Sunday, March 31, 2013

Monument(al) Destruction #4: Mars Attacks (1996)

Cult-TV Blogging: Star Blazers (1979) Episode #5

In the fifth episode of Star Blazers (1979), the damaged Argo is dragged into the gravitational pull of the planet Jupiter.  After passing through a layer of dense clouds, the Argo unexpectedly finds a “floating continent” and sets down there for repairs.

Unfortunately a Gamilon fighter base is also secretly stationed on that very continent, and a terrifying trap is sprung.  Wildstar does battle with an enemy fighter, but for Argo to escape the Gamilons, the wave motion gun must be tested for the first time. 

Fortunately, the gun works. 

In fact, the weapon is so powerful and destructive that it obliterates not just the Gamilon base, but the entire floating continent.  Captain Avatar concludes that the ship “used too much power” and must be “very careful in the future.”

Meanwhile, the Gamilons are stunned at Argo’s power, and now the game is truly afoot.

Only 361 days remain until Earth’s destruction…

The Argo’s shakedown or trial-by-fire continues in this episode as the wave motion gun is deployed for the first time.  The power of the thing is incredible, and a little frightening.   Watching this episode, I wondered if that was actually the point.  Much of Japanese genre entertainment features terrifying technological advances, from Gojira’s (1954) Oxygen Destroyer to Star Blazers’ wave motion gun. No doubt, this is a result of the country’s well-founded fear about nuclear warfare.

The implicit question of any such weaponry is, simply: what kind of man does it take to control a technological innovation of such terror and raw power?  In this case, fortunately, Captain Avatar is that man, and he is depicted as wise and eminently reasonable.  His response to the deployment of the powerful weapon is to pull back; to think about the future and the proper application of the device.  He promises to be very careful in the future. This is indeed a reassuring strategy, and again, I  find myself drawn to Avatar.  I like his sense of calm and “centered-ness.”

I won’t make any more comments this week about Argo being able to traverse the distance from Mars to Jupiter without the star drive (after harnessing that incredible power to reach Mars from Earth), since I covered it thoroughly last week.  I will note, however, many of the beautiful images this week, like Argo listing to one side in the rainbow-hued atmosphere of Jupiter, or the white-hot flower and destructive flare of the wave motion gun.  I also love the visuals of Argo skimming the ground and lifting off - its nose ascendant -- as it leaves the floating continent.

Instead, I’ll only note that this animated series has done a good job so far of getting viewers on the side of the beleaguered Star Force.  Although the wave motion gun is a terrifying thing, there’s also a sense of accomplishment and triumph in the destruction of the bad guys.  Although the Argo defeated the ultra-menace missile and survived an engagement with a Gamilon carrier, this is the first instance in which the Gamilons have really taken it on the chin, and had their arrogant confidence shaken.  They were clearly not ready for the Argo to bear so much power, and it’s good to see the conquering aliens rocked back on their heels, at least a bit. 

The Argo, we now see, can at least defend itself on its long journey to Iscandar.  But after damage on Mars and repairs on Jupiter, the great battleship better get moving…

Star Blazers promo

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Monument(al) Destruction #3: Independence Day (1996)

Cult-TV Gallery: Pamelyn Ferdin

In Star Trek: "And the Children Shall Lead."

In Shazam!: "Thou Shalt Not Kill."

In Sigmund The Sea Monster.

As Laura, in Space Academy.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Herculoids: "Mekkor" (1967)

In The Herculoids (1967) segment called “Mekkor,” an army of small flying robot machines land on Azmot and, under the direction of a buried command unit, begin to take out the indigenous opposition. 

Protected by force-fields and armed with freeze rays, these mechanical invaders incapacitate Igoo and capture Tara.   Fortunately, Zot and Zandor find the army’s “hidden power source” -- or the command unit -- and cripple the enemy once and for all. 

When Dorno asks what will become of the dormant machines, Zandor replies: “They’ll stay where they are.  Someday the forest will claim them all…”

Dorno gets a funny line of dialogue in “Mekkor.”  He sees the diminutive alien robots and notes with astonishment: “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

Except, of course, Dorno and the other Herculoids just repelled an invasion by similar small aliens in the previous episode, “The Pod Creatures.” 

Other than that (recent) encounter, he’s never seen anything like these robots before, I suppose.

Once more, “Mekkor” reveals almost no background about its particular story.  Why have the robot aliens landed on Azmot?  Why did they choose this location for an  invasion?  What is there, on that wild planet that they could possibly want or need? 

“Mekkor” might have worked better as a story if a line or two of dialogue established that Azmot is home to some vital material, substance or ore that the aliens need to mine or collect to survive. 

Instead, “Mekkor” depicts another unprovoked, unmotivated attack on Azmot, and another campaign that the Herculoids successfully and quickly repel.  The most interesting aspect of the tale is Zandor’s final line, which establishes the primacy of nature over technology, a recurring theme in this Hanna Barbera Saturday morning program. 

Nature will survive, endure, and even encroach.  Technology will soon become…trash.

The Herculoids Intro

Saturday Morning Cult TV Blogging: Shazam: "Thou Shalt Not Kill" (September 21, 1974)

In “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” the third episode of Filmation’s live-action series Shazam (1974 – 1976), Pamelyn Ferdin (1959 - ) plays Lynn Colby, a girl who has learned that her favorite horse, Beckett, is scheduled to be put down.  Her Aunt Jenny’s last will and testament specifies the horse’s death, and a local rancher Nick Roberts, (John Karlen) -- who was thrown from Beckett on a ride -- is insistent the execution be carried out.  Unless someone can help, Beckett will die before sundown…

Billy Batson (Michael Gray) and Mentor (Les Tremayne) encounter Lynn, and with the help of her father, the local sheriff (William Sargent), search for some way to stop the legal death sentence.  At first they try a peaceful demonstration to show support for Beckett, but finally Captain Marvel (Jackson Bostwick) is needed on the case.  After Nick Roberts deliberately injures Beckett when the horse escapes from custody, Captain Marvel swoops in…

“Thou Shalt Not Kill” follows the template of the previous two Shazam episodes to the letter.

Billy and Mentor consult the (animated) Elders, who tell Billy about his upcoming day, and then provide a quotation that will prove relevant and meaningful to the crisis du jour. 

In this case, the Elders tell the teenager that “there’s always a way to work things out by reason rather than by impulsive action.”  Aristotle is the literary/historical figure of the week, and he is quoted by the Elders as having said “Even when laws have been written down, they are not always to remain unaltered.”

Tell that Antonin Scalia, Aristotle.

“Thou Shalt Not Kill,” features two notable guest stars.  The first is child actress Pamelyn Ferdin who, without exaggeration, was the most prominent child actor circa 1969 – 1977, especially in terms of genre appearances.

Ferdin appeared on Star Trek (“And the Children Shall Lead,”) Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, and Sigmund the Sea Monster, and was a regular character on Filmation’s Space Academy (1977).  In terms of feature work, Ferdin appeared in such horror films as The Mephisto Waltz (1971) and The Toolbox Murders (1979).  A generation also loves her for her role in Charlotte’s Web (1973) and her turns as Lucy in A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) and It was A Short Summer, Charlie Brown (1969)

The second guest star this week is John Karlen, who plays the horse-hating Nick Roberts like a psychotic nutcase.  Karlen is also a familiar face to horror fans from his appearances on Dark Shadows and in Daughters of Darkness (1971) and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1971).

Both guest performers fully commit to the less-than-inspiring material offered here, and raise the stakes a notch in the process.  Fortunately, Captain Marvel saves the horse, Beckett, (with a stay of execution from a local judge) and nasty Nick Roberts is defeated…and left to twirl his moustache.

Next Week: “Lure of the Lost.”

Friday, March 29, 2013

From the Archive: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China involves an American hero treading into a mysterious, non-Western world where he feels like an “outsider.”  That world, in this case, is not literally another planet, but rather the mystical and dangerous world of Chinese black magic. 

So once more, movie audiences get an on-screen representative of “us” countenancing a strange land and strange customs, but Big Trouble in Little China leverages tremendous humor not only from the peculiarities of this culture clash, but from the rather dramatic presentation of the American hero in question.   

To wit, Kurt Russell’s truck-driving, self-important protagonist, Jack Burton, is a swaggering, blundering John Wayne-voiced blow-hard.   He’s Jack Blurtin’, so-to-speak.

And yet Jack also reveals (in the words of the screenplay) “great courage” under stress, and his heart is always (well, almost always...) in the right place.  I have always maintained that the accident-prone but intrinsically heroic Burton represents director Carpenter’s most positive silver screen depiction of American dominance upon the world stage, especially compared with the perspectives showcased in the dystopian Escape from New York (1981) and the 1980s social critique, They Live (1988).

I also wrote in my book The Films of John Carpenter that “it’s all in the reflexes,” to quote Jack. So Big Trouble in Little China serves as Carpenter’s almost reflexive tribute to the style of Chinese martial arts films.  Thus, this is a movie that rests largely on Carpenter's unimpeachable film-making instincts, his fully-developed directorial muscle or chops.  The action sequences -- particularly an early one set in a Chinatown alley -- represent a visual tour de force.   The final battle in the film is one of the most giddy, over-the-top, visually-dynamic set-pieces put to celluloid in the 1980s, and a high point for the fantasy/action genre.

But here's the big secret in Little China: the film is much more than action too.

What is Big Trouble in Little China, then?   Well, the film is one part culture clash, one part genre pastiche and all camp humor. Writing for the Village Voice, Scott Foundas suggested Big Trouble was a “far more enjoyable mash-up of classic Westerns, Saturday-morning serials, and Chinese wu xia than any of the Indiana Jones movies, with Kurt Russell in full bloom as Carpenter's de rigueur hard-drinkin', hard-gamblin', wise-crackin' loner hero—a bowling-alley John Wayne.”

And as critic Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine (“Everything New is Old Again”), Big Trouble in Little Chinaoffers dollops of entertainment, but it is so stocked with canny references to other pictures that it suggests a master’s thesis that moves.”

And boy, how Big Trouble in Little China moves.  It never stops moving, in fact.

This is one frenetically-paced spectacular, and the feeling of unfettered delight Carpenter engenders simply from the film’s manic sense of speed is a remarkable thing.  One scene near the climax that begins with a close-up of a hammer pounding an alarm bell escalates to such intense velocity that your heart threatens to leap out of your chest.  And naturally,the moment ends on a joke.  After running a gauntlet of monsters, bullets, and opponents, Jack Burton is nearly a red traffic light.

Frankly, I’ve never understood why so many critics rejected this film upon its release in the summer of 1986, but as I always argue: don’t bet against John Carpenter in the long-run.  Big Trouble in Little China has ably survived the slings and arrows of bad reviews and stood the test of time to emerge one of the most beloved cult movies of the 1980s. 

I think this is likely so because of Jack Burton.  Other films have been set in distinctive "underworlds," and many movies have been set against the backdrop of Chinese myth or legend.

But there is only one Jack Burton.

“Everybody relax. I’m here.”

When his friend, Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is unable to re-pay a bet, surly truck driver Jack Burton (Russell) tags along to the airport to pick up Wang’s betrothed, Miao Yin (Suzee Pai).  Unfortunately, the green-eyed beauty is abducted right out from under the duo by a Chinese gang known as the “Lords of Death.”  Miao Yin is then delivered into the custody of an ancient warlord and cursed spirit called Lo Pan (James Hong).  Lo Pan believes that if he marries and sacrifices a green-eyed woman, he will be rendered flesh again, after two-thousand years as an insubstantial ghost.

Jack and Wang pursue the gang to Chinatown and become embroiled in an all-out gang war.  Jack’s parked truck is stolen from an alleyway, and the theft draws the skeptical American further into the realm of Chinese black magic.  Soon, Jack teams-up with an elder sorcerer, Egg Shen (Victor Wong) and a crusading lawyer, Gracie Law (Kim Cattrall) to stop Lo Pan and recover Wang’s would-be bride and his own ride.  This quest takes Jack deep underground, into the Hell of Upside Down Sinners, into Lo-Pan’s secret lair, and into fierce battle with monsters, warriors and ghosts of all shapes and sizes.

“May the wings of liberty never lose a feather.”

As the The Village Voice review notes, Big Trouble in Little China can be interpreted as an example of the Chinese literary and film form known as the Wu xia, or simply “wuxia.”  

In stories of this type, a young hero survives and overcomes tragedy in his life, undertakes a heroic quest, and ultimately emerges as a great fighter and an adult, all while maintaining a strict code of honorable behavior.  To state the matter broadly, “wuxia” is the Chinese equivalent of the western-based “heroic journey.”  It’s a rite-of-passage tale, and one that heavily features a romantic component.

Big Trouble in Little China conforms with many details of the established wuxia formula if and only if the viewer considers Wang Chi the film’s prime hero figure.  Wang loses his bride-to-be, undertakes the quest to save her, and becomes – during the course of the film – a real hero.   Each time he fights, Wang becomes stronger until, by film’s end, he is actually an equal to Lo Pan’s invincible minions, the Storms.  

Of course, the quality that makes Big Trouble in Little China so unusual as wuxia and as action film is that the capable hero – the man on the quest and with all the heroic capabilities – is but a sidekick or second fiddle to the star, the bumbling, accident-prone Burton. 

Thus, in some significant but very funny and subversive way, Big Trouble in Little China questions and teases long-standing Hollywood assumptions that America and Americans must always stand at the center of the cinematic action, and must always play the “hero.”  This film suggests there’s another tradition and source of inspiration for cinematic adventure too.  

After all, George Lucas raided the film oeuvre of Akira Kurosawa to create Star Wars, so here John Carpenter pays tribute to Eastern-produced martial arts fantasies and their unique style of heroic storytelling. 

Again and again, then, Big Trouble in Little China invites us to view our "hero" Burton in distinctly funny and non-traditional terms.  He faces the implacable bad guys with bright red lip-stick marring his face, for example.  Far from striking fear in the heart of his enemies, Jack’s battle cry actually renders only himself unconscious.  At one point, we see Jack miss his intended target with a knife throw, and on several occasions he expresses fear and uncertainty about the creatures and world around him.

In spite of all this, Jack is certainly persistent and loyal and yes, heroic. So you get the feeling that, when held in contrast to the film’s Asian characters, Carpenter’s depiction of Jack charts an intriguing new global dynamic.  

Specifically, American might and bravery joins with Asian complexity for a great victory against evil.  Jack is a big and strong American, grounded in stereotypical western concepts, whereas the Asians are more introspective and ambivalent. In other words, Jack seems to live on the surface of reality; reality as his (limited) imagination weighs it. This quality enables him to see clearly “right” and “wrong.”  By comparison, the Chinese characters dwell in a more ambivalent, complicated self-doubting state; one where modernity requires them to eschew the beliefs they know to be true.

In terms of the film’s characters, the Americans in Big Trouble in Little China are defined basically by what they look like and what they say.  Jack is a muscle-bound, athletic truck driver and looks every bit the traditional hero.  Gracie Law is a beautiful lawyer and simultaneously a walking parody of the old Hollywood film cliché: the lady crusader.  “I’m always poking my nose where it doesn’t belong,” she enthuses at one point, effectively defining her own purpose in the narrative.  Both Jack and Gracie boast an exaggerated sense of self-importance too.  At one point, Jack blusters into a room and says, flat-out, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

The Eastern characters, by contrast, seemed defined…differently.  On the surface, Egg-Shen appears to be a little old man and bus driver, but in reality he is a powerful sorcerer.  Wang Chi is a skinny, diminutive man who works in his uncle’s Chinese restaurant, and yet is actually a warrior of superb skills.  The Chinese heroes seem to possess layers of self-awareness, modesty and contradiction that Jack and Gracie do not.

Kurt Russell does a mean John Wayne impersonation as Jack, and that choice underlines the film’s unique approach to heroism.  When we think of John Wayne, we think of the idealized American hero, a man from a time when “men were men” and  when morality was as plain as black and white.  But Jack Burton drives his truck into an alleyway in Chinatown in this film, and all bets are off.   Suddenly, he might as well be on another planet, just like Flash Gordon because he’s asked to countenance an ethnically diverse world where all the truths he holds dear about the nature of the universe may no longer apply.  Certainty is harder to come by.  

If John Wayne had met the moral ambiguity of the late 1970s or 1980s, perhaps he’d be Jack Burton. 

The front-and-center placement of the anachronistic John Wayne character in a drama about foreign mythology and spiritual is the very thing that makes Big Trouble in Little China more than just your average adventure film, but rather a commentary on our shifting position in a globalized world.  In the 1980s, when it looked like the East (particularly Japan) was rising to eclipse America in terms of innovation and technology, along came Big Trouble in Little China to -- with tongue-in-cheek -- critique our place in the new world order.  

I’m feeling a little like an outsider here,” says Jack.  “You are,” is the reply from the Chinese.  But then, as they must readily admit, the Chinese protagonists need Jack.  Their destiny rests in his “capable hands.”   He is the one they require (with his black and white views of the world?) to bring "order out of chaos."

Jack has a lot of catching-up to do in the film in terms of understanding Chinese lore and mysticism, but in the final analysis, who ultimately takes out Lo Pan?

When Jack does save the day (because he was born ready, remember), he does so, literally, with time-worn reflexes.  Lo Pan tosses a knife at him, and Jack instinctively tosses it back, with fatal results.  When Jack states “it’s all in the reflexes” it’s a deliberate comment on America too.  Our reflex – our instinct - is to act heroically, even if we don’t always think our way fully through a problem before jumping in.  We may have to play catch up, like Jack, but when big trouble rears its head, the world counts on us to do something...and we invariably deliver.  

Moving with breathtaking speed and with ample good humor, Big Trouble in Little China is much smarter than it tends to get credit for.  It takes the long-standing cliché of American Exceptionalism -- and both questions and re-affirms it for the age of globalism.   But if the delightful, one-of-a-kind Jack Burton – warts and all – is an insult to our traditional American images of strength and power as some film scholars insist, then, to quote the great man himself, “Go ahead…insult me.” 

Because when the "chips are down," you can count on Jack Burton.  

(Not to mention John Carpenter).

Movie Trailer: Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

20th Anniversary X-Files Blogging: "Little Green Men" (September 16, 1994)

The X-Files goes big and deep with its second season premiere, “Little Green Men,” which aired on Fox television September 16, 1994.

The story, by James Wong and Glen Morgan, concerns an existential crisis for Mulder.  Without the X-Files as an overriding purpose, he has difficulty holding on to and maintaining his belief system.

Mulder’s crisis of faith is played out in “Little Green Men” on a much bigger scale than many season one episodes of The X-Files, suggesting a budgetary boost, perhaps. 

Whereas many X-Files episodes of the first season were contained in terms of setting and action (“Ice,” “Beyond the Sea,”) “Little Green Men” opens with a trip through the universe itself, proceeds to a foreign location (to Arecibo) and culminates with a dangerous car chase in the jungle.

The story also fills in the blanks regarding Mulder’s sister, Samantha.  To wit, “Little Green Men” features a flashback of her abduction, which happens to occur right in the middle of news coverage regarding the Watergate Scandal, a formative event in creator Chris Carter’s youth.

Although aliens appear briefly -- and opaquely -- in “Little Green Men,” the episode nonetheless impresses because it involves the particularities of Mulder’s heroic quest, and a very low-point on that journey. 

Also, as one might expect, the episode’s opening montage -- a kind of “cosmic trip” through the stars -- features a healthy dose of social commentary regarding an America in the 1990s that has lost the will, the faith,  and the “tools” to achieve the big things of the decades previous.

The X-Files have been shut down by the F.B.I., and Agents Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) are reassigned to teaching duties at Quantico and wiretap surveillance, respectively. 

Mulder experiences a crisis of faith regarding his lack of evidence concerning alien life, even as he recalls the fateful night in 1973 when his sister, Samantha (Vanessa Morley) was apparently abducted by extra-terrestrial visitors. 

Mulder’s enthusiasm for the cause is rekindled, however, when Senator Richard Matheson (Raymond J. Barry) reports that there may be an opportunity to make contact with aliens at the satellite installation in Arecibo, in Puerto Rico.  That automated installation has apparently received a transmission from an extra-planetary source.

Meanwhile, Scully tracks Mulder down to that location…but she is not alone.  Agents of the conspiracy are concerned over her whereabouts, and a heavily-armed UFO retrieval team is en route to Arecibo to intercept Mulder before he determines the truth.

“Little Green Men” opens with a spectacular and emotionally moving montage regarding man’s first attempts to visit other worlds, and contact other life forms.  A Voyager spacecraft moves through the loneliness of our solar system, and Mulder’s sad-sack voice recounts the program’s hopeful expeditions to the final frontier.

This extended montage reveals the human achievements (mathematics, music, art…) recorded for posterity on a golden record aboard Voyager, and remembers the human drive and ambition to always seek the next horizon. 

But then, the optimism stops, even as Voyager leaves our solar system for the Great Unknown.

“We wanted to believe,” Mulder notes, but “the tools were taken away.”

It isn’t difficult to discern the critique here, one concerning the smallness of modern politics.  Why was America able to put aside partisanship and do big things in the 1960s and 1970s, big things like the Apollo program?  Why, in the 1990s, did we stop looking outward?  Why did we stop seeking answers?

One answer, of course, rests with another image of modern technology featured in “Little Green Men”:  the Watergate tapes as seen on television in the 1970s flashback with young Mulder and Samantha.  Watergate is thus -- at least implicitly – positioned by The X-Files as the event that poisoned American politics, and made a generation see government not as a vehicle for going where none have gone before or other great achievements, but as a secretive impediment to freedom and liberty.

Mulder feels frustration and anger in “Little Green Men” because he understands that “the tools” to prove the existence of alien life have been taken away by bean counters.  One such tool, of course, is The X-Files. 

But the other and perhaps more important one is trust and faith in government, the trust and faith that would give rise to increased NASA budgets, and a new focus on the stars instead of more earthbound concerns. 

Somewhere along the lines, a lot Americans stopped believing…

Like many episodes of The X-Files I have written about here lately (particularly “Darkness Falls” and “The Erlenmeyer Flask”), there is a strong basis in fact for the plot point that powers much of “Little Green Men, particularly an alien signal emanating from space.

Specifically, a scientist featured in the episode name-checks with Scully the famous “Wow Signal” of August 15, 1977.

That signal was so named by Jerry Ehman who, while working on a SETI project at Ohio State University, wrote “Wow!” in the margins of a report that described a 72-second narrowband radio signal of non-terrestrial origin.  The signal was believed to originate somewhere in the constellation Sagittarius.  It was not the end-all, be-all of evidence regarding alien life in the universe.  But it was the beginning of evidence about it. 

Notation of this 1977 signal is sort of the “other shoe dropping” in terms of “Little Green Men’s” overall social critique.  Right here -- in the Wow Signal -- is real-life evidence that the search for extraterrestrial life is not a hopeless endeavor or a waste of time and resources.  And yet, the U.S. Government withdrew funding for SETI in the mid-1990s choosing once more to focus on earthbound matters rather than to keep watching the skies. 

In other words, the tool that gave us the “Wow Signal” has been taken away.

In terms of the series’ story arc, almost nothing significant happens in “Little Green Men.”  The X-Files remains closed, and Mulder finds no hard evidence of alien life. 

Yet the story is absolutely vital in terms of character growth because it depicts Mulder at his weakest ebb, and reveals the character -- even without the tools he needs -- picking himself up, dusting himself off, and renewing the well of faith within

Mulder’s example may very well be a message to audiences in the 1990s, and beyond as well.

If we want a U.S. that can go to Mars, build a moon-base, mine the asteroid belt, or achieve other big things, we’re the ones who must renew our faith, and renew the call to such action

We can either be the cowering nation of terrified people who believe that we need our automatic weapons for the day the government descends on us with drones and black helicopters, or the nation that casts its eyes firmly, hopefully, and irrevocably on the stars…and prepares for the hard work of building a better future and a better planet.

In comparison with many first season X-Files entries, which often play like brilliant one-location, low-budget horror movies, “Little Green Men” looks, feels, and plays more like an epic, big-budget  motion picture.  The season premiere plays on a larger scale, features intense action, and increases the playing field for our favorite agents.  “Little Green Men” is basically a test run of The X-Files format on a bigger canvas, and the experiment is a pretty resounding success.

Next week, one of the best episodes of the series: Chris Carter’s “The Host.”

X-Files Promo: "Little Green Men"

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Cult-TV Flashback: Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected: "No Way Out" (August 24, 1977)

The cult-television Valhalla is populated by programs beloved and despised, old and new, popular and obscure.  One of the most obscure series -- and one of the most highly-sought for an official DVD release -- is the 1977 program Quinn Martin's Tales of the Unexpected.

This horror anthology series ran for just eight episodes from February to August of 1977, and featured William Conrad as the host, in voice-over form only.  The basic premise of the series is that there are twists and turns in our lives, and we often can’t see them coming or prepare for them.  Many episodes feature surprise endings, or ones with unusual “twists.”

Perhaps the most memorable episode of the eight segments is the final one aired, “No Way Out,” written by James Schmerer and directed by Walter Grauman. 

It aired on August 24, 1977, and is set in 1952.  It stars Bill Bixby as a Navy man, John Kelty who is too busy with his career and his hobby -- sailing -- to give much love or attention to his young son.  On the eve of a sea trip with his friend, Richard (Dean Stockwell), John’s wife tries to shine a light on the problem.  “I think that boat’s your real love,” she tells him.  She isn’t really joking, either.

So John and Richard set off on a weekend boat trip, and promptly disappear into the Bermuda Triangle.  When John emerges from a terrifying storm as the sole survivor, however, he discovers that it is the year 1977. 

He has missed the last twenty-five years with his wife and son. Time has passed him by.

At first, John refuses to accept the fact that he has somehow become lost in time, but when he sees a 1977 calendar hanging on a hospital wall, he realizes the truth.  John attempts to track down his wife, only to learn that she has moved on.  She remarried some years earlier, and now seems quite happy, and cherished.

And then -- in an emotionally-wrenching scene – John discovers his son is now grown-up, and a successful cardiologist. 

Worse, John’s son is making precisely the same mistakes in his family life that his father did.  He is not spending enough time with his son and wife, and is focusing entirely on his business.  So -- pretending to be an “old” friend of his father’s -- John tells his adult son: “The circle completes itself, doesn’t it?”  He urges his boy to spend time with his children.  That it is that time, and that relationship that matters.

Finally, John decides to go back to sea, to attempt to find the portal back to his life in 1952.  If only he can get there, he swears that things will be different this time.  He won’t neglect his family…

The episode’s final, shocking moment reveals, alas, that no matter how hard you try…you simply can’t go home again.

To use a rough analogy, “No Way Out” is sort of the Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected’s version of The Twilight Zone’s stand-out episode, Walking Distance.”  In that story, as you may recall, a man, played by Gig Young returned to his home town and found he had traveled back in time to his own childhood.  But, as he learned the hard way, every customer -- every child – gets only one summer.  You can’t run away to the past.  You can only make the present better.

Of course, “No Way Out” concerns not going back, not returning to a cherished time long gone, but rather traveling forward, and the realization that if you are not present in your life – moment to moment – it will pass you by in a flash. 

The episode is a good reminder, as well -- to busy Dads, especially -- that there is nothing more important than spending time with their children while they are young.  John Kelty is occupied by his own wants and needs to the exclusions of his son’s interests.  And yet his son grows up to be a mirror image, making the same mistakes.

The finale of “No Way Out” is unexpectedly dark and grim, and a direct refutation of John’s mantra that “if there is a way in, there must be a way out.”  His failure to pinpoint that way out is, again, an explicit reminder to audiences that you literally can’t make up for lost time.  Time moves in only one direction: forward.  So again, don’t squander the present.

“No Way Out” is by turns intense and tragic.  Kelty is desperate to return home, desperate to get back that which he once failed to value, and his story is a very human one.  We all make mistakes, but “No Way Out” is terrifying because Kelty makes a mistake his life can’t recover from, and which impacts his family.

For fans of seventies sci-fi franchises, this story not only provides a unique variation on Twilight Zone-style storytelling but features a famous toy of the era.  At about the twenty-one minute point, Kelty goes to a toy store in a Califonia mall, and there, displayed (upside down) is a Mattel Eagle One toy from Space:1999 (1975 – 1977).

I’ve covered Quinn Martin’s Tales of the Unexpected before on the blog (way back in 2008, I think), and in my book, Terror Television (2001).  The series certainly had its share of stinkers (like “A Hand for Sonny Blue” and the two-parter, “Force of Evil,”) but yet it also boasted some remarkably effective shows, like “The Nomads” and this, its most emotionally-charged entry, “No Way Out.”

I’d love to see this series available on DVD.  It’s a piece of genre history that is too often forgotten, and I think modern audiences would still enjoy “No Way Out,” in particular.

Pop Art: Dune Cover Edition

20 Years Ago: The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)

“They are an army unlike any other, crusading across the stars toward a place called UnderVerse, their promised land, a constellation of dar...