Thursday, February 28, 2013

Still Deadlining

That locomotive is getting closer.  Almost...done.  I'll be back soon!  Thank you for your patience.

The X-Files Promo: Gender Bender

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Pop Art: Coloring Books (Star Trek Edition)

From the Archives: Collectible of the Week: Pulsar Life Systems Center

In the year 1976, toy companies across the U.S.A. rushed to compete with Kenner's super-successful The Six Million Dollar Man toy-line.  Mattel, for instance, devised PULSAR, "the ultimate man of adventure." 

About the same size as the Steve Austin figure, PULSAR came outfitted in a nifty red and black uniform, but when you took off his shirt you could see all of his chest organs -- heart and lungs -- pumping awat. 

Also, PULSAR's head could flip-up, and different mission disks could be inserted into his brain.

PULSAR's enemy was the evil HYPNOS, and the hero's base of operation was this ultra-awesome Life Systems Center. 

The packaging described this base as a "re-energizing and reprogramming machine" and it features an x-ray screen, a "power pak and scanner," a "brain probe light," a "mission programmer," "control dial" and "remote activator."  With the Life Systems Center you could double-check X-rays, "light-scan" PULSAR's brain, "set all systems" and activate "vital organs" (which always help on a secret mission, I guess.)

Designed for "ages over 3" this Mattel toy ran on 2 AA batteries (not included).  I still have PULSAR, HYPNOS and the Life Systems Center, though the center is missing many parts (including some tubing and the actual X-Ray screen).  Mine doesn't function at all, either, and as you can see from the photos, the box is pretty badly damaged at this point.

Still, I love the whole PULSAR line from Mattel, even though I'm not entirely certain what's so special or adventurous about a guy who shows off his internal organs for all to see, or can be controlled by a disk drive in his brain.

Model Kit of the Week #18: The Spindrift

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

From the Archive: Forbidden Planet (1956)

"At times loud and frenzied, literally encircling the viewer with sight, sound, and fury, and at other times subtle and silently unnerving, Forbidden Planet is, on every conceivable level, a work of commercial art."

- Jeff Rovin. A Pictorial History of Science Fiction Films. Citadel Press, 1975, page 78.

To assess the dynamic in purely Generation X-friendly terms, Forbidden Planet is to the 1950s what Star Wars is to the 1970s.

Or perhaps what 2001: A Space Odyssey is to the 1960s.

In other words, Forbidden Planet is a visual space odyssey so involving, so expertly presented, so beautifully designed that it endures as a landmark in the history of the cinema. 

Even fifty-five years after its theatrical debut, Forbidden Planet still impresses, and on some level even terrifies, in significant degree due to the eerie "electronic tonalities" of the score devised by Louis and Bebe Barron.

Today, this 1956 film from director Fred M. Wilcox and writers Cyril Hume and Irving Block remains one of the boomer generation's most important genre touchstones, and has been referenced directly and indirectly in  a wide-range of high-profile sf productions including Serenity (2005) and Gene Roddenberry's original Star Trek (1966 - 1969).  

The film's mostly-invisible villain, "The Monster from the Id," is one that is still well-known by name in the pop culture lexicon.

At the movie's core, Forbidden Planet concerns an anxious fear not of technology itself, but of the human application of technology.  Or, more directly, human hubris.  The film reveals that for mankind (much like the ancient Krell), the stars can be our destination.  But our species could also lose everything it holds dear by failing to understand the greatest mystery of the universe: the human psyche.

Buttressed by "superior special effects" (Science Fiction Films. Bison Books Corp., 1984, page 39), Forbidden Planet truly  "thought big" and thus shines yet as one of the most imaginative and compelling movie visions of the future. 

As a kid of the 1970s,  I grew up frequently reading in the protean genre press about how Forbidden Planet was one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made.  Regardless of factors such as generational loyalty or nostalgia, those testimonials are absolutely, positively accurate.  This has been one of my favorite and most beloved films for a long time.

Delightfully, even if divorced from its Atomic Age original context, Forbidden Planet remains provocative.  The film remembers what so many science fiction visions of today fail to acknowledge; the fact that human beings -- and human problems -- must remain at the heart of any forward-thinking work of art. 

After all, when man reaches the stars he will still be man, and his decisions and wisdom (or lack thereof) will always spark the most invigorating of dramas.  Awe-inspiring special effects are one thing (and Forbidden Planet certainly deploys such effects brilliantly), but a story that connects to us, here and now, on an emotional level trumps such technical achievements every time.

"The secret devil of every soul set loose on the planet all at once..."

In the 23rd century, mankind endeavors to to conquer space, thanks in large-part to the invention of the hyper-drive, which makes interstellar travel possible.

As Forbidden Planet commences, space cruiser C-57D under command of stolid J.J. Adams (Leslie Nielson) approaches Altair IV, a world previously visited some two decades earlier by the Bellerophon. 

On approach to Altair IV, Adams and his ship are warned away from the planet by Dr. Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), who insists that he won't be responsible for the outcome should Adams ignore his counsel.

Adams sets down anyway on the craggy surface of the planet and soon encounters Robby the Robot, Morbius's highly-advanced mechanical servant.  Robby takes Adams, "Doc" Ostrow (Warren Stevens) and Lt. Farman (Jack Kelly) back to Morbius's home, where they meet the man.

The grave, serious Morbius is the last surviving original member of the Bellerophon expedition and reports that "some dark, terrible, incomprehensible force" killed the other humans on his crew.  However, he has been safe and secure in the intervening nineteen years, living alone on the planet with just Robby (his construct; something he "tinkered together") and his beautiful if naive daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis).

The ship's crew responds enthusiastically (*ahem*) to the lovely Altaira, even as Adams determines he must contact home base to request further instructions regarding Morbius.

Unfortunately, the cruiser's long range communication apparatus, the "Klystron Transmitter" is sabotaged at night by an unknown, apparently invisible foe.

In the days ahead, Morbius introduces Adams and Doc to the great archaeological find of Altair IV.  Beneath the scientist's house, inside a vast subterranean complex, stands an ancient power generator belonging to an alien race called the Krell.  The colossal machine -- whose exact purpose remains unknown -- is all that remains of the once super-advanced people.

In fact, the Krell were so advanced that they visited Earth before man even walked the Earth, and brought back samples of the planet's wildlife, including tigers and deer. 

In one impressive alien laboratory, Morbius demonstrates a Krell educational game, a "brain boost" machine that he himself has experimented on, augmenting his own natural intellect in the process.   

Alarmingly, Morbius also reports that the Krell civilization vanished in one night, on the eve of an almost divine achievement: the creation of a device that could render unnecessary all forms of physical instrumentality.

Awed and a little disturbed by Morbius's alien discoveries, Adams believes Earth  and the "United Planets" must be permitted to share in the wealth.  Morbius objects to the captain's interference, however.  

As if in response, the terrifying invisible foe returns again and again, night by night, growing ever stronger...and ever more murderous.

"We're all part monsters in our subconscious.  So we have laws and religion."

As any college level English student can dutifully attest, Forbidden Planet appears loosely based on William Shakespeare's play The Tempest (1610). 

That work by the Bard revolves around Prospero, a man who has lived on a remote island with his daughter Miranda for twelve years. 

Prospero is served by a spirit called "Ariel" and uses the auspices of Ariel's magic to create a  storm (a tempest) at sea.  The storm causes a shipwreck and draws important visitors (Alonso, Ferdinand, etc.) to Prospero's island for his unique purposes of personal and family renewal. 

Importantly, also residing on Prospero's island is Caliban (think cannibal): a monster who utilizes magic for much darker purposes. In the end, Prospero renounces magic and Ariel is set free from servitude, while Miranda and King Alonso's son, Ferdinand, are free to marry.

Shakespeare's last play, The Tempest is frequently assessed a highly-reflexive work of art because it compares Prospero's use of magic with the magic of the theater.  Prospero's renunciation of magic at play's end is thus said to represent Shakespeare's own pull-back from the stage; his professional retirement, essentially.  The Tempest is also widely considered a "post-colonial effort," drawing specific interest because of the way that Prospero treats (and mistreats?) Caliban, Ariel and the other denizens of the faraway island. 

Forbidden Planet certaily shares an abundance of common narrative and thematic points with Shakespeare's final literary endeavor.  If you substitute Altair IV for the remote island, Morbius for Prospero, and Altaira for Miranda, the comparison begins to take shape.  Captain J.J. Adams -- as love interest for Altaira/Miranda -- is at least part Ferdinand, and the extraordinary Robby the Robot fits the bill as Ariel, the servant of Morbius/Prospero. 

What seems rather unique about the transference of The Tempest's scenarios to the futuristic realm of Forbidden Planet is that the makers of this classic sci-fi film have made some very intriguing switches or substitutions.  

Here, technology -- alien technology -- replaces magic or the occult.  Robby is not a "fairy" or "spirit" like Ariel, but rather a thinking machine created from super-advanced technology; Krell technology.  Just consider  Clarke's third law, of 1961.  Advanced technology -- machines beyond our understanding -- appear as baffling as magic, right?

Furthermore, the film's "thing of darkness," to turn a Shakespearean phrase (Act II, Scene II), is positioned as a psychological, interior force, rather than as an exterior personality, Caliban.   It is the scientist/wizard's "id" in Forbidden Planet that creates problems, not a fellow and less honorable practitioner of the magical arts.  

Indeed, Forbidden Planet purposefully re-contextualizes Shakespeare's line in The Tempest that "we are such stuff as dreams are made of," so as to readily incorporate the the Id, which is one third of the human psychic apparatus as delineated by Sigmund Freud. 

Id is instinct.  Id is chaos.  It is aggression and destruction, with no overriding sense of morality, and it operates on passion and desire. Often, our nocturnal dreams  and phantasms are seen as the representative outlet of the Id, and in Forbidden Planet, Morbius -- immediately before his heroic demise -- explicitly names dreams as devious originator of his unpardonable sins. 

"What man can remember his own dreams?" Morbius asks desperately, suggesting that consciously he is fully separate from the the instinctive human urges which created the Monster from the Id and committed murder.  The truth is that the Monster here is actually a reflection of his basest, most primitive self.  Something that -- even in the era of space travel -- man cannot fully expunge.

Another substantial difference to consider when comparing The Tempest to Forbidden Planet involves the manner in which Morbius uses Robby.  Though it is clear from Morbius's demonstrations involving the robot that the scientist holds a kind of spell over him --  able to render Robby immobile with a simple voice command --  Morbius does not utilize Robby to bring visitors to his world. 

On the contrary, Morbius explicitly shuns such visitors while the cruiser is still in orbit.  This act separates him rather dramatically from his literary predecessor, Prospero.  In the denouement of both works, however, the non-human servant (Ariel/Robby) is freed from his master and takes part in the navigation away from the island/planet.  In Forbidden Planet's final scene, we see Robby at the controls of C-57D, having adjusted rather nicely to his new environs.

There are major differences in tenor as well.  In no significant or meaningful way does Forbidden Planet attempt to draw parallels between the technology of the Krell, for instance and the technological art form of film. 

On the contrary, Forbidden Planet plays its story completely straight, sometimes even underplaying moments so as to more fully erect a sense of complete, overwhelming reality about the film's universe.  Again, the idea at the root of the film is not a comparison of magic to art, but a comparison, rather, of  future technology to more current events, circa the mid-1950s.

In the Atomic Age, a literal Pandora's Box was opened thanks to the creation of The Bomb, and many people feared what could happen when mankind "tampers in God's domain."    That's the explicit fear of Forbidden Planet and the lesson to draw from the unfortunate, god-like Krell.  The film is about achieving a technological awareness that our species is not yet emotionally ready, not yet wise enough, to countenance.  No one man can possess such great power, and possibly use it wisely.

In terms of the post-colonial aspects of Shakespeare's work, again, Forbidden Planet differs significantly.  It is of interest here that both Morbius and Altaira treat Robby as a servant, but this seems no more than an oblique comment on human views of artificial intelligence, hardly applicable to the idea of post-colonial paternalism or racism.

The comparison to The Tempest appears most illuminating in understanding Forbidden Planet's theme: that of man harnessing a tool (whether magic or technology) responsibly.  The brief reference to the "Bellerophon" (the name of the first ship to visit Altair IV) expertly cements this thematic strand.  In Greek myth, Bellerophon is a demi-God and son of Poseidon who commits the crime of arrogance or hubris.  He attempts to fly Pegasus to Mount Olympus to reach the Gods, until Zeus retaliates (with a gad-fly), and Bellerophon falls back to Earth, forever broken by the experience.

Quite clearly, Morbius (a Bellerophon crew member) is the one who dramatically overreaches in Forbidden Planet, attempting to gain access to divine knowledge which is not his right nor his destiny.  Morbius's tale and Bellerophon's myth are both explicitly cautionary tales about human overreach.  In the film, J.J. Adams seems to recognize this in his impromptu requiem for the good doctor, and notes that the name Morbius will one day "remind us that we are, after all, not God.." 

Even the (unseen) demise of the Bellerophon space ship in Forbidden Planet seems to harken back to the myth.  Morbius describes how, during take off, it was pulled back and "vaporized," in flight.  Were the colonists going to share the secrets of the Krell with the outside world?  Were they reaching for Mount Olympus when they were downed?

"...a new scale of physical scientific values..."

An undeniable and perennial pleasure of Forbidden Planet is the style and epic scope of visual presentation.  This is a film that occurs entirely on a distant planet, and therefore involves both futuristic human technology and alien technology with absolutely no relation to Earth and our history or design aesthetics.

Consequently, no earthbound locations are featured -- redressed or not -- in Forbidden Planet, and nor were the film's makers able to rely on our modern digital technology (CGI).  Instead, a vast sound stage is converted into the expansive landing area of the C-57D, and some of the most impressive matte paintings you've ever seen are deployed, along with exceptional miniatures and some opticals, to diagram the world and scope of the Krell technology.

Morbius's house represents a splendid vision of what homes of the future might look like, from the inclusion of a "household disintegrator beam" disposal unit, to metal shutters, to an architectural scheme that incorporates both natural rock and plant-life right into the home's hearth. 

Although the C-57D's familiar "flying saucer" design may seem antiquated to some viewers, the interior of the ship is constructed in full, and in laborious detail: a multi-level affair with a central control station, hide-away bunk beds, and a "deceleration" post for braking (after light-speed).  And the impressive scene in which this craft lands on Altair -- and ladders descend and crew disembark -- plays as absolutely real, in part because so much of the craft's exterior has also been constructed to scale. 

Late in the film, Morbius takes Adams and Doc Ostrow on that extended tour of "the Krell Wonders" and this portion of the film is nothing less-than-awe-inspiring because of the visualizations, successfully living up to Morbius's high-minded description of a "new scale of physical values."   Morbius's matter-of-fact lecture during this tour only serves once more to effectively ground the film in a very substantial form of reality.  This is literally a tour, with a sort of teacher relating to us information about energy usage, power systems and more.  It might seem dry and lifeless to some, but the technical dialogue and professorial delivery actually serve a terrific purpose.  This approach enhances the believability of the enterprise.

This tour -- which plays as educational and real -- is a powerful contrast to the film's most visceral, memorable scene: the Monster from the Id's sustained attack upon the landed cruiser by night.  This particularly riveting sequence, with blazing laser weapons, crackling force-fields, and some unique wire-work (utilized to express the visual of spacemen caught in the grasp of the invisible monster) is still awe-inspiring and terrifying.  The famous monster is visible only sporadically -- an animated energy beast -- and thus terror is rigorously maintained.  The electronic tonalities I mentioned at the outset of the review also help out in maintaining the horror.  This planet and its monstrous denizen not only appear alien, but sound alien as well.  The monster's unearthly howl is not easily forgotten.

Some of the film's vistas also nicely eschew technology human ana alien for more natural settings.  There's an almost poetic shot and matte painting of the grave yard where the Bellerophon dead are buried.  Another shot evocative of the best pulp space art involves Altair at night, with two luminous moons hanging low in the black sky. 

In terms of design creativity then, Forbidden Planet is right off the charts.  Even today, science fiction films visualize holograms, force-fields, lasers and robots in much the same fashion as those concepts are crafted here.  Certainly, robots today are a little more streamlined than the wonderful Robby, but he remains quite impressive (and oddly lovable).  The New York Times' reviewer's words about him still hold up too.  He called Robby "a phenomenal mechanical man who can do more things in his small body than a roomful of business machines. He can make dresses, brew bourbon whisky, perform feats of Herculean strength and speak 187 languages, which emerged through a neon-lighted grille. What's more, he has the cultivated manner of a gentleman's gentleman. He is the prettiest piece of mechanism on Planet Altaire."  Easy, then, to detect why this robot has been beloved for several generations now.

In fact, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of Forbidden Planet should feel remarkably flattered.  Star Trek adopted the film's "United Planets" template lock, stock and barrel, the captain/doctor relationship, and the Chief Quinn character (a Scotty-like miracle-worker) as part of its core, while Star Wars' C-3PO -- another robot of many languages --  and Lost in Space's B9 certainly owe much to Robby in concept and design.  We call this homage, of course. 

In the annals of cult television history, even The Tempest-like tale of a father and daughter living alone on a distant planet together has been oft-repeated, in Star Trek's "Requiem for Methuselah" and Space:1999's "The Metamorph" to name but two.  It is also said that Dr. Who's serial "Planet of Evil" derives from Forbidden Planet in name and concept.  It's a story of a scientist's good-intentioned overreach and devolution into a monster on a faraway world.

Forbidden Planet is a product of its time, and that means, among other things, that no racial minorities are featured in the film at all, which today may likely trouble some folks.  Also, Alta is defined in the film largely by her reactions and relationships with the men in her life.   She goes from being an obedient daughter, to being an obedient romantic partner.  She's not the independent spirit we might expect in today's cinema. 

But of course, the film was created in 1956, not 2011 and so was a projection of the future that included the America of that era as the foundation of everything.  Despite such concerns, Forbidden Planet remains a terrific and sometimes startling example of what traditional Hollywood can achieve in the genre when equipped with a good budget, a strong and literate script, and the most imaginative effects and production design possible for the day.

Forbidden Planet isn't a movie that was just "tinkered together" and nor is it "an obsolete" thing.  Contrarily, it's a sci-fi masterpiece that both inspires and warns us about our trajectory heading out there, into the Great Unknown.  

From Prospero in the 1600s to Dr. Morbius in the 23rd century, the human condition, it seems, remains a fragile, mysterious, and magical thing.

Theme Song of the Week: The Far Out Space Nuts

Monday, February 25, 2013

From The Archive: Ask JKM a Question: Which TV Shows to Revive?

My friend and the host of The PC Principle, Troy Foreman asks me:

“If a network studio executive came to you and said we are looking at bringing back three television shows that have been cancelled. What three shows would you pick and why?

That is a really terrific question, Troy. 

However, picking only three programs is tough given all the great shows that have faced untimely demises and deserve a second chance.  Therefore, I am going to cheat a little bit in my ultimate response.

Here’s my reasoning behind cheating: If I were to pick a favorite series from decades ago, such as Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977), it couldn’t realistically return today in the exact same format.

Some series writers have passed away, others have retired, and the main actors are already ensconced in old age.  This means I wouldn’t really be selecting that specific series for a return at all, unless I could magically reverse the aging process too.   Instead, I’d be -- in essence -- selecting a re-boot or remake, which is a whole different animal.  (And yes, I’m looking forward to Space: 2099, but on those terms.).

This approach means I want a Millennium movie right now, starring Lance Henriksen, but I also acknowledge the fact that the talented actor probably doesn’t want to commit to 24 episodes a year, for the next five years.  In that event, Millennium now works better as a series of films or TV films, or even as a mini-series if we desire to keep much of the original cast intact and preserve “what is” rather than looking at a re-boot or remake.  I’d say the same thing is true about The X-Files.  I don’t believe Duchovny and Anderson would want to come back on a weekly basis, but I’d sure love to see an X-Files 3.

On the other hand, if we could get Millennium on HBO and make six or seven episodes a year with Lance Henriksen starring, I do think the series would work again on such terms, much like Dexter.

See how hard it is to pin down all these factors?  It gets complicated real fast. 

So first and foremost -- no hedging (yet...) -- I’d say, definitely bring back Millennium and Space: 1999 in a way that honors what came before, featuring the original cast where practical, and with as much of the original “creative team” as possible.

But then I have to get more detailed. 

Hence, the following paradigm:  I’d resurrect different shows at different times, at least if we’re talking about a return to weekly television and the grind of producing twenty or so episodes a year.  So instead of magically reversing the aging process, now I'm magically traveling through time, I guess.  I'd go back to the time of cancellation, and advocate for these particular programs, before series regulars moved on to other jobs, and before series creators did likewise. 

Three Weekly Programs to Bring Back Right Now (2013):

1. Veronica Mars (2005 – 2007).  After only three seasons on UPN/CW, this series still has many great stories to tell.  In just three years, Veronica Mars gave us one of the greatest, most memorable TV detectives since Peter Falk’s Columbo in Kristen Bell’s feisty, brilliant character.

The mystery format is an under-served genre on television right now, and no show has achieved as much as Veronica Mars did regarding that genre, adroitly updating the form for our high-tech age and advances like social media and cell phones. Picking up on the series now would allow us to follow Veronica as an adult (with new technology…) meaning a whole new avenue of storytelling, whether she’s at the FBI, or still working with her Dad in Neptune. 

At heart,  a colorful, brilliant (and extremely tech savvy.) updating of the film noir genre, replete with femme fatales, a private dick, labyrinthine mysteries, laconic voice over narration and other staples of the form. Noticeably, however, the mysteries featured in the series revolve around a unique central conceit: how 21st century gadgets impact crime and crime solving. Wireless computers, I-Pods, blogs, web pages, cell phones, etcetera, are crucial tools (and crucial clues) in Veronica's universe. Veronica is thus Sam Spade for the Wikipedia generation, and thus she's very true-to-life in an important sense: like many youngsters of her generation, she's "connected. Not to all the people around her, necessarily, but to the vast amounts of information now available for the grabbing...if you know how. Personally, I find this "tech" private eye conceit a welcome change from all the forensic nonsense on TV. This is a show where the detectives still do the detecting.
 Today, that background context feels much more pertinent.  Hence Veronica Mars deserves a return.

2. SGU (2009 – 2011). Space adventure is sadly absent from television today, but I just finished a re-watch of both seasons of SGU.  I am not a fan by any means of military sci-fi, or the other Stargate franchise arms (SG-1, Atlantis).  But SGU is a different animal, and in some ways separate from that franchise.  SGU only had forty episodes with which to establish itself and many of the episodes – to my surprise and deep admiration – are absolutely brilliant.  One episode late in the first season involves an artificial planet, built by advanced aliens who might be “Gods.”  Episodes in the second season looks at an alternate future for the crew of the Destiny, and also meditate on the very nature of human consciousness. 

I’ll say this to anyone who will listen and be just a little open-minded: SGU is as close to Space: 1999-style story telling as any series has gotten in thirty years (only, alas, without Eagles).   On SGU, you’ll find no rubber-headed aliens who speak English and represent political forces here on Earth, no continuing enemies, and no easy answers about the realm of deep space.  Resources are scarce; supplies limited.  Many episodes deal with finding the least-bad of several bad solutions.  And best of all, there is a mission as yet incomplete.  The Destiny was tracking a signal from the epoch of the Big Bang; a signal that could hold the secrets of our very beginnings. 

SGU is truly in an unenviable position.  The people who don’t like Stargate won’t try it because it is part of that franchise, and those who do like the rest of the franchise don’t like it because it’s too damned different.  My recommendation is to set all those expectations aside and experience, with open mind, one of the most serious, intense, and best-written science fiction series made in the last decade.  It actually delivers on many points the re-made BSG promised to do, but copped out on during the last two seasons.

3. Firefly (2002). Cut down in its prime by Fox, Firefly certainly deserves another four or five seasons on the air, at least, once Nathan Fillion is done with Castle.  The characterizations are brilliant, the cast remains young enough to be plausible as space adventurers, and Joss Whedon certainly has a “vision” for life out in “the black.” 

With the recent success of The Avengers, TV networks should be lining up to get Whedon back behind-the-cameras on this cult property.  More to the point, I’d say that our culture has finally caught up with Firefly’s meditations on freedom.  When is a man truly free?  When is government – even benevolent government – too big and too uniform to assure that individual freedom thrives?  Where does government cross the line from “helping” to “meddling” in personal affairs?   I’m not going to get into a political discussion that answers any of those interrogatives, only note that Firefly dealt with these issues on a regular basis, and could do so again. I’d love to see that.

Three Weekly Programs to Bring Back if it were the year 2000:

1. Millennium (1996 – 1999).  Chris Carter’s Millennium remains one of the most artistic, complex, and most oft-imitated programs in cult-tv history.  Other programs have seized on the procedural aspects (Criminal Minds, Profiler, CSI) or the psychic aspects (Ghost Whisperer, Medium, The Others, Miracles,) but no series has managed to so deftly combine these plot elements with intriguing visual symbols (like Frank’s Yellow House) and deeply intricate story-telling. 

enjoyed the X-Files episode that wrapped up the Millennium series, but would have preferred to see Millennium last six or seven years and really tell us the whole byzantine story of Frank Black, The Millennium Group, and Jordan Black.  Canceling Millennium mid-way through a seven year run was a grave mistake, and certainly the series was prophetic in terms of warning us about approaching “bad times.”  It did so at the height of the Roaring 1990s, but imagine if the program had still been on the air  in the era of 9/11 and the anthrax attacks. 

Essentially Millennium would have lived to see its prophecies of a looming darkness come true, at least to a certain extent.  How would Frank Black have dealt with a Millennium Group on ascent, even more deeply entrenched in power?  I would have loved to see that, but as I said above, now look to the idea of a reunion movie, a mini-series, or an HBO-styled continuation.

2. Brimstone (1998-1999).  This series starred Peter Horton as a resurrected police man, Ezekiel Stone freed from Hell to capture Hell’s worst criminals.  Stone’s boss was the Devil himself (John Glover), and the series ran for just thirteen episodes, again on Fox. 

The program began as incredibly formulaic (aptly described as demon criminal of the week), but quickly became something much more as the dead man had to see life go on without him.  He still loved his wife, Rosalyn (Stacy Haiduk), but she believed he was long gone, and was beginning to move on with her life.  The best episodes of Brimstone therefore saw Ezekiel longing again for the human world, and trying to determine his place in a reality that had passed him by…even as he still held love for Rosalyn.  

The idea, so beautifully rendered, was that in escaping his sentence in Hell, Ezekiel had found another Hell back on Earth, one where everything and everyone he knew and loved was close by, but still unreachable.  This rendered Stone a kind of post-modern Tantalus.  The end-of-days, washed-out look of the series -- which came before this canvas was de rigeuer in horror -- was also a treat.

This is one of those series that sounds high-concept, gimmicky and predictable but the actual execution made it something of a (short-lived) masterpiece.
3. Mystery Science Theater 3000 Can anyone explain to me why this series isn’t still being produced and airing on some cable or premium station, either with Mike Nelson or Joel Hodgson, or both?  There’s no shortage of old bad movies to parody, and the writing on the series was always incredibly sharp.  Sure each episode ran two hours, but that just made Mystery Science Theater 3000 event television in my household. 

Order Chinese food, pour the red wine…and watch Manos the Hands of Fate.  What could be better than that?

If I could choose a number four from this era, it would be Twin Peaks.

Three Weekly Programs to Bring Back if it were the Year 1980:

1. Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977).  The iffy science of Space: 1999 has been fussed over and dissected for nearly forty years at this point, but as my friend, mentor and series story editor Johnny Byrne always noted, that conceptual “weakness” became a great strength in terms of telling stories distinctly different from Star Trek and other space programs. 

Featuring mind-blowing visuals, the greatest spaceship design in history (the Eagles), and stories that explored the terrifying mysteries of space in an era where man was not psychologically or technologically prepared to face them, Space: 1999 gets pilloried all the time for its weirdness and unusual storytelling.  For me, these very elements remain notable strengths.  Television in the 1970s was weirdly homogenized and “safe,” and Space: 1999 – warts and all -- was anything but homogenized and safe.   Instead, it was trippy, gorgeous, oddball, unconventional, frightening, and unique.  The program deserved at least five years and a hundred episodes to continue taking visual and narrative chances (and no doubt, it would have continued provoking people all the while…).

2. Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1974 - 1975). Canceled after only one season, this series starring Darren McGavin as an investigative reporter who explored the supernatural deserved a much longer life.  Looking back on the series, one can detect how it deals with a very Watergate/mid-1970s context: a heroic journalist speaks truth to power and fights City Hall.  I love the show for much the same reasons I love Veronica Mars: the lead character is such a singular and unique individual, and provides an interesting "lens" through which to view the world.

Had the series run until 1980, Kolchak would have felt very timely and of the moment considering such 1970s frissons as the Three Mile Island disaster.

3. Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979). Bolstered by an immensely likable cast and spectacular production values, the original Battlestar Galactica was rushed into production in 1978, and offered a premise filled with potential.  It didn’t always meet that potential,  hence all the space westerns and rip-offs of popular movies (“Fire in Space” =  The Towering Inferno), but ABC should have followed through with its enormous investment, hired better writers, and committed to Galactica for three full seasons at least.  Had that happened, the series would have no doubt more frequently reached the potential that first season episodes such as “War of the Gods,” “Living Legend,” “Man with Nine Lives,” and “The Hand of God” delivered on.

Runner-up: The Fantastic Journey (1977).

Three Weekly Shows to Bring Back if it were 1970:

1. Star Trek (1966 – 1969).  I don’t think I need to expand much on this choice.  But just imagine if we had seen the original Enterprise complete her five year mission. Just imagine another fifty Star Trek episodes featuring Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley…

2. The Outer Limits (1963 - 1965).  The Outer Limits is so beloved an anthology that most people forget it only ran for, essentially, a season and a half.  Imagine now that the Control Voice had, for five years, been given the opportunity to transport us from the inner mind to the Outer Limits.  As it stands, the series is filled with inventive writing, beautiful noir photography, and stellar acting.  Who wouldn’t want more of that?  The series was revived in color in the 1990s, but it just wasn’t the same animal anymore.

3. Thriller (1960 – 1962).  Pretty much everything I just wrote above about The Outer Limits?  Now just repeat it for this Boris Karloff-hosted horror anthology, which also ran for just two seasons.

And finally, one weekly show to bring back if it were the year 1990:

Otherworld (1985).  This short-lived program about an American family -- the Sterlings --trapped in an alternate dimension, could have and should have been the Star Trek of the 1980s (at least before TNG, anyway). 

The individual episodes were extremely well-written, the show evidenced a wicked sense of humor (see: “Rock and Roll Suicide”), and even boasted a strong dollop of social commentary (“I am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”).  Otherworld lasted eight episodes, but at least six of them are pretty damn good.   The series had even begun to develop a mythology about the city of Imar and a gateway back to Earth, but it was canceled before the “arc” could be resolved.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Mines

Not Identified: One Step Beyond: "Epilogue."

Identified by Hugh: Lost in Space: "Blast Off into Space."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "The Devil in the Dark."

Identified by Chris G: Star Trek: "The Cloud Minders."

Identified by Donald G. Doctor Who: "The Monster of Peladon."

Identified by Donald G. The Six Million Dollar Man: "The Midas Touch."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999 "The Metamorph."

Identified by Hugh: Battlestar Galactica: "Saga of a Star World."

Not Identified: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Twiki is Missing."

Identified by SGB: The X-Files: "Paper Clip."

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

Television and Cinema Verities #59

"It’s funny because someone one asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.”

Director Zack Snyder discusses Sucker Punch (2011) at Film School Rejects

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Cult-TV Gallery: Guest Stars of The Starlost (1973 - 1974)

Sterling Hayden ("Voyage of Discovery")

John Colicos ("The Goddess Calabra.")

Barry Morse ("The Goddess Calabra").

Simon Oakland ("And Only Man is Vile").

Percy Rodrigues ("Circuit of Death")

Walter Koenig ("The Alien Oro," "The Return of Oro").

Donnelly Rhodes ("The Implant People")

Antoinette Bower ("The Beehive")

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...