Sunday, June 30, 2013

Star Blazers Episode #15

In this episode of the 1970s animated series, Star Blazers (1979), the Argo faces another space trap: a galactic whirlpool.  

According to Captain Avatar, this space phenomenon is caused by the impending collapse of a star, and eventually transforms into a black hole.  "It draws everything into it," he warns.

Avatar's fear proves apt when the Argo encounters a Sargasso Sea of wrecked spaceships in the whirlpool's eddies.

Then, another threat soon presents itself.  

Lysis of Gamilon takes command of a military outpost from another officer named "Volgar" and launches a fleet to pursue and destroy the Argo.  Wildstar wants to stand and fight the Gamilons, but Avatar wants to escape from the whirlpool before the ship is forever lost in its twisting currents.

Finally, Starsha of Iscandar transmits a message that provides navigational aid to the Argo, and helps the Star Force escape from the galactic whirlpool.  

Wildstar realizes that Avatar made the right call, and that if they had remained to fight the Gamilon armada (consisting of thousands of ships...) the Argo would have never lived to complete its task...

In many substantive ways, this episode is a repeat of last week's episode about the Octopus Star Group.  

There, Argo had to escape from another space trap (a giant space storm), find an escape route (a channel through clear space), and continue its mission. 

Morale aboard ship was drooping, and Mark Venture and Derek Wildstar were at odds over how to proceed.  

That's precisely the dynamic of this story, with the whirlpool replacing the Octopus storm, and Wildstar and Venture squabbling over whether to fight or plunge forward, towards Iscandar.

The big difference between these narratives involves the resolution.  Here, beautiful Queen Starsha intervenes and saves the Star Force.  She leads the Argo to safety with her  video transmission, after complimenting the bravery of Argo's crew.  The episode also boasts a unique visual in its last act: A vision of Starsha is replaced by an image of Nova, as if the two female characters are somehow one in the same.

Speaking of Nova, she is again being used by the series writers in a primarily care-taking role.  In the last episode, she was the morale officer, planning a party to lift spirits.  This episode opens with Nova delivering and serving coffee to the bridge crew.  Given that she is an important member of the Star Force, this isn't the most flattering picture of the character.

Finally, I got a kick out of the segment of the episode this week involving the Gamilons. Lysis takes over from Volgar, and he immediately re-decorates (violently...) Volgar's lurid office.  Lysis takes down all these weird art-works and paintings, that, frankly, seem a little...unsavory.  However, this choice in art appreciation is entirely appropriate given the character's name.  Volgar = "vulgar."

Only 273 days remaining...

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Google+ Hangout on Millennium in One Hour!

Don't miss it: I'll be on Google+ Hangout with the masterminds of the Back to Frank Black campaign, Brian Dixon, Adam Chamberlain, Troy Foreman and James McLean in just one hour!  From 10:00 am EST to 11:00 am EST, we'll be having a great conversation!

Join us as we discuss Millennium (1996 - 1999), the Back to Frank Black book, and more.

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Star Trek: The Animated Series: "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" (October 27, 1973)

STARDATE: 1254.4 

The U.S.S. Enterprise travels to the center of the galaxy on a scientific mission to investigate the "creation of matter" in that mysterious region of space.  Unfortunately, the ship becomes trapped in a "matter-energy whirlwind" and tries to make for the eye of the storm.

Instead, the Enterprise leaves time and space as "we understand it" and emerges in a parallel dimension where the laws of physics don't operate as Mr. Spock expects.  The ship's chronometers stop. The engines die. Life support fails...

...but a strange, devil-like being called Lucien appears on the bridge and saves the Starfleet crew from certain death.  Lucien then takes Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy to the surface of his planet, Magus-Tu, and reveals that his people long-ago visited Earth, and are responsible in some way, for the legends involving devils and demons.  He also reports that his people are calm, contemplative, and lacking rivals or competitors.  

While Spock realizes that magic in this alternate universe is like "science" in the prime universe, and that "belief" is as potent as "energy" is in our reality, Lucien's people capture the Enterprise crew and hold all aboard accountable for the grievous savagery of humanity, as demonstrated by their burning of Lucien's people at the Salem witch trials in 1691.  Kirk defends his species during this trial, noting that humans have evolved in the hundreds of years since that tragedy.  He offers as evidence data-recordings of the Enterprise's missions.

Lucien's people decide to free the Enterprise crew, but punish Lucien, and Kirk speaks up for his friend, who has been sentenced to "limbo for all eternity."  

But Kirk must question his friendship with Lucien, however, when he discovers that the alien's real name is...Lucifer.

I've always considered Larry Brody's "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" to be one of the best and most provocative episodes of Star Trek: The Animated Series.  

This is so, I believe, because the intelligent teleplay asks the viewership (largely children...) to reckon with the idea that not all stereotypes or stories are true, and that just because something looks different from the norm, or even monstrous, that appearance doesn't equate to evil intent.

In this case, Lucien is simply an alien who visited Earth.  Yet he is a recipient of "victor's justice" meaning that because he was expelled from Earth by his enemies, they wrote the myths about him...and literally "demonized" him in the process. 

They transformed him not into a "real" being with flaws and foibles, but an icon of evil, the Biblical Devil.  

Some would quibble with this episode's idea of, essentially, "sympathy for the devil," and yet it is not the Biblical Devil which Kirk and crew face here, plainly.  Instead, Lucien is an intelligent alien who has been "cast" in the Devil role unfairly, simply because he lost his particular war or struggle.  

Accordingly, Kirk and his crew must look past mythology and bigotry to judge Lucien not on what others say about him, but on his own actions.  And Lucien's first action was to save the Enterprise and her crew.

So Kirk dismissively tells Lucien's people "We're not interested in legends," a comment which establishes, among other things, the idea that religion -- any religion -- is no more than folklore or mythology.  Men and women of Kirk's time have outgrown the need to believe in such mythology.

I've always felt, as well, that "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is in the inspiration for the Star Trek: The Next Generation premiere episode, "Encounter at Farpoint."  

There, Captain Picard and his crew are captured by a being of God-like powers -- the Q -- and transported to an historical period (the 21st century on Earth) to be tried for the various and sundry crimes of humanity.  

That's indeed what happens here, with Kirk defending humanity in a recreation of Salem, circa 1690.  And again, like Picard does later, he's battling creatures that possess God-like or so-called "magic" abilities.  

The similarities are impossible to ignore, especially since Captain Kirk and Captain Picard offer the same argument for humanity's continued existence: We once were savage, but we have evolved. Judge us on who we are now.

Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) also owes something to this story from the Animated Series, it seems.  Like that film, this episode involves a dangerous trip to the center of the galaxy; a trip that ultimately uncovers a God/Devil who ultimately turns out to be no more than another alien.

"The Magicks of Megas-Tu"  represents the kind of adult storytelling that the original series excelled at, and it demonstrates remarkable maturity and humanity.  This is not a shoot-em-up or traditional adventure, but a story about basic matters of human existence, such as the nature of religion, and our responsibility -- as adults -- not to judge others based on their appearance, or on the "testimony" of folklore.

Like the equally-brilliant "The Survivor," which asked us not to be limited in our perceptions by an alien's "form," "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" is a daring and forward-looking episode of this early-1970s cartoon series.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Don't Forget: Back to Frank Black/Millennium Google+ Hangout 10:00 am Saturday

Just a reminder: I'll be moderating a Millennium-centric Google+ Hangout tomorrow (Saturday, June 29th) at 10:00 am with the Back to Frank Black gurus, Adam Chamberlain, Brian Dixon, Troy Foreman, and James McLean.  

We'll be discussing the series itself, the exciting new book that explores all aspects of the Chris Carter series, Back to Frank Black, and the state of the campaign to make a Millennium movie.  The hang-out will last about an hour, and I'm sure the time will fly.  

Please submit questions to me today, or tomorrow morning leading up to the event at, and we can pick them up and answer them during the event.

Hope to see you there!

Cult-Movie Review: Flash Gordon (1980)

Each time I write about Mike Hodge’s 1980 movie Flash Gordon, I fight the temptation to describe it as merely “a guilty pleasure.” God I hate that term.

This Dino De Laurentiis movie is occasionally flawed, I readily concede, and yet it is also a feast for the eyes, the mind, and for the funny bone too. The truth is that Flash Gordon is one of those genre movies that I absolutely adore, but for which it is difficult to enunciate a defense on purely intellectual grounds.  

So bear with me.

The core of the problem, I submit, is Flash Gordon’s pervasive tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, or rather, our society’s perception of how humor ought to be used as a dramatic tool.

 It’s a strange thing to write and acknowledge, but because a work of art is funny, it is often disqualified by general audiences from discussions regarding quality or thematic consistency.  It's much easier  to dismiss the work of art in question as a "lark" or as being "silly."  This truth, however, flies in the face of the fact that to craft a genuinely funny film is exceedingly challenging, and requires, among other qualities, a certain pace and meticulous attention to detail. 

A funny movie that goes too far risks seeing its entire reality fall apart.  And if that happens, you don’t end up with a movie. You end up with a mess. 

Although many will certainly quibble with my assessment, I find that Flash Gordon hits exactly the right notes in terms of its application of tongue-in-cheek humor. A largely European supporting cast underplays the humorous aspects of the adventure splendidly, with the exception of Brian Blessed...who goes big (BIG!) to rather dramatic effect. 

Yet for me, the movie works effectively because when it does wax serious, the sense of danger to our heroes is palpable.  If the camp humor were utilized in destructive, mood-shattering fashion, Flash Gordon's fate would not matter to us one whit.  And yet there's that classic scene here with the "Woodbeast" of Arboria.   You may recall it. As a rite-of-passage on Arboria, young Treemen must insert their naked arms into a hollow tree stump where a poisonous, horribly slimy creature dwells.  If it the creature bites "death is certain, but only after tortured madness."

This sequence is brilliantly-shot and edited so that we see Flash and his opponent, Barin, repeatedly reaching down inside a dark stump -- towards the camera -- as the unseen monster threatens to strike.  For a movie in which so much is so big, operatic, and campy, this scene remains remarkably intimate, and down-to-business.  The fear of sudden, horrible death is tangible even though -- as audience members -- we fully expect Flash will survive the day.

More trenchantly, the film's understanding of situational humor seems absolutely legitimate. Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) does not believe she is being funny when she dutifully reminds Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) that only fourteen hours remain to rescue the imperiled Earth.  But were she able to step back a little, Dale might notice she is standing inside a floating silver city in the clouds, surrounded by winged Hawkmen, and wearing an overly-ornate headdress and skimpy gown.  Or that her boyfriend must fight an opponent (with a whip!) on a gyrating platform managed by an over-sized "remote control."

As audience members, we see and register what Dale simply cannot from her perspective: the notion that her dilemma is gravely serious and yet, at the same time, utterly ludicrous. She’s an American travel agent trying to save the Earth with the help of a football quarterback, for goodness sake! 

Though widely derided (especially in terms of the TV series Batman), a campy-styled sense of humor actually permits a tremendous amount of self-reflexivity. The utility of this approach is that a campy narrative may operate simultaneously on two tracks of "reality."  Flash Gordon indulges in this approach, revealing characters locked in a life-and-death struggle while we, as experienced movie goers and consumers of stories, sense how silly it all is. 

 Because it indulges so fully in camp humor, however, we should not make the mistake of believing that Flash Gordon means nothing, or that it is an inconsequential lark. Dave Kehr at the Chicago Reader seemed to have some inkling of this fact. He notes that although “the film lapses too often into easy facetiousness, much of it feels surprisingly substantial.” 

That sense of the substantial arises, I would estimate, from the film’s stellar production design and wardrobe, which both allude to a real world context: the rise of fascism in Europe leading up to World War II. 

Also – and this is virtually impossible to deny – the film is veritably energized by the pounding Queen score, which revs up excitement and engagement on a wholly unexpected and delightful level. 

Between the score, the costumes, the sets, the action, and the humor, Flash Gordon is a gory, sexy, spectacularly good time at the movies.

“I love you, but we only have fourteen hours to save the Earth…" 

On distant Mongo, the warlord Ming the Merciless (Max Von Sydow), visits death and destruction upon the Earth in order to test the planet's level of intelligence. 

Meanwhile, on Terra Firma, scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) sees through the so-called “natural” attacks and realizes that his world is under attack. With a real estate agent, Dale Arden and professional quarterback, Flash Gordon in tow, Zarkov launches his makeshift rocket through the “Imperial Vortex” to confront his planet's unseen assailant. 

Once they arrive, the Earth trio discovers that Ming rules the disparate kingdoms of Mongo with terror, plus the high-tech mechanisms of a totalitarian police state. With the help of Ming’s daughter, the sensual Princess Aura (Ornella Muti), Flash hopes to unify the planet and take the fight to Ming himself. 

Although King Vultan (Brian Blessed) of the Hawkmen and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) of the Tree People of Arboria resist Flash at first, they soon see the wisdom of his campaign for unity.

“What is this? Humanity!” 

Flash Gordon, the comic-strip by Alex Raymond (1909 – 1956), premiered in 1934 as a competitor for the popular Buck Rogers. The world at the time was marching inexorably towards World War II and many artists in various disciplines were responding to the demands of austerity that dominated Europe following World War I. Out of this context arrived a new vision for the evolution of man and his world: Futurism, or more specifically, Italian Futurism. Art Deco -- with its ornamental and ornate architecture and interior design -- grew out of this movement, at least in part. 

Although aesthetically Futurism was supposed to involve the “modernization of the State” with technology, youth, and speed, it eventually became connected, alas, to the rise of fascism. Many of the futurists in relatively short order became fascists, or their work was adopted by fascist states and leaders. 

In terms of Flash Gordon, the comic strip involved an American polo player and Yale graduate, Flash Gordon, who, through the mad toiling of scientist Hans Zarkov, came to interface with a world of, essentially, Italian Futurism. That world was Mongo, a "foreign" realm ruled by the ultimate despot, Ming the Merciless. The overarching story, in some way could be described as “An American Abroad” set in a sci-fi setting and yet commenting upon the frightening, dark political tide threatening to consume Europe, and the world itself. 

A true American patriot, Alex Raymond enlisted to fight in World War II, even dropping the Flash Gordon comic to do so. But retrospectively, the comic certainly appeared to be prepping the world for American involvement in the battle against Hitler and fascism. For at its core, Flash Gordon is the tale of an American who goes overseas and allies himself with foreigners (like Prince Barin or King Vultan) to stop the aggression of a tyrant. It’s about people who are “unlike”or diverse learning to work together for a common good. 

Given this background, the true star of Hodges’ Flash Gordon (1980) may very well be production designer Danilo Donati, who crafts the film’s costumes and sets with great fidelity not only to Raymond’s comic-strip details, but to the tenets of Italian Futurism.

In this context, Ming’s court makes a kind of sense, and even seems to possess a kind of implied history. It’s not just a realm of ornate but weird costumes and strange creatures.  Rather, it’s a world that has been lulled into submission by the visual “beauty” of this form of fascism.  

In short order, we see that Ming boasts a standing army, a secret police force (commanded by Klytus), and oversees a gigantic surveillance state. The roving camera that spies on each citizen’s every word and action, however, is not some utilitarian device with a zoom lens. Rather, it’s a floating golden orb with wings. The gorgeous, "Futurism"-fueled form of this insidious “tool” has overtaken the dark meaning behind it. The same is true of the execution chamber where Flash nearly loses his life. It’s a transparent dome atop a beautiful ledge…overlooking a sky of mauve and blue clouds.  What's apparent from both details is that form has overtaken function so much so that the function hardly matters.   

Life on Mongo -- in Ming's State -- is beautiful.

Only far below, out of sight, does the form of Ming's police state become more utilitarian. Kala’s men, for instance, wear utilitarian glasses – glued right to their eyes – to spy on the citizens of Mongo above. They sit at a bulky computer station, in a long, nondescript row. This is the “hidden” portion of Ming’s empire: the gears that keep his monstrous machine in motion. 

Ming himself seems relatively unconcerned with how things work in his world, leaving the day-to-day atrocities to Klytus and Kara.  Ming is a tyrant who is “bored” and who cannot formulate a reason for his terrible activities. When Flash asks him “why do you attack us?” Ming responds, “Why not?” He has become so accustomed to the beautiful trappings of power on Mongo that he doesn’t even possess an agenda, except to keep his citizens fighting one another so he can continue to live the good life. For Klytus, Hitler may have shown “great promise,” but for Ming, it’s simply good to be king. He is destructive almost arbitrarily, simply because he can be so.

Flash Gordon -- the quarterback/leader of a team -- offers a pointed contrast to Ming. His constant refrain is: “I want to rescue my friends and save the Earth…Why don’t we team up?” In actions and deeds, Flash shows the Hawkmen and Tree Men that he is “for real,” so that they can ultimately conclude that “there is something finer in the universe than Ming’s law.”   

In short, Flash brings American Exceptionalism to Mongo.  As a child of our nation's egalitarianism, Flash reveals to Barin, Vultan and the others that liberty is worth dying for.

Zarkov is an important and necessary part of this equation too. Where Flash talks generically about “teaming up” to fight Ming, Zarkov understands the idea of self-sacrifice as a “rational transaction,” a fair trade for eliminating the likes of a Ming…or a Hitler. What is worth fighting for, Zarkov, suggests is the diversity and glory of man’s intellectual history: the works of Shakespeare, The Beatles, Einstein’s philosophy, the Talmud. All of these texts or ideas arise from diverse sources and ethnic groups but simultaneously join under the umbrella of “humanity.” 

Just as the disparate kingdoms of Mongo can join under together under a common umbrella of purpose to stop the tyrant.   

Flash Gordon’s sense of humor may obscure the message of the film for some, but the production design and wardrobe suggest the nature of the threat ("beautiful" fascism unloosed).  Furthermore, the oft-criticized script by Semple is actually abundantly literate, showcasing visions of Zarkov’s “youth” in Nazi Germany as a reminder that Ming’s evil is not just a fantasy threat, but something that man must, from time to time, deal with right here on Earth.

The film’s dialogue, which explicitly mentions “police states” and the like does not shy away from comparing Flash’s efforts on Mongo to America’s efforts in World War II to bring unity to nations separated by language or ethnicity.

Putting aside such thematic leitmotifs, Flash Gordon never ceases to make me laugh. In the opening scene on a plane, Flash hopes to impress Dale, who is afraid of flying. But even the supportive Flash can’t find encouraging words when the sky suddenly fills with bright red light and a strange “cloud” obscures the sun. It’s humorous to see even the gung-ho Flash rendered speechless by the utterly unexpected. The film’s first action sequence in Ming’s court is choreographed like a football game, and also generates chuckles...and excitement. 

The best scene, in terms of humor, may be Ming and Dale’s wedding. The high priest recites a vow that Ming shall take Dale as his Empress “of the hour,” and that he must promise “not to blast her into space.” 

Not surprisingly, Ming has trouble committing himself even to that level of civility. 

Between these guffaws, the film unceasingly awes with spectacular set designs and vistas. We see the woods of Arboria, the court of Vultan, and the interior/exterior of the war rocket Ajax. We travel through the Imperial Vortex, even. Although today some of the matte-lines may prove bothersome, the film was actually awe-inspiring in terms of visual effects back in its day.  The final battle is an incredible spectacle.

If Flash Gordon boasts any dramatic flaw it is that, at times, Flash himself often seems like a tourist in his own adventure, led around by the likes of Zarkov and Aura from one amazing destination to another. He never seems truly in charge of his own destiny, or persuasive enough to unify this “cosmic” Europe, as it were. 

Still, Flash Gordon remains such a fun and impressive space adventure, even thirty-three years after it failed at the box office. Every time I watch it, Flash Gordon provides a “galaxy of pleasure.” 

All creatures watching this sexy, funny, epic space film will -- without exception -- want to “make merry."

Movie Trailer: Flash Gordon (1980)

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Next Week is The Lone Ranger Week!

Next Wednesday, the new feature film version of The Lone Ranger premieres nationwide in theaters, and stars Armie Hammer and Johnny Depp.

To celebrate the return of this mythic hero, next week will be The Lone Ranger Week here on the blog.  I’ll be writing about the classic TV series (1949 -1957) starring Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels, the 1981 movie, Legend of the Lone Ranger, toys, collectibles, Filmation’s 1980 animated series and much more.

So join me for The Lone Ranger Week bright and early next Monday morning, won’t you? 

Hi-yo Silver, away…

The X-Files 20th Anniversary Blogging: "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" (October 13, 1995)

“Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” brings a new philosophy to The X-Files, straight from one-of-a-kind writer Darin Morgan (“Humbug.”)

Previously, on The X-Files, we have seen commentary about belief vs. skepticism, and religion vs. science.  However, this episode introduces to the series the concept of caustic, cynical nihilism; the notion that life is without intrinsic purpose or value, and perhaps even absurd to its core.

In a series that often concerns faith, commitment, truth, and “never giving up,” this (brief) turn towards nihilism nonetheless -- and quite unexpectedly -- works splendidly, in part because writer Morgan permits his own creation, Clyde Bruckman (Peter Boyle) to take and hold center stage. 

Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) are still the same characters we have long-known and loved, but Bruckman holds and rivets the attention, and proves a touching and funny protagonist in the process.  Peter Boyle earned an Emmy Award for his remarkable turn in this episode, and deservedly-so.  He creates a heart-breaking, unforgettable character here. 

At one point in “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” Mulder trenchantly asks Boyle’s character: “If the future is written, why bother to do anything?”

Bruckman’s reply -- that Mulder “gets” the existential crisis of his life -- is not only funny, but intensely sad as well. Because he knows “the end,” Bruckman is a man who has given up on the journey.

Indeed, this is a man cursed by his own belief system -- and by his mysterious gift of insight -- in a way that he simply can’t overcome. Bruckman has neither a Scully nor a Mulder to play or debate against in his day-to-day life, and instead walks a lonely, isolated road.  His opposite number -- his misshapen reflection, in fact -- might be said to be the episode’s killer, who has utilized his brand of nihilism to make his life meaningful…through negation, or murder.

A serial killer (Stu Charno) is murdering fortune tellers and other professional prognosticators, and Scully and Mulder investigate the case. 

When the pop guru known as the Stupendous Yappi (Jaap Broeker) fails to come up with any useful or workable leads, Mulder and Scully recruit real-life psychic/would-be-victim/insurance salesman Clyde Bruckman to help.

Bruckman boasts the unusual (though limited…) ability to predict the exact manner of death for any individual he comes in contact with.   This knowledge has come to haunt him, and take the joy from his life.

When the killer finally comes for Bruckman, Mulder and Scully must protect him from a fate he has already witnessed in visions and dreams.  But is it a fate he’s willing to avoid?

In addition to Boyle, author Darin Morgan won an Emmy Award for his brilliant work here, and it is plain to see from his episodes of The X-Files and Millennium (1996 – 1999) that his writing reflects a pretty singular world-view. 

Morgan’s episodes of the two Chris Carter series often feature a new hero or protagonist from outside the traditional format and dramatis personae.  That hero is Bruckman here, and Jose Chung in “Jose Chung’s “From Outer Space” and “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense.”  The four devils in “Somehow, Satan Got Behind Me,” also cleverly invert the premise of Millennium, and reveal the story of Frank Black from the perspective of his worst enemies, there the protagonists of sorts in the drama   

Uniquely, all these “new” series protagonists boast the cynical strand of nihilism I note above, in this piece’s introduction. 

These characters are outsiders who believe that life is absurd, or pointless.  Similarly, Bruckman and Chung come across as jaundiced and highly-intelligent older men who, despite their existential beliefs, desire nothing more than to be loved and remembered fondly. 

Both “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” and “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense” end with the untimely death of this particular brand of Darin Morgan character; a death that is noted and memorialized by more familiar elements of the series proper, either Scully or Frank Black (Lance Henriksen), thus engendering that desired sympathy and even love.   

This scenario, in both cases, suggests that human immortality arises not via the after-life (which some psychic phenomenon seem to promise…), but rather through the simple auspices of human memory.  Clyde Bruckman and Jose Chung will be remembered because they were, in the end, loved.  It’s as simple as that.

It is not only life itself that seems absurd in this episode of The X-File. Psychic or paranormal abilities are also viewed through this rubric of cynical nihilism.  Such powers are seen through a ruthlessly, mercilessly logical filter, so much so that they seem absurd on their face.  Yappi is a sensational show-man, nothing more.  He uses clues he knows will come back as "hits" (like a corpse being deposited near water).  In other words, he's a charlatan.

And Bruckman’s abilities are so limited that he can’t use them in any pro-social way.  He can’t even utilize them in an avaricious way, like picking the winning Lotto Numbers.  The message here seems to be that if psychic powers do exist, they are a burden, and of no use to anyone, but especially the percipient.  In Greek Myth, Cassandra was a figure who had great insight, but who was not believed.  In The X-Files, Clyde Bruckman is a figure who has terrible insight, and is haunted by it.

Morgan also applies his apparent belief system to the bread-and-butter of The X-Files: behavioral science.  Here, again and again, fortune tellers and agents of law enforcement attempt to classify the killer as a man who doesn’t know why he does the things he does, as if that description is in any way useful.  Theyse men and women seek to put him in a little box, and, because he has been placed there, “understand him.” 

But Clyde Bruckman -- the typical Darin Morgan outsider -- cuts through that kind of classification talk by noting plainly and simply that the killer is a “homicidal maniac.” 

He’s insane and murderous, and that’s the only sense or knowledge to be gleaned from him.  Again, if all of life is predictable -- if you know its end -- then knowing the “why” of someone’s behavior becomes less crucial, or even necessary.  If there is such a thing as predestination, than free will doesn’t exist. The killer kills simply because he must, because he is sick and murderous.

By pointing out this simple fact of his behavior (which the killer apparently appreciates), Bruckman (and thus Morgan) expose fully the notion that a person can be totally understand or analyzed by another human being.  This belief fits in with the nihilistic streak I detect in Morgan’s work because it suggests that those who seek answers -- just like those who bother to do anything when the future is already known -- are on a wild goose chase of sorts.

In an even more wicked way, Morgan forges a connection here between psychic prognosticators and behavioral scientists.  In the end, both are just reading tea leaves, he seems to state.  They aren't really telling us anything we don't already know, or at least intuit.

For all its humor, then, “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is an unremittingly dark episode of The X-Files. It features disturbing imagery of a cute little dog lapping up its dead owner’s blood, and views of a human body progressively rotting in the grave.  The episode climaxes with a devastating suicide.

In that final, bleak act, however, one might glean if not hope, then some understanding.  Even if belief is a delusion, it’s a delusion that keeps us going, in some important sense.  Scully and Mulder are driven to go on living by their desire to know the truth, either through the paranormal, religion, or science.  Nihilism and absurdity -- whatever their appeal to the intellect -- don’t offer much by way of hope. Hope is the one thing Bruckman could never feel, even though he saw a vision of himself being cared for tenderly by Scully. To make that vision a reality, he had to die.

Morgan’s contributions to both The X-Files are Millennium are paradoxically both the funniest and the darkest installments, in some ways.   The humor cloaks the existential terror most of the time, but not universally.   And indeed, that’s part of this episode's charm.  “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose” is haunting and thought-provoking, and more than a little sad.  Clyde seems cursed by the Gods (or by life itself), and so the episode might more aptly be titled The Tragedy of Clyde Bruckman.

In terms of on-going character touches, this episode introduces Scully’s dog, who we see on a recurring basis through “Quagmire.”  And it also introduces the idea that Scully is immortal, a concept continued in the sixth season entry “Tithonus.”  Mulder’s sex-obsession, heretofore indicated by his love of porn, is also given a shout-out when Bruckman determines the manner of his eventual death: auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Finally, this episode acts as a humorous book-end to “Beyond the Sea.”  In that first season installment, Mulder tricked Boggs (Brad Dourif) by providing him a patch of fabric from his own basketball shirt, in hopes that Boggs, the psychometrist, would assume it was an item belonging to the victim.  He fell for it.  In “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” Bruckman picks up a swatch of fabric and states it is from the same basketball Jersey.  Mulder off-handedly tells him he’s wrong...

Next Week: “2Shy.”

The X-Files Promo: "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose"

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What I'm Reading Now: Un-Dead TV: The Ultimate Guide to Vampire Television

"Once a two-dimensional monster with no voice of its own, the vampire has evolved into something much greater - and television has played a critical role in the creature's enduring hold on the human psyche. It's through their undead voice that storytellers explore the social mores of society, confronting taboos, fears and prejudices..."

Brad Middleton, Un-Dead TV (Light Unseen Media; 2012), pgs 11 - 12.  (Review to follow in August).

Collectible of the Week: Dune Spice Scout (LJN; 1984)

Although the bizarre, intriguing (but ultimately worthwhile) David Lynch adaptation of Dune (1984) doesn't exactly seem fodder for kids toys, the company LJN released a whole line of fun merchandise based on the colorful film.

In addition to six poseable action figures, LJN produced this extraordinary, large scale vehicle, the Spice Scout.  The box describes the Spice Scout as a "giant desert vehicle with swivel steering and action command cockpit."

The box also describes the Dune scenario (which might be necessary for younger kids, who couldn't follow all the details): 

"The spice scout roams the desert stand on the planet called "Dune."  It is used in mining the powerful spice, hunting giant sandworms, and fighting evil enemy forces."

The Spice Scout is scaled to the action figures (Paul, Feyd, Rabban, Sardaukar, The Baron and Stilgar) so you can "place any Dune figure (not included) inside and push the scout into action. When danger strikes, lower the battle shield."

You could also "raise the command cockpit and swing the hidden weapons into position," all while making use of the"giant sand gripping rear wheel."

Personally, I love the designs, costumes and worlds of David Lynch's Dune, and treasure the LJN spice scout, in addition to the well-made action figures, of which I still own two (Stilgar and Feyd). The figures are larger than the average 3 3/4 action figures of the Star Wars Kenner era, and so this vehicle is practically gigantic.  I wish I had collected all the Dune toys available back in the day, including the giant sandworm figure...

Model Kits of the Week: Dune (1984)

Board Game of the Week: Dune (Parker Bros; 1984)

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Remembering Richard Matheson: Ghost Story/Circle of Fear: "The New House" (1972)

Ghost Story/Circle of Fear (1972 – 1973) represents the TV collaboration of William Castle, the great 1950s exploitation showman responsible for “Emergo” and “Percepto,” and Richard Matheson, brilliant scribe of The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), The Omega Man (1971), The Legend of Hell House (1971) and Somewhere in Time (1980), among others.

The TV series -- a one-hour horror anthology -- ran for just one season on NBC in the early 1970s, and starred (as host) actor Sebastian Cabot.  

He played “Winston Essex,” the “old world aristocrat" and owner of the upscale hotel/bed-and-breakfast called Mansfield House.  

In each episode of Ghost Story, Mr. Essex would reveal an unusual and macabre story about his various guests.  This aspect – the host and his world – were dropped from the series entirely when it transitioned into Circle of Fear after fourteen hour-long episodes.

The pilot episode for Ghost Story, titled “The New House” (or “Pilot”) was based on the English author Elizabeth Walter’s story She Cries, and it aired originally not as part of the series proper, but earlier – on March 17, 1972 -- as the first hour of a two-hour special entitled Double Play.  The second hour presented the pilot for the Trucker series Movin’ On.

In “The New House,” directed by John Llewelyn Moxey and adapted by Richard Matheson, the Travis family moves into its newly constructed modern home, which sits atop the peak of picturesque Pleasant Hill.  

When expectant Eileen Travis (Barbara Perkins) begins hearing ghostly noises at night, she grows convinced that the new home is haunted.  She soon visits a local historian, De Witt (Sam Jaffe), who tells her that her home is actually built over a two-hundred year old gallows, the very spot where a defiant, unrepentant thief, Thomasina Barrows (Allyn Ann McLerie) was hanged on March 2nd, 1779.  Upon her death, she swore to one day return…

Disturbed by her frequent night terrors, Eileen goes into labor and has a beautiful baby girl.  Things seem happy for a while, until a dark night when Mr. Travis (David Birney) can’t seem to get home from work, and Thomasina makes her ghostly presence known…

“The New House” is an effective horror tale that, in some ways, reflects the aesthetics of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  Here we have another pregnant woman, spending her days alone, worrying about things.  And in that state of anxiety, she encounters the supernatural.  Of course, from the perspective of others, Eileen Travis seems unstable, and it’s easy to write  off that instability as a sign of her “condition.” 

In fairness, Mr. Travis is not evil, as Rosemary’s husband was in the classic Polanski film, but he’s not very useful to have about., either  He tries to patiently respond to his wife’s situation, but never cares enough to stay home from work, for instance.  Thus, Eileen’s feelings of isolation are powerfully-wrought in the episode.

Some of the visuals are nicely vetted too.  Eileen brings home a creepy statue at one point in the story, and when she hears ghostly singing inside the house at night, the visuals suggest the statue is, itself, vocalizing.  There are also some nice cockeyed pans across the exterior house, ones that suggest, in essence, that the house is off-balance, off-kilter.

The punctuation of all the horror comes when the ghost of Thomasina Barrows appears (in a thunderstorm, naturally), but we don’t see her face.  

Instead, we observe a shadowy, still figure in a long shot, at some distance from the camera.  The Travis’s maid actually speaks to her, believing she is speaking with Eileen, not a ghost.  

It’s a creepy, creepy moment as you come to realize that the malevolent ghost is arranging to be alone in the house with Mrs. Travis and her innocent baby.

“The New House” also doesn’t fail in terms of commitment to the genre.  Something diabolical and awful happens at episode’s end regarding Thomasina’s encounter with Eileen and her daughter, and Ghost Story doesn’t back down from it.   Although I didn’t see the episode when it originally aired (I would have been three…) I can certainly imagine watching this pilot at night -- in the dark -- and being creeped the hell out.

In terms of series continuity, this first Ghost Story installment, introduces audiences to Winston Essex, the “host” of Mansfield House. He’s quite different from other series hosts, namely the macabre Alfred Hitchcock and the ironic Rod Serling.  Instead of taking on a tone of detachment or even black humor amusement, Essex exhibits concern and sympathy for the characters in his plays.  “I wish they weren’t going there,” he worries for the Travis family, off to their new home on Pleasant Hill.

Also, Essex describes himself as a “devious dinosaur” and discusses the incompatibility between Gothic tales and “the nuclear age.”  In a real sense, that’s the terrain Ghost Story wishes to tread.  

The series hopes to bridge the gap between modern reason and science, and our ancient, campfire fears of ghosts and goblins.  This idea recurs several times throughout the short-lived series.

Importantly, “The New House” sets its horror inside a modern house, one that has never been lived in before.  This home boasts all the modern conveniences of the 1970s, from telephones to dish washers.  

And yet despite such comforts, something terrifying and ancient – from an age past – infiltrates the family’s life.   I think this is an idea that Matheson loved (think: Somewhere in Time): that the past lives on in each of us.  We may think we can escape it, but we can't.

Remembering Richard Matheson: The Twilight Zone: "Death Ship" (1963)

During The Twilight Zone's fourth season in 1963, Rod Serling's trademark anthology was expanded from half-an-hour to an hour in length. 

Most of the episodes produced during this span are not included in syndication packages or annual marathons (except for the Robert Duvall episode, "Miniature"), because they don't fit the half-hour time slot. For Twilight Zone's fifth and last season, the format was restored to the more famous 30-minute period, and many of these hour-long installments faded to undeserved obscurity.

And the general meme on the fourth season, on the hour-long shows, is that somehow the experiment failed. That the episodes are not as good, or as powerfully wrought as the shorter installments. The thinking goes that at a half-hour, Serling sets up the premise, expands it just enough, and then delivers the closing whammy or twist before you grow fatigued with the narrative. It's a perfect thirty-minute structure. 

By contrast, goes the conventional wisdom, at an hour length, you get mired in the story-line and sort of wander off the point.

I haven't watched all of the fourth season shows recently, but based on my viewing of "Death Ship," I'm not sure that the latter argument holds much water. Written by Richard Matheson and directed by Don Medford, "Death Ship" is the sort of creepy sci-fi story I'm almost predisposed to love. Why? Well, as much as I love, adore, revere, and honor Star Trek and what it has accomplished over the long years, I prefer to view the realm of outer space not as a giant ocean separating countries, where starships stay in touch with Earth by subspace radio and serve a sort of cosmic United Nations, but as something more...enigmatic

Again, this is merely my personal preference, but I especially enjoy the concept of outer space as terrain of mystery, awe, and terror...a realm that we -- even as intelligent and technologically-advanced human beings -- are not quite able to understand at this point.

Solaris, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Space:1999 and yes, Richard Matheson's "Death Ship" all seem to view outer space in these fascinating terms. I think space adventuring is great in any form, but especially so when the mysteries unlocked at the end of the universe have some bearing on our understanding of ourselves and the very nature of existence. I'm not talking about morality (Star Trek was unmatched in focusing on the morality of our species), but the very core ideas of "what are we?" "what is existence?" and so forth.

And those are the sorts of interrogatives raised in "Death Ship."

As the story begins, it is the far-flung year of 1997, and three astronauts from the rocket bureau man the exploratory vessel E-89 as it seeks out habitable planets for colonization. 

Captain Ross (Jack Klugman), Lt. Mason (Ross Martin) and Lt. Carter (Frederick Beir) observe the surface of one distant planet, and spot something odd: something metallic glittering in the jungle far below them

Excited at the prospect of man's first alien contact, they land E-89 (the spaceship from Forbidden Planet [1956] redressed...) and discover that the "glittering" on their scope is actually something more frightening, the wreckage of an Earth spaceship.

The astronauts head out to the ruined ship and find that it is of the same class and construction as their own vessel, E-89. When they enter the wrecked craft, they discover the bodies of the three-person, human crew. Disturbingly the corpses are actually...their own. 

The crashed ship is actually E-89 and somehow it crashed on the surface of this alien world, and Ross, Mason and Carter were all killed during the event. Now, thanks to the auspices of the Twilight Zone, the astronauts have caught up with their grim fate.

At first, the thoughtful and determined Captain Ross thinks that they have "circumnavigated" time and somehow arrived on the planet in their own near future, perhaps as the result of a time warp. He makes an interesting decision. If their future involves a crash, he suggests, then he won't order the crew to launch. Ever. He decides to stay on the planet for an unlimited duration instead, because he knows he will eventually discover a "logical" explanation for what they've found on the surface. He just has to puzzle it through. "Eventually, we'll find an answer," he suggests.

But then another odd thing occurs. The longer the crew remains on the strange planet with their corpses aboard that duplicate ship, the more the crew begins to "fall apart," hallucinating a very different existence. Lt. Carter imagines he is home and visits his house on the very day of his funeral. He finds his wife's mourning attire laid out across his bed, next to a telegram from the rocket bureau announcing his demise.

Lt. Mason also experiences what might be a delusion. Outside, on the surface of the planet, he encounters his daughter and wife. They are happily sharing a picnic lunch lakeside, and Mason feels compelled to join them. In short order, however, he is torn out of this pleasant reality by the committed and stubborn Captain Ross, who reminds him that his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident long, long ago.

Captain Ross rallies the troops. He believes he has discovered the logical explanation (because everything has a logical explanation, he says). 

Everything that has happened on the mysterious planet is an alien trick, he tells his men; a ruse to keep humans from colonizing there. It's mind control...illusion.

Ross is so convincing in his "logical" explanation of the events on the planet that Mason and Carter believe him. The three men recommit to their mission, with great trepidation lift off, and head once more for the stars.

Miraculously, the spaceship does not crash on ascent, as the crew feared it would. E-89 makes orbit successfully. The three men have escaped their fate, or so it seems. The trap below cannot snare them.

But then the determined and intellectual Captain Ross orders they return to the planet surface to collect specimens and complete their assignment. After all, he says to his men, he understands the alien trick now, and won't be fooled again.

Ross sets the controls for re-entry, Carter objects and...

...Well, to tell you any more of "Death Ship" would be to ruin the denouement of one of the truly great (and perhaps not very well-known) Twilight Zone episodes. 

What occurs finally on that distant planet, and the explanation to the riddle -- the very thing that renders E-89 "a latter day flying dutchman" -- has nothing whatsoever to do with time warps or alien tricks. 

Instead, as you may have guessed at this point, the solution to the mystery grows out of the characters, and in some aspect, the so-called "cult of personality," the willingness of some men to follow leaders...because they want to believe something pleasant so badly. 

"Death Ship" is a great story because it arrives at the shocking ending sideways. The episode features all the trappings of futuristic science fiction drama, with discussions of time travel and alien life, but as is so often the case on The Twilight Zone (and in the work of Richard Matheson) the resolution of the enigma involves the very nature of man; the metaphysical not the technological.

In crafting a tale of a protagonist and captain who sees what he wants to see, and the men who follow him in that vision, Matheson's "Death Ship" takes the mysteries of outer space and links them right back to the essential nature of humanity, right here on Earth. For awhile it looks like the story is about "fear," the "death fear" as one character describes it, but the tale actually involves the acceptance of the unacceptable in our lives...and in our deaths.

As is typical for The Twilight Zone, "Death Ship" is presented in stark black-and-white and beautifully shot. There's one terrific, highly cinematic shot in which the camera prowls through a hole in the damaged vessel's wrecked exterior, and then scans the ruined command center, finally settling on the three corpses. 

There's some nice, unobtrusive use of split-screens and photographic doubles in another scene, and the performances are all intense and very good. Jack Klugman, in particular, does well in the role of the stubborn commander. One wouldn't automatically think of Klugman as astronaut timber, but he is intense and charismatic here. We pin our hopes on his character; just as his men do.

It's startling a bit startling to recognize the fact that this series (despite "futuristic" dates like 1997...) and the works of Richard Matheson don't seem to age at all.  They are -- truly -- as timeless as infinity.

Remembering Richard Matheson: The Night Stalker (1971)

Kolchak: The Night Stalker, written by Richard Matheson (based on an unpublished story by Jeff Rice) originally aired in 1971. It was -- and for many years after, remained -- the highest rated TV movie of a generation.

Our journey begins in Las Vegas in the early 1970s, where down-on-his luck reporter Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) is working for a rag called the Daily News under the thumb of editor Tony Vincenzo.

It seems Kolchak was once one of the great journalists of the day, but he's been fired more times than you can count, and is looking for that one earth-shattering story that will catapult him back to the big time in New York City. He shares these dreams with a local prostitute, Gale Foster (Carol Lynley), but she isn't holding out too much hope.

In the latter half of May, however, a series of brutal killings are uncovered in Las Vegas. Four women are found dead, their bodies drained entirely of blood. And oddly, the coroner (Larry Linville) has found saliva in their wounds, indicating that an honest-to-goodness vampire might be the culprit...

Kolchak considers this avenue, but runs into a brick wall erected by the stone-walling mayor and Las Vegas's chief law enforcement official, Sheriff Butcher (Claude Akins). They refuse to consider Kolchak's theory, and consequently more citizens die. Finally, once the culprit is named -- Janos Skorzeny -- the police are unable to stop the 70 year-old man because bullets seem to have no effect on the oddly youthful assailant. 

Realizing it is up to him, Kolchak locates the vampire's house, rescues Skorzeny's latest victim, and finishes off the vampire with a well-placed stake to the heart. But In order to keep the story quiet, Butcher prepares to charge Kolchak with murder...unless he leaves Las Vegas for good. Kolchak does so, and also learns that Gale Foster has left town, never to be heard from again.

In this project, writer Richard Matheson provides reporter Carl Kolchak with a real and individual voice, a stirring and interesting first case, and even an unforgettable sense of humor. McGavin does the rest, playing up the role with a rat-a-tat, staccato delivery that is unmatched to this day. He's not your typical protagonist, but rather a persistent little irritant with a nose for news, and a penchant for annoying those in power.  The story itself, about a vampire on the loose in Las Vegas, remains more interesting for what it doesn't tell you. Rather than spoon feeding audiences the background information, there's plenty here that is just mentioned in passing.

For instance, late in the story, Kolchak breaks into Skorzeny's house and finds an open traveler's crate. Inside the trunk, we see Skorzeny's disguises, and even some make-up. There's face paint, wigs, etc, and instantly (but importantly, without comment...) we get a sense of the vampire's long history, and his travels from Berlin to London to Canada to the United States (as enumerated in a police press conference.) It's just a nice little touch that acknowledges how a vampire could be immortal, and as a consequence of that life span, be well-traveled to boot.

I also admire the artistic and efficient way this TV film was shot (by director John Llewelyn Moxey). The opening shots are hand-held, on-the-spot views of a busy strip in Vegas at night, and the atmosphere is pure seventies, pure sleaze

As a set-up for the first vampire attack (in a dark alley...), it's just perfect how quickly and cogently a sense of atmosphere is mastered with one tool (a shaky cam) and one well-observed location (a crowded street corner.) It's an informative opening shot: the hand-held feel of the camera makes us feel tense immediately, like we're among the street walkers ourselves.

Finally, I should note that it has been about six years since I last saw this tele-film, and I was pleasantly surprised to see how well it holds up today. For one thing, the climactic moments of the film are much scarier and much more suspenseful than I remembered. Watching it this time, I noticed how the soundtrack goes almost completely silent during Kolchak's long, tense exploration of Skorzeny's house. No mood music to speak of; very few sound effects, even. The result is that the only sound I could hear during this extended sequence was my own heart beating in anticipation and fear. The sequence must have lasted a good four or five minutes, and when the music and sound effects did finally arrive (as Skorzeny returns home...) the transition from silence made the denouement all that more exciting.

One of the things that I will always love about Darren McGavin's Kolchak is the fact that though we say he's a hero, he really isn't a traditional, physical hero. As displayed here, Kolchak's great gift is that he speaks truth and common sense to power. That's a wonderful trait. But it's not exactly something that comes in handy while monster hunting. So he's vulnerable in a very sympathy-provoking way.

There's a great moment in this tele-film when Kolchak walks to his car by pitch of black nighttime. He sits down, starts driving, and then gets a sense -- just a sense -- that there's someone in the car with him. 

He stops the car, jumps out in a panic, and learns that one of his informants has fallen asleep in the back seat. He's pissed off and humiliated that he reacted in such a fashion, and we get a laugh out of his predicament. There's absolutely nothing heroic or grand about Kolchak's case of the creeps or jitters (and embarrassment afterwards), but boy is it human, and realistic. Again, we see Richard Matheson's sense of the human, of the ordinary, and we recognize Kolchak in ourselves.  McGavin's humorous, honest and human portrayal greatly enhances the efficacy of the blood-curdling finale. It wouldn't work half-as-well if McGavin were a more traditionally handsome, more physically "capable" kind of action-hero. 

As it is, we breathe a sigh of relief that he made it through the night! (Let alone a TV series...)

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...