Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Theme Song of the Week: Happy Days (1974 - 1984)

Memory Bank: The Fonz

The other day, I had a very…interesting time trying to explain “The Fonz” and his popularity in the 1970s to my five-year old son, Joel. 

You see -- I told my boy, Fonzie (Henry Winkler) -- was a kind of tough guy from the 1950s who appeared on a show made in the 1970s, and he had this thing called “The Fonzie Touch” where he could just tap any machine that was broken, and it would start working…

In one episode, Fonzie jumped his motorcycle over a row of garbage cans, and in another, he water-skied over a shark...

And then the Fonz had his own Saturday morning cartoon series, The Fonz and the Happy Days Gang (1980 – 1982), where he would travel through time…

It was at about that final revelation that I realized I must have sounded absolutely nuts.

So how do you explain the “Fonz Mania” of the mid-1970s?

Garry Marshall’s Happy Days ran on ABC television from 1974 to 1984, and expertly tapped nostalgia for the “simple” days of 1950s.  It was such a popular sitcom, in fact, that Happy Days spawned a whole bunch of spin-offs, including Laverne and Shirley, Mork and Mindy, and Joanie Loves Chachi.  

The series was ostensibly about Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) and his high-school friends Potsie (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Don Most), but the cool, leather-jacket wearing, motorcycle-riding Fonzie became the break-out character in almost no time.  He was famous for saying “Ay!,” among other things.

Again, in the cold light of day in 2012, it all sounds a little…strange.

But when I was a kid, Fonzie was absolutely everywhere in the pop culture. I remember I owned two iron-on T-shirts in kindergarten.  One featured Kirk, Spock, and the Enterprise from Star Trek, and one featured the Fonz.

And then there were Fonzie action figures from Mego (with thumbs posed in the “up” position), and Happy Days lunch boxes, trading cards, color form sets, model kits…you name it.  Sega even launched an Arcade game called “Fonz” in 1976.

Today, there are punk rock and heavy metal bands named after the Fonz, and a bronze statue has been erected in his honor in Milwaukee, where Happy Days’ was set. 

I haven’t watched Happy Days in years (though it was a staple of my Tuesday nights for close to a decade…), but I nonetheless remember the Fonz well, particularly from those episodes in which he matched his “cool” powers against larger-than-life villains like Mork from Ork (“My Favorite Orkan”) or the Devil himself (“Chachi Sells His Soul.”)

The Fonz also went to Hollywood and battled Jaws, as I mentioned above (“Hollywood”), rode a killer bull called Diablo (“Westward Ho!”) and took on the mob (“The Claw Meets the Fonz.”)   

As the series went on, the Fonz’s exploits become weirder, wilder and much more far-fetched (hence the term “jump the shark,” which originated with Happy Days).  By about the midpoint, it was almost like Fonzie belonged in an adventure series as the star, but had to settle for being on a family situation comedy.
The secret of Fonzie’s appeal, I suspect is that everyone wanted to be like him.  He was loved by women, envied by men, and well…infinitely cool.  By the same token, the Fonz was human enough to possess frailties and insecurities, and so he was easy to relate to.

And yet, no matter how you cut it, it is truly bizarre that a rough 1950s “greaser” became, arguably, the greatest TV star of the decade of disco.   Given Fonzie’s widespread popularity in the 1970s -- and Generation X's fond memories of the character -- it is truly shocking that Hollywood has not yet made a Happy Days movie, or re-booted the series. 

But really, who else but Henry Winkler could play the one and only Arthur Fonzarelli?

Lunch Box of the Week: Happy Days

Collectible of the Week: Fonzie Garage (Mego; 1978)

In 1977 - 1978, Mego introduced a full line of toys based on the popular ABC TV series Happy Days (1974 - 1984).

The action-figure line included eight-inch-tall likenesses of Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard), Potsie (Anson Williams), Ralph the Malph (Donny Most) and the show's break-out character: the Fonz (Henry Winkler).

Also released and marketed by Mego were Fonzie's motorcycle, an old jalopy, and this great, over-sized garage playset.

The art on the box reads:   "AAAAY!  The Fonz has a new head mechanic, and it's you with the official Fonzie garage."

The play-set is remembered today for its backdrop art, which consisted of photographs of a real garage interior, and because it came packed with the (now very rare...) Fonzie hot-rod.  

It seems odd that in the heyday of Star Wars and the space craze, a TV series inspired by another George Lucas production, American Graffiti (1973) was responsible for so much merchandise, including trading cards, T-shirts, color-forms, and these action figures.  The nation was riding high on 1950s nostalgia at the same time that it was getting into outer space action.

I remember that I always wanted the Fonzie garage playset, and that my best friend at the time had one. One day, I went to his house to stay for a few hours after I got sick at school because my mother couldn't pick me up, and I got to play alone with this Mego kit and the figures.  It was absolute Fonzie nirvana...

Below is a toy commercial for Fonzie's beloved bike (from Mego).

Model Kit of the Week: The Fonz and his Bike (MPC)

Board Game of the Week: Happy Days (Parker Brothers)

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981)

I was just eleven years old when The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981) first aired on NBC in prime time.  Although that premiere event was a long, long time ago, I distinctly remember the TV-movie (and back-door pilot...) being announced on-air as the first of several TV adventures set in a fantasy universe created by writer and director Nicholas Corea (1943 – 1999).

To my disappointment, no additional adventures ever appeared.  

And adding insult to injury, The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire has never been officially released on DVD, though Universal Studios did put out a VHS release back in 1987, which I tracked down and screened for this retrospective.  Other countries, it seems, have done a little bit better by the TV-movie.  It has been released under the title The Archer and the Sorceress in parts of Europe, I understand.

I was very eager to see this made-for-TV film for the first time in over thirty-years because I possess such strong memories of the imagery from The Archer.  

These images -- including Snake Men warriors rising out of the ground to ambush unwary travelers, or the beautiful Sorceress Estra (Belinda Bauer) and her fearsome tomb guardian -- gained a foothold in my young psyche all those years ago, and they remain strong enough that I have never forgotten them.

Re-watching the telefilm in 2013 I could see why my young mind was so drawn to this fantasy adventure.  It features great visualizations of an “acid lake” (which an unlucky Snake Man falls into, face first...), involves a sentient (or at least conscious) mystical weapon called “The Heart Bow,” and showcases a great villainous performance by Marc Alaimo -- DS9’s Gul Dukat -- as a traitor named Sandros who seems cut from the same diabolical cloth as John Colicos’ Baltar.  Genocide is hardly a consideration when personal power is at stake.

Additionally, Belinda Bauer is absolutely smoldering and sexy as the sorceress Estra, and the ubiquitous Vasquez Rocks even makes an appearance in the latter-half of the film.

But clearly, and I mean this without negative judgment, fantasy television has come a long way since 1981, as Game of Thrones (2011 - ) testifies. The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire is an intriguing and ambitious production, but one saddled with a low budget, and some poor acting.  Yet despite such abundant drawbacks, the productions also boasts some memorable interludes.

The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire is set in a fantasy world, “in a time that may have been, or a time that still might be.”  A voice-over narrator explains in detail how the warring people of Malveel are imperiled by an Invasion of the Dynasty, a force led by Gar the Draikin (Kabir Bedi) and his army of Snake People.

The King of Malveel, Brakus (George Kennedy) wants to join together all the barbarian tribes of his land to repel the invasion of the Dynasty, but is betrayed by the cowardly Sandros, and then murdered.  Brakus’s son Toran (Lane Caudell) is framed for the King’s murder, and he must flee the land, lest he be killed too.

After accepting ownership of a mystical weapon called “The Heart Bow” which can vanquish enemies with explosive power, Toran sets out to find Lazar-Sa, the legendary wizard who may be able to train him, and help him restore his kingdom.  

But the Goddess Estra (Bauer) presents both a love-interest and an obstacle for Toran.  She wishes to avenge the spirit of her Mother, who was murdered by Lazar-Sa years earlier…

The first observation I should probably make here is that I watched The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire on a 26-year old VHS tape  

The color palette was dark and darker, and the sound was muddy to say the least. These factors surely hindered a pleasurable viewing to a great degree.  In other words, the movie probably looks a lot worse here than it otherwise would on an official new release, all things being equal.

But even outside the problems with the medium of VHS, I could still detect how The Archer suffers tremendously from its insufficient budget.  It features a lot of familiar-looking TV actors wearing bad wigs, bad costumes, and mouthing incomprehensible, declamatory exposition. Indeed, even the persistent voice-over narrations can’t fully explain all the byzantine intricacies of the nation of Malveel and its storied history.  

On the one hand, I admire Corea for so clearly taking the fantasy milieu seriously.  This TV-movie premiered just as D&D was really taking off in the pop culture, and with Conan: The Barbarian (1982) on the horizon, so he must have sensed there was an opportunity to treat the genre in a grown-up, respectful fashion.  

Accordingly, Corea doesn’t play his movie for laughs, or mistake the adventure for high-camp. Additionally, it’s clear that the writer devised a lengthy and intricate history for his fictional world, and had really thought that history through.  

Yet on the other hand, the ambition to impart so much meaningful information about his fantasy universe in just 97 minutes renders much of the action and relationships baffling.   The "bigger" story of Malveel keeps getting in the way of telling a compelling story about Toran's heroic quest.

The current iteration of dramatic narrative television, best exemplified by Game of Thrones, allows for a complex world to be introduced almost literally a kingdom at a time, with the grand action moving only a chess-piece at a time, or a chapter at a time, so that viewers come to understand character motivations, alliances, history, and other important factors.  By contrast, the storytelling style of 1981 offers The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire no such safe harbor, and so the narrative and characterizations are, frankly, a bit of a mess.

Still, even though the surfeit of ambition collides repeatedly with the tele-film's paucity of budget, some elements of The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire yet shine.  

The Snake Men, for instance, are rendered in frightening and believable make-up.  In fact, this make-up holds up very well both in terms of the series’ contemporaries (such as V [1983]) and in terms of today’s special effects expectations.  Additionally, some of the staging with the Snake Men, particularly their first appearance as they rise -- in slow motion -- from a leafy dirt bed to attack unwitting sojourners, remains impressive.'

I also like how the Heart Bow vanquishes enemies.  An arrow strikes an opponent, and it looks like a grenade has detonated on their torsos...

Finally, Belinda Bauer remains beguiling as Estra.  I have long been an admirer of Bauer’s work, in genre films such as Timerider (1982) and TV efforts such as Airwolf and Starcrossed (1985).  In her many roles, she often combined exotic or erotic beauty with a sense of fragile strength or power, and such qualities ares put to perfect use in the film.  Every time Bauer is on screen as the vengeful sorceress, the movie automatically gets more interesting.

The Archer’s obsession with the Heart Bow also brought back memories for me of Krull (1983), and the glaive, another mystical weapon found on a different heroic quest.  But that fantasy film had a visual sweep  and majesty that the comparatively low-budget The Archer simply can’t muster.

It's always tough when nostalgia meets reality, and I can't honestly claim that The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire lived up to my enthusiastic youthful memories of it.   The images I had remembered from my youth remain vibrant, but at times the movie just seems to drone on, one talky-scene after the next. The last half of the film is particularly dull, and some scenes with "humorous" towns-folk are positively cringe-inducing.

Still, I'd love to see a cleaner print of The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire, and watch this old tele-film under ideal viewing conditions.

TV-Movie Trailer: The Archer: Fugitive from the Empire (1981)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Ask JKM a Question: Star Trek's "The Magicks of Megas Tu" and The Final Frontier (1989)...

A regular reader, SGB writes:

“Regarding Star Trek The Animated Series "The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” I agree that this animated series episode would have been a great original series live-action episode.

I think Star Trek V:The Final Frontier(1989) should have been a direct sequel to "The Magicks of Megas-Tu" with the Lucien character revisited as Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan (1982) was a direct sequel to TOS "Space Seed" episode with the Khan character revisited. What do you think?"

SGB, I always enjoy your questions and speculations about connections in the Trek universe. Thank you for the question. It makes for interesting reading and discussion.

Certainly, in many substantive ways, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu,” -- written by my friend Larry Brody, a great TV writer who also penned the foreword to one of my books back in 2007 -- does play like the origin point for many aspects of 1989’s feature, The Final Frontier.

Consider, “The Magicks of Megas-Tu” is:

                        …set at the center of the galaxy, like The Final Frontier.

…boasts alien life forms that may be the origin of our mythological/religious beliefs about God or the Devil.  Again, The Final Frontier repeats this idea.

...involves the idea of man confronting his superstitions and finding that they are not true.

Given the broad similarities between narratives, the movie could have been re-parsed, at some point in the creative process, as a sequel to the animated episode.  At the very least, it would have been neat to get a mention of the Enterprise’s previous visit to the center of the galaxy in The Final Frontier. 

Of course, The Enterprise-D also went to the same location in the fourth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) in an episode titled “The Nth Degree.”  That installment also failed to make mention of any previous starship excursions to the center of the galaxy.

Why no mention of either adventure, when it would have been very easy to have Lt. Data (Brent Spiner) deliver a historical factoid in typical throwaway fashion? 

Well, in some circles, The Animated Series is considered apocryphal. 

And The Final Frontier is widely considered a financial and critical failure.  

Still, one quality of The Next Generation that I have always admired is its willingness to reference and build upon even unpopular previous installments.  Put the three tales together, and you have a "center of the galaxy" trilogy, after all.

But onto the meat of your question: I suppose, at some point, the creative team behind The Final Frontier might have considered having Kirk and co. encounter Lucien a second time, masquerading as “God” at the center of the galaxy.  

However, they must have gambled that he was too obscure a character in Star Trek history at that point…

I do think "Magicks" is a great episode, though.  And I tend to like The Final Frontier a great deal more than many other Star Trek fans seem to.

Don't forget to send me your Ask JKM questions at

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Matriarchy

A matriarchy is a female-dominated society, and the idea of such a culture has often been popular in cult television history.  

In some ways, this obsession with matriarchy seems a little insulting today.  Beloved TV characters face the horror of realizing that WOMEN ARE IN CHARGE!  Why, it's terrifying...

Today, of course, that fear is just sexist, and we have seen many great female leaders around the globe.  Thus far, no men have been rounded up and taken to internment camps, or made slaves to diabolical "mistresses" of totalitarian matriarchies.

The Star Trek franchise has featured matriarchies on more than one occasion. In the original series third season premiere, "Spock's Brain," the Enterprise encounters the "Eyemorgs," the women rulers of planet of Sigma Draconis VI.  

In The Animated Series (1973 - 1974), The Enterprise encountered another matriarchy, one bound and determined to drain the life-force of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the entire male contingent of the Enterprise crew.  Lt. Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) took command of the starship, and fought back against these sirens.

A short-lived German/British series created by Eric Paice called Star Maidens (1975) involves the planet Medusa adrift in space as its inhabitants dwell in an underground metropolis.  There, women rule, and men serve as domestic servants.  Two male slaves, Shem (Gareth Thomas) and Adam (Pierre Brice) decide they are tired of being taken for granted (“who takes care of the kids?!”) and make a beeline for nearby Earth. 

Their female masters pursue, but are troubled by the fact that Earth is ruled by men (!).  Indeed, the Medusan mistresses claim such a set-up is in “violation of all common sense.”  

Considering the Earth a “great disappointment,” the Medusan Matriarchy sets out to retrieve Shem and Adam.  If they fail, a new, illegal “men’s liberation movement” could take hold on Medusa, overturning the apple cart.

Entra from Space: 1999: "Devil's Planet" (1976) is another female-dominated socieety.  In this second season episode of Gerry Anderson’s Space: 1999, Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) is captured by Elizia (Hildegard Neil), the warden, governor and absolute ruler of the prison colony of Entra.  The prisoners incarcerated there are all men -- political dissidents who spoke against female rule, apparently -- and are now guarded by cat-suited Amazon women who viciously wield whips.  

The prisoners' only opportunity to escape this hellish life is to survive sadistic Elizia's vicious game, "The Hunt."  If a prisoner does survive being hunted by Elizia and her women on the inhospitable moon’s forest surface -- being both outnumbered and out-equipped -- he can be transported back to the home world, his sentence is commuted.  

The only problem: a plague has decimated the home world, Ellna, killing all living beings.  So when Elizia beams the victorious political dissidents back home, she's actually issuing the troublesome men a death sentence.  

In "Turnabout," an episode of the short-lived TV series The Fantastic Journey (1977) -- set in the Bermuda Triangle --  Queen Hayalana (Joan Collins) finally tires of her brutish husband and his stupid men, and with the help of a powerful computer called "The Complex," zaps all the males of the province away to a null zone, or pocket universe.  

Promising "an end to male domination," Hayalana then captures the series' heroes, Varian (Jared Martin), Dr. Willaway (Roddy McDowall), Scott Jordan (Ike Eisenmann) and Dr. Fred Walters (Carl Franklin), and plans to keep them as “breeding stock.”  

To convince these visiting men to remain docile and cooperative, this cold-hearted queen then poisons their food, and tells the men they will only receive the antidote only if they comply with her wishes. 

Hayalana’s plans come crashing down however, when none of the women in the province are capable of controlling “The Complex,” a computer built by…you guessed it, a man.

In Buck Rogers in the 25th Century's (1979 - 1981) "Planet of the Amazon Women," Buck (Gil Gerard) is captured by gorgeous slave traders of the planet Xantia and auctioned off to the highest bidder.  You see, all the men of Xantia have either been killed in one of their incessant wars, or are being held prisoner by the planet’s enemy: the Ruathans.  Thus the women of Xantia need some *ahem* company, not to mention some men to do all the physical labor. 

Otherworld's tale "I am Woman, Hear Me Roar"  involves a militantly female society that rules the roost in the province of “Adore,” founded by a female Zone Trooper commandment, Livia.  

The men in “Adore” do not even know how to read, and the "gender stratification" laws discourage marriage.  A “gender patrol” walks the streets, maintaining order, and girls ogle slave men in the popular magazine, “Available Hunk.” 

And, of course, there’s the Gender Arcade, the marketplace where men are greased up, stripped down, and sold to the highest bidder. 

When the patriarch of the Sterling family, Hal (Sam Groom), objects to the status of males as second-class citizens, a woman in power reminds him to: “keep in mind that this is a conservative part of town and will resist compromise.”  When Hal’s wife, June (Gretchen Corbett) sticks up for him, the same women sneers: “Oh…I understand…you’re progressives.” 

In "Angel One," a first season episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, the Enterprise D visits the Matriarchy of “Angel One” in hopes of finding out if survivors of a freighter, the Odin, landed there.  They find out that a group of men did survive, and are making trouble for the female leadership. 

Mistress Baeta (Karen Montgomery) – or “the elected one” – pronounces the death sentence for the survivors of the Odin and any women unwise enough to attempt to alter the peace of Angel One’s female-dominated society.   Commander Riker (Jonathan Frakes) steps in to argue against the death penalty.  Ultimately, he is persuasive...perhaps because Mistress Baeta still remembers the space stud in his colorful, open-chest blouse and earrings…

Even by the 1990s, science fiction television was still trotting out this old (and now ridiculous trope).  Sliders (1995 - 1999) featured an episode titled "The Weaker Sex" in 1995, wherein Quinn, Arturo, Wade and Rembrandt slide into a parallel Earth that is a matriarchy. 

Still, this episode could prove prophetic since it features...President Hillary Clinton (Teresa Barnwell).

The Cult-TV Faces of: Matriarchy

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: "Spock's Brain."

Identified by SGB: Star Trek The Animated Series: "The Lorelei Signal."

Not Identified: Star Maidens

Identified by SGB: Space:1999 "The Last Enemy."

Identified by SGB: Wonder Woman

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "Devil's Planet."

Identified by SGB: The Fantastic Journey: "Turnabout."

Identified by SGB: The Super Friends.

Identified by Carl: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Planet of the Amazon Women."

Not Identified: Doctor Who: "Creature from the Pit."

Identified by SGB: Otherworld: "I am Woman Hear Me Roar."

Identified by SGB: Sliders: "The Weaker Sex!"

Identified by Carl: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Angel One."

Television and Cinema Verities #79

"It was the most expensive series ever done at that point, and was considered very high-tech with its special effects. Suddenly Star Wars came out while we were on hiatus, and we looked like the old Buck Rogers series, where they had cigarette smoke blowing out the back of the rocket ship. Star Wars just totally reinvented space movies and TV series. It made us look so bad overnight! That first season was very successful, but literally during the course of that summer hiatus, we became out-dated, and didn't even come back."

- Gregory Harrison discusses the events leading up to the cancellation of the Logan's Run TV series in 1977 with Talkin' Broadway's Jonathan Frank.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Star Blazers Episode #19

The nineteenth episode of Star Blazers takes the story of the Argo in a more intimate and intriguing direction than some installments do.  The story by-and-large focuses on a minor character, the communications officer named Homer, as he grapples with feelings of guilt about his family on Earth, as well as feelings of homesickness for the distant planet.  His parents don't do much to help him, either  In long-range transmissions from Earth, they are accusatory and histrionic.  They all but ask him to forsake his mission and return home.  But of course, to do that would mean the end of every human life on the planet.

Homer's existential angst goes much deeper than homesickness and guilt, however.  He is literally obsessed with impending death.  He worries that "every space warp takes us further into the dark unknown," and that Earth and his family are truly lost to him.  

At one point in the drama, Homer asks for guarantees of success, and Captain Avatar very rightly provides him none.  "No one knows tomorrow.  There are no guarantees," he notes.   

This comment reflects one reason why I admire Avatar so deeply as a character.  He doesn't candy-coat anything, and he doesn't underestimate the danger that the Star Force faces.  On the contrary, Captain Avatar is facing his own "dark unknown" in the form of his illness, but even that sickness doesn't prevent him from continuing to focus on the job at hand.

In moments such as this one, this episode of Star Blazers ably charts the psychological impact of the long journey to Iscandar, and in a way that only a few episodes thus far have managed to equal.  The story resolves with Homer becoming a hero, which is a nice, optimistic touch.  After he attempts to commit suicide by leaving the Argo in a space suit, Homer encounters a Gamilon relay satellite, and helps Derek Wildstar to destroy it.  This act refocuses him on his mission, and his duty.

This episode of Star Blazers also features scenes of Homer in the "holography room," experiencing his home on Earth during the winter.  This "holography room" is very much a forerunner to the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generation though in fairness to that franchise, Gene Roddenberry had envisioned this brand of rec room technology as early as Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973 - 1974) and episodes such as "Practical Joker."    

Again, the important thing here regarding the holography room is the emotional important. Homer recognizes that a simulation of home is not home. "It's not that way now," he objects, before storming out of the holography room, offering the audience an explicit reminder that the beauty of Earth has largely been destroyed by Gamilon bombing.

All in all, what this episode points out rather nimbly is the notion that on a long, lonely voyage through space, self-doubt and guilt can prove just as dangerous to the Star Force as a Gamilon weapons array.

255 Days Left!

The Road Warrior (1982)

I first viewed  The Road Warrior  on a double bill with  Superman III  at the Castle Theater in Irvington, New Jersey. I was thirteen or fou...