Monday, August 31, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Just One Star Trek Episode for the Ages?

A reader, David, writes:

“Here’s an Ask JKM a Question for you. 

All the entertainment in the world is being systematically destroyed and you get to save only one episode of Star Trek for future generations. 

Which episode do you save?”

Yikes! Now that’s a tough question, David. 

I’m going to narrow it down a little.  Since you didn’t specify any sub-title, I’m going to assume I can only choose an episode of the original series, not the follow-ups. (If I could pick a Next Gen episode, it would be “The Inner Light.”)

But let me walk you through my thought-process in terms of my selection.  If only one episode of Star Trek is to survive for future viewings, I must consider which episode in the canon highlights best the core elements of the series; which best represents everything Star Trek stands (or stood…) for.

Some of my favorite episodes, like “Space Seed,” or “The Trouble with Tribbles”wouldn’t necessarily make the cut.  They are great shows, but I wouldn’t want either to be my representative Trek.

I’d have to drill-down here a little and answer a key question, I suppose: what does Star Trek mean to me?

Well, it’s about friendship. (Kirk, Spock and Bones).

It’s about the idea of man going out into the unknown and taking his humanity with him.

It’s about confronting alien life.

It’s about learning to see others (aliens, etc.) in a new and different light.

It’s about resourcefulness on the frontier, on the edge of civilization, when no one is around to back you up. You have great technology, but that technology is no guarantee of survival, or victory in battle.

I’ve been poring over the episode list and I believe have one episode that hits all those hot spots. 

It’s not my favorite show, though it’s a good one. It’s not even in my top twenty favorite Treks. (Among my favorites: “This Side of Paradise,” “Amok Time,” “Metamorphosis,” “Journey to Babel,” “Charlie X,” “The Doomsday Machine,” and “The Enterprise Incident.”)

But I would choose “The Corbomite Maneuver.” 

This episode from early in the first season finds the Enterprise encountering a giant cube in space (no, not the Borg). 

Captain Kirk reluctantly orders it destroyed when it emits dangerous radiation.  Before long, a much larger alien ship -- the Fesarius -- arrives and threatens the Enterprise.  Its captain is the fearsome and very alien Balok.

Now Kirk must figure out a way to escape from the technologically-superior ship, and the merciless Balok.

I would choose this episode, first, because there’s a clear surrogate for the audience in the narrative.  We meet young Lt. Bailey (Anthony Call), who is anxious and scared, having never encountered anything alien.  He’s nervous and burdened by responsibility.

Dr. McCoy thinks Bailey was promoted (by Kirk) too soon, but Kirk sees something of himself in the green officer. He sees a man who can learn and grow.  This character -- who voices audience fears and concerns -- helps us to understand the nature of the Star Trek universe, and the nature of the choices Kirk must make. 

The episode also features some good back-and-forth in the heroic triumvirate, with McCoy needling Kirk about his weight, and Spock and Kirk discussing poker and chess.

Furthermore, “The Cormobite Maneuver” involves humanity encountering alien life, and not knowing what to expect from it.  In that vacuum, tension rises.

Man brings with him to the encounter both his inexperience (Bailey) and his experience (Kirk), which makes for a nice balance, and a nice complete picture of man as a species.

And the episode’s finale involves a reveal about the true nature of Balok, and the way that “fear” is a universal constant. Kirk, Bailey and McCoy board Balok’s ship only to find that the “alien” is a puppet, and that the real Balok is a child-like alien.  He only presented that other face because he was as fearful as Bailey was about the unknown.

But, optimistically, this means that man and alien are alike.  They feel the same things; they fear the same things. This is a basis for friendship.

Kirk is up against the wall in this episode, matched against a superior ship and superior powers.  But he uses a bluff -- from the game of poker -- to find a path to survival.  He could easily fail, but he doesn’t.  

And when he “wins,” Kirk shows mercy to his enemy, and curiosity about his enemy too.  This act shows that mankind has truly grown-up.  That given the chance, he can choose not to kill, or hurt another life form.

It was tough to make this call, but “The Corbomite Maneuver” is representative of Star Trek’s best ethos, and I think the presence of the rookie, Bailey, makes the episode easier for newbies to identify with.  

I'd love to read choices by readers of the blog...

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Dome Headed Aliens

One of the greatest tropes of sci-fi television involves the physical appearance of aliens.  

I'm not talking necessarily about little green men (that's a different cliche). Instead, I'm discussing the belief of many series' writers and make-up artists that aliens will have huge dome-heads to house their (superior) intelligence.

The dome-headed alien has thus appeared several times in TV history.

On The Twilight Zone (1959 - 1961), for instance, alien Kanamits who feed on human beings are seen to have giant dome-heads.

On Lost in Space (1965 - 1968), one of the earliest episodes of the series, "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension," featured aliens who are only dome-heads.  They have no mouths, and no bodies...just floating, over-sized skulls.

Dome-headed aliens were a staple of the original Star Trek (1966 - 1969) as well.  In the first pilot, "The Cage," the telepathic Talosians are seen to have dome-shaped heads with coruscating veins over their lobes.  In the third season episode, "The Empath," the cool, intellectual Vians are similarly dome-headed.

The aliens of "War Games" on Space:1999 (1975 - 1977) -- who launch a war of illusions against the Alphans -- also feature Kanamit-sized skulls.

The Vorvon or Soul Sucker of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979 - 1981), though not necessarily a superior intellect, also has a dome head in "Space Vampire."

On and on the list goes, with examples from Alien Nation (1988), Babylon 5 (1993 - 1999) and even Futurama (1993 - 2013).

The Outer Limits (1963-1965) episode "The Sixth Finger" featured an interesting variation on this topic.  There, the dome-headed being (played by David McCallum) was not an alien at all...but one of us; an evolved human from the distant future.

Tribute: Wes Craven (1939 - 2015)

I woke up this morning to learn the terrible news that horror movie director and legend Wes Craven has passed away.

Way back in 1996, I wrote my first horror-themed book -- The Art of Horror -- about the films of Wes Craven.  Broadly speaking, my thesis was that Wes Craven's imagination and ingenuity turned -- or pivoted -- American horror on at least three crucial occasions.. 

First, Craven helped (along with Hooper, Peckinpah and Boorman) to move the genre away from Hammer-style supernatural horror (vampires, werewolves and the Frankenstein Monster) towards real life horror -- the Savage Cinema -- in works such as The Last House on the Left (1972) and The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Then a decade later, Wes Craven invented the incomparable Freddy Krueger for A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and the genre pivoted away from its infinite repetition of the naturalistic slasher film towards monsters and narratives of a rubber reality nature.

Finally, Craven directed Scream (1996) -- a worldwide smash written by Kevin Williamson -- that revived 1980s-type horror slashers, but this time with a self-reflexive bent.  That brand of sardonic, literate, post-modern horror film dominated the latter part of the 1990s.  Craven had been on this track of Pirandello-esque self-reflexivity earlier, with his brilliant New Nightmare (1994), but Scream caught fire with the pop culture and became a franchise that extends to this very day.

Yet I love and admire Craven's work not merely because he was always a pinch-hitter for a genre that found itself in trouble, or stagnating. No, I love him because his cinematic works often feature a humanistic or moral bent, despite what people may consider instances of extreme violence.  

The Last House on the Left -- perpetually perceived as immoral -- is actually one of the most moral, anti-violence horror efforts ever made. It reminds audiences that revenge accomplishes nothing, and that, contrarily, it debauches even those who feel justified using it. As a composition in the film notes, trenchantly: "The road leads to nowhere. And the castle stays the same."

Meanwhile, The People Under the Stairs (1991) was one of the first horror films to explicitly take on the unquestioned ethos of "greed is good" in the eighties (after They Live [1988]). It noted that trickle down economics doesn't actually work, and worse, bleeds a community dry.

Even A Nightmare on Elm Street, with its lead character, Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) -- the Hamlet of horror films -- concerns something important about American culture of the time; the way in which the older generation burdens the young with its mistakes and neuroses (not to mention national debt).  For taking this tack, and championing Generation X when others were decrying its "immoral" love of "dead teenager movies" and death metal, Craven was referred to as a "generational turncoat."  For believing in Generation X -- my generation -- at a time when few other directors did, Craven earned my trust and respect. 

Naturally, not all of Craven's films turned out great. 

Deadly Friend (1986) was an uneasy combination of horror and teen sci-fi, in keeping with its historical context, and A Vampire in Brooklyn (1995), an Eddie Murphy vehicle, couldn't seem to find and maintain a good balance between horror and comedy.  

But for every misfire like those, one could gaze at Craven's catalog and find a Serpent and the Rainbow (1987), or an underrated jewel like Deadly Blessing (1981), which concerned religious fanaticism.

Mr. Craven's work extended far beyond film. He directed a number of TV-movies for the genre, including A Stranger in Our House (1978), starring Linda Blair, Invitation to Hell (1984), Chiller (1985) and Night Visions (1990).  He also directed segments of the 1985 remake of The Twilight Zone (1985), and created the short-lived TV series Nightmare Cafe (1992).

The father of Freddy Krueger and Horace Pinker (Shocker), as well as the "presenter" of the djinn in Wishmaster (1997), Wes Craven's contributions to the horror genre from the 1970s through the 1990s are truly unforgettable.  He leaves behind for us, his fans and students, a lasting presence and influence on horror.

Wes Craven will be missed, and yet his influence on scary movies will be studied for years and decades yet to come.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Dome Headed Aliens

Identified by Hugh: The Twilight Zone: "To Serve Man." (Kanamit)

Identified by David Colohan: The Outer Limits: "The Sixth Finger."

Identified by David Colohan: Lost in Space: "Invaders from the Fifth Dimension."

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: "The Menagerie" (Talosians)

Identified by SGB: Star Trek: "The Empath" (Vians)

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "The Time Warrior" (Sontarans).

Identified by David Colohan: Space:1999: "War Games"

Identified by David Colohan: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "Space Vampire" (Vorvon)

Not Identified: Bigfoot and Wildboy: "Prisoner from Space"

Identified by Hugh: Alien Nation.

Identified by Hugh: Babylon 5 (Minbari)

Identified by Hugh: Futurama

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Advert Artwork: Star Trek (RCA)

At Flashbak: Why So Serious? Superhero Movie Tag-Lines (2002 - 2008)

My second article at Flashbak this week looked at the tag-lines of the Superheroes Triumphant Age, the first years of the 21st century.

Here's a snippet and the url:

"More great tag-lines, from the Age of Superheroes Triumphant!

Although, I must admit, these tag-lines a bit less individual and much less fun than the tag-lines of the earlier, golden age. 

You get the feeling, reading these, that they’ve been tested by focus group, polls and committees.  

Still, some manage to transcend the obvious or expected, and achieve something fun..."

At Flashbak, Superhero Movie Tag-Lines: 1966 - 2001

This week at Flashbak, I looked back at the great superhero movie tag-lines of the golden age, 1966 - 2001.

Here's a snippet (and the url) for Slam Evil!:

"In terms of superhero films, many fans see the dawn of the new age -- or Era of Superheroes Triumphant -- commencing in the twenty-first century, with the arrival of Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000). The years before that, starting with Batman (1966), might then be seen as The Golden Era of Superhero Films, or if you prefer…The Prehistoric Epoch.

Here’s a look at how those Golden Age films were sold and marketed to audiences. Below are the tag-lines used to promote superhero movies, 1966-2000..."

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Wonderbug: "The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug" (October 8, 1977)

I will make a confession right now.

Wonderbug (1976-1978) was never my favorite Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Saturday morning series. 

That honor goes to Land of the Lost (1974-1977), but I would also take Dr. Shrinker (1976), The Lost Saucer (1975), Electra Woman and Dyna Girl (1976) and a few others over Wonderbug.

I recently screened an episode of Wonderbug, “The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug” and came away with the same feeling.  The series has three generic teen leads, and a mild fantasy element: a schleppy car that turns into a superhero car.  But the stories are dopy and the humor feels antique by today’s standards.

For me, it’s more than that. It’s that there’s no real dramatic hook here.  In Land of the Lost, for example, the Marshalls want to find a way home (not to mention stay alive...).  In Dr. Shrinker, even, there’s a villain to outwit, and the need to restore the Shrinkies to their normal size.

Wonderbug is just a bunch of zany, silly adventures, with no real rules or consistent universe.  In noting that, I sure feel like a humorless bastard, though  I can tell you that I always watched Wonderbug, even though I never really liked Wonderbug.

Wonderbug aired as part of The Krofft Supershow (1976-1978) for both seasons that the omnibus aired, and garnered such a devoted following that a great deal of merchandising was produced for the series, including a board game (from Ideal), a lunch box, and even a comic-book.

The basic premise of the series is that a magic horn transforms a dilapidated old dune buggy called Schlep Car into the shiny super-heroic vehicle, Wonderbug.  (Think: Herbie the Love Bug). 

Three hapless American teens then travel with Wonderburg on his journeys: Barry (David Levy), C.C. (John-Anthony Bailey) and Susan (Carole Anne Selfinger).

Each week, the car and its occupants get into trouble, trouble that requires fixing by Wonderbug.

In terms of special effects, Wonderbug, like Land of the Lost and Dr. Shrinker, makes heavy use of chroma key.  In the scenes featuring a flying car, for instance, a shiny toy dune buggy is chroma-keyed over a live-action background, and, well, it’s pretty obviously a toy. 

The toy dune buggy (presumably remote-controlled) is also used in some scenes wherein Wonderbug performs tricks, like rearing up on its back wheels.

In “The Incredible Shrinking Wonderbug,” Barry learns that a villainous client, played by Gordon Jump, is stealing cars and then shrinking them down (using a Mego Star Trek Phaser Target gun, only slightly redesigned…).

The gang tries to bust the auto theft ring, but Schlep Car – who has a “hood” cold -- is shrunken down to tiny proportions too.  Now Wonderbug’s human friends must save their fried and stop the criminals.

It’s a weird, and horribly shticky half-hour, I must observe.  Or, to put it in terms of the dialogue, “this is not your average, run-of-the-mill turkey.” 

For me, Wonderbug is one of those Saturday morning series like Big John, Little John (1976), better remembered as nostalgia than necessarily enjoyed in the present.  

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Doctor Shrinker (1976): "The Other Brad"

In this week’s episode of Dr. Shrinker (1976), “The Other Brad,” our titular mad scientist (Jay Robinson) and his minion Hugo (Billy Barty) attempt to capture the Shrinkies -- three shrunken young adults -- using a perfect robot replica of Brad (Ted Eccles).

When the real Brad is captured and taken to a cage in the laboratory, his mechanical replacement attempts to trick B.J. (Susa Lawrence) and Gordy (Jeff Mackay) into a trap.

But Brad is able to escape from captivity and warn his friends about the danger they face…

The Sid and Marty Krofft Saturday morning series Dr. Shrinker is always a lot of fun, and as a kid growing up in the 1970s, I loved it.

But as an adult, it’s funny to see how the series doesn’t really hold up to the scrutiny of logic.

Consider the following: Dr. Shrinker (Robinson) hopes to make a fortune by demonstrating that his shrinking machine works.  He must therefore re-capture the Shrinkies to prove this fact, though why he doesn’t just shrink Hugo, or Boris the chimp (seen last episode), is a question worth asking.

Yet okay, I’ll accept the premise.  The Shrinkies are proof-positive that the shrink ray works, and Dr. Shrinker is located on a remote island, so he doesn’t have a lot of choices. 

So this week, in “The Other Brad,” Dr. Shrinker invents a perfect robot duplicate of a human being to help him capture the Shrinkies.

But...if Doctor Shrinker can build a perfect robot that replicates a human being so well that even that human’s best friends don’t recognize the difference off the bat…why is he bothering with a shrink ray? 

Forget asking the highest bidder to pay for the bloomin’ shrink ray. Sell them the perfect robot technology instead. It may have more practical applications, anyway, especially in Dr. Shrinker’s villainous circles.

But of course, Dr. Shrinker doesn’t think of that…

In a way, this kind of logic-less plot is what really differentiates a show like Dr. Shrinker from something like Land of the Lost (1974 -1977), another Sid and Mart Krofft program. There, David Gerrold, a real science-fiction author, story-edited the series and brought in great genre writers to pen individual stories.  He paid attention, and made certain that stories like “The Other Brad” didn’t get through the creative process, at least not without some heavy rewriting.  He made sure that the universe of Altrusia had a consistent set of rules, and that they weren’t violated.

Dr. Shrinker is a fun show with a kind of one note premise, but clearly nobody was making certain 
that all the stories followed logically from point A to point Z.  “The Other Brad” is exhibit A.  If you think about the story for even a minute or two, you realize it’s absolutely ridiculous.

I can’t remember what I thought at age six when I likely saw this episode. But I do know my son, at age 8, would crack down on this kind of faulty plotting in a heart-beat.

National Twilight Zone Day: "Come Wander with Me"

There are, perhaps, several episodes of Rod Serling's classic   The Twilight Zone  (1959-1964) more sharply-written, more morally-valuab...