Thursday, January 31, 2013

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Ice" (November 5, 1993)

The X-Files episode “Ice,” which first aired on November 5, 1993, is a sterling tribute to one of the science fiction genre’s greatest short stories: Who Goes There? (1938) by John W. Campbell.  

That novella is set in Antarctica and involves a group of scientists who discover an alien ship and pilot that have been trapped frozen in the ice for twenty million years.  When thawed out, the extra-terrestrial pilot is revealed as a dangerous shape-shifter, one who can “hide” in human and other biological forms. 

In the end, the alien invader is barely stopped (with just a half-hour to spare…) before it can escape isolation and reach (and contaminate...) the rest of Earth’s population.

“Who Goes There?” has been re-imagined several times throughout film and television history.  The Thing from Another World (1951) starring James Arness was one such effort, though it eliminated the shape-shifting nature of the alien menace and replaced it with a humanoid plant, a so-called “carrot.” 

John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) proved a more faithful adaptation of the original story, and is perhaps the most well-known version today.  It recently inspired the 2011 prequel. 

On television, Doctor Who (1963 – 1989) featured a 1976 serial called “The Seeds of Doom” which involved the discovery of an alien plant pod in Antarctica's ice from 20,000 years ago.  That seed was the heart of a planet-devouring vegetable monster called a “Krynoid.” 

And on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999), a race of shape-shifters or "Changelings" called the Founders proved detectable -- like the Thing -- only by blood test in episodes such as the third season finale, “The Adversary.”  The blood test was featured in the original novella and proved the most popular (and perhaps most effective…) sequence in the Carpenter film.

The Thing (1951)

The Thing (1982)

Doctor Who: The Seeds of Doom (1976)
“Ice,” written by James Wong and Glen Morgan and directed by David Nutter, remains a notable variation on the Campbell theme, one bolstered by some unique, even trademark X-Files twists.  In fact, this episode might be Exhibit A in terms of my theory about the series as a whole; that it deliberately re-purposes commonly told tales in the genre and then imbues them with new meaning and relevance for the 1990s.

From Campbell’s source material all the way to "Ice" we see a similar location (an ice-bound installation), a similar threat (an alien) and even the presence of a dog as an infection vector.  But “Ice,” uniquely, develops in an original fashion because in The Thing, for example, there aren't many close relationships on the line.

Instead, the story has been interpreted frequently as a comment on man’s alienation from his fellow man.   

Nobody trusted anybody in The Thing because nobody really liked or even knew anybody else.  Hidden inside a man's skin, the Thing was indistinguishable from man.  What does that say about man?

It's alive!
The X-Files deliberately explodes that artistic conceit by landing two sets of dedicated partners or allies into the paranoia blender and then diagramming the manner in which close-relationships contend with the possibility of individual infection.  The responses are either burgeoning independence (Scully) or total abandonment of personal will in favor of the stronger personality’s will and desire (Da Silva). 

In a way, The X-Files amplifies the horror of The Thing.  It’s one thing to face a shape-shifter in a battle to the death when there is no one you really care for to worry about on the battlefield.  But in “Ice,” Mulder and Scully have one another to fight for, and must face the very real possibility that one of them could die or be permanently infected.  They are more "connected" individuals than many we meet in various versions of the Campbell story.

Are you who you are?

I am who I am.

In “Ice,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) join a team of scientists including Dr. Hodge (Xander Berkeley), Dr. Da Silva (Felicity Huffman), and Dr. Murphy (Steve Hytner) to investigate the deaths of a government research team at a base in Alaska.  

The team had been digging deep down into an icy shelf believed to be a prehistoric meteor impact.  Without warning, however, the members of the expedition began murdering one another, reciting the mantra “we are not who we are.”

After a helicopter pilot named Bear (Jeff Kober) flies the team to Alaska, Mulder and Scully discover that the previous team had found core samples containing strange alien worms frozen in the ice…from 250,000 years earlier. 

At least some of these worms have thawed out in the base, and discovered that human beings make for perfect hosts. 

While living on the excretions of the hypothalamus, these parasites also cause extreme paranoia and aggression in their prey….

Who do you trust?

An almost unbearably claustrophobic and tense hour, “Ice” is a deliberate nod to Who Goes There? and The Thing, but also a tale, ultimately, about territoriality. 

The episode’s climax reveals that two worms cannot exist in the same host…or they will kill each other.  Similarly, the episode-long tension between Mulder and Hodge -- each looking to assert leadership -- nearly imperils everyone.   Both men believe they are right in their belief-system and engage in a kind of paranoid “pissing” contest, trying to swing the allegiances of the other team-members to their viewpoint. 

There’s even an amusing scene here where the men must strip down naked to check each other for signs of parasitic infection.  Mulder jokingly reminds everyone that they are in the Arctic, a not so-subtle joke about penis size.

But joke or no joke, the matter of which man possesses the “biggest dick” -- to state it inelegantly -- is  a sub-text in this particular tale.  Once you make the thematic connection, it’s intriguing to see how the “territoriality” theme mirrors the infection theme.  A terrified Bear asserts control of the situation early on, since he is the only person capable of flying the plane, and he stakes out a command position early.  Simultaneously, he is the first infected by the alien organism.   Power and infection are definitively linked.

Then, after Bear dies, the battle of wills moves over to Hodge and Mulder.  Soon, nobody is certain which of them, if either, is infected. In the end, we learn that neither man was infected, only that each was driven (by adrenaline? by testosterone? by ego? by all three?) to attempt to take charge of the situation. 

Why were they so aggressive, if neither was actually infected?  Is it simply the human condition?

Why can't these two get along?

Why can't Mulder and Hodge?

Just remember, we're in the Arctic...
The underlying social commentary, then, seems to concern man's capacity for self-destruction, particularly if he doesn't get his way.  This quality impacts even the usually sensible (and sensitive) Mulder.  What complicates this issue of territoriality, and what is explored rather fully in “Ice” is the notion of allies, friends and subordinates in such a dynamic.

Dr. Da Silva is Hodge’s ally, but treated like a subordinate, and Scully is Mulder’s ally and equal.  Neither woman is truly impartial or on the side-lines,  but Hodge bullies Da Silva to see things his way, and acts in a borderline abusive fashion in his treatment of her; thus keeping her in line.

Scully -- recognizing the weight of evidence against Mulder at one point -- backs Hodge over her partner.  She never gives up on Mulder, and finds way to protect him, but she is able to weigh the facts…and the facts seem to go against Mulder's perspective.

Unlike Da Silva, however, Scully is not cowed into making a decision by either Mulder or Hodge.  Instead, she studies the available facts and makes a logical decision, to Mulder’s dismay, since her choice doesn’t favor him in the short term.  Scully thus becomes the de facto leader because she is able to bridge the gap between parties.

Scully’s behavior in “Ice” is another key development in the fledgling series.  Last week, in my review of “Squeeze,” I noted that Scully had to choose between Mulder and his quest, or Colton and his ambitions of avarice.  She chose Mulder. 

This week, Scully must face the difficult possibility that Mulder, because of infection, has become a murderer and a psychopath.  One thing I love about The X-Files is that this possibility doesn’t impact Scully’s affection, feelings, or loyalty for Mulder.  She wants to protect him and wants to heal him, but to do that, she must first make certain he doesn't represent a danger to everyone.  She uses science and wisdom to do so, again showcasing her finest human qualities.

Given all this dramatic material, it’s probably fair to state that what “Ice” truly involves is relationship dynamics in a difficult situation, where no clear chain of command can be respected or even determined.  

Going further, "Ice" involves the way that men sometimes behave in a crisis. Who do you choose to follow?  Why does someone, like Mulder, choose to lead?  

The elegant quality of this thematic dynamic is, as noted above, that it mirrors so beautifully the nature of the aliens of the week.  There can’t be two big worms (another phallic symbol…) vying for the same “command” post, or else hostility, anger, and violence will result.

Location plays a crucial role in “Ice’s” success as drama and as horror.  The episode feels like a pressure-cooker because after the first act, it never leaves the claustrophobic outpost interiors.  All versions of “Who Goes There?” are set in icy environments, and that sets up an imposing, endless sense of isolation.  Not only is there terror inside the various “Thing” outposts, but terror outside as well.  

The frozen environment will kill you too, just not as quickly as an alien invader.  

In other words, a person can’t just run outside and catch a bus to escape.  The Arctic or Antarctic installation in all these production is thus a trap within a trap.  Escape is simply not possible.  The "monster" must be reckoned with, no delay, no negotiating.

As a title (and phsyical substance...) “Ice” is also a contrast or counter-point to the hot, passionate, aggressive behavior we witness among the dramatis personae here.  It may be well below zero outside the outpost, but inside temperatures and tempers continue to rise.

In terms of X-Files series continuity, “Ice” raises the concept of Panspermia: life from elsewhere in the cosmos taking root here.  That’s a concept which would come to play a crucial role in the series’ sixth season.

Furthermore, “Ice” seems to set the narrative template for later tales such as “Darkness Falls” and the second season entry, “Firewalker.”  The former is set in an isolated forest; the latter in a live volcano.  But both stories, like “Ice,” involve ancient life-forms awakened in the present, with the promise of deleterious impact on the human race.

In the final analysis, "Ice" succeeds because, like "Squeeze," it develops the relationship between Mulder and Scully in a clever way  The episode also intelligently re-configures a horror standard, and even offers a healthy dose of social critique.  For the seventh episode of a first season, such depth is simply astounding.

Next week: “Eve.”

X-Files Promo: "Ice"

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Memory Bank: Where's the Beef? (January 1984)

Twenty-nine years ago this month, eighty-one year old Clara Peller (1902 – 1987) first uttered the immortal words “where’s the beef?” for a Wendy’s Restaurant TV commercial, and instantly emerged a pop culture sensation. 

In the advertisement titled “Fluffy Bun,” which first aired January 10, 1984, the diminutive Peller and two other prim-and-proper old ladies approached a fast food restaurant counter and expressed disappointment with the proffered burger.  

It was all hat and no cattle, so-to-speak.

The zinger, “Where’s the Beef?” proved so popular that it became the focal point not only of the restaurant’s ad campaign for at least two years, but also made Peller a 1980s celebrity.  

She appeared (un-credited) on Saturday Night Live, as well as in the 1985 horror movie The Stuff (in a fictional commercial, naturally) and participated with Coyote McCloud on his single “Where’s the Beef?”  

Her slogan, meanwhile, appeared on T-shirts, Frisbees, and bumper stickers. "Where's the beef" became ubiquitous even in regular, daily life.  Teachers would ask it regarding a book report in class, and on and on.

In the 1984 presidential election, “where’s the beef” also played an unlikely role. Confronting opponent Gary Hart in a primary debate, democratic candidate Walter Mondale quipped: “When I hear your new ideas, I’m reminded of that ad: where’s the beef?”

Clara Peller passed away in 1987, but Wendy’s revived a variation of the slogan  in 2011. It just isn't the same without that little old lady. Perhaps this is proof that you just can't go home again, or even that zippy TV catchphrases are best uttered by gravelly-voiced old women in pearls... 

Pop Art: Space Clipper Orion Edition

Collectible of the Week: Godtron/God Mars Deluxe Set (1981 - 1982)

This “space combination“deluxe set” Godtron or Godmars comes from the anime TV series Six God Combination God Mars that aired on Nippon TV from October 1981 through the end of December of 1982.  The series aired sixty-four episodes, and later followed up with two films.

The original Godmars series was set in the future year of 1999, and concerned Earth’s conflict with the distant planet Gishin.  The warlord of that world sent a child, Mars and a robot, Gaia, to Earth to destroy it. 

Instead, however, the child was adopted by a Japanese family and renamed Takeru.  He grew to become, with his robot, a defender of the Earth, not its betrayer.   Takeru’s  robot could also combine with five other giant robots (Ra, Titan, Shin, Sphinx and Uranus) to form the goliath known as “Godmars.”

This gigantic toy from Taiwan -- a present for Joel -- was produced in the early 1980s and the components are made of diecast model.  The box advertises a “wonderful six in one robot,” and inside, as you can see, are all the parts, as well as accessories such as swords and the like.

Below, you’ll find the introduction to Godmars.

Model Kit of the Week #14: Eagle 1 Transporter (Fundimensions)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Ask JKM a Question # 64: Abrams Star Trek/Wars!

I’ve received a lot of e-mail in the past few days asking me my feelings about the news that J.J. Abrams is directing the next installment of Star Wars.

I have two thoughts about it. 

The first is that J.J. Abrams is probably a better, more natural fit for Star Wars than he is for Star Trek

Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek film was exciting, and the characters were well-drawn, and appealing.  I did miss, however, the franchise’s trademark social commentary.   I feel the film still gets a pass on that count because Abrams accomplished what several previous Star Trek directors had not.  He re-introduced the franchise to a younger audience.   So I applaud him for making a colorful, exciting, and fun (if relatively superficial…) action movie that rejuvenated the Star Trek experience.  I want Star Trek to be there for my son, and for his children, and I think Abrams' Trek went some distance in making that a possibility in the way that Nemesis and Enterprise simply did not.

Now, there is rampant speculation about Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013) at this point, but I’m not at all encouraged by the film’s premise of another mad-man bent on revenge, using a weapon of mass destruction as his tool of choice, as I’ve written here.   

And yes, I’ve read that the film features a kind of post-9/11 vibe to it, but having the “feel” of a certain earthbound context is different than boasting a social critique.  I’m open to the idea that the film will thread that needle successfully, but we’ve had so many post-9/11 movies and TV programs already (Battlestar Galactica, for one,) that I find it difficult to get too enthusiastic with it as a context for a Star Trek film in the year 2013.  It’s not as if 9/11 is the only important event that’s occurred in our culture and is worthy of comment.

So Star Trek: Into Darkness may be as much fun as the first film, but it isn’t going to be met, at least by me, with the same level of appreciation as the first film if the social commentary angle isn’t present to some significant degree. 

But Star Wars is a different animal, and a different kind of epic. It is not as didactic as Star Trek, and more mythological in nature.

Star Wars films need not contain deep social commentary about our existence here on Earth to live up to the best aspects of the franchise’s history.  And J.J. Abrams is more than competent in terms of staging action sequences, presenting colorful, humorous characters, and integrating state-of-the-art special effects.  As long as he makes his Star Wars look different than his Star Trek, I believe the Star Wars universe is likely a good place for him to tell us a great story.

My second thought, however, is that it’s an absolute shame that one man gets to shape the appearance and content of the two most popular “space” franchises of the last three decades. 

That’s not a direct knock against Abrams, by the way.  I’d feel exactly the same way if anyone were taking on both assignments virtually simultaneously.   

There are plenty of talented directors who could take on Star Wars at this juncture, and so to choose Abrams -- who is now associated with Trek --  just seems, well, kind of underwhelming on principle. 

I’ve been incredibly impressed, for instance, with the way that Kathryn Bigelow handles action sequences over the years.  We’ve never seen her take on a pop culture phenomenon like Star Wars, and she would have been a far more interesting, daring, unique, and out-of-the-box choice at this juncture.   We don't have any pre-conceived notions of her as a director in the genre, so she would have more freedom, in some sense.  With Abrams, there's a feeling that we are familiar with what he can do regarding space adventuring.

In geek circles, we all pre-judge, even if we claim we don’t pre-judge, or don't intend to pre-judge.  I’m trying very hard not to pre-judge Star Trek: Into Darkness, though all my instincts tell me to maintain low expectations so as not to be crushed at the prospect of yet another generic “explosive action thriller.”

Contrarily, an explosive action thriller falls more in line with my expectations for Star Wars, I readily acknowledge.   Does this mean that I prefer Star Trek to Star Wars?  Well, in general, I like Star Trek on television, where it boasts the freedom to experiment (and sometimes fail) with big ideas, and I like Star Wars on the big screen, where it can be epic and beyond that, mythic.

I suppose I want Star Trek to inspire me and make me think, and I want Star Wars to thrill me.  

J.J. Abrams has proved he can do the latter, but the jury is still out on the former.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Late Night Blogging: Asteroids and Meteor Movies

Ask JKM a Question #63: What about behind-the-scenes visionaries?

A regular reader, Trent, asks:

“How much credit do you believe that behind-the-scenes visionaries like H.R. Giger, Stan Winston, Tom Savini, and Rob Bottin deserve in their contributions to sci-fi and horror's greatest films?”
Trent, the short answer is: tremendous credit.

I have enormous respect and admiration for all the above-mentioned artists, who very much changed cinema history with their remarkable creations and visions   I would also add names like Rob Baker, John Chambers, Dick Smith, KNB, Ralph McQuarrie, Peter Ellenshaw, Brian Johnson, Derek Meddings and others to the tally.  It’s a long list. 

In terms of specifics on a few of the talents you named, Giger’s trademark bio-mechanical vision inspired a generation of silver-screen creatures and aliens, and Rob Bottin’s work on John Carpenter’s The Thing (1981) remains a benchmark in terms of practical effects.  

Winston’s amazing creations -- from Pumpkinhead to Jurassic Park and beyond -- are unimpeachable in my opinion, and Dick Smith’s make-up on The Exorcist still terrifies. Similarly, Savini’s gruesome, realistic make-up effects in films such as Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead still convince and horrify me in a way that most CGI effects tend not to.

During my career, I have had the good fortune to interview some talents that would legitimately be termed “behind the scenes visionaries” and what has always impressed me about them -- from art directors and production designers to make-up artists -- is how they view each shot, each creature, each effect, each individual moment on screen as a welcome puzzle to solve.  

How each talent solves a particular puzzle speaks to individual genius and personal artistic approach, I think. I don’t want to sound like an old guy about this, but I have spoken with visual effects geniuses who lament the rise of the digital age in part because they no longer have the opportunity to solve seemingly impossible problems to make a shot come off; because the computer, essentially, makes the impossible a whole lot easier.  There was a genius quality to practical special effects in the 1920s – 1990s; like magic tricks pulled off to perfection.  That razzle-dazzle sometimes seems absent today.

Finally, I must give some serious kudos to accomplished film editors here, ones who can take a creature such as Pumpkinhead or even a seemingly-impossible physical effect like those we see in Dawn of the Dead, and present such creations in the best, most convincing light.  And let’s cite the composers too, who augment the horror of a monster’s approach, or go silent and scare us with a crescendo just as the beast makes its first appearance.

Lest we forget, film is a collaborative art form. 

Many artists contribute original ideas that augment, improve, and focus a director’s vision in ways that, sometimes, the director could not have originally envisioned.   The director must gather, harness, and synthesize the work of various departments and individuals to produce a coherent, artistic whole, but he or she can’t accomplish that task without scores of artists contributing originality, ingenuity and yes, genius.

Don’t forget to ask me a question at  

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Asteroids

An asteroid is a rocky or metallic space body, generally smaller than a planet and sometimes referred to as a planetoid.  In cult-television history, the asteroid has been depicted as a wandering threat which, through collision, can imperil inhabited and civilized worlds.  In other cases, an asteroid has been seen as the ideal location for an advanced outer space base or headquarters.

The original Star Trek (1966 – 1969) featured asteroids of both varieties during its third and final season.  In “The Paradise Syndrome,” Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and the crew of the Enterprise had to stop a sizable asteroid from colliding with a planet of Native American innocents.  Unbeknownst to the crew, the Indians were already protected (courtesy of a race called The Preservers) by the presence of an asteroid deflector on the planet surface.

In “For The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky,” the Enterprise encountered a sealed-off society, Yonada, inside another giant asteroid.  The asteroid actually housed a generation ship, one ruled by computer. Once again, the crew had to set right the collision course, and help the people of Yonada (descendants of the Fabrini) develop a more stable and free culture.

In Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) asteroids were also depicted regularly, and also often threatened collision, as was the case in “Collision Course.”  

In the episode “End of Eternity,” however, the Alphans found that a drifting asteroid was actually the prison for an alien called Balor (Peter Bowles).  In this case, Balor -- named for the ancient God Baal -- was a kind of devil or Satan figure (“cast our” from his evolved world of Progron), and so the asteroid represented, in some fashion, a kind of underworld or Tartarus from which he was released.  A second season story of the series, “Mark of Archanon,” saw Maya (Catherine Schell) and Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) navigating a dangerous asteroid field in an Eagle.  Yet another second story featured a jeweled asteroid called "Kalthon."

The live-action Filmation Saturday morning science-fiction series Space Academy (1977) and follow-up Jason of Star Command (1978 – 1977) also utilized a single asteroid as their main setting.  Here, a complex architectural structure was built upon the asteroid’s rocky surface, and the asteroid even boasted engines which could transport the base through space at warp speeds.  Even today, the miniature looks rather impressive.

Asteroids have frequented other space-based programming as well.  Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 – 1981) featured a segment called “The Return of the Fighting 69th” in which notorious gun-runners hid inside an asteroid belt, on a secret base there.  In the second season story, “The Golden Man,” the Searcher ran aground on an asteroid (!).

In Doctor Who (1963 – 1989), a fifty-first century structure, Titan Base, was built upon an asteroid in the 1978 serial “The Invisible Enemy.”  And in the 1975 story “Revenge of the Cybermen,” the asteroid/planetoid of Voga wandered into Earth’s solar system and became the target of the Cybermen.

On Star Trek: The Next Generation, (1987 - 1994) the third season episode "Booby Trap" saw NCC-1701-D trapped inside an asteroid belt, the last "victim" of an ancient, interstellar war.  In a nerve-wracking finale, Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) had to pilot the Enterprise out of the belt using only thrusters...lest his ship be trapped forever.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Asteroids

Not Identified: The Adventures of Superman: "Panic in the Sky."

Identified by SGB: The Twilight Zone: "The Lonely."

Identified by Carl: Star Trek: "The Paradise Syndrome."

Not Identified: The Starlost: "Farthing's Comet."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "End of Eternity."

Identified by Brian: Space:1999: "The Mark of Archanon."

Identified by Brian: Space:1999: "Seed of Destruction."

Identified by SGB: Space Academy/Jason of Star Command.

Identified by Brian: Buck Rogers: "Return of the Fighting 69th."

Identified by Hugh: Voga in Doctor Who: "Revenge of the Cybermen."

Identified by Carl: Doctor Who: "The Invisible Enemy."

Identified by Le0pard13: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Booby Trap."

Identified by Brian: Farscape:"Home on the Remains."

Identified by Chris G: Smallville: "Pilot."

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...