Monday, November 30, 2015

Ask JKM a Question: Space:1999 vs. ST: TNG

A regular reader, SGB, writes:

'"Question: Since 1997, I have owned multiple copies of your brilliant Exploring Space:1999.

Did you notice that the common element of Space:1999 "Space Warp" and "Immunity Syndrome" episodes was replicated in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) "Booby Trap" , i.e., the scenes involving finding a long dead alien with a video panel with discs that you drop in to watch what happened to the alien and learn how to resolve the current  trap?

Space:1999 "Space Warp" :

Space:1999 "Immunity Syndrome": 

Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994) "Booby Trap" :

SGB, first of all, I want to thank you for writing such nice things about my book, Exploring Space:1999, and supporting it in print (and e-book).  I am gratified that the book has never been out of print in nearly 20 years, and I only wish I had the chance to update it for the 21st century.

Secondly -- and you probably know my opinion on this -- Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 - 1994) assimilated a lot of good ideas from Space:1999 (1975 - 1977).

As I wrote in my book, the whole central character structure of TNG, which I term "Bob, Ted, Carol and Alice in Space," owes something to the character structure of the second season of Space:1999...which is widely disparaged. 

Think about it: in Space:1999 a commanding officer (John Koenig) is in love with the chief medical officer (Helena Russell). Meanwhile, the younger first officer (Tony Verdeschi) is in love with a sensitive alien female member of the crew (Maya).

This exact structure appears in TNG, with Captain Picard and Dr. Crusher, and Commander Riker and Counselor Troi. Troi replaces Maya as the alien; Riker replaces Tony as the hot-blooded younger officer.  And Picard and Crusher, of course, replace Koenig and Russell.

That's a global influence, to be certain, but there are also specific elements of episodes that recur from Space: 1999 to Star Trek: The Next Generation, especially during the latter show's early seasons.

For instance, remember the second year episode "Journey to Where" in Space:1999. This episode finds Helena Russell and Commander Koenig trapped in a prison cell that is, essentially, a cave (on Earth, in Scotland, in the distant past). Helena is sick and getting sicker. But she demonstrates her knowledge and skill as a doctor by having Koenig pick fungus from the cave walls, and mix together a cure. It heals her.

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, in the first season episode "Arsenal of Freedom," Picard and Crusher are trapped in a cave. Crusher is injured, bloody and scraped. She has Picard use the roots in the cave to mix together a clotting/healing medicine, and is healed.

In both cases, the commander and doctor -- clearly attracted to one another -- are trapped together in an earthen location, and they switch roles, in a sense. The doctor leads, demonstrating knowledge and know-how, while the commander takes orders, and must assemble the ingredients of a medicine, and then administer that medicine, by the doctor's instructions.

Ideas recur.

Sometimes the same idea appears with independent authors who have no knowledge of one another.
So I'm not saying these are examples of outright theft.

I'm merely suggesting, I suppose that Space:1999 may be more influential and important a series in cult-TV history than it has been given proper credit for, especially in some (but not all...) Trek fan circles.

The example you name, is another worth thinking about, for certain. In both "Space Warp" and "The Immunity Syndrome" an alien version of the captain's log provides the clues to resolving a mystery. And indeed, this also occurs in "Booby Trap."  And "Booby Trap" even gives us the alien captain skeleton, like the one in "Immunity Syndrome" (both pictured at the head of this post.)

Cult-TV Theme Watch: Eyepatches

A few weeks ago, I liked at the cult-tv faces of trench coats, and concluded that these jackets make characters look positively bad ass.  The same, ultimately, is true of eyepatches.  An eyepatch covers one eye, and makes a character look absolutely tough, and possibly evil.

Characters on cult-TV shows have often worn eye patches…especially villains.

For example, in the Jon Pertwee Doctor Who (1963-1989) era, The Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (Nicolas Courtney) wears an eyepatch in the serial “Inferno.”

In this story, the Doctor moves between parallel universes and encounters a fascist, evil version of the beloved military man.  So, eye-patches are to Doctor Who what a goatee was to Spock in Star Trek (1966-1969), you might conclude.

In 2011, the era of Matt Smith’s eleventh doctor, the eyepatch returned in “The Wedding of River Song,” worn by multiple characters, and intended as an homage to the recently passed-away Courtney.

Another popular British science fiction series, Terry Nation’s Blake’s 7 (1978-1981), also spotlighted a villain with an eye-patch.  In seasons one and two of the program, the one eyed Travis, played first by Stephen Greif, and later by Brian Croucher, pursued Blake and his rebels across the galaxy.

In an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999) that parodied the James Bond films (and titled “Our Man Bashir), Chief O’Brien (Colm Meaney) wears an eyepatch as the holodeck character the Falcon.

The final season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) witnessed the kindly, harmless Xander Harris (Nicholas Brendan) is wounded by a minion of The First Evil, Caleb (Nathan Fillion), and one eye is gouged out.  For the remainder of the series, Xander wears an eye-patch, which makes him Nick Fury-esque, in his own eyes (or rather, eye).

Recently, on The Walking Dead (2010 – present), The Governor (David Morrissey) proved super evil by wearing both a trench coat and an eye-patch, possibly making him the most evil character in cult-TV history.

And also, on Game of Thrones (2011 – present), Beric Dondarrian wears an eyepatch.

The Cult-TV Faces of: Eye Patches

Identified by Hugh: Doctor Who: "Inferno."

Identified by Hugh: Blake's 7 (Travis 1)

Identified by Hugh: Blake's 7 (Travis 2).


Identified by Hugh: Futurama (Leela).

Identified by Hugh: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: "Our Man Bashir" (O'Brien).

Identified by Woodchuckgod: Farscape.

Identified by Hugh: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Identified by Hugh: Battlestar Galacticca.

Identified by Hugh; Doctor Who.

Identified by Chris G: Supernatural: "Pac Man Fever" (Felicia Day).

Identified by Hugh: The Walking Dead, The Governor (David Morrissey).

Identified by Bruce Nims: 

Identified by Hugh: Mad Men.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

At Flashbak: Remembering the Colecovision Game System (1982-1984)

My second Flashbak this week remembers another great video games system of the Golden Age: The Colecovision.

"I’ve devoted a lot of space here at Flashbak recently to the Vectrex, Atari 2600 and Intellivision, just a few of the most cherished video game consoles of the late 1970s early 1980s 

When I think of the original, golden age of video games 1978 - 1983, however, I always think in terms of those systems.

But there is another.


I had a dear friend in middle school and high school who lived on the other side of town and got a Colecovision for Christmas in 1982.

And -- even though I was an Atari Kid -- this system put the 2600 and 5200 to shame.  The Colecovision was amazing.

Colecovision came bundled with Nintendo’s Donkey Kong (where Atari came with…Combat), and that wasn’t the only great game in the system’s stable.  Colecovision’s Zaxxon was -- up to that point, anyway -- the most advanced-looking home video game I had ever seen in terms of graphics and play.  It absolutely lived up to the system’s advertising promise of “arcade quality” games.

Even the ‘super’ controllers for the system seemed a quantum leap forward, with deluxe models that had a roller, a 12-button keyboard, and a trigger grip.

Coleco Industries sold over one million Colecovision unites in one year’s time (1982-1983) and quickly became the most beloved game unit on the market..."

At Flashbak: Thought, Action, and Reaction: The Magnavox Odyssey (1972)

This week at Flashbak, I remembered the age of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home video game in history.

"I’ll admit it, I don’t actually remember this console, the Magnavox Odyssey.

It was released on the market when I was just four years old, in 1972.  Yet it is historically important, since video game scholars mark it as the first commercially available home video game system.

Created by Ralph Baer with Bill Harrison and Bill Rusch, the Magnavox Odyssey is described in its promotional material as “the exciting Electronic Game Center for children and adults.” 

The same advertisement notes that the game system makes TV into more “than something to just sit and watch,” transforming the boob tube into a “challenging electronic playground of fun and learning for the entire family.

The Magnavox, its manufacturers note, is “thought, action and reaction. It is a play and learning experience for all ages.

The Odyssey is very different from the other game systems that I have covered here, for certain.  For example, the Magnavox Odyssey features no sound card, runs on six C batteries, and features color overlays that you can place over the TV set to make it appear that the games are produced in color. 

The Magnavox Odyssey also was sold with poker chips and dice, so that you could play casino style games with the machine (like “Roulette.”)

In 1972, 100,000 Odyssey units were sold, and over its life, 27 Odyssey games were produced. Twelve came with the console unit (including “Table Tennis”).

One of the most interesting add-ons for the Magnavox Odyssey is a pump action rifle or shot-gun to be used with such games as “Shooting Gallery,” “Shoot Out,” “Dog Fight” and “Prehistoric Safari.”

The makers of the game also faced a lawsuit from Atari, because the Odyssey’s Tennis game apparently too closely resembled the popular Pong arcade game..."

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Jason of Star Command: "Chapter 9: Peepo's Last Chance" (November 4, 1978)

In Jason of Star Command (1978-1980) Chapter 9, “Peepo’s Last Chance,” Dragos (Sid Haig) has repaired his Dragonship and is scouring the universe for signs of Jason. 

On Arcturon, Drago’s minions locate a couple of Star Command droids: Peepo and Wiki.  They are there conducting a defense survey of the world, but Dragos orders them captured.

Jason (Craig Littler) and Nicole (Susan O’Hanlon) take a Star Fire to the planet, but in the mean-time 
Peepo is connected to a dragon terminal and made to reveal top secret information about Star Command and its technology. 

Jason manages to free his friends, but the day is not saved.  Though Jason doesn’t know it, Peepo has been brain-washed and now serves the evil Dragos.

“Peepo’s Last Chance” is not much more than a runaround -- a show with little emotional or narrative depth, concerning instead rescues, escapes, and chases.  In this circumstance, Jason and Nicole must save two diminutive robots, Peepo and Wiki from Dragos.

Wiki spends a great deal of time on the top of Peepo’s computerized head this week, and I could not help but think of Twiki and Dr. Theopolis from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century.  

But the real antecedents here? 

R2-D2 and C3PO, the beloved droid duo from Star Wars (1977).  Here, Peepo considers Wiki an “annoying kid brother,” according to Jason, and that seems like an attempt to recreate the relationship dynamic of the famous gold protocol droid and his mischief-making astromech pal.

This is the first episode on my re-watch wherein I first felt a sense of creeping sameness or routine.  We’ve seen Dragos’ evil plan before, as well as his capture of Star Command personnel.  We’ve even seen the spaghetti-monster minions and the wasteland planetoid before. And, of course, we’ve seen rescues and escapes galore.

I guess in a large multi-part “serial” like this one, some parts qualify as filler. That’s certainly the case with “Peepo’s Last Chance,” though in fairness the episode does set up, ably, the possibility of future betrayal.  Peepo has been turned!

Next week: “The Disappearing Man.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Space Academy: "Planet of Fire" (November 5, 1977)

This week on Space Academy, Tee-Gar Soom (Brian Tochi) experiments with a "cryotron," a device that will ultimately be able to "cool down hot planets."  He demonstrates it for his friends, and for Gampu (Jonathan Harris), and is pleased with his success.

But Tee Gar is also due for a vacation, so he leaves the Academy and doesn't learn that his experimental cryotron device --which looks like a ray gun with a back pack -- posseses a fatal flaw: the frozen objects become unstable and explode.

With Loki and Peepo, the oblivious Tee Gar heads to the asteroid of Daleus to perform further tests on the cryotron, only to see the potential weapon stolen by a strange, solitary giant named Dramon (Don Pedro Colley).

Dramon abducts and then freezes Peepo with the Cryotron, and then needs Tee Gar's help to restore the robot to normal. 

The only thing that can save the diminutive droid is "moist heat."  Fortunately, a hot spring on the planet surface gets the job donem and Peepo is saved.

At the end of the day, Peepo is back to being himself, and Dramon returns to the Academy as a new friend. 

Meanwhile, Tee-Gar promises to continue work on his freezing device.

"All great men have suffered disappointment," advises Commander Gampu "from Galileo to the Wright Brothers..."

"Planet of Fire" is a disappointment, I would assess. It's not that it is a terrible episode, it's that it is pitched a lot lower than earlier episodes.  "Countdown," "Survivors of Zalon" and "The Rocks of Janus" could largely pass muster on a prime time series like Star Trek (1966-1969) or Space:1999 (1975-1977).  The concepts are strong ones, and the execution is pretty good too.

But "Planet of Fire," is, in essence, about the cadets encountering a lonely giant who freezes their robot.  They make friends with him.

And that's it.

This isn't to say that the lesson about friendship is unworthy. It isn't. Dramon is confused that Peepo's buddies risked their lives to rescue him. "Maybe the way you act, you don't deserve them [friends]," Peepo suggests, and so Dramon reforms his anti-social ways.

There's also a lesson here about tenacity. Tee Gar has failed in his work, making the cryotron safe and functional, but one set-back cannot be the end for a scientist.  He must re-tool, and try again.  Otherwise, nothing of value will ever be invented right.  In some ways, Gampu's speech to Tee Gar about success is absolutely perfect.  It's something a good teacher would say. And it reminds me, absolutely, of moments between Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Wesley Crusher (Will Wheaton) in Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994), particularly in shows such as "Coming of Age."

Still, these lessons for Tee Gar and Dramon feel a bit too preachy, and they are grounded in concepts that aren't that great.  A giant? A freeze ray?  Space Academy often aspires to be more than pulp-branded entertainment, and it's a bit sad to see "Planet of Fire" rely on such hoary ideas.

Next week: "Life Begins at 300."

Friday, November 27, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972)

One way to comprehend and appreciate the Godzilla movies is to parse them as, essentially, the Japanese monster equivalent of James Bond-styled movie adventures. 

Thus, every Godzilla outing features a different and dynamic antagonist and the same, dependable hero, Godzilla, who faces this new threat or challenge. But in different eras, Godzilla is interpreted differently, not unlike the varying interpretations of 007 by actors Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, Brosnan and Craig.  Sometimes Godzilla is friendlier, sometimes less so.  Sometimes he is silly, and sometimes he is deadly serious.

The monster movies of the 1970s Showa period are a great deal more fanciful in presentation than some. 

They are more aptly fantasy entries than outright horror shows, like the original Gojira.  On a personal note, I admire and love the Godzilla films of the 1970s Showa Era, and their interpretation of Godzilla as a reluctant warrior for mankind, not to mention hero of children everywhere.

One of the very best Godzilla films ever made – of any era -- is Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972), or Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster as it was known in the United States upon release.  The film works as both a compelling Godzilla entry, and also as a science fiction film featuring a meaningful statement about the environment.

Remember, the great kaiju movies, in my opinion, are the ones that create monsters that are avatars for some pressing issue in the human world, often atomic testing, and the notion of Mother Nature’s revolt against that poor behavior. 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah creates a great monster, Hedorah, out of the issue of pollution, which was a major component of the 1970s science fiction film.  Efforts from around the world, including No Blade of Grass (1970), and Z.P.G. (1972) imagined worlds in which our soiling of the planet led to catastrophic and apocalyptic futures.

Hedorah possesses a unique and fascinating life-cycle, which means that the monster adopts multiple forms in the sea, on land and in the air, throughout the film, and that fact livens up the battles with Godzilla quite a bit. 

Godzilla vs. Hedorah also features at least one major sequence set during blackest night, and so there is a dark aspect to this film that makes it memorable in the canon.  The film also tailors its message of “saving the Earth” so as to be appealing to children, who will recognize that Godzilla -- for all the damage he causes -- is on the side of the planet, and Mother Nature herself.

A beast called Hedorah that arises from “a sticky, dark planet far away” is nurtured in the pollution, sewage, and detritus of Earth’s 20th century civilizations. 

The grotesque, blob-like entity with red eyes develops and grows through three distinct stages -- in the ocean, on the surface, and in the skies -- and soon proves a grave menace to human life, especially in Japan.

When Hedorah flies above that nation’s cities and factories, he excretes deadly sulfuric acid that burns away skin and reduces human bodies to skeletal corpses.

Meanwhile, one boy, Kenny, dreams of his hero, Godzilla, and believes that only the giant atomic lizard can save the world from this terrible new threat.

Fortunately, the giant green dinosaur soon shows up, and engages in a battle to the death with the smog monster.

Going back for a minute to the useful 007 Bond comparison, Godzilla vs. Hedorah opens with a catchy pop tune, a lava-lamp-like introductory montage, and a musical performance by an attractive female singer. 

Similarly, the film also features the obligatory almost stand-alone action set-pieces here…the ones in which the protagonist first confronts the antagonist, and is defeated, and then the climactic encounter, wherein good finally prevails.

Continuing down this road of comparison further, the best way to judge or critique a Bond film, largely, is to categorize the elements in terms of their antecedents and determine whether the ingredients in the current entry stack-up to moments from franchise history.  

Is the new movie as powerfully vetted as past entries? Does it toss in some surprises to go along with the elements that a devoted audience expects to see?

In terms of Godzilla vs. Hedorah, the answers to such questions are universally affirmative.

Hedorah makes for a dangerous, original, and grotesque villain, not merely in terms of his ever-changing appearance, but also in terms of his abilities and proclivities.  When the airborne Hedorah strafes his human prey and sprays a toxic chemical, humans below are dissolved to bone instantly, and it’s a frightening, grotesque effect.  Another image of Hedorah that remains unforgettable sees the beast perching atop a factory smoke-stack, imbibing pollution directly from the pipe, as it were.

It seems to me that both Bond and Godzilla films rise and fall on the basis of the villain’s nature and plans, and Hedorah’s constantly shifting nature, nasty composition, gruesome power, and odd appetite make him an unforgettable antagonist.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah finds some new subtext and social critique material for the long-standing franchise.  Historically, Godzilla has been parsed as an avatar for atomic power. He owes his very existence in the 20th century to human nuclear testing, and so forth.  In Godzilla vs. Hedorah, however, the series gives him a villain who also symbolizes an important element of the disco decade zeitgeist: pollution

As seen in films such as Frogs (1972) and Doomwatch (1976) environmental pollution proved the great bugaboo of the age, and here, the alien seed that is Hedorah sprouts from sewage and garbage strewn into the ocean.  The opening scenes in the film depict smoke stacks, factories, and filthy brown ocean water.  We see, without fakery, examples of how man has destroyed that which Nature has provided.  These moments are powerful because they are real. Man’s technology and industry -- coupled with his propensity to destroy that which he touches – are turning a paradise into a nightmare.

From this hot-house of detritus emerges something unspeakably awful: the crimson-eyed menace from another world.  And when Hedorah sucks smoke out of a factory stack like it’s a giant bong, the film’s powerful point is nailed visually: we’re actually feeding the vehicle of our own destruction when we pollute the Earth.

Commendably, the Godzilla series has adjusted with the times to remain relevant and interesting.  The nature of “the monster” has changed (from nuclear power to rampant pollution and environmental damage), but the overall premise hasn’t been altered at all.  The fact is, state these Japanese films, mankind’s behavior and irresponsibility are jeopardizing everyone on the planet.

What makes Godzilla vs. Hedorah such a charming and worthwhile film, however, is not necessarily the polemical aspects of the drama. Contrarily, the film often adopts the viewpoint of a child, who sees the pollution and wishes for some miracle to stop it. 

That miracle is named Godzilla. 

Godzilla would get really angry if he saw this. He’d do something,” the child, Kenny, declares upon musing over pollution.

In this case, the child seeks an answer to a problem, and hopes for a person (or creature) brave enough and bold enough to take action.  The film actually forges a meaningful link between this boy and Godzilla, suggesting that Godzilla can hear his hopes and thoughts, and thus comes to the rescue of humanity.

Kenny hopes that Godzilla will fix by might that which man chooses not to address. 

Furthering the idea of the film as originating from a child’s viewpoint, Godzilla vs. Hedorah often cuts to a cartoon representation of the sludge monster, perhaps in an attempt to maintain the whimsical aspects of the tale, especially in counter-balance to some of the unexpectedly gruesome special effects. 

Finally, the film even features a great (if idealistic) answer to the problem of pollution: “if everyone pulls together, we can defeat it.

If we can just do that one thing, Godzilla will not gaze down upon us with such disapproval in his eyes, as he does in the coda of this particular outing.

Another real treat here is the fact that Godzilla vs. Hedorah is beautifully-shot.  The compositions make full use of film’s rectangular frame, and some vistas -- even those featuring an obviously mini-metropolis and dueling men-in-suits -- remain visually impressive.  There's a downright lyrical moment near the end of the film when Godzilla stands before a sunset, and the implication seems to be that it is mankind's reign itself that is setting, unless we change our ways.

 Perhaps some of the ideas here -- like a peace march to stop pollution -- seem dated in the cold light of the cynical 21st century, but Godzilla vs. Hedorah, with its child-like innocence and focus on a real 1970s “monster”  --pollution -- works just about as poetically and effectively as any Godzilla movie ever made in my opinion.

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...