Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Tribute Gallery 2013

Michael Ansara

Karen Black

Eileen Brennan

Roger Ebert

Dennis Farina

Joan Fontaine

Annette Funicello

James Gandalfini

Ray Harryhausen

Stanley Kauffmann

Tom Laughlin

Richard Matheson

Peter O'Toole

Ted Post

Lou Scheimer

Jean Stapleton

Gilbert Taylor

Paul Walker

Marcia Wallace

Jonathan Winters

As always, any omissions in the gallery are entirely unintentional.  Please feel free to remember these (or any other...) film and TV artists in the comments section below.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Remembering 2013 on the Blog

Horror Films FAQ

Well, the year 2013 is rapidly moving into our rear-view mirror, and so goes another year of posts here on Reflections.

This year, I posted more than 1,280 times, which is a record for me, and I had a great time doing it.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did. I'll see if I can top the number for next year...

In more specific terms, in 2013 the blog celebrated the 20th anniversary of The X-Files, marked Star Trek Week for the release of Into Darkness, Superman Week for the premiere of Man of Steel, and even had The Lone Ranger Week.  

The year also saw the release of my books, Horror Films FAQ and Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s.  

As I've written before, these books are the gasoline that keeps the engine of the blog running, so if you can spare the money, please think about supporting my work in print (or e-book form).  It helps.  A lot.
Not long ago, the blog also celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of a certain time lord for Doctor Who Week.  I also reviewed all the Indiana Jones films.

And on Sundays, I blogged Star Blazers season one, and Joss Whedon's Firefly.

We also had time to remember the life and career of those we lost this year, including genre giants Richard Matheson and Ray Harryhausen.

Most importantly, I'll always remember 2013 as the year we undertook the Reader Top Ten together for the first time.

In 2013, readers selected the best science fiction movie of all time, the greatest sf movie character, the greatest science fiction movie 2000 - 2013, the best horror film 1960 - 2000, the best science fiction film of the 1970s and the greatest toys of their childhood.

It was a great pleasure to read the reader choices and explanations, and this type of post has become my favorite.  For one thing, you've all helped me find new movies to watch...

As 2014 -- my ninth year of blogging -- looms, so does a set of new anniversaries.  In the twelve months ahead I'll be gazing back at the films of 1984, for instance, and celebrating The Terminator's 30th anniversary. 

Upcoming 2014 releases sure to merit attention include Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Robocop, Godzilla, Veronica Mars, Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, and Max Max: Fury Road.

In the next few weeks, I'll also be reviewing all the Riddick films, the Back to the Future films, and I'm toying about re-visiting the entirety of the Die Hard franchise too, if readers are interested. 

So stay tuned.  As I like to say, the best is yet to come...

The Six Cult-TV Diseases You Don't Want to Contract...

Disease has often been termed the greatest enemy mankind has ever faced.  If you go by cult-television history, that idea certainly seems true.  A wide swath of genre programs have memorably showcased the (often-gory) impact of disease on the fragile human life form.

Of course, some of these fictional diseases are much more hideous and horrible than others.  Below is a tally of six truly dreadful, nightmare-inducing cult-TV diseases you really, REALLY don't want to contract.

6. "Venusian Plague."  (From the Space: 1999 episode "The Lambda Factor.")  In this Year Two episode of the 1970s Gerry Anderson outer space series, Commander John Koenig (Martin Landau) relates a horrifying story from his days as an astronaut cadet.  On a routine re-supply mission to a Venus space station, two of Koenig's friends and ship-mates, Sam and Tessa, became infected with the plague there.  Rather than risk bringing the incurable disease back to Earth, Koenig had to leave his friends behind to die.  In the episode, Koenig relates this harrowing story to Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we also see the "ghosts" of his guilt, namely Sam and Tessa...but as plague-infected ghouls.  Their faces are scarred and marred by blisters, and well, it isn't a pleasant sight.  I recounted the full, gory details of the Venusian plague in one of my contributions to the officially-licensed Space: 1999 short story anthology, Shepherd Moon (2010).  But the scary notion underlining this disease is its origin.  The Venusian Plague originates on another world, but affects us.  Was it engineered?  Created to keep us away? I've always wondered...

5. "Gamma Hydra IV Disease."  (From the Star Trek episode "The Deadly Years.").  In this tale, Kirk, Spock, Scotty, Bones and Lt. Galway are infected with a strange form of radiation while on a planet called Gamma Hydra IV.  Because of their exposure, the landing party begins to age rapidly.  Kirk loses command of the Enterprise, and Spock loses something worse: Kirk's friendship.  It's terrible to witness these vibrant, intelligent, young heroes succumb to the frailties of the flesh, and "The Deadly Years" is an affecting installment because of this. Here, the infected crew members develop arthritis, senility and other maladies associated with extreme old age, and as audience members we get to reflect that there's nothing worse than growing old before your time.  In 1988, Star Trek: The Next Generation re-visited the idea of an "aging" disease in the episode "Unnatural Selection."

4. "The Angel of Death" (From The Burning Zone pilot)  In the premiere episode of this short-lived 1996-1997 UPN series, archaeologists in Costa Rica excavate a cave that has been sealed for 15,000 years and inadvertently let loose a sentient disease.   The infected can be detected from hemorrhagic-appearing (bloody) eyes.  This disease is also sentient, part of an intelligent "hive" (shades of Doctor Who: "The Invisible Enemy.") It can even control and direct subordinate "warrior viruses" to further infect and distract humanity.  The fear at work here is one regarding our enemy's "intent," and perhaps even one involving...scale.  Can something as microscopic as a virus think, plan, and conquer the human race?  Being struck with a disease is terrible enough, but to imagine that there is insidious purpose or malevolence behind that disease ups the ante considerably.  I have often described The Burning Zone as "disease of the week," and other shows involved an outbreak of spontaneous combustion (!) and an epidemic of malaria.

3. "F. Emasculata." (from The X-Files episode of the same name.)  This second season segment of the Chris Carter  series also begins with the discovery of something terrible in the rain forest of Costa Rica, namely an insect parasite that burrows inside living human hosts and creates grotesque, white, pulsating pustules on the skin.  These boils throb and grow, and ultimately explode, spreading the disease all around in a sickly, moist burst.  It's absolutely the most nauseating thing you've ever seen. My wife still refuses to watch this episode of The X-Files, in part because of a final, tense stand-off set on a bus.  A badly infected man -- with pustules growing and threatening to burst on his cheek -- uses a young, innocent child as a hostage.  Mulder (David Duchovny) must free the boy, and do it before that damned zit bursts.  

2. "The Marburg Virus" (From Millennium's two-part "The Fourth Horseman/The Time is Now.") The disease featured in this episode of Millennium remains absolutely horrifying. One scene -- set at a middle-class family's Mother's Day dinner -- depicts an American family bleeding out before our eyes.  The disease (originating from contaminated chicken, of all things...) quickly sets in, and dark brown pustules begin to form on the infected family members.  The Mom dies first as her white blouse becomes awash in crimson.  Then, all at once, these poor folks sweat out their whole blood supply in a matter of seconds.  This is also the disease that costs Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) dearly in terms of his family...

1. "The Phage" (From Star Trek: Voyager's "The Phage.")  The Vidiians remain one of the most creepy and disturbing alien races ever featured on Star Trek.  Residents of the Delta Quadrant, the Vidiians suffer from a necrotizing -- flesh eating -- virus.  Infected souls must undergo skin transplants and skin grafts regularly to combat the effects of the deadly disease, but even after such "healing" operations still appear absolutely hideous, like rotting corpses.  Perhaps the creepiest thing about the Phage is that the disease has also, essentially, devoured the Vidiian Sodality's culture.  These advanced, once-peaceful aliens have forsaken art, commerce and other noble pursuits in order to save themselves from extinction.  The Vidiians are thus terrifying because they embody two fears about our mortality.  First, that we could succumb to a deadly, disfiguring disease ourselves.  And second, that it could sweep away all of our loved ones, and even destroy our very civilization.  Imagine not only being disfigured and ill yourself, but watching your children and spouse suffering and dying from the Phage every single day.  It would be Hell on Earth...

Television and Cinema Verities #102

"Working with Richard [Basehart] was a joy. He wasn't an easy person but we hit it off from the start...He made bad dialogue breathe. I learned a lot from him."

- David Hedison discusses his Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea co-star, Richard Basehart, in Science Fiction Television Series, Volume 2, by Mark Phillips and Frank Garcia, 1996, page 534

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Mission of Mercy" (November 1, 1975)

In “Mission of Mercy,” a number of crises strike all at once for the astronauts.  

First, the World War II airplane that Bill, Jeff and Judy have been utilizing to defend the humanoid pueblo city runs perilously low on aviation fuel, meaning another dangerous foray to Ape City for supplies.

Meanwhile -- and even as General Urko searches “New Valley” for the humanoid populace -- Nova falls gravely ill from an illness in her lungs which is highly contagious.  

Unless a serum can be acquired, Nova will die, and the rest of the humanoids, including the astronauts, will follow..

This week’s episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) actually concerns a pretty good idea, and one which has re-surfaced in the pop-culture in The Walking Dead. Specifically, after the fall of human civilization, the survivors will fall prey to diseases and illnesses once conquered by modern medicine…but now once more grave threats.   Talk about having to swallow a bitter pill!  In this case, Nova nearly succumbs to a treatable disease, and Judy must make a dangerous trek to Ape City to get help from Zira and Cornelius.

Despite the interesting concept, the execution of it leaves something to be desired. In particular, Judy -- an astronaut capable of flying spaceships and even World War II war planes -- doesn’t know about serums and how they work.   No doubt, her ignorance is a result of the writers wanting to explain the topic to young audiences.  But still, it's handled pretty poorly.

Beyond this hard-to-swallow aspect of the episode, “Mission of Mercy” is mostly an action-oriented episode, with the astronauts struggling to beat the clock and once more save the day.  Bill and Jeff must cross a rickety bridge in a truck, just as it collapses.  And then their truck breaks down…in a lightning storm.  Suffice it to say that a lot of obstacles get thrown up against the astronauts as they struggle to hold onto the one advantage they have (the war plane), and keep Nova alive at the same time.

In some sense, the focus on action is true to the Apes film franchise, but the five movies alternated serious action with cerebral science fiction concepts (like infinite regression) and a sub-text about racism and religious zealotry.  As a cartoon series aimed for kids, Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn’t quite rise to that level, but “Mission of Mercy” seems a bit more pedestrian, even, than other installments. 

Also, it’s getting a little difficult to believe that Zira and Cornelius can go out into the wilderness outside of Ape City on yet another mission to help the humanoids, and not get caught either by Urko or Dr. Zaius.  The pacifist chimps take big risks in every episode, and with no repercussions.

Next week: “Invasion of the Underdwellers.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991): "Heat Wave" (November 16, 1991)

In “Heat Wave,” the Porters and all the denizens of the Land of the Lost endure a terrible and long-lasting drought.  In desperate need of water, Kevin and Mr. Porter hike to a local watering hole only to discover that the Sleestak are already intent on using it.

Given a choice between leading the Sleestak back to their compound or sending them on a merry chase, the Porters choose the latter option, and head out into the wild…

“Heat Wave” is a relatively undistinguished, though harmless, episode of the 1991-1992 Land of the Lost remake.  It’s more of a “runaround” than anything else, and the episode eats up its running time with the Porters being chased by Sleestaks, or simply hiding from them. 

The main idea of “Heat Wave” is that it would be “game over” for the Porters if the Sleestak learn the location of their treehouse and compound.  This is so presumably because the Sleestak are so powerful and threatening. They would take the house by force for themselves, and kill or enslave the Porters and their entourage.

Unfortunately, the new series has routinely treated the Sleestak as comic buffoons, and demonstrated again and again how the Porters out-smart and out-fight them.  In other words, the episode’s central threat doesn’t really work as meaningfully as it should.

By contrast, on the original series the Sleestak were indeed menacing, and I remember some terrifying episodes in which they swarmed the Marshalls’ home (a temple, at that point) by night, and could barely be repelled.  The three Sleestak outcasts of the new series – seen in broad daylight -- just don’t rise to that level of terror. 

Accordingly, “Heat Wave” is never particularly thrilling or interesting.  The only interesting aspect of it is the pairing of Porter and his son, Kevin.   The episode becomes about their “father/son” bonding, but even this aspect of the tale would have felt more meaningful if the conflict with these re-done Sleestak were stronger villains.

Next week: “The Thief.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Films of 1984: The NeverEnding Story

The NeverEnding Story (1984), a child-like, innocent fantasy film made in Germany by director Wolfgang Peterson.  His is a name you will recognize immediately for his efforts in the genre like Enemy Mine (1985) and those outside it too, such as Das Boot (1981).

The NeverEnding Story also features stellar practical effects from Brian Johnson, the accomplished special effects director and guru behind Space: 1999's (1975 -1977) miniatures and pyrotechnics, plus the effects of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Aliens (1986).  Many of the landscapes and creatures Johnson devised for this cinematic effort remain positively wondrous a quarter-century on. 

Both tonally and visually, The NeverEnding Story boasts a softer, more whimsical vibe than the film's appreciably darker and more adult contemporaries,  Krull or Legend for instance.  But the world  The NeverEnding Story so ably depicts is also refreshingly fanciful and indeed, a bit surreal; what Variety called a "flight of pure fancy."

I realize the movie won't be everybody's cup of tea, however.  It's not all Rrc battles, clashing armies and sword fights; and there's never any sense that this tale is part of some larger, realistic, otherworldly saga. 

Instead, as valuable description of the film's atmosphere, let me quote the Boston Globe's Michael Blowen.  He termed the movie "so wonderfully appropriate to children that it seems to have been made by kids.  But there is enough artistic merit in the tale to enchant adults equally."

Looking back today, it's clear that The NeverEnding Story succeeds most powerfully indeed as this "dual track"-styled fantasy that Blowen hints at.  On one hand, this is a  genre film starring children and intended for children; alive with adventure, whimsy and excitement.  On another level all together, however, adults can enjoy the film because it cleverly references (albeit symbolically), the vicissitudes of adult life. 

When young Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) faces several dangerous tasks in the film, it is not just adventure or ordinary fairy tale creatures he countenances, but existential dilemmas about self, about the human psychology.

In the beginning, it is always dark....

A dangerous book: The NeverEnding Story.
The NeverEnding Story's particular narrative arises from a popular and critically-acclaimed literary work by German writer, Michael Ende. Alas, Ende was allegedly unhappy with the film's translation of his 1979 book, in part, perhaps, because it depicts only the first half of his narrative. At the box office, the 27 million-dollar film was considered a bomb, though (lesser) sequels were eventually produced.  Critical reviews were mixed. 

In The NeverEnding Story, a sad boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver) is doing poorly in school after the untimely death of his mother.  His father is cold and distant, and Bastian feels alone, rudderless. At school, he is relentlessly bullied by his classmates, and the world feels devoid of hope; of warmth.

One day, Bastian hides from the bullies in a book store and learns from an old man named Koreander (Thomas Hill) of a strange book; a book that is different from all others.  It is called "The NeverEnding Story."   Koreander claims that it is not a safe book.  He hints it can actually transport the reader to another world, another time.

Alone in an attic, Bastian reads the mysterious book. It tells of a mythical world called Fantasia where a creeping "Nothing" is devouring the world a land at-a-time. 

A young boy, about Bastian's age -- Atreyu -- is summoned to the Ivory Tower to embark on a heroic quest.  The land's Empress is dying of a strange malady, one tied to the existence and spread of "The Nothing."  Atreyu must learn how to cure the Empress's disease, an act which should simultaneously stop the "The Nothing."  But it will not be easy.

Early on, Atreyu loses his beloved white steed, Artex, in the "Swamp of Sadness," attempting to contact "The Ancient One" -- a giant old turtle "allergic" to young people. 

There, Atreyu begs the apathetic old creature -- who lives by the motto "we don't even care whether or not we care" -- for help.  The Old One finally informs the boy warrior that he must travel ten thousand miles to the South Oracle if he hopes to get his answer about the Empress.

Fortunately, a luck dragon named Falcor rescues Atreyu from sinking further into the Swamp of Sadness, and transports him to the Southern Oracle.  There, with the help of two kindly elves, Engywook and Urgl, Atreyu faces two critical tests. 

First, he must walk through a gate in which is self-worth is judged.  If his self-worth is found lacking, two giant statues will destroy him with eye-mounted particle beam weapons.

The second test at the Southern Gates is the "magical mirror test."  There, Atreyu must gaze into a mirror and countenance his true self.  Here, brave men learn that they are cowards inside.  And kind men learn that they have been cruel.

Surviving both tests, Atreyu learns that he must next pass beyond the "boundaries" of Fantasia to save his world and his queen.  This is something of a trick answer, however, as he learns from his feral nemesis, Gmork. 

As Gmork confides in the warrior about Fantasia: "It's the world of human fantasy. Every part, every creature of it, is a piece of the dreams and hopes of mankind. Therefore, it has no boundaries."

In the end, worlds collide. Atreyu needs the help (and the belief) of Bastian in his world; and Bastian must be the one to save the Empress, even though at first he can't quite make himself believe that he can help.  As the Empress notes, Bastian "simply can't imagine that one little boy could be that important."

But, of course, he is...

We don't know how much longer we can withstand the nothing.

A beacon of hope in Fantasia, The "Ivory Tower."
In the synopsis above, one can easily detect how the dangerous, fanciful quests in Atreyu's Fantasia (Fantastica in the Ende book...) translate into relevant messages about human life here on Earth, and in particular, the challenges of adulthood.

"The Swamp of Sadness," for instance, is a place that -- if you stop to dwell -- you sink further and further.  

In other words, this specific trap is a metaphor for self-pity.  If you stop to focus on how sad you are, how depressed you feel, you just keep sinking.  And the further you sink, the harder it is to escape; to pull yourself up.  Sadness creates more sadness.

And the Ancient Guardian?  

He represents apathy and old age; wherein acceptance of "how things are" has overcome the desperate need of  hungry youth to change (even save...) the world.  Appropriate then that this guardian should be visualized as a turtle...since he can just hide from everything in his over-sized shell, never to face reality.  As the movie notes, "There's no fool like an old fool!"

The Southern Gate's first test, of "self worth," also relates to us, right here, everyday.  If we don't believe in ourselves and what we can accomplish under our own steam, how can we make others believe in us or our abilities?  Feelings of strong self-esteem and self-worth must by need precede all quests of "self actualization," right? If you don't believe you can do something in the first place, why try?

The second Oracle test -- also encountered before victory -- involves facing yourself.  There are all sorts of "monsters" and crises to fear in our everyday lives, but none of those beasts is worse or more terrifying than self-reflection;  how we sometimes view and judge ourselves

The magical mirror test asks us to solemnly reflect on who we are; on who we have become.  Are we the good people we could be?  Or are we hypocrites hiding behind platitudes about being good? When we look in the mirror, which face do we see?

Even the movie's nebulous but effective central threat is contextualized as a danger to the psychology; a danger to self.  What's at stake if you have low self-esteem, if you sink into depression, and you don't see yourself truthfully in that mirror of conscience? 

Well, the creeping Nothing around you -- and inside you -- just grows and grows.  

"It's the emptiness that's left," Gmork says, describing the "Nothing."   "It's like a despair, destroying this world...Because people have begun to lose their hopes and forget their dreams. So the Nothing grows stronger."

So, meet 1984's The NeverEnding Story: the self-help book of fantasy cinema, in which every challenge Atreyu faces alludes to the book's reader, Bastian, and his unique set of challenges.  Not to mention our challenges too.

Should he wallow in self-pity in despair, with the end result that the quicksand will consume him?  Should he hate himself because he is sad, and not pulling himself up by his bootstraps as his Dad desires?

If Bastian succumbs to these visions of himself (and does not see his own self worth), the Nothing consumes him...just as it consumes Fantasia.  The answer, of course, is to believe in himself, and this message is not as heavy handed as it might have been, in part because of the delightful fantasy trappings. 

It's amusing and also rather charming to see our grown-up fears (of depression) and foibles (like low self-esteem) made manifest into the physical genre trappings of the heroic quest; dangers to be avoided and beaten down.  Depression as a swamp. Apathy as a turtle inside his shell. Self-worth as a hurdle that must be crossed, etc.

Another highly commendable aspect of The NeverEnding Story is how it views imagination and education

Of course, the act of reading (and of imagining the adventures of literary figures) is championed here as a way of dealing with unpleasantness in real life; unpleasantness like death, and like bullying.  Reading is the catalyst of everything important in the film: the introduction to adventure and the key to saving the world.  As Julie Salomon wrote in The Wall Street Journal back in 1984, The NeverEnding Story "brings back the early excitement of reading as a child, when the act of turning pages took on a magical quality."

But more than that, I appreciate how The NeverEnding Story turns the idea of "the Ivory Tower" on its ear.  In metaphor, the Ivory Tower has become synonymous with something negative.  The phrase Ivory Tower widely "refers to a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life."

Today, people decry Ivory Tower residents as "elitists" or as being somehow bad, even evil.  Instead, ignorance and anti-intellectualism are raised up as virtues, instead.   Don't read the newspaper?  Great!  Don't know geography?  Terrific. Who's the leader of Pakistan?  Don't know? Don't care?  Outstanding. 

Well, as The NeverEnding Story makes plain, nothing bad EVER originates from the Ivory Tower.  Self-enrichment and education are universal positives...in any reality.  There is no down side to being smart; to  gathering knowledge; to being a resident of this "Ivory Tower."

Ask yourself, what do others gain by keeping another person away from learning, away from the proverbial Ivory Tower? By keeping others ignorant? That's the danger of anti-intellectualism right there; that someone will "bully" another being into being something less than what he or she could be.  

Gmork makes the case aptly:  "People who have no hopes are easy to control; and whoever has the control... has the power."

When you tie together The NeverEnding Story's multiple strands of education (and learning to read, to experience literary worlds), imagination (putting yourself into the literary fantasy...)  and self-worth to the movie's paradise -- "The Ivory Tower," --  you get the point plainly.  

It's a message perfectly suited for adults and kids: don't for a minute believe that one person can't be important.

The question, for viewers, of course, is simply: are you interested in a fantasy film created in this vein, a fantasy film in which the advice "never give up, and good luck will find you," is championed at the expense of more mature, nuanced themes.  

I can easily imagine that, before having a son, I might have felt that this message was somehow cheesy or over-the-top.   But being the parent of a seven-year old, I find myself appreciating The NeverEnding Story more than ever before.  The movie is fun and inventive, and it has a light touch with this material. I find it audacious and courageous that a fantasy movie should take the form of, literally, the aforementioned "self-help book."  

Now, I don't know that I would want other fantasies to emulate this mold; but in this case, the unusual symbolism successfully differentiates The NeverEnding Story from its many brethren of the early 1980s. The result is that the movie is distinctive...and memorable.

Of course, not everyone agreed.  Critic Vincent Canby wrote, of the movie's approach: "When the movie is not sounding like ''The Pre-Teen- Ager's Guide to Existentialism,'' it's simply a series of resolutely unexciting encounters between Atreyu and the creatures that alternately help and hinder his mission."

Perhaps that's true, but what about when the movie does sound like a Pre-Teen Ager's Guide to Existentialism?  For me, that's where this movie's worth ultimately resides; in the idea of real life foibles and crises made manifest in fantasy terrain.  I don't think the movie's great strength --  the brawny central conceit -- should be discounted quite so readily.

Having a luck dragon with you is the only way to go on a quest...

Falcor, the Luck Dragon...looks suspiciously like a puppy.

The other factor that distinguishes The NeverEnding Story today is the film's pre-CGI visualization of Fantasia. 

In fact, this movie, -- much like The Dark Crystal (1982) -- is a wonderful testament to the things practical effects can achieve given an adequate budget and a sense of unrestrained imagination.  Here, an entire world is built from the ground up; and it's a world of leviathan Rock Biters, racing snails, Sadness Swamps, weird "elf-tech," and much more. 

Using prosthetics, gorgeous sets, miniatures, and mattes -- and no digital backgrounds or monsters whatsoever -- the makers of this film support the storyline with their droll, highly-detailed creations.  Some of these creations are really, really weird, mind you. 

For instance, the Rock Biter is an amazing, idiosyncratic and wholly individual thing. He's crazy-looking, and yet he's got real personality and character.  I can't say he looks "real"; more like something you'd imagine from Alice in Wonderland.  And yet he has weight and presence, and when he is sad, you feel his pain.  In the movie, the Rock Biter contemplates giving himself to the Nothing, essentially committing suicide, and the pathos is authentic.  A bad special effect could not have accomplished that feeling.

Today, some of the flying effects don't hold up; certainly that is true.  The ending of the movie also feels sudden, and a little too convenient.

But nonetheless, The NeverEnding Story still has...something.  It may not be what we desire of a fantasy as "serious"  grown-ups, but trenchantly it does recall such youthful stories as Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland.

Empire's Ian Nathan wrote of The NeverEnding Story: "This was sweet and charming at the time but now it just lacks either the comedy or sophistication of kids' fantasy film that we've all become accustomed to."

I agree with him that The NeverEnding Story remains sweet and charming.  And the film's sense of sophistication arises from the central conceit of turning human emotions -- depression, self-hatred, apathy -- into the trials of a heroic, fantasy quest.  

But I know what he means.  

There's the sense after watching the film that, somehow, The NeverEnding Story isn't merely child-like, it's actually childish. 

I'll leave it up to each individual viewer to decide if that's the film's ultimate weakness, or true blue strength.

Movie Trailer: The Neverending Story (1984)

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Joel's Christmas Haul

Here's a sampling of Joel's Christmas collection, from parents, grandparents, and other family members!

The Seven Most Dangerous Computers in Cult-Television History (and a Few Friendlier Models Too...)

Some years ago, a dear friend presented me with a coffee cup inscribed with this legend: “To err is human. To really screw things up you need a computer.” 

Many times over the years, I’ve been reminded of that quotation while watching episodes of cult television programming. The trope of the "villainous super computer" is now extremely well-established in horror and sci-fi, so today I decided to present my choices for the most dangerous of this TV computer bunch.

The selections range from mildly dangerous (#7) to most intensely, world-destroying, time-freezing dangerous (#1).  In addition, I’ve also added a few examples of human-friendly computers below, so no one will accuse me of being rabidly anti-computer.

7. “Goodfellow’s Effort Eliminating Computer” or “G.E.E.C,” from The Super Friends (1973 – 1974).  This colossal computer was created by the kindly Professor Goodfellow for a noble purpose: to free mankind from the yoke of physical work and hard labor. 

The giant machine was programmed to handle everything from manufacturing to transportation to other routine business matters. Unfortunately, when mankind doesn’t work, drive and meaning disappear from life and mankind suffers.  Fortunately, the Super Friends realize that “it’s good for people to work, or they won’t have purpose.” 

In the end, however it is a mouse that destroys the Goodfellow computer not a superhero, thus proving that machines are not infallible.

6. “The General,” from The Prisoner (1967).  In this episode of the short-lived British series, the imprisoned Number Six (Patrick McGoohan) learns that some of his fellow villagers are being mysteriously educated by a mysterious and sinister force.  Unraveling the puzzle, he learns that the education system – Speed Learn -- is actually an insidious form of mind-control, shepherded by a super computer known as “The General.” 

Programmed with vast stores of knowledge, the machine can apparently answer any question about history, mathematics or any other subject.  It's a veritable high-tech Oracle of Delphi.  At least, that is, until crafty Number Six asks the General a one-word interrogative: “why?” 

The General promptly and accommodatingly short-circuits.

5. Checkpoint Devices Model “Omega.”  In the Ark II (1976) episode “Omega,” the intrepid crew of the Ark II discovers that a nearby village recently re-activated a super computer from the pre-apocalypse era. 

This giant, monolith-like device can completely control human minds, particularly the minds of the very young.  Seizing control of the children, Omega orders the youngsters to enslave their parents and grandchildren and put them to work in the fields.  Soon, Ark II personnel Ruth and Samuel fall prey to Omega’s anti-social mind directives, while Jonah attempts to defeat the computer in a life-sized game of Chess...the only method of de-activating it. 

When that gambit fails, it’s up to the talking chimpanzee (!) Adam – a life form that Omega has denigrated as inferior – to stop the computer from taking complete control of the village.

4. “Will Operating Thought Anologue,” or WOTAN, from Doctor Who: “The War Machine.”  In this early era tale from 1966, the First Doctor (William Hartnell) matches wits with a super computer called WOTAN, which has concluded that mankind is a mortal danger to the safety of the planet, and accordingly sets out to create ambulatory war machines to eradicate this threat.  

Like “Omega” in Ark II, WOTAN boasts the unusual capacity – for a machine anyway – to hypnotize human beings.  It uses this insidious power to begin transforming the human race into mindless slave labor…for the manufacture and construction of more mobile units. 

In the end, the Doctor is able to re-program the evil computer and save the Earth…again.

3. The M-5, from Star Trek.  Invented by Dr. Richard Daystrom (William Marshall) “the M-5 Multitronic System” is installed aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in the second season episode “The Ultimate Computer.”  The ship maintains only a skeleton crew to oversee the machine while it assumes total control.  

At first, all seems well, until M-5 begins to act…independently.  Without orders, it begins shutting down life support on parts of the ship, and then it opens fire on an unmanned freighter, the Woden (no relation to WOTAN).  All attempts to shut down the computer fail, and when a (red-shirt) ensign attempts to pull M-5’s plug, it incinerates him.  

The key to M-5’s erratic behavior involves the fact that it has been programmed with Dr. Daystrom’s “memory engrams.”  This development means that machine is as psychologically unstable as its creator.  Unfortunately, there’s a catastrophic downside: The Enterprise is scheduled to go into a war game simulation against four other warships, the Hood, Potemkin, Lexington and Excalibur.  The M-5 characterizes the game as a real battle situation, and sets out to destroy the Starfleet vessels…and all those aboard her.  Captain Kirk (William Shatner) realizes it’s time to make an appeal to M-5’s human side, and that’s precisely what he does.

A runner-up from Star Trek might be the society-controlling Landru from “Return of the Archons,” which erases human individuality and creates a collective known as “The Body.”

2. “Alex 7000,” from The Bionic Woman: “Doomsday is Today.”  This machine -- and apparent blood relative of the Hal 9000 -- is the invention and child of a pacifist named Dr. Elijah Cooper (Lew Ayres).  

As the two-part episode by Kenneth Johnson opens, Cooper makes an announcement to the world that he has invented a “cobalt bomb” which can destroy the world.  Worse, he plans to use this doomsday device if any nation on Earth attempts to deploy or even test a nuclear bomb.  This is his (admittedly strange…) way of assuring peace.

A small Middle-Eastern country violates Cooper’s terms, leaving Alex 7000 to fulfill the doctor's orders and…destroy the Earth.  The world’s first bionic woman, Jaime Sommers (Lindsay Wagner) attempts to de-activate Alex 7000 in the computer’s vast subterranean complex, but he is capable of defending himself with laser beams, machine gun fire, mines, and other devices. 

1. “The Guardian of Piri.”  This alien computer from Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) -- not unlike a more advanced model of the G.E.E.C. – was initially created to relieve the physical and mental burdens of the people of the distant world of Piri.

Unfortunately, in making their lives “perfect,” The Guardian succeeded only in destroying its own creators.  The Guardian locked Piri in a static bubble of time (because perfection must last forever...) and then transformed the humanoid denizens of the world into near mindless catatonics with no physical needs or desires. 

When Earth’s errant moon passes into range of the Guardian’s influence, the deadly machine attempts to make the Alphans’ life perfect too, putting the humans next in line to suffer the same fate. 

Only Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) resists the hypnotic call of the Guardian.  He saves his people by destroying the Guardian’s sultry servant (Catherine Schell), another “perfect” machine.  As the Alphans return to space, they see that life has returned to Piri, the Guardian’s hold over time itself also destroyed.

Other dangerous computers appeared in the Quark episode: “Vanessa 38-24-36” and in The X-Files episodes “Ghost in the Machine” and “Kill Switch.”

Despite the examples above, we must remember that cult-TV computers are our friends too.

Among the more benevolent were:

“The Old Man in the Cave.”  In this fifth season Twilight Zone episode (1964) set ten years after a nuclear apocalypse, one handful of survivors owes  its very survival to the always-correct advice of the Old Man in the Cave, an unseen stranger.  They don't realize until the episode’s climax that the “old man” is actually a benevolent computer.  They repay its kindness and loyalty by hurling stones at it and short-circuiting the poor machine. 

In one of the most nihilistic endings in cult tv history, these ungrateful survivors soon die...after eating contaminated food that the Old Man in the Cave had warned them not to consume.

“Orac.”  This super computer designed by the scientist Ensor was brought aboard the Liberator at the end of the first season of Blake’s 7 (1978 – 1981).  Possessing, at times, human qualities such as stubbornness and pride, Orac is capable of interfacing with every computer in the galaxy possessing a “tarriel cell.”   Orac can even predict the future, it seems, on some important occasions. 

Orac is rendered functional by use of a small rectangular key, and also possesses a thirst for knowledge which equates, sometimes, to endangering the very rebels it works with.  Orac alone survived the series’ final massacre on Gauda Prime, in the episode “Blake.”

“The Turk.” In Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (2008 – 2009), Sarah, John and Cameron at first believe that the computer “The Turk” is an early version of the destructive computer network, Skynet (on TV and in T3 a “worm” on the Internet, not an actual computer system). But in fact, the Turk is a “brother” artificial intelligence to Skynet, and one with the capacity to help the human race.

Other "good" cult-tv computers include SID on UFO, and Dr. Theopolis on Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.

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