Saturday, June 06, 2015

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Valley of the Dinosaurs: "Sabertooth Kids" (October 19, 1974)

In the Valley of the Dinosaurs (1972) episode “Sabertooth Kids,” the cave man family’s pet, Glump -- a baby stegosaurus -- falls into a cave at approximately the same time that a carnivorous dinosaur, Zonda, attacks.

While the children go in search of the missing pet, the adults in both families must contend with the predator nearby.

But the kids settle on using a saber-tooth tiger pelt to help Glump, who is now endangered by a pack of wolves…

“Sabertooth Kids” is all about the children -- prehistoric and modern -- accepting responsibility for the care of a family pet.  

Greg and Tana must prove not only resourceful, but effective in handling the crisis of the week while their parents are tending to our science lesson of the week: using geothermal energy (and steam), and pumping it through bamboo pipes.

Pets are a key element of many Saturday morning series of the 1970s, and for good reason.  Children and pets develop a strong emotional bond.  Episodes like “Dopey” on Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) and “Yesteryear” on Star Trek: The Animated Series (1973-1974) contend with his relationship.  

This episode of Valley of the Dinosaurs is not as affecting as either of those examples, but by contrast, this is the only one of the three series in which the pets are regular players. The Butlers have Digger, their dog, and the prehistoric family has the imperiled Glump.

Unlike either Star Trek or Land of the Lost, the focus in Valley of the Dinosaurs is clearly action. 

The episodes move at a fast clip, this one included, and feature peril-after-peril in a bid to maintain attention and excitement.

Next week: “After Shock.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: The Secrets of Isis: "Now You See It" (October 23, 1976)

In “Now You See It,” a criminal posing as Rick Mason (Brian Cutler) steals a top-secret weather control device from government lab.  

Almost immediately, Rick is arrested for the crime.  He is concerned, not only for his freedom, but because the weather control device could wreak havoc.

Mrs. Thomas (Joanna Cameron) and Rennie (Ronalda Douglas) attempt to clear Rick’s name, but it isn’t easy. 

To help, they recruit three local youngsters: “The Super Sleuths.”  

These Super Sleuths include the magician, Ranji (himself), a street-wise kid, Feather (Craig Wasson), and an Asian martial arts expert, C.J. (Evan Kim).

But when the Super Sleuths get into trouble, the mighty Isis is needed.  And she brings assistance: Captain Marvel (John Davey).

At the end of the day however, the weather control device remains in the hands of criminals…

The last two-part story of Secrets of Isis (1975 – 1976) commences with this week’s “Now You See It.” 

It’s a bit of an odd story. 

For one thing, it plays a lot like the pilot for a new series, featuring heavily the aforementioned “Super Sleuths.”  

A very young Craig Wasson --star of Body Double (1984) and A Nightmare on Elm Street III: Dream Warriors (1987) -- plays streetwise “Feather.”  And fans of V (1983) will recognize Evan Kim.

The upshot, however, is that Isis feels more like a guest star on her own series than a regular character this week.

The second oddity involves Rick Mason.  

He is a high school teacher and a bit of an amiable bumbler, as we have seen over the course of twenty-or so half-hour episodes at this point.  And yet here, he is a brilliant scientist toiling on a top secret weather control device for the U.S. government.   

His work for the government has never even been mentioned before this episode! More to the point, it’s not entirely believable, at this juncture, that his laid-back 1970s groovy teacher is a genius capable of constructing a weather control device.

“Now You See It,” is also another cross-over episode with Filmation’s brother series, Shazam!  Here, Captain Marvel pinch hits, helping Isis when she is over-worked by the always-in-danger Super Sleuths.

Next week: the final Isis episode: “Now You Don’t.”

Friday, June 05, 2015

Found Footage Friday: The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

The Frankenstein Theory (2013) proceeds from a fascinating and inventive notion.

What if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1814) is not a work of fiction at all, but rather a fictionalized version of a true story?

Since the 1930s, many adaptations of Shelley’s story have graced the silver screen, but the modern found footage format permits director Andrew Weiner to examine the core conceit that the Frankenstein Monster is real and still prowling the Arctic Circle in a novel and often satisfying way.

The Frankenstein Theory cleverly erects a plausible case for the Frankenstein Monster as a real, historical creature, and brings in a lot of small, smart details from Shelley’s literary work. The film’s down-side is, simply, that -- because of a low-budget -- it doesn’t really build in a significant way, or offer much of a pay-off. The last act never reaches the threshold of terror one might hope for or expect.

A documentary crew goes to the Arctic Circle and tracks down the Monster, and the film ends with a nod and a oblique wink towards Bride of Frankenstein (1935) (or the 1984 cult-slasher film, The Prey..) but with no real visceral or vital thoughts about the preceding 87 minutes. 

Surprisingly, however, the characters featured here are better drawn than they are in many found-footage horror films.  But finally the movie has no valuable commentary on the discoveries made by them.

So credit this found-footage movie with a terrific premise, and some strong attention to detail. The Frankenstein Theory is intelligent, but, in the final analysis, the movie is little bit of a let-down in terms of execution.

“This isn’t going to end well.”

Dr. Jonathan Venkenheim (Kris Lemche) has been ostracized from the academic community, and is on the verge of losing his girlfriend too, all because he keeps pursuing a crazy theory. 

In short, that theory is that the Frankenstein Monster is not a work of fiction, but a real, honest-to-goodness living creature.

Venkenheim hires a camera crew and producer, Vicki (Heather Stephens) to record his journey as he relates his theory and goes in search of the monster. 

As proof of his hypothesis, he shows the camera crew yellowed letters to and from Captain and Margaret Walton, characters featured in Shelley’s epistolary work. He also shows them an old photograph of an ancestor’s laboratory at the University of Ingolstadt.  Jonathan reveals how an ancestor there, working from the research of the Bavarian Illuminati, delved into genetic science and forged…life.

Vicky and her crew are understandably suspicious about Venkenheim’s claims, but follow him to the Arctic Circle.  First, they interview a man who claims to have survived an encounter with the monster.  And then they meet their guide for the northern trek: Karl (Timothy Murphy).

Riding snow-mobiles, Jonathan, Vicky, Karl and the crew travel sixty kilometers into the middle of nowhere, to a place called Potter’s Gulch.  Although Karl is more concerned about polar bear attacks than the Frankenstein Monster, Jonathan presents an intriguing and rigorous case about mysterious deaths in the area…

“The Creature has enormous destructive potential.”

The Frankenstein Theory’s best quality involves the myriad and smart ways the film’s action ties in with Shelley’s work. 

Our protagonist, the slightly unhinged Jonathan Venkenheim, lays out a solid case for the creature’s existence, utilizing letters, photographs, a rough sketch, and police records about the death of a child and the trial of a governess centuries earlier.  

In the last case, fans of the novel will remember that Justine Moritz raised Victor Frankenstein’s young brother, William, and was executed for his murder. In truth, the Monster was responsible. The movie remembers that interlude in the literary work too.

Similarly, most movie versions (save for the 1994 Kenneth Branagh adaptation…) entirely omit the book's prologue involving Captain Walton and his ship, stranded in the Arctic Circle. The Frankenstein Theory instead adopts that element of the literary work as its starting point.

The film’s central unanswered question also links back cleverly to Mary Shelley's original creation. 

Nobody really knows why the Frankenstein Monster is killing people in the film. 

Is it so he isn’t discovered?  Is it to maintain the secret of his existence?  

The film’s final, long shot (creepily held for a long time) explains an alternative answer, and leads right back to Shelley's development of Adam, the Monster.. The creature wants -- has always wanted -- the companionship of a female.

So give this found footage film some credit, certainly, for knowing its source material well, and using that cherished source material effectively as a starting point for the story.

And it surprises me to admit it, but I was also rather taken with the film’s many characters.  At first, I thought I wasn’t going to like Kris Lemche as Venkenheim much, primarily because he looks so young, especially to be an established -- then ostracized -- college professor.  I was burned, recently, by Daylight (2013), a film in which adult social workers are played by actors who look like they haven’t yet turned twenty.  

But after the first few scenes, one gets the impression from Lemche's solid work that Venkenheim is a misunderstood genius. His relative youth plays into that perception, and the character discusses how he graduated high school at sixteen, and then attended Oxford.  

One senses from Lemche’s portrayal that Venkenheim doesn’t take failure well, and is hell-bent on proving his unusual, but brilliant theory.  Also, of course, Venkenheim is a modern-day scientist -- a modern day Victor Frankenstein -- someone taken with ambition; someone who simply doesn't know when to stop pursuing the truth; when to turn back.

Similarly, Timothy Murphy’s Karl is a great character.  He is clearly a variation on Quint (Robert Shaw) from Jaws (1975), to be certain, but he’s fun to watch, and carefully drawn.  Karl can sleep through anything -- including wolves baying at the moon -- and at one point gruffly tells a story of friends menaced by polar bears in the Arctic Circle.  The harrowing story is, of course, the equivalent of Quint’s Indianapolis tale on the Orca in the Steven Spielberg picture.  But Murphy is perfect as the grumpy, no-nonsense, strong-but-silent mountain man.  The character works as a great foil to the sassy and sometimes assy camera-men, who are products, clearly of our technological (indoor-based..) society.

And finally, those camera-men are actually pretty funny.  At times, the camera pans to their priceless reactions to Venkenheim’s theories, and without going over the top, these characters provide the film a real sense of humor.  The humor isn't forced.  It feels remarkably natural.

All these performances in The Frankenstein Theory are better than a found-footage horror movie demands, frankly, and go a long way towards making the movie a compelling work of art.  

Where The Frankenstein Theory collapses, unfortunately, is in the horror movie stuff; in the terrain of terror.  

Nothing scary really happens. Ever.

On two occasions, the survivors of the party simply happen upon dead colleagues. Another, crucial death scene also takes place largely-off camera. So the red meat that a horror fan may be seeking in the film is absent.

Instead, the film relies on some very Blair Witch-ian type moments.  There's an extended scene using night vision, set in a cabin in the Arctic.  

Noises are hear outside, while the characters react fearfully. 

This sub-genre trope was last used (and better used, in Willow Creek [2014]).  But after a long night of creepy noises, the characters leave their shelter to find the camp destroyed, and that too is a familiar scene. We see the aftermath, but no attack. Presumably, this is because found footage movies are inexpensive to make.  It's easier and cheaper to depict the chaos after the appearance of a monster, rather than the monster attack itself.

I’m the first one to champion cerebral horror movies, but even thoughtful horror movies must create and sustain an air of tension or suspense, and The Frankenstein Theory, for all its humor and intelligence, never proves scary. It proves interesting as hell, but not scary.

So The Frankenstein Theory really is better in theory than in practice.  

Yet I would still recommend it if you are a fan of the found footage format, or of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Movie Trailer: The Frankenstein Theory (2013)

Thursday, June 04, 2015

Cult-Movie Review: Doomsday (2008)

Neil Marshall’s Doomsday (2008) is all about...ingredients. 

The film is a visually stunning, high-impact pastiche of ingredients from many post-apocalyptic films, particularly those that were made in the seventies and early eighties. The film tells an original story, but one with recognizable elements from Mad Max (1979), Escape from New York (1981) and other beloved genre films.

In a sense, the Marshal film showcases a good alternative to today’s brand-name “remake” obsession and seeming compulsion. Instead of remaking a beloved post-apocalyptic film, Doomsday instead throws six or seven such efforts into the pot, stirs them up, and serves them to viewers as something fresh. 

The result is an action movie in which you recognize the pieces, but the whole is something new and different. The movie is a variation on a theme, but not a cash-grab rehash.

An extremely gory and violent film, Doomsday proves impressive in terms of its stunts and action sequences, but it also features some narrative blind alleys. The result is movie of intermittent success, of some highs and a few lows.  It’s fun recognizing all the influences and ingredients when they appear on screen, and Doomsday never fails to rivet the attention.

But in the end, the film doesn’t quite reach the level of "classic" enjoyed by so many of its brethren and creative inspirations.

“Once you’re over that wall, there’s no rules…no back up.”

In Glasgow, in April of 2008, a mystery virus infects the population. Only a few people escape, including a healthy little girl, Eden.  

Before long, all of Scotland is sealed off from the rest of the UK to stop the spread of the disease.

In 2035, the plague suddenly re-appears in London (Rhona Mitra), and Eden, now a major, is summoned by the Prime Minister (Alexander Siddig) to go inside the Quarantine Zone on a crucial mission. 

In particular, satellites have shown that life has continued inside the Quarantine Zone, which must mean that there is a cure for the disease.  Indeed, a doctor -- Marcus Kane (Malcolm McDowell) -- was working on just such an antidote when the city was quarantined in the first place.  Perhaps he is still alive, and has completed his work.

Unfortunately, the Administration wants the cure for England but to give it only to selected that Britain can "thin out" the herd, and reduce over-population.

Eden Sinclair leads a team in two armored transports into the Quarantine Zone to recover Kane and hopefully his cure to the plague.  

Instead, she runs across cannibalistic savages led by his mad son, Sol (Craig Conway)...

“It’s Medieval out there.”

Doomsday draws its life-blood primarly from the post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinema of the 1970s. Although Marshall presents a coherent narrative, the film moves from influence to influence, knowingly reminding viewers of classics of the format.

For instance, the film starts with the same creative technique as Romero's Dawn of the Dead (1978). 

There, as you recall, beleaguered SWAT officers went into an urban tenement building, and fought a bloody battle with its residents...before the first zombies were even seen.  

In some way, this scene punctured or blew up the idea that the zombie apocalypse had made mankind violent.  Pretty clearly, he was already violent, and the violence in George Romero’s Dawn is human against human first. Then the zombies get in, feeding off the carnage.  The ghouls are just one more problem to contend with, but not the first problem. The tenement shoot-out captures and expresses that idea.

Similarly, Doomsday’s hero, Eden Sinclair, is first seen on the job early in the film, tracking down and killing brutal criminals.  These shoot-out sequences are over-the-top bloody (much like those in Dawn’s tenement opener), a key reminder to viewers that apocalypse isn’t the thing that rouses us to violence.  

That violence already exists within us, even in “normal” civilization.   

One kill involving a woman in a bath-tub is especially gruesome, and a police officer gets half his face blown off in one fire-fight.  But this scene is important because it acknowledges that Eden Sinclair operates in a violent, corrupt world, even before she undertakes her mission for the Prime Minister.

Next up, Doomsday adopts many qualities and aspects of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York (1981), a dystopian if not apocalyptic film. For instance, Eden at times wears a patch over her eye, like Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), at times.   

Then, Eden is given a GPS locator (just as Snake is tracked by the government in Manhattan), and sent inside a walled-off zone, a kind of fully-contained Hell on Earth. In this case, it is all of Scotland that is walled-off from modern civilization, not New York, but the concept is virtually identical. 

Once inside, Eden is promptly captured by the denizens of the walled-off, barbaric area (populated either by crazy cannibals or criminals…) and eventually forced into combat for the pleasure of the audience.  

In Escape from New York, Snake battles one of the Duke’s (Isaac Hayes) burly minions in a boxing ring…and wins.  In Doomsday, Eden ends up in a Medieval Castle battling a knight to the death, a minion of Marcus Kane. She also wins.

Similarly, Doomsday ends with Eden releasing footage (from her eye camera…) of political corruption, of the replacement PM talking about trimming the fat from the population, allowing the plague to work through the populace. This leaked footage not only embarrasses him, but destroys his ability to lead.  His administration will fall because of his inhumanity.

This "political humiliation" ending harks back to Escape from New York too. 

There, the President (Donald Pleasence) is embarrassed when he presents the wrong tape at a peace summit, one (from Cabbie) that makes him look like a fool. Snake did this switcheroo for a reason. The President was unable to summon one genuine or sincere word of thanks for those who died in the process of saving him. 

George Miller’s Road Warrior/Mad Max saga is another significant source of inspiration in Doomsday.  

We see it, in particular, in terms of the wardrobe of those living in the Quarantined Zone.  Like Wez in The Road Warrior, many of these individuals wear mohawk hair-cuts and outfits that might politely be termed leather-chic.  

The primary action mode of Miller’s Mad Max saga is vehicular. Weird, modified cars battle it out on the old roads to determine supremacy in the new world. 

Accordingly, the climax of Doomsday occurs on the road, as Eden and her entourage of survivors race from the forces of Sol.  This chase sequence, while not lengthy, is one of the most impressive in the post-apocalyptic milieu, at least outside of Miller's work. 

In case viewers miss the point about pastiche, Doomsday names two of its soldier characters “Carpenter” and “Miller" -- John and George, right? -- just to assure cult-movie fans that it is in on the joke. Doomsday has thus blended the worlds of Snake and Max into one package, and -- not surprisingly -- they fit together pretty well.

In terms of other inspirations, the plague in Scotland might be seen as being  connected -- at least obliquely -- to contaminated London in 28 Days Later (2002).  Or if one goes back to the 1970s, perhaps the infected Los Angeles of The Omega Man (1971). 

Uniquely, at least one important ingredient in Doomsday seems to be piped in from a contemporary war film, and not a post-apocalyptic one. The best and most harrowing scene in the film involves two armored vehicles -- or APCs -- moving into the Quarantine Zone. While Eden and some soldiers go inside a hospital in hopes of retrieving Dr. Kane, others remain safely in the vehicles. 

At least they believe they are safe.  

But Sol’s people lay siege to the moving transports, and -- shockingly -- bring them down in an orchestrated, well-visualized assault.  

The loss of this mobile home base leaves the survivors on the chaotic streets of a failed city-state, surrounded by a population dedicated to killing them.  

This scenario -- the best modern technology overcome by hordes of enemies -- clearly evokes Ridley Scott’s brilliant Black Hawk Down (2001), which involves the bringing down of two American military helicopters in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia.  

In both cases, people from "civilization" feel that their technology makes them untouchable.  Then, when their technology is destroyed, they must fight their way out the city on foot, on the run. Meanwhile enemies are literally everywhere...

In its use of “ingredients” from all these films, Doomsday makes for a compelling, action-packed ride, and the level of gore and violence is almost unbelievable at points.  Sean Pertwee, playing Lt. Talbot, meets a horrible fate, and the movie isn’t shy about showing it, point-blank range. He is burned alive on stage, and then eaten by cannibals, who tear the seared flesh from his bones.  I've already cited Romero as a key influence, but the eating scene here is every bit as grotesque as anything you'll find in Dawn of Day of the Dead (1985).

The level of violence in Doomsday is truly stunning and indecorous, but in a way, that’s really the point of all the films I’ve name-checked so far. 

Dawn of the Dead, Escape from New York, Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and even Black Hawk Down concern a world where the laws of man -- as we enjoy them now -- don’t exist, or at least don't hold sway. The best of these films also compare the apparently savage world with the apparently civilized ones...and find that they are not all that different.  

That's Doomsday's point, ultimately.

We see, in such films, that the world is an egregiously violent and corrupt place. To make that world seem real, directors such as Romero and Miller, especially, don’t shy away from depicting brutal, shattering violence.  

This is so that -- as I noted in my review of Fury Road (2015) -- audiences will feel un-tethered while watching, rocked back on their heels. It’s entirely possible that viewers will see something truly disturbing, and feel physical jeopardized while watching one of these films. We thus become, like the characters populating these films, uncertain about what to expect next.

Doomsday pushes the envelope to achieve that vibe, though not always successfully. When it succeeds, it is a stirring film. When it fails, it's just sort of gross.

Other scenes in Doomsday simply don’t work. Malcolm McDowell is wasted by the filmmakers as the sort of Kurtz-ian ruler of a Medieval Castle in the Quarantine Zone, and the overt fantasy visuals associated with his domain feel somewhat out-of-step with the post-apocalyptic and savage scenes in the film.  

Perhaps Marshall was hoping to channel Romero's Knightriders (1981) too?  

Nonetheless, the scenes featuring knights and castles feel entirely disconnected from the rest of the movie, which concerns savage human behavior, both in social interactions and political ones. I would understand if the castle and its surrounding society were meant to represent a nobler, more dignified time in human history.  But the savagery and dangers Eden finds there are just as bad as in the other parts of the Quarantine Zone.

One fresh twist on the material is the casting of Rhona Mitra as our lead character and action hero.  

Post-apocalyptic films (at least before Imperator Furiosa) very rarely focus on female characters, and Marshall makes a play for Mitra’s Eden to stand on the same hallowed firmament as Snake or Max.  

Some scenes in Doomsday nearly accomplish that feat.  

One involves Eden's grace-under-pressure handling of physical abuse during an interrogation scene with Sol.  Another involves her brutal duel with Sol’s girlfriend.  In both these cases, Eden rises to the level of cult-movie hero.

The effort is undone, somewhat, by Marshall’s determination to give Eden a back story. She is a little girl when the film starts, and separated from her mother when the plague hits Glasgow.  So her journey in the Quarantine Zone is also one of self-discovery, of going home.  Snake and Max, by contrast, stand apart from the worlds and characters they meet, which in some way makes them more iconic

Although we know much about Max’s family (and the tragedy surrounding it), he isn’t engaged in some grand quest; rather a series of adventures that inform his character, and lead him toward the ultimate destination of redemption.  

But Eden has a much more stereotypical “hero’s journey” here, going on a quest that humanizes her, but at the expense of mythologizing her, if that makes sense. Max and Snake both come from the Spaghetti Western school of “The Man with No Name.” They are unattached personalities who ride into town to reluctantly save the day...and then they leave.  

Eden is much more emotionally connected to her story. I guess that could be read as a positive or a negative.  For me, it made her more recognizably human and less like a 'Man" (or Woman) with No Name." Eden should be a little more mysterious in my opinion, and not saddled with a pre-packaged history to overcome.

I came away from a viewing of Doomsday with a sense of shock at the violence, and an adrenaline rush.  And that’s, in some sense, the point of many of these movies. 

There were also times, however, I wished the film had more fun with its ingredients, and was willing to go big and mythologize Eden a bit more as a warrior of the wasteland.

In the annals of post-apocalyptic films, there are many, many failures, and just few successes.  

Doomsday utilizes its fine ingredients -- Mad Max, Escape from New York, Dawn of the Dead -- to get closer to the goal post than many, even if it falls a bit short.

Movie Trailer: Doomsday (2008)

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Now Available: The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro - Critical Essays

Horror scholar, journalist, and blogger at TheoFantastique -- not to mention long-time friend -- John W. Morehead just notified me that his new genre-themed book from McFarland has been published.  

I've been waiting for this one!

John is the editor of The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro - Critical Essays (2015), a new anthology of scholarly essays about the beloved horror director.  

The book looks terrific, and John is the genuine article: a cerebral horror-lover with a wealth of knowledge about philosophy, religion, and film. 

The book opens with a foreword from Doug Jones, and an introduction by John. Among  the essays in the book are "The Child Transformed by Monsters" by Jessica Bulanzategui, and "Where the Wild Things Are: Monsters and Children" by Alexandra West.

Also, I have an essay in John's collection, called "Henry's Kids: Othered Children and Karloff's Frankenstein Monsters."  

My essay considers the influence that Whale's Frankenstein has had on del Toro's film canon, and I loved writing it. John has contributed to many of my books in the past (and hopefully will in the future...) and I can say that it was a great honor and privilege to work with John on his project, his baby. 

The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro - Critical Essays is now available through Amazon, here, and at McFarland, here.  

If you are interested in the "underneath" of the cinematic works by this monster-loving genius, I hope you'll check out John's book, and let me know what you think about "Henry's Kids."

The Monkees Finger Puppets (Mattel)

Pop Art: The Monkees (TV Guide Edition)

Pop Art: The Monkees (Dell Edition)

The Monkees Halloween Costume

The Monkees GAF Viewmaster

Trading Cards of the Week: The Monkees

Lunch Box of the Week: The Monkees

Board Game of the Week: The Monkees (Cardinal)

Theme Song of the Week: The Monkees (1966)

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Lost in Space 50th Anniversary Blogging: "The Challenge" (March 2, 1966)

In “The Challenge,” a young prince from a distant world named Quano (Kurt Russell) watches the Robinsons closely.  

He informs them that he has been sent to their world by his father, The Ruler (Michael Ansara), and that he will soon have to undergo a physical and mental challenge to become heir.

That challenge involves fighting Will (Bill Mumy). 

But Dr. Smith (Jonathan Harris) soon overhears a worrisome detail.  If Bill wins the contest, the Ruler will be forced to kill all the Robinsons to spare himself and his son the embarrassment of defeat.

The challenge is undertaken (over Maureen’s [June Lockhart]) objections, and going into the last round, it looks like a tie.  

Fearful that his son will lose, the Ruler challenges Professor Robinson (Guy Williams) to a duel with volt swords…

The great Kurt Russell -- of Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), NS Big Trouble in Little China (1986) to name just a few cult movie performances -- guest stars on this week’s episode of Lost in Space.  He plays twelve-year old Guano, an alien prince and warrior with a bias against women, and an over-confidence in his own abilities.

But what “The Challenge” really concerns is fathers and sons.  And indeed, that’s part of the series’ overall tapestry. At its best, Lost in Space is about family relationships on the frontier. That frontier, in this case, just happens to be outer space.

In “The Challenge,” Will is enticed to fight the larger, much more experienced Quano. Maureen wants to forbid the contest, right out, but John Robinson offers another perspective.  If he doesn’t let Will participate, Robinson notes, the boy will feel that his father doesn’t respect him; or doesn’t believe he can win.  It is better for Will to fight and lose, he decides, than to not fight at all.

Only reluctantly does Maureen accept this plan, but I believe John is right, and the remainder of the episode bears him out.  The Ruler (Michael Ansara) steps in and replaces Quano in the last contest (the volt blades) and Quano is left feeling inadequate. 

As a result, he runs off into real danger, and unsupervised danger at that.  He goes off to a cave to kill an insectoid monster there, instead…to prove to his father that he is worthy, that he can still be a champion and heir.

The two sides of the equation here are interesting to consider.  Physical conflict is barbaric, and there is a chance that Will could be hurt in the contest, despite supervision. 

But by the same token, by competing, Will demonstrates his father that he is strong and capable.  And all of us -- no matter our age or sex-- wants to be strong and capable, and demonstrate it to those we love.  So in my book, John Robinson does the right thing in this case, and shows why, as a TV father, he remains so beloved.

“The Challenge” compares, essentially, the fathering styles of kindly but impressive Robinson and the regal but inexpressive Ruler. Quano accuses John of being a bad father, but we can see, especially by episode’s end, that it is the Ruler who has much learning to do about his son.

In charting the Robinson-Will relationship so well, and with such sympathy, “The Challenge” is actually a far better Will-centric episode than one like “Return from Earth.”  We learn a lot about Will here.  He is fiercely defensive and prideful regarding his father, and he is no coward.  Also, Will longs to prove that, even as a child, he can pull his own weight; he can stand up and defend the family. 

I also like that “The Challenge” brings up gender equality, at least a little bit. Quano hurls chauvinist remarks at the women of the Jupiter 2 settlement, and notes that his planet is a patriarchy.  

Maureen replies that on Earth (of the year 1997, anyway…) men and women are considered equals.  

That’s good to hear, because the evidence from the early shows is that the women are still stuck doing housework (like laundry and meal preparation) while the men go out and explore, or perfrom the bulk of the pioneer work. 

In terms of historical importance, the better-than-average “The Challenge” not only features young Kurt Russell in a prominent role, it features the first example, I believe, of Smith calling the Robot a “bubble-headed booby.”

On that topic -- if you’re watching the episodes with me, in order -- you may notice that in both “The Challenge” and the upcoming “The Space Trader,” the Robot has undergone a personality change. He is no longer deferential to Smith at all, and gives back, verbally, as good as he gets.  

This may be because of his experience in the recent “War of the Robots,” and his desire to protect “his” family from harm.

A nice in-joke is also featured in this episode. Professor Robinson is challenged to the sword duel with the volt blades, and shows fine fencing form, defeating the Rule.

This is entirely appropriate since Guy Williams' achieved his fame, prior to Lost in Space, as the star of Disney's Zorro (1957-1959)

Next week: “The Space Trader.”