Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "Attack of the Monster Plants" (December 15, 1965)

In “Attack of the Monster Plants,” Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) deliberately withholds help from Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) when he is attacked by carnivorous plants and dragged into quick sand.

Robinson survives the experience and angrily banishes Smith from the settlement camp…again.  But Smith tries to work his way back into the good graces of the family by offering to duplicate the very fuel the Jupiter 2 needs, called Deutronium.  

To do so, Smith uses a plant that he has discovered that can duplicate matter.  These plants, however, thrive on Deutronium, and want the fuel for themselves.

Before long, Judy (Marta Kristen) is replicated by the plants, and seeks to get her hands on the Robinsons’ remaining supply of the fuel…

“Attack of the Monster Plants” is a strange and sometimes entrancing episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968). The episode actually works best on a kind of surreal, dream level. The visuals are sometimes remarkable.  At the very least, they are memorable and strange. 

For example, Judy Robinson takes a night-time stroll through a grove of giant flowers, goes to sleep inside one, and then a plant duplicate -- mimicking her appearance in every way -- sleepwalks through the remainder of the episode.  

For some reason, the night-time stroll, the amorphous menace, and the sense of strangeness all reminded me of I Walked with a Zombie (1943).  

Also, there's a weird subtext here worth mentioning. Judy goes to sleep one night normal, but wakes up strange and "alien."  Don West tries to approach her, but she is unapproachable in the extreme, remote and monstrous.

There’s some weird Gothic undertone here, a kind of strange Rappaccini’ Daughter angle to the whole thing. Judy, like that literary character is a beautiful being, physically, but a monster in another sense, someone dangerous and not what she seems.  

Watching "Attack of the Monster Plants," I felt that the agreeable, happy Judy had been put to sleep, and that a subconscious Judy, one who questions everything (her feelings for Don; her acceptance, even, of the group's dinner ritual...) replaces her. That isn't exactly the substance of the story, but it is one possible interpretation or reading of it.

On a literal level, alas, the episode is no great shakes.  For instance, “Attack of the Monster Plants” never explains, at all, why Judy goes to the grove and falls asleep in the giant plant to begin with.  

She seems to be hypnotized or under the spell of some force.  But we never learn what that force is, or how it is influencing her. Do the cyclamen plants have telepathy?  Why is Judy drawn to the plant grove?

And then, adding insult to injury, in the last act, we never learn what becomes of the duplicate Judy.  

Do the Robinsons kill her, an intruder in their midst? 

Does she shrivel up and die, like the rest of the plants?  

This is a huge plot thread to leave hanging, but “Attack of the Monster Plants” provides no resolution.  How would Maureen react, seeing her daughter dry up and wither before her eyes?  Or, contrarily, how would John feel, having to take a laser to the interloper?

A chance to really explore the characters and their relationships is lost.

And yet, I can't lie, this lack of answers also adds, in some weird way, to the commendable dream-quality of the episode. Everything here is surreal and unexplained, like a nightmare half-remembered.

Even the cyclamen plants -- these giant, weird plants -- are dream-like. They make disturbing, inhuman sounds, and the thought of being surrounded by them (or enveloped by them, as Judy is…) is unnerving in the extreme.

Once more, Smith is handled poorly by series writers. Here, he has the opportunity to save John Robinson, but instead leaves him to die.  He then returns to camp, and instead of telling the others that John is danger, pretends that everything is okay.  This is evil, and unforgivable.  Smith actually goes and makes small-talk with Will (Bill Mumy) while Will’s father is dying!

Then, once Smith has discovered that the plants can duplicate matter, he blackmails the family.  He decides that only he and West (Mark Goddard) will return home to Earth, and that the Robinsons will be stranded.  Again, his actions are not shaded by nuance. There aren’t two ways to interpret his behavior.  He is selfish to the point that he would put his life above the lives of the Robinsons.

After the events of this episode, how can the Robinsons continue to trust him?

That’s a sentence I seem to keep rewriting, in these reviews, and it’s a legitimate concern. For example, this is the third episode out of fourteen in which Smith has been banished (“The Oasis” and “Wish Upon a Star” are the earlier instances) from the camp, but then ends up back in the group.

Clearly, banishment is not a suitable or lasting answer to the problem of Dr. Smith.  

I have my solution: stick Smith in the cryo-tube on the Jupiter 2and keep him frozen until the crew gets back to Earth safely. Even  if that takes fifty years.

Next week: “Return from Outer Space.”

Movie Trailer: AVP (2004)

Monday, March 30, 2015

Memory Bank: A Night Out in Totowa, N.J. (circa 1975 - 1980)

In case you can’t tell from my toy collection, I had a wonderful and happy childhood in New Jersey of the 1970s. 

Although my family lived in the town of Glen Ridge (between Montclair and Bloomfield), we would sometimes spend a night in Totowa, New Jersey, about forty five minutes away from our home on Clinton Road.


Well, for one thing, Totowa was the location, in the late 1970s, of the Totowa Drive-In, on Rte. 46.  

It was there, in that venue, that my parents saw such films as Last House on the Left (1972), The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), and Death Race 2000 (1975) while my sister and I were expected to go to sleep in the back of the car. 

As I've written about before...we stayed up and peeked.

Of course, we also saw plenty of kid’s movies at the Totowa Drive-In too, mostly Herbie movies from Disney, if memory serves. 

But on a day we were going to the Drive-In to see a movie, my Mom would pack us all sub sandwiches, potato chips and homemade blueberry muffins, and we’d all sit in the car together watching the featured movie on the big screen. I remember how twitchy the sound system was, at times, and the big, clunky speakers we'd hang on our windows so we could hear the audio.  

But sometimes, when we were in Totowa for  movie, we also visited a store that I possess vivid memories of to this day: Two Guys. 

What was Two Guys?  Well, it was a discount chain that had a hundred or so locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Jersey from about 1946 to 1982. 

The store sold Vornado Brand appliances and fans, but had much more to offer as well. The giant store in Totowa had a lumber department, a grocery store, a toy department, a soda/ice cream counter, and a house wares section, for instance.  I know there were Two Guys locations in Middletown, East Hanover and Cherry Hill too, but I remember primarily, the Totowa store.

When you first walked in, there was a huge midway. And there, on that path, was a pre-Atari 2600, free-standing Pong game unit, at least for a while.  So we would go to Two Guys, buy sodas and my parents would engage in Pong battles for a good long while.  

When I discussed Two Guys (originally known as Two Guys from Harrison) with my Dad the other day, he mentioned to me that we also got our first screen tent -- for cross-country camping -- at the Two Guys located in Totowa.

In 2015, I still carry memories of at least one particular visit to Two Guys. It was late at night -- or at least dark out -- perhaps after a trip to the Drive-In, and we went inside.  

In the toy department there were rows of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) toys that I had never seen in Toys R Us or other toy store, and which I would never see for sale again, except in the collectible market.  

For example, I remember distinctly seeing the Electronic U.S.S. Enterprise from South Bend, as well as the electronic “phaser guns” and belt buckles from the same manufacturer.

I assume, perhaps incorrectly, that Two Guys -- a discount store -- had these toys in stock because they were poor sellers. I remember wanting these toys very badly, but for seventies dollars, they were very expensive. 

Not long after that visit -- in the early 1980s -- Two Guys went out of business and was replaced by a store called Bradlees, another chain that is out of business now too.  

The Totowa Drive-In is no longer operating, either.  

Yet all these places live on in my memories.

I haven't been to Totowa in many years (probably since the late 1980s...), but I do remember the great times I spent there with my family long, long ago, watching movies, playing Pong, and lusting for starship toys.

I told my son, Joel the other night that if I could time travel with him, I'd take him to Totowa in the late seventies to see Star Wars at the drive-in theater, and then buy him some ice cream and toys at Two Guys.  

He told me, without batting an eye, that it was a bad idea, because I might run into my younger self.  

And what if I bought him a toy that young JKM was supposed to own?  

The whole universe would succumb to a reality-shattering paradox!

That's my boy.

Cult-TV Theme Watch: God(s)

A god is a divine being or entity, or a supreme being. A god is known for omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence.  And a god is also the primary or central figure of most organized religions, a point of worship and prayer.

Perhaps because of the "science" in science fiction, cult-television has often featured divine or supreme beings in its programming.  But usually, Gods are revealed in such stories to be false in the sense that they are not divine; merely highly advanced beings that we mistake for being infallible or all-powerful. In other words, they are beings more advanced than we are, with technology that, at our stage of development, seems god-like.

The original Star Trek (1966 - 1968) made it a regular habit to question those beings who claimed to be God. In "Who Mourns for Adonis," The Enterprise encountered an individual claiming to be the Greek God, Apollo (Michael Forest), for instance.  In the second pilot, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," a crew-member -- Gary Mitchell -- is endowed with God-like powers but as his friends discover, he hasn't yet come to possess the wisdom we expect and demand from a deity. This post is about cult-TV, but the fifth Star Trek motion picture, The Final Frontier (1989) returned to the idea of the crew encountering "false" gods.

Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) both followed the pattern laid down by Star Trek, and established its own. In the Year One story, "Black Sun," for instance, the Alphans encountered a god-like being inside the event horizon of a black hole. It was childlike and curious, but not a corporeal being as we understand it.

A more traditional God-imitator, Magus, appeared in the Year Two story "New Adam, New Eve."There, Magus was not a deity himself, but an advanced genetic scientist obsessed with developing new life.

The Fantastic Journey (1977) episode "An Act of Love" involved a culture in the Bermuda Triangle that worships a volcano as a god. Dr. Willaway (Roddy McDowall) sets the culture straight with his typical bluntness and wisdom. "You are trying to make deals with volcanoes... leave superstition behind."

On the original Battlestar Galactica (1978 - 1979), from Glen A. Larson, the Galactica encounters beings who are like Gods and devils, angels and demons in "War of the Gods."  The forces of good -- god-like beings in white robes -- inhabit the Ship of Lights.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994), an early episode called "Justice" pits Captain Picard against the orbiting God of the Edo people.  That God is actually a space vessel of some type, but its inhabitants are never revealed, or explained.

On Deep Space Nine (1993 - 1999), the wormhole entities, who exist outside linear time, are believed by the Bajoran people to be Gods called prophets.

A brilliant later-season episode of The X-Files (1993 - 2002), "Improbable," concerns numerology, and Burt Reynolds portrays God himself, who likens the universe to a casino where we're all gamblers.

The Cult-TV Faces of God(s)

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Where No Man Has Gone Before."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "Who Mourns for Adonais."

Identified by SGB: Space:1999: "New Adam, New Eve."

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "Face of Evil."

Not Identified: The Fantastic Journey: "An Act of Love."

Identified by Nowhere: Battlestar Galactica: "War of the Gods."

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Justice."

Identified by Hugh: The Simpsons.

IDentified by Hugh: South Park.

Identified by Nowhere: Futurama.

Identified by Chris G: The X-Files: "Improbable."

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Advert Artwork: H.R. Pufnstuf Edition

H.R. Pufnstuf: "The Magic Path"

In “The Magic Path,” Jimmy (Jack Wild) has just washed ashore on the living island with his friend, Freddy, the talking flute. 

He befriends the mayor of the island, H.R. Pufnstuf, and learns that all objects -- even the trees -- are sentient beings there.

Hoping to get information about how to stop Witchiepoo (Billy Hayes) and leave the island, Jimmy consults with Dr. Blinky, an owl of “great intelligence” who heads the island’s Anti-Witch Committee. 

Blinky reports that the only person who knows the secret route, Judy Frog, is being held captive in the witch’s castle.

This means Pufnstuf, Jimmy and Freddy must rescue her…

In quite a few significant ways, “The Magic Path” is like a Saturday morning version of The Wizard of Oz (1939), with a displaced hero -- Jimmy (Wild) -- gathering up his colorful friends and taking a path to a witch’s castle in hopes of discovering a way home from the fantasy land, in this case, the Living Island.

One variation on the world of Oz, as seen here, involves the fact that everything on the Living Island is, well, alive. 

This includes trees, books, test-tubes (in Blinky’s laboratory) and even sneezing houses. 

It’s rather amazing that, on a low budget, Sid and Marty Krofft and their production team could create all these beings and make them so memorable. One of the best such creations, by my reckoning is the West Wind, who talks just like movie star John Wayne.   

A weird touch? Yes, but one totally in keeping with the outrageous, trippy aspects of the series. Exhibit A on that front is the Stoner Tree we meet here, who dons a head-band and dark sun-glasses.

“The Magic Path’s” humor is mostly lame stuff (“he kicked me in the root!” complains a tree…), and the scenes with cackling Witchiepoo and her minions are grating to the ear.  They get old real fast. 

And yet, Pufnstuf is a magical character, for sure, and his friendship with Jimmy is the key aspect of the program, and the series.

The Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday Morning Empire and legacy begins with this colorful series from 1969, and its sometimes crazy (sometimes drug-inspired?) flights of fancy.

Outré Intro: H.R. Pufnstuf (1969)

H.R. Pufnstuf (1969): kid's show, drug trip, or both?

Please, discuss among yourselves...

All joking aside, H.R. Pufnstuf is an extremely imaginative work of art from producers Sid and Marty Krofft. 

In the tradition of The Wizard of Oz, this Saturday morning TV series is the story of a boy, Jimmy (Jack Wild) who makes a magic journey from our world to a fantasy world. 

In that fantasy world, he is taunted and chased by a Witch (Billy Hayes), and befriended by strange talking trees, dragons, owls and other representatives of "The Living Island."

The question of H.R. Pufnstuf's true nature -- as either drug trip or pure entertainment (or both) -- is usually raised because of the program's trippy imagery, but also because of the series title, and song lyrics. 

Specifically, "Pufnstuf" seems a reference to smoking weed, and the line "can't do a little, cuz he can't do enough" also seems like a drug reference about getting high.

Clearly, too, there's the trip angle.  

Some of the imagery featured below seems indicative of a good trip gone bad, especially given the dual-nature of the boat that transports Jimmy to this "other world" of H.R. Pufnstuf.

The title montage begins with snow-capped mountains, a beautiful forest, and a boy running alone in slow motion, enjoying a warm, happy "summertime" with his "magic golden flute." 

Is the flute actually representative of a bong or pipe?  The very thing that makes the trip possible, and is coveted by Witchiepoo?

It seems like that could be the case since as the intro commences, Jimmy lives in what seems to be the real world, except for the presence of that magic talking flute.   

After just a few blows on that pipe/flute (as you can see in the opening frames), he sees a magical boat on the shore, one ready to whisk him away to another place.

Did I mention that the boat is psychedelic, and seems to be alive?  

In the frame below, the boat's eye moves.  

And the title song notes that the boat beckons Jimmy.  "Come and play with me, Jimmy, come and play with me.  I will take you on a trip...far across the sea."

Again with the trip imagery!

So Jimmy boards the boat and takes that trip, only to find that the boat belongs to a witch, Witchiepoo. It reveals its true, evil, demonic form to Jimmy, and she cackles with glee.  The boat actually wrestles Billy and tries to kill him.  

The ocean turns mean, the boat loses its psychedelic, colorful qualities, and we are asked to contemplate a trip gone very, very bad.

But Pufnstuf comes to the rescue with his rescue crew, and races to save Jimmy from the witch, providing a safe harbor for the boy.

Hand-in-hand with Pufnstuf, Jimmy explores the wacky weirdness fantasy land of the Living Island, and the credits roll.  Please note the living tree in the last frame, wearing a head-band and sun-glasses.

Weird, huh?

So what do you think? Is H.R. Pufnstuf really about drug culture?

Or is it just a really weird product of the year 1969?  (That's the year, incidentally, that I was born...).

I feel that the drug culture aspects of the show, from the title to the flute, to the song lyrics are absolutely intentional, though the individual stories featured on the show are kid-friendly and innocuous in the extreme.   

Why go about a program in a fashion like this?

Well, it creates interest among older kids (and TV  cholars...) for one thing, so that not just children will watch the series. 

Indeed, by featuring drug culture references and images, a kind of parallel narrative is created here. Suddenly, you start watching the episodes on competing tracks; looking for clues as to intent and purpose.

Here's the intro in living color:

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