who has hidden from love finally lets it into his life, only to lose it. 

Beyond the twisted Cinderella/fairy tale leitmotif, this Bond film plays uneasily with franchise traditions.  On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is certainly a (dangerous) love story as much as a spectacular adventure, for instance, and yet that's not the only shift in accent.  Additioinally, this Bond film also eschews the series’ trademark and widely-beloved gadgets.  In fact, the film even goes so far as to mock those gadgets by suggesting that the wave of the future is not such obsolete trinkets, but things like “radioactive lint.”    How exciting is that possibility?

At one point -- when Bond deploys a safe-cracker device -- he just sits back and reads Playboy Magazine while the machine does the hard work.  The implication, of course, is that such gadgetry (like the mini-copy machine) is now an accepted part of everyday life, not cutting-edge, life-saving devices.  The thrill of technology is gone.  Gadgets are just workaday things.

I suspect that some critics and viewers will always criticize Lazenby’s performance as James Bond in OHMSS.  But facts are facts: he certainly looks good and moves well.  Lazenby is a real presence in the fight scenes, for example. Perhaps his biggest deficit, performance-wise, is his voice. The Australian accent doesn’t seem right for Bond, and something about the very cadence or tenor of Lazenby’s voice is unappealing.   I have some support for this opinion, I hope.  My wife watched the film with me the other night, and said that she liked Lazenby best when he was in the Alpine Room at Piz Gloria.  Of course, in that particular scene he was dubbed by the actor playing Bray, but my wife didn’t know that.  She just picked up on a quality of the vocal performance that worked.

Some critics have also described Lazenby’s Bond as less self-confident than Connery’s incarnation, and this might also be true.  But I would submit this quality works in regards to the particularities of this story. 

I rather like that Bond isn’t certain that Tracy is love with him (a feeling she also shares about him).  And I like that when Bond gets lost in the winter carnival -- pursued by Blofeld’s goons -- he appears absolutely terrified.  The sense of danger to Bond is palpable in this film.  He’s not the suave, unflappable guy in a white dinner jacket.  This Bond seems more jittery, more uncomfortable, more ill-at-ease than Connery, and I feel that if Lazenby had returned to the role for a second outings, these qualities might have been marshaled to even greater effect.  

We have seen, today, how Dalton and Craig excel by playing a human, not superman James Bond, and one gets the feeling that On Her Majesty’s Secret Service was designed to provide a vehicle for just that kind of portrayal.  It’s a shame that Lazenby isn’t quite good enough to carry the picture.  And yet, I don’t feel -- as I did some years back -- that he is a huge impediment to the film’s success, either.

Bond, certain in deed.

Bond, uncertain in life.

Bond, shattered by death.

In terms of the things one expects from a Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is absolutely superb.  The fight scenes are brutal, brilliantly-edited affairs.  The ski and bobsled chases are suspenseful and escalate to sheer mayhem and exhilaration, marred only by rear projection photography in some shots.  And the stock-car race scene -- so battering and bruising -- is immersing.  In the absence of gadgets, focus here falls on romance and Hunt’s apparent obsession with man-against-man, fist-against-fist conflicts.  It’s not a bad template for a 1970s Bond, but of course, the series doubled-down instead on spectacular set pieces, gadgets, and increased humor.

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service may just be the most important Bond film ever made, if not the best one.  One thing is for certain: the series has by now acknowledged its importance time and time again.  This story, and Bond’s marriage to Tracy, have been mentioned or noted on-screen in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), For Your Eyes Only (1981), and Licence to Kill (1989). Interestingly, no other Bond film has been referred to with such frequency. 

And secondly, it’s hard not to view the re-boot Casino Royale (2006) as an unofficial remake of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, since it concerns such plot elements as the love of Bond’s life, the death of that love, and even Bond’s brief resignation.  Vesper is very…Tracy-like.

Whenever I watch the film, I find myself dreading the ending, dreading that final, unforgettable shot of a shattered windshield and by extension, a shattered Bond.  It’s a haunting finale to a great and generally underrated entry in the Bond catalog.  There isn’t one other Bond film that ends on such a tragic, emotional note, or leaves the audience with a lump in its collective throat.

I’m glad that today we “have all the time in the world” to consider On Her Majesty’s Secret Services’  merits. It deserves a second look.

007 Trailer: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Star Trek: The Next Generation Day: "The Royale"

The main problem that plagued Star Trek: The Next Generation during its first season, as I perceive it, is that the crew of the Enterprise-D appears rather smug and self-satisfied.

In various episodes our heroes rail against patriotism ("Encounter at Farpoint"), eating red meat ("Lonely Among Us"), patriarchy and matriarchy ("Angel One,") and even capitalism ("The Last Outpost," "The Neutral Zone.")

I have absolutely no beef at all with any of that social commentary, or any of those particular ideological stances.  I welcome the gadfly approach to exploring issues of the late twentieth century.

Rather, my problem is in how the social commentary is often broached.  I realize the humans of The Next Generation are "evolved" ones (and I like that idea too...) but in too many episodes, these 24th century humans lecture, preach and harrumph about how man overcame his age of "barbarism."

There's a looking-down-their-collective noses at races like the Anticans and Selay, or the denizens of "Angel One" that is, frankly, unappealing, and a bit too self-congratulatory.

When this smug vibe is coupled with the fact that the Enterprise is the flagship of the Federation, and therefore technologically superior to almost all comers (including the new enemy, the Ferengi), a real sense of drama and conflict bleeds away from many first season installments of Star Trek: The Next Generation

Everything seems too easy for this team.  Specifically, the Enterprise crew often defeats the bad guys without too much difficulty, and usually through extended "talk."  Riker convinces an Ancient Guardian, Portal, not to be hostile -- through talk -- in "The Last Outpost."  Picard resolves a dilemma with a silicon life form -- again by talk -- in "Home Soil."  

Over and over, a spirit of danger and adventure -- a core element of the original Star Trek series -- seems missing from the first season of The Next Generation.  Getting through some of these early episodes (like "Haven," or "The Battle," or "Code of Honor," or "The Last Outpost") is really a tough slog.

But I give kudos to the creators and writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation because, by the end of the first season, they were clearly working out the kinks in the less-than-satisfactory format.  Episodes such as "Heart of Glory," "Skin of Evil," and "Conspiracy" ramped up the danger level in the stories, and boasted a more unpredictable aura than the first segments.

And if you had to give Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season catalog a name or theme, I would call it, simply, "A Kick in the Complacency." 

That's the term Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) famously coined in the stellar episode "Q-Who," which introduced the cybernetic organisms, the Borg, to the series.  Surveying the episodes of the second season, you can detect how a number of the stories explicitly involve pulling the rug out from under the Enterprise crew, and showcasing the fact that outer space may be wondrous...but it's also dangerous and mysterious.

And even more importantly, the Enterprise isn't always the big man on campus.  Other forces out there in space may be superior in terms of their understanding of the universe and technological capacities.  The upshot of many of these episodes is that the crew's smugness is kicked off rather dramatically. And that's a very good thing for the development of the series, which would hit its stride (and apex) in Season Three.

The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation's second season include "Where Silence Has Lease,"during which the Enterprise explores a black spot in space that seems to twist and defy the principles of physics.  Then there's "Elementary Dear Data," wherein Starfleet technology and a slip-of-the-tongue on the part of a fallible human being (Geordi) create a deadly menace for the Enterprise.  Similarly, "Unnatural Selection" showcases how Dr. Pulaski's (Diana Muldaur's) hubris nearly gets her killed, vis-a-vis a deadly disease. 

The "Kick in the Complacency" segments reach their pinnacle with "Q Who, " which finds the Enterprise outmatched in every conceivable way during that initial encounter with the Borg.   But two relatively unpopular episodes are also necessary steps in that journey towards this zenith.  These programs are "Time Squared" and "The Royale." 

In "Time Squared," the crew is  asked to solve a life-and-death riddle that involves "anti-sense," to put it mildly.  No easy answers are provided regarding the hows and whys of the story.  In this tale, an incarnation of Captain Picard from six hours in the future returns to the present, with a warning of the Enterprise's destruction.  The incident is baffling, but Starfleet officers should occasionally be knocked for a loop by a WTF moment in outer space, and that's what "Time Squared" gives a pensive, traumatized Picard.

But for today, I've picked "The Royale" as the tale of this nature I wanted to focus intently upon. 

As I mentioned above, it seems everybody hates "The Royale."

Episode writer Tracy Torme hates it.  Fans despise it.  Critics don't like it either.  You may even find it named on lists for the worst ten episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

And yet, I'll be honest, I've always enjoyed "The Royale" given the parameters of the "kick in the complacency" second season.  This episode fits that recurring theme well, and more than that, adheres beautifully to the Star Trek tradition of presenting "fish out of water" comedies.

To briefly recap the plot, "The Royale" commences as the Enterprise, on a clue from the Klingons, discovers the debris from a 22nd Century NASA ship in orbit around remote Theta 8.   While studying the mystery of Fermat's last theorem, Captain Picard orders Cmdr. Riker to take an away team to the planet surface, where a single structure has been detected in an oxygen-nitrogen envelope (beneath planet-wide ammonia storms).

Riker, Data and Worf soon discover that the structure is a 20th century hotel and casino, the Royale.

Though human in appearance, the beings inhabiting the structure are not authentic life forms.  And yet they seem to be marching along on their own bizarre story lines.

Riker, Data and Worf find a clue regarding this mystery in one of the hotel state rooms. They discover the skeletal remains of Colonel Richey, an officer on the destroyed NASA ship.

Richey's diary reveals that aliens interfaced with his vessel and accidentally killed all the Terran crew members save for him.  Apparently in payment over their accidental actions, the aliens built Richey a world based on a book -- The Hotel Royale -- they found aboard the NASA ship.  Then, they deposited Richey in that world....where he would spend the rest of his days.

They thought they had built him a paradise, but it turned out to be Hell...

Trapped in the Royale, Riker, Data and Worf realize that the key to escape rests in resolving the (bad) novel's major plot points.  From the Enterprise, Picard and Troi help out by reading the novel...which proves trying.

After the away team escapes, Riker wonders about the whole incident, and Picard concludes that some mysteries simply have no logical resolution...

The first and most significant thing to understand about "The Royale" is how well the episode fits into Star Trek convention.  The franchise boasts a long tradition of bewildered crew members interfacing with other time periods from human history.  We see this in programs such as "Tomorrow is Yesterday" and the film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986).  The fish-out-of-water humor in such tales allows us to see our confident Starfleet heroes from another perspective; from a perspective of vulnerability.  They are truly strangers in a strange land, trying to account for human culture at an earlier stage of development. 

What's commendable about "The Royale" (in the same way that "Spectre of the Gun" is kind of cool) is that the writer has not relied on the commonly-seen Trek tropes of either time travel or the "holodeck adventure" to vet this particular fish-out-of-water story.  Instead, Torme (Keith Mills on screen) wraps the human adventure inside an alien-based mystery.

In specific terms, "The Royale" finds humor in Worf and Data's responses to the hotel/casino staff and clientele.  Already out of place among 24th century humans, the Klingon and Soong android are even more baffled (and in Worf's case, irritated...) by human behavior inside the strange structure.  The future depicted in Star Trek is not a hedonistic one (usually, save for Risa...), but this casino is a den of hedonism.  Here, humanity is at his worst: avaricious, thieving, gluttonous.  It's a strong contrast to the Utopian world we see on the Enterprise.

Some good character humor also emerges from Picard, aboard the Enterprise.  This is the guy who is, for lack of a better word, a dedicated scholar.  The good captain knows Shakespeare backwards and forwards (as "Hide and Q" demonstrates), and considers James Joyce light reading ("Captain's Holiday.")  Here he's forced to dive into a bad dime-store novel, and it's clear he's impatient with the process...and the subject material.

But in addition to "The Royale's" sense of humor (which involves Worf using a 20th century telephone and Data playing blackjack), the episode works admirably as a kind of spine-tingling mystery.

"In our arrogance, we feel we're so advanced," Picard notes early in the episode, and that's the "theorem" of "The Royale."  The crew encounters an alien "shrine" that seems to make no sense because it is based entirely on a limited, alien understanding of our culture.

This is one strange corner of the universe, both a little funny, a little scary and a little sad.  And it suggests nicely that not all "first contacts" go smoothly, or as expected.

I also appreciate the idea portrayed here, and carried over from "A Piece of the Action" on the Original Series, that no one book should be used as a model for an entire culture; that no single tome should be taken literally as the guide to life.

And yes, I absolutely view this as a  pointed commentary and critique of people who interpret The Bible (or any religious book) literally.  Meaning that the Earth is only 6,000 years old and Jesus rode dinosaurs around the streets of the Roman Empire.   In ways "subtle and gross," to quote Q, "The Royale" reminds us that no one book explains the mystery or wonder of human nature.  Humanity is more complex than any one vision contained between two covers.

In that light, "The Royale" is one of the few Star Trek episodes that can be legitimately called surreal or absurdist.  Here, you have the unexpected juxtapositions one expects of the surreal (a 20th century casino on an inhospitable planet, a revolving door in the middle of a black void, etc.), but more than that, a meditation on the human tendency to seek the meaning of life in a situation wherein such a conclusion is unknowable.

In "The Royale," a terrible, dime-store book becomes the basis for alien contact and the continuance of human life, but the book itself is a collection of conventions and cliches.  How could anyone think life is really like a bad crime novel?  Well, if you're an wouldn't pick up those nuances, I suppose.  Cliches are cliches because we encounter them so often. Presumably, aliens would not recognize them as such because they've never read a book from Earth.

I also appreciate the episode's conceit that  the aliens tried to inject some meaning into their accidental actions, but by doing so robbed Richey's remaining days of meaning and thus only compounded their error.   It's a pretty deft formulation, I submit.

Why didn't Star Trek  tread more often into the surreal?  Well, that's the rub, and part of the reason that I suspect "The Royale" is disliked by many fans.  Famously, Star Trek is about mankind mastering his destiny, discovering the meaning of life, conquering technology, medicine and space itself.  Surrealism could be interpreted as an opposite philosophy.  Absurdism suggests say that no such domination of existence is possible, because life is inherently meaningless.   Magic in Star Trek is merely technology we don't understand yet, a point of development we have not yet reached, but the underlying message is that we WILL get there, one day.  If the universe is surreal in nature, then this is not the case at all.

Ironically, Star Trek: The Next Generation is at its dramatic best when the paradise of the UFP is challenged, when there is an acknowledgment that the human equation has not been solved, and when the status quo is up-ended.  The "Kick in the Complacency" episodes remember that the human adventure is merely "beginning" and not yet settled.  Stories like "The Royale" are indeed about the human adventure just beginning; about the starting point of self-knowledge not the ending point.  It's my bias, but I  tend to prefer that point of attack in terms of sci-fi drama.

There was a great Twilight Zone episode entitled "Elegy," about astronauts encountering a planet of apparently frozen humanoids, carefully posed (by someone) in the midst of their daily routines.  The planet turned out to be not a wax museum, nor a moment of frozen time.  Instead, the humans were all dead and stuffed by a kind of galactic funeral director/taxidermist.  In some sense, "The Royale" captures the same absurd vibe as that episode.  It features a world that shouldn't be threatening...but is.  And that threat exists because aliens are not always understandable.

Some mysteries just can't be solved, as Captain Picard reminds us in "The Royale."

I believe that in "Kick in the Complacency" episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation such as "The Royale," the series began to restore the necessary danger to the enterprise (ahem) of space travel.  A core component of drama involves the notion that our heroes always must be endangered.  They can't always possess the upper hand, or the most powerful phaser banks.  Real drama is wrought from facing an enemy who is more powerful, or who holds all the cards, to use a "Royale"-based metaphor. 

In the final analysis, "The Royale" is spiky and weird and funny, and a bit disturbing, and it reminds the audience that human beings -- no matter how advanced or evolved -- can't always see and understand the mysteries of the infinite.

No, "The Royale" certainly isn't one of the twenty-five greatest Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, but it fits in well with the second season's overall milieu.  It's good for a re-watch on these terms especially in conjunction with "Time Squared and "Q-Who."  That's the great thing about Star Trek existing as a long-lived TV series rather than a movie series.  There's time to visit these strange, oddball corners of the universe, and no need to tell a "huge" story about universal Armageddon every week.

"The Royale" may be off-message, a narrative detour of sorts.  But it's one worth taking, at least every now and again, especially when you a need a kick in your own complacency.

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