Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Secrets of Isis: "How to Find a Friend"

A boy named Tom Anderson (Michael Lookinland) has trouble making friends, and is obnoxious about borrowing things and not returning them.  He asks another boy, Joe (Tommy Norden) to let him ride his motorbike.  Joe agrees, but only if Tom gives him something in return.

Tom steals his father’s pistol, and Joe double crosses him, taking the gun and the bike.  The situation goes from bad to worse, however, when Tom learns that the gun is malfunctioning, and could explode the next time it is fired.

It’s Isis to the rescue!

“How to Find a Friend” features Michael Lookinland, Bobby from The Brady Bunch (1969 -1974) in the role of a good but awkward kid who does the wrong thing. But, the adults (including Isis) support him through his crisis, and his social awkwardness is miraculously cured.

As usual, the story is pretty simple (and pat), and there are no fantasy trappings save for Isis’s powers.  Here, she is able to stop time, so Joe can’t fire the malfunctioning gun. She freezes time – including cars on the highway, flying birds, and a hopping bunny -- and wrenches the pistol from Joe’s frozen hand.  When she restores time and tosses the gun away, it explodes.

Meanwhile, one has to wonder if anyone ever attends class of teaches a class at Mrs. Thomas’s school.  Here, everyone include Rick, Cindy Lee, Tommy and Andrea just sit around, plotting how they will find Joe, before he fires the gun.  Then, they go out, armed with lists, to find local motorbike shops where they might find him.  No one ever does any school work, and the kids leave campus regularly, without any comment whatsoever.

I also love how everybody knows Isis.  When Joe is found, holding the gun, and time resumes, he shouts “Isis!” with recognition.  And this brings up a question. If you knew that Isis operates regularly in your town, and can stop the flow of water, fly, summon lighting, and freeze time, would you do something so dumb as to steal a gun?

Next Week: “The Show Off.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Bigfoot and Wildboy: "Amazon Contest"

In “Amazon Contest,” three Amazonian women from a domed city of the future arrive in the 1970s Southwest and make plans to enslave men, and use them as gladiators.  Queen Kyra (Cynthia Sikes) sets her sights on a lumberjack named Bert (Rick Beckner), a friend of Wild Boy and Bigfoot.

Another woman from the same future, Deeda (Dee Wallace) claims that she has been deposed, and is the rightful ruler of the domed city. She thus recruits Bigfoot and Wild Boy to help her retrieve her magical mind control scepter, now in Kyra’s possession.

When Kyra lays her eyes on the “giant” Bigfoot, however, she decides he must be her new gladiatorial champion…

Okay, first things first: in nearly 20 years of writing books and ten years of blogging, I have rarely written a synopses as strange as the one featured above.

One quality that differentiates this Sid and Marty Krofft series, Bigfoot and Wildboy, from Filmation fare is its willingness to tell bizarre fantasy stories.  Isis and Shazam are grounded, in some sense, in reality, with superheroes interfacing with normal people, in normal 1970s environs.  Bigfoot and Wildboy had absolutely none of that. The episode stories are absolutely wacko, and then, oddly a “lesson” is thrown in at the last second, like an afterthought.

Case in point is “Amazon Contest,” a two-part episode from the series’ span as an element in The Krofft Supershow omnibus. Here, sexy women from a dystopian future teleport to the seventies, attempt to control men’s minds, and battle against Bigfoot. When Bert the lumberjack is enslaved, a pink rubber band materializes around his hair-line.  The pink means he’s under the control of women, right?

Indeed, there’s just some real kink underlining this one.  The women, in sheer white dresses and short skirts arrive, and lord it over the men, saying things like “kneel before the queen.” Then, the women ooh and ah when they see the hunky men of this time, and worse, Bigfoot.  It’s just so strange, and perverse.

I try to explain Saturday morning television of the 1970s to my son, Joel, but sometimes, there’s just no adequate explanation.  “You see, Joel, three Amazon women from the future come back in time to steal men to fight in gladiatorial games. But Bigfoot stops them!” 

I can hardly type those words with a straight face, let alone say them aloud.  And yet, truth be told, “Amazon Contest,” for all its weirdness, is extremely entertaining.  I may be biased, I’ll admit it. I was thrilled to see Dee Wallace in this episode. I didn’t realize she had ever appeared on Bigfoot and Wildboy. I met her at a convention here in Charlotte three years ago and she was so nice and friendly. She talked to Joel on the day he came to see me, and was just generally very open and warm with us.  She also looked like she hadn’t aged for the last thirty years.  Anyway, Wallace does her best here with the material, but honestly, I don’t know how she kept a straight face.

Otherwise, Bigfoot and Wildboy possesses the same creative deficits I noted in my review of “Abominable Snowman” last week.  A considerable amount of time in the episode consists of Bigfoot and Wildboy running around in slow-motion. We see it straight on. We see it from a tilted angle.  We see it straight on again.  We also see Bigfoot make the exact same “bionic” jump three times in just one twenty minute segment. 

Sheesh.  It’s pretty clear that the effort here was to ape, completely, The Six Million Dollar Man’s Sasquatch.

Also, the low-budget shows.  “Amazon contest” culminates at the exact same abandoned ghost town where Dr. Porthos was operating in “Abominable Snowman.”

Friday, March 06, 2015

At Flashbak: Survival of the Fittest: Ten Times Cult-TV Played the Most Dangerous Game

My newest article at Flashbak looks at the various TV adaptations of the short story "The Most Dangerous Game."

"In 1924, author Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” (also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”) was published in Colliers. 

This literary work depicted the frightening tale of Sanger Rainsford, a hunter and New Yorker who ended up stranded on the island home of exotic (meaning “foreign”) General Zaroff and his mute-servant Ivan. 

As Rainsford soon learned, Zaroff was a hunter too, but one who had grown tired of standard game. The hunt had come to bore him. 

At least, that is, until he sought new prey: human-beings. 

Ship-wrecked sailors, in fact, became his the general’s new quarry.  In an attempt to be sporting, Zaroff always offered his human prey a fighting chance. If they could elude him on his wild island for three days, they would be allowed to leave alive and well. 

If they didn’t…well, they would be killed.

And as Rainsford learns as the story develops, no sailors have ever survived Zaroff’s hunt.

The Most Dangerous Game became an RKO movei in 1932, starring Fay Wray and Joel McCrea,, and was unofficially adapted in the 1960s (with Robert Reed) as Bloodlust (1961).

By the mid-1960s, however, cult-TV shows of all stripes were deploying the Most Dangerous Game template or trope -- hunted humans and an evil hunter -- all the time.

Here are ten memorable examples of the Most Dangerous Game adapted to cult-television..." (Continued at Flashbak).

Tribute: Harve Bennett (1930 - 2015)

Another point of light in the Star Trek constellation has passed away. The press is now reporting that writer/producer Harve Bennett has died.

Mr. Bennett was brought in by Paramount to produce Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), and he stayed with the film franchise through Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989).  

Along with writer/director Nicholas Meyer, he is largely responsible for the success and creative direction of the franchise in the eighties. Bennett's tenure saw dramatic changes in the beloved series, including the death of Spock, and the destruction of the Enterprise. He produced the film that is widely considered the greatest in Trek history, and certainly the most oft-imitated: The Wrath of Khan.

Beyond Star Trek, Harve Bennett had a hugely successful career on television, and produced a number of memorable and beloved cult-TV classics.  These include The Six Million Dollar Man (1974 - 1978), The Bionic Woman (1976 - 1977), and Salvage One (1979). 

Lesser known series that he produced include The Invisible Man (1975), with David McCallum, Gemini Man (1976) and The Powers of Matthew Star (1982).

Outside of the genre, Bennett produced the hugely-successful mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man (1976), and the popular TV series The Mod Squad (1968 - 1971).

Mr. Bennett's also wrote several episodes of Time Trax (1993 - 1994), and the screenplay for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, which introduced the concept of the katra to the Star Trek universe. 

Star Trek would not have endured in the 1980s -- and rose again to pop culture prominence -- without Mr. Bennett's guidance and safe stewardship.  Today, I hope all fans will take a moment to remember his legacy as the talent who guided the film series from the start of the eighties until the dawn of The Next Generation.

From the Archive: REC 3 (2012)

Until this third entry in the popular horror franchise, the REC movie series has been all about exploiting a cinema verite approach; about the expression of a horrific, claustrophobic scenario in ultra-realistic, “life-as-unfolding” terms.

But in [REC] 3: Genesis, the found-footage saga takes an unexpected detour into artifice, theatricality and romance. It’s an absolute (and deliberate) departure from franchise tradition to be certain, but one that suggests ingenuity, and one filled with humor…and even pathos.

To find a corollary in the horror genre, [REC] 3: Genesis is to [REC] or [REC] 2 as Evil Dead 2 (1987) is to the original The Evil Dead (1983): an amusing re-invention that maintains the gore-and-grue, bread-and-butter of the franchise, but veers headlong into terms funnier than its hard-core predecessor.

Since [REC] 2 wasn’t much more than an above-average retread of the brilliant [REC] in terms of content and style, perhaps it was indeed time to re-invent the wheel.  And so that’s precisely what this sequel does.  It continues the progression of the “outbreak” story established by the first [REC] film, but in a way unexpected, absurd, and even refreshing in its audacity.

But be warned: this sequel has earned many negative and dismissive reviews.  I suspect the negativity arises because “brand identification” has become so crucial in the last few years to both viewers and, alas, critics.  

To those inclined to think in such inartistic terms, a [REC] movie must hit certain notes, carry a certain tone and look, and develop in a certain way. What modern audiences appear to want out of a sequel is the exact same experience they already had the last time.

[REC] 3: Genesis knowingly and brazenly explodes all such expectations, and for that reason has proven divisive with audiences and reviewers.  The key to enjoying the fine qualities this film does offer -- humor, romance and suspense -- is to take it on its own terms.  

One must judge what it is, not what it isn’t.

“Okay, Cinema Verite…”

[REC] 3 begins as lovers Koldo (Diego Martin) and Clara (Leticia Dolera) prepare to take their wedding vows. 

A videographer, Atun, records the ceremony and conducts interviews with Koldo and Clara’s loved ones. But during the reception -- one of the guests, Koldo’s uncle -- begins showing signs of the zombie infection of the previous franchise entries. Specifically, the vector in common seems to be the infected dog, Max, who was taken to the veterinarian in [REC].

Before long, several guests at the reception are infected, and newlyweds Koldo and Clara are separated. They must fight their way back to one another through throngs of fast-moving, saliva-dripping zombies.

Through it all, Koldo and Clara -- each independently of one another -- determine that their spouse is alive, and refuse to give up hope.  Going back for Koldo against the odds, Clara cuts her wedding dress down to fighting-size, and makes use of a chain-saw to eradicate the pervasive rabid-zombie threat.  For his part, Koldo dons a suit of armor and, at one juncture, utilizes a sword (for cake-cutting...) to combat the drooling dead.

In the end, a tragedy ensues.  But through it all, Koldo and Clara refuse to be separated, or to abandon one another.  No matter what happens, their destinies shall be intertwined.

“Is this our family?” “Not anymore…”

Perhaps the boldest decision made by director Paco Plaza involves his choice to drop the found-footage format after approximately twenty-minutes or so of [REC] 3: Genesis.  

The wedding video is a great introduction for the film using that found-footage format, but this sequel finally realizes -- no doubt sensibly -- that someone trapped in a life-or-death situation isn’t constantly going to be glued to a camera eye-piece. There's a naturalistic reason here for dropping hte format.

At some point, recording the event becomes less important than actually surviving it.

The dropping of the found footage subjective viewpoint allows Plaza to meaningfully differentiate his second sequel both in terms of visuals and tone from the previous entries. 

For those open to a change, [REC] 3: Genesis is successful on its own terms. The film works ably as a tongue-in-cheek satire of family gatherings (like weddings), and even a bride’s sometimes zealous commitment to making sure she has her “special day” as she desires it. The drooling, anti-social zombies -- beginning with the smiling, zombie uncle -- fit beautifully into this tapestry as the troublesome, sometimes drunk relatives you often encounter at such parties. 

You just never know what disaster they are going to kick off.

If Dawn of the Dead (1978) concerns conspicuous consumerism (and ends in a slapstick pie fight between bikers and zombies), it’s entirely appropriate for the REC series to spend some time – during the second sequel -- offering a bit of social satire.

This film also functions, uniquely, as a send-up of the REC franchise. Early in the proceedings, the camera man repeats dialogue verbatim from [REC] and its uninspired American remake, Quarantine (2008):

People have a right to know what’s going on.  I’m filming everything.” 

But in about twenty minutes, nobody’s filming anything anymore.  

So much for social responsibility!

The found-footage angle gets dropped like a hot potato, and the film lunges full-bore into soap opera territory instead, as Koldo and Clara face certain death in order to reconnect, and to meaningfully start their lives together.   

The considerable tension in the film arises from the fact of the couple’s separation, but the humor results from the unexpected ways they proclaim their undying love. They do it over the church’s P.A. system, and again, finally, when there seems to be no hope for survival.

Our blood-soaked bride, Clara, becomes, in many ways, an Ash-type, larger-than-life figure here, and Leticia Dolera is stunningly beautiful to watch in action.   By film’s end, she is all-business, ordering Koldo to cut off an infected arm, and powering through the pain.  You almost can’t help but think of Bruce Campbell and Evil Dead 2.  But this sequel isn’t a retread of the Sam Raimi aesthetic either, and reaches unexpectedly for pathos in its final, bloody moments.

[REC] was all about pandemonium, about rats trapped in a maze with no way to escape.  [REC] 3 shatters expectations by playing not with the found footage format, but with the audience’s emotional state-of-mind instead  It’s an even trade, in my opinion, especially for a one-off effort.

For eighty minutes, [REC] 3: Genesis surprises and entertains, with a few jolt scares thrown in for good measure.  The characters of Koldo and Clara -- even when we are laughing at them – are the most human individuals featured in the entire franchise. What happens to them matters. And how they face what happens to them states something meaningful about the human spirit.

But otherwise, I  just can’t imagine how going back into that same, dark, contaminated apartment building a third time would have been a better, more creative, or artistic choice for [REC] 3. 

Therefore, I applaud Paco Plaza and the other filmmakers for playing out a fun variation on a theme, instead of merely grinding a familiar, well-worn theme to death.  

Other filmmakers -- and other horror movie franchises -- could stand to learn the same lesson.

Movie Trailer: REC 3: Genesis (2012)

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: REC 4 (2015)

 (Beware of spoilers!)

I have long been an unabashed admirer of the REC horror film franchise, which began in 2007. The first film, from director Jaume Balagueró, remains one of the best and most accomplished efforts of the found-footage variety. 

I even enjoyed the much-derided third entry in the franchise (2012), which I found a welcome return to 1980s style horror-comedy (think: Evil Dead 2 [1987]). 

Sure, REC 3 featured a substantially different tone from the previous two entries, but it was also a lot of fun in its own way. At the very least, it demonstrated that the filmmakers were thinking about new ways to approach their material.

REC 4 (2015), alas, possesses a different problem. 

Although I don’t object, overall, to the sequel’s total abandonment of the found-footage format, I do find fault with the general lack of ambition and paucity of energy on display. 

Love or hate REC 3, it was sort of ingenious, and definitely surprising. By contrast, REC 4 is a slow-moving, surprise-less sequel that ends the cycle in predictable, unambitious terms. There is no inspiration to be found anywhere here, and the movie trudges slowly along its pre-programmed trajectory until a merely okay end point.

I’m certain some REC fans will welcome the 2015 film with open arms since it continues the story established by the first two films, and brings back a beloved character, Angela (Manuela Velasco) in a significant role. 

But one shouldn’t confuse fan-approved touches with quality storytelling.

REC 4 takes forever to get started, doesn’t make the most of an intriguing location (a plague ship at sea), and fails to recognize that, for a time, audience sympathy falls with the mad scientist, Dr. Ricarte (Hector Colome), not the ostensible protagonists.

REC 4 isn’t a horrible embarrassment, but as part of a horror franchise that has reached significant altitudes of greatness, it’s surprisingly predictable, lame and safe.  

If this is really the end of the REC series, the franchise culminates with a whimper.

“Gentlemen, it’s game over.”
A group of soldiers enter the infected apartment building in Barcelona with a mission to set mines and blow it up, thus ending any further threat from the zombie virus. One soldier, Guzman (Paco Manzanedo), however, rescues a survivor: former TV host/journalist Angela Vidal (Velasco).
Sometime later, Guzman and Angela, with a few other survivors, find themselves on a plague ship at sea, being tested for signs of infection.  
The doctor leading the investigation, Dr. Ricarte (Colome) believes it impossible, in particular, that after six hours in the compromised apartment, Angela was not infected.
Angela’s camera has also been recovered, and it shows the final, horrifying moments of her encounter in a dark attic with Patient Zero, Tristana Medeiros.
Although Angela continues to insist she is free of infection, someone has secretly released an infected monkey from the lab.  That monkey makes his way to the mess hall, and attacks a cook.
Before long, the ship is infected, and Dr. Ricarte contemplates activating a self-destruct sequence.

 “Must have been something I ate.”

About the only new wrinkle in REC 4’s narrative is that the human source of the zombie virus -- Tristana Medeiros Da Souza -- is now seen to have been the host for a monstrous biological parasite.

So the Devil or demon instigating the zombie plague at the apartment building is not a demon at all, but a sort of a fat, slug-like thing, like a creature from Night of the Creeps (1987) or The Hidden (1987). 

And worse, it can be transmitted, mouth-to-mouth, victim-to-victim, so that the virus never truly dies, even when an outbreak is contained.

Instead, this presumably evil parasite just secretly and swiftly moves on in a new carrier, waiting to begin the whole cycle again.

This new wrinkle follows on after the great surprise of the original REC, that the virus is not just a disease or virus, but a religious/demonic possession, in some sense.  

The parasite idea of REC 4 may be one twist too far, for some, I suppose.  

I wasn’t bothered tremendously by it, but it feels more like a last minute ret-con and (failed) reach for a gimmick than a legitimate continuation of the series. 

If a biological organism is actually the source of the disease, then it is, by nature, not demonic, right?  

Demons are defined as creatures that are never born of Earth, in physical form. I don’t see exactly how the slug parasite conforms to that description.

To put this matter another way: the REC films are notable for pulling the carpet out from audiences regarding the nature of the virus. The filmmakers make the same attempt here, but I suspect their choice of a slug-parasite (from Ceti Alpha V?) isn’t likely to please many viewers who have stuck with the series.  

If the source of the virus is biological, not demonic, as this movie suggests, then how do we explain the events of REC 3, wherein prayer is one weapon against the infected?

More genuinely irritating is the fact that REC 4 makes a crucial error in terms of audience sympathy. 

Dr. Ricarte sees video footage of the slug moving from Tristana to Angela, and acts accordingly to end the horrifying infection. But then she escapes, and tries to convince everyone that she is not infected, even though we -- with Ricarte -- have seen the footage showcasing her infection. 

Is he not supposed to believe his lying eyes?

Angela proceeds to act brutally and violently to escape (even releasing an infected zombie...), and so we assume that she is being controlled, against her will, by the slug.  This is a natural assumption, and we don’t hate Ricarte for taking precautions against the spread of the disease.

In fact, throughout the film, Ricarte is treated like an evil mad scientist, when in fact he is quite reasonable throughout the crisis. 

If the virus is released on the ship, for instance, he is ready -- at a moment’s notice -- to self-destruct the vessel.  This course of action seems eminently logical, and not evil, to me, given the virulence of the disease, and the stakes for the human race and the planet Earth.  

The filmmakers want us to hate Ricarte, and yet through the whole movie I felt he was actually taking reasonable precautions given the severity of the events we witnessed in REC through REC 3.  

Is he merciless and obsessive? Yes.  Absolutely.

Would I want someone with the fate of the world in his hands to be that cold-hearted? 

Yes. Absolutely. 

Ricarte rightly understands that if this infection spreads, there will be no second opportunity to stop it.  

He’s right.

He’s a jerk. But he’s right.  

Positioning the lead characters -- Angela, Nick and Guzman -- as Ricarte's opponents fails to work as was no doubt intended.  If they survive, and one of them is infected, the whole human race dies. So Ricarte is actually the one with the moral/philosophical high-ground.  He is thinking of everybody.  

Angela Nick and Guzman, by contrast, are thinking of their own skin.

Yet we’re supposed to loath and despise Ricarte as a villainous, monstrous mad scientist. 

Fully a half-hour goes by in REC 4 where nothing of significance seems to happen. The movie is slow, but also lacks a sense of “slow burn” build-up. The first act is sluggish, and by the time the movie gallops up to full momentum, it’s almost over. “While You Were Sleeping” is not only the title of Angela’s Spanish TV program, but a description of REC 4’s opening chapters.

That’s not to suggest there aren’t moments here that horror fans will relish.  

One absolutely disgusting scene finds a kitchen cook battling an infected monkey over the crew’s chicken lunch. The monkey ends up in the frying pan, and the entire scene is stomach-churning in an awesome way.  Late in the film, a boat motor is used as a hand-to-hand weapon against a slew of the infected monkeys, and the scene is bloody as hell and nasty too.

But again, you may feel a little manipulated.

Given how virulent the demon/virus plague is, would you want to use a close-quarters weapon that -- with a high-speed, whirring propeller blade -- splashes blood everywhere in close proximity, including your face?  

Yet those who use the weapon do so, open-mouthed and screaming, oblivious, apparently, to the chances of infection. If you'll pardon the phrase (given the bloody chunks, and the presence of a throat-bound parasite...), this is hard to swallow.

Again, REC 4 isn’t bad, in a pinch, for a night’s entertainment. The last half hour is gory and fast paced, and intense enough. But you can pretty much guess who will survive, who will get a comeuppance, and even the film's final sting (which could be considered a joke about the Christian icthys symbol...) is sort of lame.

Given the REC series’ pedigree, this assessment is a disappointment. It’s as though everyone just wanted the series to end, and went through the motions in REC 4 to make that outcome happen. Nothing here is particularly audacious or fresh, or even well-filmed. Nothing here is accomplished with ingenuity, or even adequate energy.

So the REC film franchise started out with sheer, blazing, anarchic brilliance and suspense, and ends with a thoroughly routine, safe chapter that will please only those who are glad to see a returning face, or those who are looking for a night of pure, bloody gore.


Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Late Night Blogging: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries Promos

The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries: "The House on Possessed Hill" (January 22, 1978)

While driving home late at night through the town of Circle Hills, Joe (Shaun Cassidy) encounters a young woman on the run, Stacey Blain (Melanie Griffith).  

She is being pursued by angry townspeople who consider her a witch, and responsible, somehow, for an accident that has injured a child...and which she predicted.

Joe and Stacey take sanctuary in a creepy house on a hill, one that Stacey is certain is haunted by a creepy old ghost.  “The house…it runs itself,” she says creepily. 

As Joe and Stacey endeavor to stay the night in the house, Stacey hears the sounds of an angry woman screaming, and reports that the house is alive.  Its owner, John Spencer, lived in 1743 but is now haunting it...allegedly.

Frank (Parker Stevenson) arrives soon, and helps Joe and Stacey solve a mystery of a very different type: one involving a bank robbery and money hidden inside the house’s old walls for nearly twenty years…

Two significant guest stars make “The House on Possessed Hill” a fun entry in the Hardy Boys canon.  

The first is the haunted house itself, which “starred” as the home of Norman Bates in Psycho (1960), Psycho 2 (1983), Psycho III (1986) and Psycho IV (1990). The old house’s interior also looks very familiar, and there’s a joke in the episode about Hitchcock, and the house’s appropriateness for one of his movie thrillers.

Here -- as seems appropriate for a house of this silver screen stature -- there’s also much talk about the structure being alive. Unfortunately, that talk never really goes anywhere.

The second guest star of note is Melanie Griffith, who in 1987 became a star in Working Girl, and then parlayed that success into an A list career. Here, she plays the psychic Stacey, an insecure young woman who reports that she knows things and feels things, “things in the air around her" and “Things that happened” and “will happen.”  

Even a good actress would have trouble with lines like that, but the youthful Griffith does a good job of projecting both innocence and strangeness. She's vulnerable, and also just oddball enough to seem, possibly, like a danger to herself and others.

“The House on Possessed Hill” features two intertwined narratives. 

One concerns a human crime, and the other concerns the supernatural world. As one might expect, the human crime is solved and justice is served.  At the end of the episode, the supernatural mystery lingers, however.  

In particular, Joe sees the ghost of the house for himself, but rather than investigate its presence, tells Frank to drive away in their van. But as viewers, we see the ghost (who wears a large ring on his finger) quite clearly, thus proving the existence of the supernatural in this series’ universe.

It seems a bit like a ploy, or even a little cheap, to conflate the two mysteries, and to conclude without exploring the history and existence of this particular ghost.  

On the other hand, the series was always a little cheeky, and the episode’s “surprise” ending conforms to that tradition.

Action Figures of the Week: The Hardy Boys (Kenner)

Pop Art: The Hardy Boys Edition

Modek Kit of the Week: The Hardy Boys Van (Revell)

Lunchboxes of the Week: The Hardy Boy/Nancy Drew Mysteries

Board Game of the Week: The Hardy Boys (Parker Bros.)

Theme Song of the Week: The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Sky is Falling" (November 17, 1965)

In “The Sky is Falling,” a strange alien probe seems to assault Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris), leading him to fear that an alien invasion is imminent.

The Robinsons attempt to calm down Smith -- this cosmic Chicken Little -- but very soon humanoid aliens do beam to the planet on rays of light during a matter-transfer process, and set up a small research facility. 

Like the Robinsons, the visiting aliens are a family: a mother, a father, and a young boy.

While Smith advises murdering the aliens before more of their brethren get a foothold on the planet, Robinson (Guy Williams) argues for saner heads.  

But when Will (Bill Mumy) disappears, Smith is able to ratchet up everybody’s fear and suspicion. 

He suggests that the aliens have abducted Will, though the truth is that Will is helping the alien child, who has developed an illness from exposure to the human boy.

Heavily armed, the Robinsons lead a small assault team, consisting of John, Don (Mark Goddard) and Smith) to the alien territory, ready to kill to retrieve Will. 

But the aliens are also suspicious of the humans, and are missing their son too. Worse, they have superior weapons…

“The Sky is Falling” is another great, classic episode of Lost in Space (1965 – 1968).  It rises right to the top of the  series catalog (alongside “My Friend, Mr. Nobody,”) in fact.

The idea underlining the episode is that, simply, on the frontier there are no second chances. 

Danger lurks around every corner, and fear is a constant companion.  But if that fear spirals out of control, violence is inevitable.  Therefore, it is incumbent on all of us to control our fears; to remain rational in the face of the unknown.

In this case, Smith is the provocative agent of fear, playing on the Robinsons’ protective instincts towards Will.  Smith wants to destroy (meaning murder…) the alien family, even though that alien family has done him no harm, and has shown no signs of aggression. 

By contrast, Robinson argues nobly and logically against war.  “There’s every chance we can live together in peace,” he suggests.

But Smith won’t surrender even though, as he acknowledge, he has no proof that the aliens are hostile in any way.  

“Evidence? What do I care about evidence?” He asks. 

In other words, he has an agenda, and the facts be damned.

Robinson also makes a cogent argument about dealing with alien life and alien morality in general.  He thinks the situation through, even though others demand immediate, violent action. 

Specifically, Robinson asks what happens if the Robinsons do start a war, and they are successful in the campaign.  What happens next, when the thousands of aliens that Smith fearfully anticipates do arrive?  
Because the Robinsons have acted violently, they truly will stand no chance of survival. 

Smith -- as Machiavellian thinkers will -- dismisses Robinson’s ideas of “universal brotherhood” as hopelessly idealistic, misguided. When a person wants a war, we see, he or she will do anything to get it, against the better angels of our human nature, and against the simple facts, even. 

“The Sky is Falling” looks at this total irrationality, this tendency to react fearfully and in a cowardly fashion, in the face of the unknown. 

And remember, Lost in Space acts universally as a space age metaphor for the American West, and the settlement of that territory in American history.  The Robinsons encountering an alien family brings up, naturally, the idea of American pioneers encountering Native Americans, and the possibilities that arise from that encounter. 

You can either choose courage and peace, or choose fear, conflict, and ultimately genocide.  Which path ennobles us? Which path damns us?

Certainly, "The Sky is Falling" is a moral story worthy of Star Trek, because it concerns mankind choosing to be better in the future than he was in his past.  We do not have to be trapped by our history. We can overcome it. 

But, importantly, this exact story could not work on Star Trek as effectively as it does within the pioneer family paradigm of Lost in Space. Here, we understand what’s at stake: parents worrying for a missing child, and therefore drawing the absolutely worst conclusion about what has happened to him.  

Where our children are concerned, we want to take no chances.  We must be their vigilant protectors. And when we fear they are in out.  I say this as a parent, myself. 

But does this sense of paternal and maternal protection mean, lacking information, we should go to war…out of ignorance?  

That’s the campaign Smith begins in “The Sky is Falling.  Finally, only Will and the alien boy -- representing the possibilities of tomorrow, or the future -- can get the adults to lay down their arms and face each other not with fear, but with humanity.

Obviously, you can’t have Smith starting a war every week, every single episode, but “The Sky is Falling” finds a worthwhile use for the oft-over-exposed character. 

If the Robinsons represent the best of humanity the rational, caring, “pioneer spirit,” Smith represents the worst qualities: cowardice, fear, hatred, prejudice.  

When push comes to shove on the final frontier, the question becomes, which “human nature” -- Smith’s or the family’s -- will prevail?

“The Sky is Falling” is just about a perfect episode of Lost in Space in this format, reminding us that when we move on to the next horizon, outer space, we will take with us not just our angels, but our demons too.  

In terms of historic/canonical importance, this episode also gives Smith his first opportunity for another memorable catchphrase: “Have no fear, Smith is here.”

It’s important in context.  Have no fear? Smith is the one who brings the fear! It is his presence that nearly leads the Robinsons into a disastrous and unnecessary war. But, in typically self-deluded fashion, he sees himself as the hero.  As Yoda himself might tell him, wars don't make anyone great, or a hero.

Next week, another fantastic early Lost in Space story: “Wish Upon a Star.”